Memory, when viewed through the lens of a smartphone camera, is supposed to be permanent. Passing moments become eternal, recorded and inscribed on hard drives or uploaded to the cloud. Get Even, a B-grade science fiction thriller about a hired killer trapped in his own virtual reality-displayed memories with a gun and a phone, feels like a perversion of these new laws of nature. In it, the player is cast as the incredibly named Cole Black, a man stuck inside a virtual reality prison by a deranged arms manufacturing CEO who seeks to identify the criminal group who killed his daughter in a kidnapping gone awry. The game plays out like the shooter version of a straight-to-video psychological horror, Black drifting through old, forgotten, and scrambled memories of his part in the conspiracy in between moments of supposed waking clarity where he explores the shambles of his makeshift prison: a rotted asylum on the edges of Birmingham.
While Get Even is largely disposable entertainment, more successful at evoking other stories of criminal fuck-ups, corporate espionage, and deteriorating grips on reality than telling its own, it distinguishes itself, mostly, through the smartphone Black carries with him throughout the game. Either attached to or swapped with the first-person shooter’s omnipresent gun, Black’s phone is limited to a handful of apps, almost all of them centred on displaying some version of a camera’s viewfinder. For the majority of the game, the phone, clutched in Black’s rigid right hand, displays a smaller version of the environment being explored. When called up like a gun’s sights, it covers more of the screen.
Its constant presence in the game seems innocuous enough, but it colours everything Black—and the player—sees. Get Even’s tone is extremely arch—every cliché involving “the spooky asylum” is on full display, from creepily discarded stuffed animals used for regression therapy to patients screaming about “the party!” and having tea with dolls, dressed like the Mad Hatter. There are self-closing doors, wheelchairs moving on their own, bloodstained gurneys used for amputation, and doctors professing that nobody understands how successful their unorthodox therapy methods are, even if the patients die as part of their “cure.” There’s also a constant buzzing of halogen lightbulbs, a buzzing bass synth that blares with Zimmer-like urgency to punctuate moments of tension, over and over again and sometimes faster, too, to anticipate some new shock. Though obviously hoping to scare, Get Even never achieves anything more than an occasional sense of unease. The smartphone, though, points toward the areas in which the game succeeds, underscoring a preoccupation with the overlap of memory and technology that eventually overtakes its plot.
Horror games have long understood the potency of doubling their viewpoint through an in-game lens—the player looks at the screen, which looks through the character’s screen—as a tool for narrative uncertainty. The Five Nights at Freddy’s games make it possible to monitor threats only by looking at the televised feed of a number of static security cameras; Outlast hides its most ghoulish sights in darkness, requiring a camera’s night-vision filter to reveal what’s happening just in front of the games’ hapless protagonists; Fatal Frame reveals ghosts and puzzle clues when a snapshot is taken of a given area. Get Even, though, is interested less in the aesthetic potential of the camera than its promise to record whatever passes in front of it, moment by moment. An amnesiac character—and one at the mercy of an untrustworthy sense of reality—is hardly anything new, but the use of a smartphone camera as a mechanical aid on par with any weapon slightly elevates the premise. Clues, hidden in the environment until the phone is shined on them, give additional context to a story that is mysteriously opaque until its last act; Black’s journey through a hostile world where entire room structures change, P.T.-like, on a whim, is anchored by the phone’s built-in GPS map and a black light that often displays trails leading to the next objective.
Outlast made the camera a cheaper, but still immediately effective trick: its neon viewfinder is required to make out the player’s pitch-black surroundings, but, as a device both to scare and introduce cleverly designed tension, its use also reveals scary scenes to the player in full detail while the buzz of its night-vision mode alerts nearby enemies. To look through a camera is to be scared or, even, to die. Get Even positions the device, instead, as a detective’s tool. Though there are guns to shoot, Black is aided most by the various investigative tools set up on his smartphone. As mentioned before, it shows him a map and can shine an ultraviolet light, but it’s also used to scan objects and reveal details, pick up thermal signatures, and, because it is a phone after all, receive text messages, too.
As the plot progresses, Black learns of his place within the kidnapping plot that set the game’s events in motion. He explores bits of his memory from within a super advanced virtual reality headset (called Pandora) under the instruction of the aforementioned CEO, Dr. Robert Ramsey. Eventually, Black discovers that not only is he responsible for the kidnapping victim’s death, but that her father, Ramsey, is as well. Both men end up implicated in a complicated plot that, like fragmented memories, is pieced together bit by bit until the horrible realization of their culpability becomes clear. Both Black and Dr. Ramsey are wracked with guilt over the parts they played in the deaths of Ramsey’s daughter Grace and everyone else affected by the kidnapping plot. Ramsey, who created the Pandora device, becomes obsessed with trying to reconfigure memories and fully discover every aspect of the tragedy that occurred.
The death of a young woman torments the game’s main characters. She hangs over everything that happens like a ghost who can only be exorcised by the cleansing power of technology. For Black, this means investigating the memories he hardly remembers with his smartphone; for Ramsey, this ends up taking the more sophisticated form of him as mad scientist, trapping Black within virtual reality simulations in an effort to absolve himself of guilt and relieve his pain. Of course, none of this works. The memories recorded by Black’s camera and Ramsey’s VR are imperfect, leading to further dark revelations regarding the ways in which their actions (everything from overworking to giving an old friend from the military a job) caused Grace’s tragic death. In Gothic fashion, shining the light onto old secrets reveals only further horrors.
The final scenes of the game show Ramsey realizing the full extent of what he’s been responsible for. Recognizing that he was driven more by a desire to create fantastic technology than to care for his family, he collapses. At this point, plaintive strings and piano begin playing at an almost intolerable volume and the player is allowed to read up on the Pandora memory device used throughout the game. Pamphlets littered around Ramsey’s work space reveal that the technology is plagued by the infallibility of human memory—the problem Ramsey is trying to solve is how to lock down memories as objective reality through further hardware solutions and refined methodology. At the same time, the voice of his dead daughter Grace comes to him, whether as another trick of the mind or a literal ghost no longer important. She screams at him for his failures and he sobs, desperate to explain himself to her. For a time, the game hangs on the impact of this scene and it feels powerful. Ramsey and Black, emblematic of the modern person, believe that technology can save them. They investigate and record their way toward a truth that is meant to obliterate the darkness of uncertainty, thinking that complete knowledge is not only possible through technology but capable, too, of offering them absolution. What they find, though, is that memory—like a ghost—haunts the margins of objectivity. It’s hardly ever clear. Its greatest effects are spectral, felt most strongly when manifesting impressionistically in broken bits of data or clinging to the ignorance that is inherent to all human understanding, which is, of course, imperfect enough to dream up ghosts in the first place.
Get Even isn’t a great thriller but it does understand, like a hammy, watered-down version of the films Pulse (or Kairo) and Personal Shopper, the eeriness that underlies our confidence in technology. It, like them, knows that we displace the supernatural to the solidly, mechanically natural, believing that a camera or a computer are more perfect versions of ourselves, able to see the world with greater clarity than any person. When it undermines this belief by its showing the limits and failures of even our most advanced recordings, we see, too, that the parts of our minds not easily quantified—like guilt, like despair, like the wailing apparitions that embody these feelings—will always be a part of us.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE.