In The New Christmas Canon, The A.V. Club looks beyond Rudolph’s nose and Zuzu’s petals to highlight entertainment from the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s that has become a seasonal staple—or deserves to.
Aya Brea, the detective star of Parasite Eve, knows what on-call doctors know. It’s a knowledge shared with firefighters, with waiters and cooks and tollbooth operators and non-Christians across the land: When you walk out into the streets of America on December 25th and you’re not celebrating Christmas, the world feels strange. There’s an eerie pall hanging over everything, that air of emptiness and otherness you get when you wander your elementary school at night—but amped up to 11. In life, that makes Christmas somewhat perilous. In Parasite Eve, it makes what would otherwise be a predictable horror game palpably unsettling. For anyone who loves to explore the emotional extremes of the holiday, Squaresoft’s nearly forgotten PlayStation game is essential for how it taps into the displacement of stepping outside of Christmas on the day itself.
At first, it looks like Parasite Eve is using Christmas in the same way as Gremlins or Die Hard, with the celebratory backdrop serving as emotional short hand to amp up its dire situations. Nothing makes a brutal hostage situation or plague of monsters seem even scarier than experiencing those threats in what’s popularly thought of as one of the safest days of the year. In its introductory video, a hyped-up teaser that flashes imagery of what will follow throughout the rest of the self-described “cinematic role-playing game,” Parasite Eve trades in similar action imagery: two hyperactive minutes of rats and dogs turning into monsters, guns being cocked, and explosions in downtown New York City while snow falls on the ground.
It’s all a feint, though. The booming rock music is boiled down to just Yoko Shimomura’s eerie piano melody as the camera slowly drifts across New York before settling on the Rockefeller Plaza ice rink. A red ornament reading “Merry Christmas 1997” hangs from the giant Christmas tree, but rather than a moment of apparent warmth to make some later shock hit harder, the scene is weird. The music shifts into a discordant motif as you realize there aren’t any people in what should be a bustling locale. Parasite Eve’s Christmas is a lonely one.
The stage is perfectly set for Aya Brea and her bizarre Christmas. She’s spending the holiday fighting Mitochondria Eve, an uber-consciousness leading a revolution among the independent organelles in human cells. In short, Eve is making people’s mitochondrion turn them into Lovecraftian beasts and orange goop rather than what they usually do. Even before the villain appears, though, Aya isn’t exactly having a great holiday. She’s out at the opera on Christmas Eve, dressed to the nines but with a date who’s never even named. When Mitochondria Eve manifests on stage during the show and causes the audience to spontaneously combust, Aya is energized. Before the opera, she was aloof and ignoring her companion, but when the danger arrives, she finally has something to engage her.
What starts as an exciting chase ultimately turns into a mystery that both scares the hell out of everyone in Aya’s life and illustrates how otherwise empty everything is. She pursues the deformed Eve—a gothed-out cross between Ursula from The Little Mermaid and an Elizabethan model born of the opera star’s body—but after fighting a bunch of mutated animals in the sewer, she comes up against a dead end. Aya re-emerges to meet up with her partner, Daniel, and the rest of the police responding on the scene at Carnegie Hall. Considering that a flying opera singer just made a concert hall full of people turn into bonfires, it’s unsurprising that the squad doesn’t go home for the holiday. It’s Christmas morning at the police precinct, and Aya and Daniel are looking for leads.
These opening moments at work with Aya are rife with that out of sync feeling anyone not celebrating experiences. If you’ve had to work on Christmas, or have even had to simply go out to run an errand, that ache is in this scene and reinforced by Shimomura’s excellent score. After hashing out the details of the night before and getting the chief’s permission to gear up, the pulsing song “Out Of Phase” starts playing. It’s cool but restless music, creating an air of needing to do something while also feeling like there’s somewhere else you’re supposed to be.
For Aya, the job is all she has. She wants to get to work not just because she’s disturbed by her immunity to Eve’s power, but because she has nothing else to do. Her partner’s situation is worse still. When you start exploring the precinct halls, you’ll run into his son, Ben. Turns out the two of them were supposed to go to a Christmas concert in Central Park, but now Daniel’s stuck monster hunting. The dialogue is clipped and simple, but also should be familiar to anyone who’s been forced to spend Christmas separated from a loved one.
As the day goes on, Aya and Daniel keep visiting empty places full of people in similar situations. They have to speak with a squirrelly scientist at the Museum Of Natural History, an especially eerie locale when there’s no one around but a janitor and the lone researcher with whom they’re meeting. There are only a handful of people working at the precinct, the few saps either unlucky enough to pull duty that day or who don’t have anyone to be with in the first place. Every single time you take a step in one of Parasite Eve’s Christmas locations, Aya’s feet echo on the floor and you can hear how damn empty these places are. Her shoes hit marble, recalling every time you’ve ever had to run out to pick up some forgotten ingredient before Christmas dinner and the weird hush at the drug store as the person behind the counter watches you stepping outside the warmth and chaos of home.
For what’s ostensibly supposed to be a horror-tinged action game, little about what happens to this point is either scary or frenetic. Aya’s fights on Christmas Eve are slow-paced thanks to the tactical nature of the game’s combat—she carries a gun, but the action pauses as she lines up each shot—and her emotional detachment before and after the sudden audience immolation at the opera gives what should be ghastly a dreamlike atmosphere that’s only enhanced by the emptiness of New York on Christmas Day. Yet as Aya and Daniel speed off to Central Park, the site of a concert where they’re convinced they’ll find Ben, Parasite Eve becomes deeply unnerving because of how it leverages the backdrop of the holiday. No one is where they’re supposed to be—Aya should at least be enjoying some time off, Daniel should be with his son, nobody should be on fire. That we’re following them into a dead park where people might be in danger just reminds us that they’re surrounded by buildings full of people who are both safe and celebrating together. New York City has become the Chinese restaurant in A Christmas Story, and it’s haunting.
When Daniel and Aya do reach Central Park, they find it as desolate as everywhere else they’ve been, a place decked out in festive colors but devoid of life. It becomes even more of a creepy ghost town after Eve shows up and turns the crowd that had gathered for the concert into a gelatinous mass the color of Sunny D. Aya confronts Eve, and they fight on a carriage—the horse set on fire by Eve’s power. The heroine never seems driven, just confused and dislodged as Eve floats above her, ranting about how the two of them are connected. She fails to capture the villain, and Christmas ends with New York being evacuated en masse.
The hunt for Eve stretches on through the rest of December, and the taut atmosphere established on the first day of the story carries through the rest of the game, but the body horror and struggle against a seemingly supernatural, unstoppable force never gets more uncomfortable than it is at the start. As Aya’s hidden past and her own mitochondrial powers start to manifest and the fight against Eve ramps up to military scale, there’s a numbness pervading everything that happens after Christmas. Like the vacuum we feel between the 25th and New Year’s Day—when some people are working, others aren’t, and business hours are downright unpredictable—the discombobulation of Aya’s desolate Christmas carries on. Parasite Eve is a horror game that moves not with grotesque imagery, but the familiar darkness of looking in on the most wonderful time of the year from the outside.