Notes on Resident Evil 2

I’ve been struggling with a cold for a week now and it’s mutated into a horrible throat infection so the Reza posts are on hold until I feel like I’ve got the brain power to move forwards with them.

However, speaking of mutating viruses, Resident Evil 2 has arrived in the post and I’m gonna be sinking the limited energy I do have into that game over the next week or so whilst these antibiotics kick in.

I wanted to write about it because, before this cold got worse, I’d promised to stream it. I’ve decided against that now because I can’t talk and don’t want to hold off on playing it for the sake of a video I’ll probably never finish so I thought I’d be better to write up my thoughts on the blog instead.

(I’ll get round to finishing one of my gaming video essays one day — the Bloodborne one stalled months back but it remains promising…)

I’ve had a bumpy relationship with the Resident Evil games. I was reminded of my love for them when I was back at my home over Christmas, digging around all my long-forgotten childhood things and finding a complete run of Resident Evil games released on the first and second generation PlayStation consoles: that’s the first game, the “Directors Cut”, number two, number 3, Survivor, and Code Veronica.

Not counting the Gamecube remaster of the original game, there is an abrupt stop in my engagement with this franchise after this point.

This abrupt stop is no doubt down to the PS2 becoming the console for Silent Hill games whereas Resident Evil had ruled the PS1. The first Silent Hill on the latter platform was mythically horrific to my childhood brain and I didn’t play it until a few years after it came out — when I felt “ready” for it. I remember gaming magazines would talk about it in the same sort of terms as a snuff film. What’s even more memorable is that, when I finally did play that first Silent Hill game, I remember it far exceeding the horrors conjured up by my imagination. It was, at that time in my life, quite literally more terrifying than I could imagine.

It scared me in a way that the Resident Evil games had never managed to do. Zombies were fun and they remain my favourite pop horror archetype but Silent Hill got deep inside my head. And so, Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3 ruled my PS2 from there on out because all Resident Evil games after Code Veronica were trash as far as I could tell and they never got a look-in. (Although I regret that I’ve still never played Resident Evil 4.)

I think things went sour for me after the release of the Resident Evil movie adaptation. Stylistically, the film was grotesquely over-influenced by The Matrix. I remember leaving the cinema (having snuck in underage to see it) and feeling like I had recognised nothing of the experience I hoped to see replicated. And then the games following the movie seemed to echo its approach to the franchise’s universe.

However, my distaste for this overly influential cinematic divergence might also be down to the fact that, in my head, I’d always downplayed the role of the Umbrella Corporation — that’s the evil pharmaceutical company at the heart of the franchise, responsible for creating the zombifying T-Virus as a bioweapon to make invincible soldiers which leaked out from their headquarters beneath Raccoon City, seemingly going on to infect 95% of the local population. If that makes Umbrella sound like a hard thing to ignore in this series, you’d be right, but I’d nonetheless get fixated on the environments and the zombie killing and ignore the story all together, as is a no doubt common tendency amongst kids playing way below the advised minimum age limit on their games. For me, back then, the story was background noise to the thrills I was there to receive.

Don’t get me wrong though: I think the idea of a mutated virus is good. It’s noumenal and taps into a historic human fear — a kind of Black Death irrationalism where illness is, in many ways, seen as a haunting inevitability and the things done to resist it are rooted more in superstition than medical science. It’s where that lines blurs that zombie apocalypse movies really hold their own and so of course it’s the most common cause of zombie apocalypses throughout popular culture. (The Walking Dead‘s first seasons captured this atmosphere and its existential despair best, if I remember correctly.)

However, whilst making the source of this noumenal virus the stupidity, greed and recklessness of corporate America isn’t a bad message in and of itself, it always felt really lame to me; cartoonish and unnecessary. Zombies are, on their own, more than enough. Adding Big Pharma to the equation both waters down and constipates the symbolism. It makes Umbrella a largely unseen enemy, reducing the zombies themselves to an eternally irritating smokescreen that persistently distracts you from the threat at large. You can’t get to Umbrella because you’re constantly hampered by the mess they’ve made. In this way, the series downfall was always inevitable. It set itself up for a fall into lame action archetypes when it made its main enemy largely untouchable — an unsustainable premise in the long run: the games had to become more corporate in themselves.

Saying that, Resident Evil 7 was an incredible experience, playing up to the haunted house vibe that made the original so good and making the Umbrella-infused finale far less like corporate espionage and a lot more Lovecraftian, making it feel like a genuinely satisfactory and supernatural conclusion, resisting the errors of previous instalments which made Umbrella the central part of the plot overall.

However, even today, the very existence of Umbrella just disinterests me. Personally, I don’t need to know the cause of the terrors on screen. It’s the not-knowing that makes it so unnerving in the first place and I don’t actually want that taken away from me. Plus, building a franchise around the outbreak’s narrative cause — the military-industrial complex no less — was always a weak move in my opinion that reeked of bad Hollywood action movies. (It’s the same reason why Aliens is the worst Alien movie — don’t @ me — there’s just something about a premise of “mindless drones versus mindless drones” which doesn’t appeal to me.) I’m not here to have my masculinity massaged by my undead killing spree, I’m here to have my very sense of humanity unsettled.

That’s what’s so interesting about the premise of the very first Resident Evil game. You have a very (very) stereotypical 80s/90s Action Hero cast — made up of precisely the kind of testosterone bozos found in James Cameron’s attempt at a Big Dick Energy Alien movie — who are then thrown into what is a very Japanese haunted house scenario; a place where folklore and modern society rub up against each other uncomfortably.

There is a sense that these bum boils of American masculinity travel through a kind of time warp and that was what made the game so scary: this sense of utter displacement — the silent, arcane, folkloric mansion being intruded upon by a cyberfascist futurity (– that’s in reference to both the goodies and the baddies, FYI.)

In many ways, it feels reminiscent of 1977 cult classic Hausu, the Japanese haunted house horror film directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi. Obayashi was primarily a director of film and television ads before making Hausu, and the film would be nowhere near as surreal were it not filmed in the cinematographic language of advertising. Resident Evil is the same — transplanting the language of the American action movie into the Japanese haunted house for a similar effect.

These games have always been fun to play despite these very personal plot issues that I have with them, so generally it always feels overly nerdy to get hung up on them. I only mention all of this now because the remake of Resident Evil 2 is the first game in this franchise not to make me cringe when Umbrella becomes the main plot focus over and above your own basic survival.

Umbrella remain a constant presence during the game’s final two thirds, but something about the presentation here changes things. Whether this is rose-tinted (read: HD) nostalgia, an improvement or just a long-held grudge with this series thawing out, there’s something really interesting about this game and its plot — particularly what its bizarre cultural cross-pollination has to say about the world(s) in which it is set. Whereas the Silent Hill series was set in various quintessentially American locations, probing the inside of the American psyche in the process, Resident Evil 2 transplants what feels like a quintessentially Japanese perspective into an American(ised) location where it jars in fascinating ways, precisely because you have this same transplanting of fears, conspiracies and cultural signifiers across cultures.

Now that I’ve got those nostalgic reflections out the way, in the next post I want to talk about just what this remastered perspective says about this seminal Japanese view of an Americanised crisis; of a sovcorp dissolved into a zombie nation…

Yes, I might use Resident Evil 2 to critique Moldbuggian patchwork

To be continued…

UPDATE: I sort of want to eat my words from yesterday. When I wrote that post, I was in bed, having just completed the first four hours of the campaign and about to play as Ada in the sewers.

Now, having just completed the sewers. I’m left with a gross taste in my mouth.

I was slightly taken aback by this sequence because I remember hearing something somewhere about Ada’s character being “fixed”. Perhaps that’s just because of this initial costume teaser.

What appears like an improvement on paper comes across as a hamfished film noir homage in reality and then deteriorates from there onwards when, after entering the sewers, she loses the coat and ends up navigating shit streams in a very short and very tight red party dress and a choker…?

We’re all used to seeing women on screen in action roles wearing high heels throughout the entirety of their ordeals, magically without breaking any ankles, but this was really gratuitous, especially during the scenes where she was side by side with Leon, the rookie, with all hip pouches, tools and weapons. Ada is meant to be this superior and mysterious FBI agent but she comes across like some really bad cosplayer.

Then, when Leon and Ada seem to fall in love as they enter the belly of the beast, the cringe peaked. It’s the sort of bad dialogue that you expected from these games in the late 1990s but updated to this level of technical and aesthetic beauty, the outdated narrative comes across even worse than before — even in 1998 you could at least laugh at it.

Hears hoping my play-through of Claire Redfield’s narrative is more palatable.

UPDATE 2: I finished the game in a reasonable 6.5 hours from my sick bed. Unfortunately, I still agree with my childhood self — the police station is one of the best survival horror locations ever and, whilst the gameplay remains fun, the locations that follow it aren’t a scratch on where you start. All in all, a bit disappointed.

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