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Dead On: How the Original Resident Evil Did Right By Zombies

August 22, 2014  |  10:00am
Dead On:  How the Original <em>Resident Evil</em> Did Right By Zombies

Do you remember when the first Resident Evil game came out in 1996? Like me, some of you may have been too young to play it at the time. I was in fifth grade that year, learning about how scientists had just cloned a sheep named Dolly. In 1990, the Human Genome Project began, and my dad, a geneticist, was in the midst of tracking down which gene causes Huntington’s Disease. Only a few years later, when I was in high school, his photograph began to appear in science textbooks to mark his team’s success in that quest. But even away from my own family’s dinner table, cultural excitement and terror of scientific discoveries—from genetics, to manufactured diseases and disease-centric warfare (insert your own ‘90s-era conspiracy theory about the AIDS crisis here), to cloning—was at an all-time high. 9/11 hadn’t happened yet; the economy climbed upwards; and everybody’s worst fear was of disease, scientists going “too far,” and the negative influence of massive pharmaceutical companies on medicine.

I don’t know how Resident Evil was received in Japan, its country of origin, but here in the States, we were poised to hear its morality tale of scientific hubris. I was only 10 years old when the first Resident Evil came out, but it was only a couple of years later that Resident Evil had become a common cultural reference point among my friends. By 1999, the first three games were out and I was 13, old enough to understand the concept and be properly terrified of the implications. The first three games—but, in particular, the first game—perfectly encapsulated our 1990s-era fears. Together, my middle school friends and I hypothesized about the extreme likelihood—nay, the inevitability—of a zombie apocalypse. We planned our escape routes, who would call who first, and what few items we would allow ourselves to bring. Our discussions were never based in survivalist, individualist fantasies of abandoning society. Ours was a fearful reverie based solely in pure terror of what science would soon be capable of achieving. Back then, it seemed we’d be fighting evil cloned version of ourselves at any day, or stopping a mad scientist from releasing a virus that would doom humanity to extinction.

The first Resident Evil game does not seem to posit zombies as its central enemy, nor does it necessarily emphasize the necessity of killing off one’s teammates as soon as they get bitten and infected … or maybe just killing them off if they are too weak to keep up. On the contrary, Resident Evil is a small-scale story about just one house with a zombie problem, and that zombie problem was created very methodically by Big Pharma. This is not a story of a mysterious virus that develops through no known cause. This is a story of corporate corruption at the highest level. The villains are not the hordes. They are a key few.

When modern viewers look at characters like Wesker, they merely see a laughable collection of ‘90s tropes, from his Matrix-inspired jacket to his bleached-blonde boy band hair to his Duke Nukem sunglasses. Plus, there’s his inexplicable obsession with injecting himself with various viruses. In the very first game, Wesker read as cool because of what he represented (plus, he hadn’t yet been watered down by a series of subsequent failures.) Science was sexy then: It was rich, it was powerful, and it was glamorous. But beneath the sexiness that Wesker symbolized was a dark, predatory bent, shown in Wesker’s uncaring for the safety of others, but above all, his disrespect for his own body.

In the late aughts, after the economic downturn in 2008, scientific grants decreased rapidly; the idea of making a game in the present day about the power and wealth of a scientific organization seems laughable, especially if you know a thing or two about how much money laboratories are hurting for nowadays (best of luck with that, Dad!) But in the 90s, it seemed terrifyingly plausible that a biomedical corporation would have the resources and funding available to let hubris take over, leading to a dangerous project that crept way too far past common-sense safety guidelines.

The very first Resident Evil is about to get a remake yet again, coming in 2015. This rerelease might well go ignored, especially by those who feel like zombies are cliché. The success of the The Walking Dead TV show—itself based on a popular comic book of the same name—which was followed by an equally successful videogame tie-in by Telltale Games—serves as just one example of how zombie stories have proliferated in the last few years. But how could we forget the absurd volume of other zombie-packed videogame franchises, such as Left 4 Dead, Dead Island and even Plants vs. Zombies? Or the countless “zombie modes” that began to creep into even non-horror games, like Call of Duty? Zombies have lurched into every genre of media—even books, given the determined rise of the best-selling novel World War Z and, yes, the Brad Pitt film “adaptation” of the book that kept the zombies and ignored the rest. Does your story not feel exciting enough? Just add zombies! Do you not have a story or any ideas whatsoever? Add zombies!

So why on earth would I recommend that anybody be sure to check out a remake of a remake of a 1996 videogame about zombies, given how poorly the aughts have treated zombies? Well, even though all of those other games (and maybe even movies and books) see Resident Evil as an inspiration and a cultural reference point, I think they may have misunderstood what made that game terrifying and fantastic. It’s not entirely their fault—after the 90s-era fervor about science began to dissipate, and after 9/11 ignited new fears about terrorism rather than science, the themes of a lot of game franchises changed. Latter-day Resident Evil games have been no exception. Resident Evil 4, a product of the early aughts, is widely seen as the last good Resident Evil game, and even that game strays pretty far from the original in terms of aesthetics and tone.

hyper mode resident evil screen.jpg

I think it might be impossible for Resident Evil to “get back to its roots,” given that the cultural reference points on which it was based no longer exist and never will again, at least not in the same form. But the original game is an excellent cultural artifact, a history lesson of sorts on how science was perceived in the 90s. Most strikingly, however, the original Resident Evil differs from post-90s-era zombie videogames because it does not have a libertarian message.

Telltale Games caused a bit of an uproar last week by admitting in an IGN interview that they “couldn’t wait” to kill off a disabled character in The Walking Dead. The interpretation of zombie stories as individualist, anti-Communist manifestos that illustrate fear of “groupthink” has become so widespread that almost every post-apocalyptic story includes a narrative like this one. Much like the characters who live in the bunker in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, zombie narratives like those in The Walking Dead (in all its iterations) and World War Z often feature lone wolf, super-smart characters teaming up and abandoning their “weak” friends. The heroes of these stories are the kinds of people who most of us would consider very unpleasant in “real life,” since they’re often assholes who stockpile weapons and have complete disregard for the comfort or safety of others, placing their own well-being above all else. These supposed “skills” become an asset in modern zombie games. It’s gotten to the point where gamers actively defend these traits, insisting that the protagonist of The Last of Us isn’t selfish so much as he is a man acting out of necessity, doing what anyone else would do in the same situation. Indeed, the common assumption seems to be that these types of people are the only possible people who can survive a zombie apocalypse.

The original Resident Evil, however, would beg to differ, since the game espouses the exact opposite theory. One of the game’s main villains—Oswell E. Spencer, the owner of the evil residence in question—is an elderly man who has funded his company’s hubristic descent into extreme body modification. If anything, the game has a liberal, almost socialist message, given that its two heroes are classic proletariat types: Chris and Jill are special forces operatives with (one assumes) government salaries, and they’re both just doing their job, investigating weird happenings and mysterious murders, X-Files-style. Chris, the physically stronger of the two, is actually considered the “hard mode” difficulty setting of the game. This is completely backwards according to modern-day interpretations of “difficulty” in zombie apocalypse games, since ordinarily playing as a small, wiry woman would be “harder”—and might end in you getting killed off if you aren’t “strong enough” to keep up. Jill is easier to play as because she can pick locks, and she also ends up with a more powerful weapon than Chris at the game’s outset, proving that zombie apocalypse narratives are about resourcefulness and teamwork, not individualism. Jill also employs a seemingly random skill in-game—playing the piano—which ends up allowing her to solve an absurd puzzle set by the hyper-intellectual owner of the mansion. If you’re into extended canon nerdery, then you also know that the song she plays is a favorite of one of the founders of the Umbrella Corporation, the fictional biomedical corporation that originates the game’s virus.

The game falls just short of taking an anti-intellectual stance, choosing instead to take a more moderate approach: Some science and intellectualism is good, such as the chemicals that Chris and Jill use to stay alive and the typewriters they use to “save” (presumably, write down their findings.) But the climaxes of the game include Spencer angrily monologuing that he “could have become a god” if only the virus had gone the right way, as well as Wesker betraying his team and revealing that he’s been working for the Umbrella Corporation the whole time. If anything, Wesker’s ethos of complete uncaring about others and his determination to be the most powerful person in the world mirrors the ethos of many current-day videogame protagonists. The villains in the original Resident Evil games are individualists; Wesker’s betrayal of his team in favor of his own self-interest is considered the worst possible choice. The “best endings” of the game are those in which you can save as many team members as possible. Merely surviving on your own isn’t good enough; in fact, it’s impossible. Both Chris and Jill’s story-lines rely entirely upon other teammates saving them, time and time again. Plus, their weapons were probably paid for by taxpayer money. How anti-libertarian can you get?

So, it’s bizarre that zombie games now have so deftly repositioned themselves as libertarian fantasies in which almost everybody else is a zombie and zombies are the only enemy that matters. Who created the zombie virus in these stories? Who is the true enemy? In some of these stories, there is no originator of the zombie virus—it just develops on its own, scourging the human race and letting only the “superior” people survive. We see our supposed heroes, losing touch with their own humanity as they slaughter infected human after infected human. Even the latter-day Resident Evil games suffer from this problem by reducing Wesker to a caricature of his former self and spending the bulk of the story focusing on killing zombies rather than stopping the true culprits who created the virus.

There are so few videogame stories with everyman heroes who punish the jerks who really deserve it. Any game that pays more attention to slaughtering as many zombies as possible and allowing the player to feel as powerful as possible while doing so tends to leave me feeling bored. I don’t want to gulp down every power-up possible in favor of becoming the world’s most superior being. I’d rather just be Jill Valentine, who doesn’t kill zombies so much as put them out of their misery, and who understands that the real villains are the people who don’t care about human life at all.

Hyper Mode is an occasional column by Paste’s assistant games editor Maddy Myers. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric on the 5by5 Network.

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