March 31, 2009 8:00 AM |
['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom discusses questionable and offensive imagery and themes in Resident Evil 5, and how these elements undercut the rest of the game.]
One thing that has been repeated about Resident Evil 5 is that the game may include offensive imagery, but that you become inured to these images when you get in the thick of combat. This might be the case during certain sequences where you don’t have time to think, but there’s no escaping it for long.
As soon as you do, Chris and Sheva find a butcher’s block, topped with a dead animal and buzzing flies. The game’s helpful text blurbs will then say something like “The smell is awful. Why would this be here?” A butcher shop with meat in it isn’t offensive or out of the ordinary, and in fact is part of everyday life all over the world.
However, the peculiar Othering of normal occurrences (like a butcher shop having meat, knives, and flies) so that they fit into a frantically horrified conception of village life in Kijuju is pervasive and carefully orchestrated.
This is What's Horrifying
This kind of characterization is prevalent throughout the first two chapters. Some of the initial establishing shots are careful to emphasize the flies that are everywhere, and thus, the unclean, eerie aura that such sounds bring to each scene. If you are going to depict this kind of situation, you need to have a strong authorial voice, one that presents the events either as “objectively” as possible (a task few, if any, attempt), or one that clearly directs the player and takes a side.
Art does not exist in a vacuum, nor do any forms of media or entertainment. You cannot make this game and portray these events and not telegraph your feelings as regards the proceedings. And Capcom hasn’t; from every “creepy” slaughtered animal to every collection of skulls and candles in a shack (”It must be some kind of ritual,” Chris advises us), Capcom’s intentions are transparent.
They work very hard to show you that this particular West African Town is poor, dirty, and dangerous: that people are vicious, violent, and skulk around the heroes. Furthermore, their houses and places of business are even more alarming, filled with “bizarre” practices. It should be noted that this kind of ignorant, traditionally stereotyped imagery is considered to be a good way to scare Capcom’s audience. Stop and think, why is it “scary.” What’s being coded as horrifying and alarming in this game are poor, “West African,” people who froth at the mouth and cannot be trusted due to their violent natures.
This is brought home hard when you realize what other “scares” the game has in store. It doesn’t have any, aside from the well done “partner has to hold the light source” section in the mines. The game is really about two things: it’s about a really excellent action game, and what the designers hope will scare you in their portrayal of these people and their homes.
Spreading the "Infection"
Another defense of Resident Evil points out that you are killing zombies just as you’ve always killed them. It’s not like you treat them different than Leon treated the Ganados, right? This does not take into account how the game depicts the “African” zombies’ violent nature and activities, as well as the spaces they inhabit within the game. Early in the game, you are treated to a scene where a white woman is dragged off kicking and screaming, only to be found infected with the virus, and thus, no longer pure.
There are other characters that you’ll see killed by the infected humans (and other enemies), but none are treated in this way. When Chris and Sheva find a black villager who has just been infected, Chris wearily approaches the infected man, not realizing the danger, but quickly withdraws when the man screams in pain as the virus takes over his body. When Chris finds the white woman, he grabs her, and supports her, before she turns into a vicious member of the infected.
There is a way (among many) that a designer could humanize the victims of the virus, before they were infected. It’s a very straightforward technique, and one that even the most by-the-book movies include. Before the dehumanizing, physically disfiguring virus or condition affects the victims, the fiction can try to show what their lives were like before the infection. People going about their business, children going to school, social gatherings, etc. have all been used in countless movies to show what “the people” are like before the war/virus/disaster.
While this does of course lead to other problematic characterizations (the “innocent,” “humble,” townspeople who need saving, for instance), at least it shows that the authors of the fiction want to emphasize the difference, the before-and-after nature of the infection. In Resident Evil 5, there are no such characterizations. From the first frame, the villagers you see are either infected or acting violently, suspiciously, or both.
Capcom has pointed out that everyone’s infected, so none of them are “people” anymore, which makes it acceptable and necessary to kill them. By not including images and videos of uninfected villagers, Capcom is making it clear (possibly accidentally) that none of them are human. They barely take the time to stop and amend this issue, at they only do it once memorably.
Too Little, Much Too Late
There’s a boy’s diary that you find in a village in the wetlands, that delivers the kind of humanizing look at the pre-infected society that would have changed the beginning of the game, to some degree. However, it’s power to amend Capcom’s mistakes is blunted by the fact that it’s tasked with explaining the villagers’ propensity for wearing “traditional” African garb. The problem here is twofold. First of all, Capcom stuck this document (an optional read at that) in the tail-end of the 3rd act. The second problem is more serious.
The reasoning they give for these villagers dressing up in “traditional” garb (clothing that has no basis in any regional traditions but is instead pulled from the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull roster of “primitive” clothing) is paper-thin. Apparently the villagers just started dressing in this fashion and murdering each other after being infected. Why did they do this when the other infected failed to do the same?
Apparently this is a symptom of the version of the Progenitor virus specific to that part of Africa (and specifically, the marshlands and the nearby caves), which only affects men. Men who kill their families and villages as they become infected. This may be explained as “how that version of the virus is,” but it also happens to fit conveniently into popular, old, stereotypical visions of what unpredictable, violently traditional African people are. Again, the problem is not necessarily that Capcom is “racist,” it’s that they uncaringly used very old, very vicious racist caricatures and stereotypes to create the foundation of their game and their “new brand of horror.”
The argument that Capcom and the gamers who see this game as being perfectly acceptable just doesn’t understand or are ignorant of these stereotypes is a problematic one. If this is the case, why would Capcom carefully construct Sheva in the way that they have? She’s there for a reason, and it’s to deflect flak from people calling them out on the problems with RE 5’s depiction of violence, white military intervention, and every day life in this particular version of “Africa.”
It is worthwhile to look at Sheva and the way her Blackness and African-ness is coded as opposed to the way the villagers' Blackness and African-ness is coded. Whereas the villagers are dirty, violent, inhuman, and dark, Sheva is fairly light-skinned, well-kempt, and respectful of Chris and the BSAA and its hierarchy. She is, essentially a “safe” black person, whereas the villagers are “the worst kind.” Also, the inclusion of white and “Muslim” enemies in no way helps the situation.
It’s true that there are people in various nations in Africa who are “white,” but it’s just as true that sing skin color and other ethnic “identifiers” is almost meaningless in parts of the world where being a Muslim does not mean your skin has to be any particular shade. Simply put, this is a red herring: the problems the game has are not alleviated by the inclusion of vaguely area-appropriate non-black enemies.
The game consistently, forcefully presents Kijuju as a dangerous, primitive, scary place, where good, nice white people really don’t want to be caught hanging out around. I want to reiterate that I am not accusing anybody of meaning for this message to be sent, but it’s such an old and time-honored way of portraying Africans that it can’t be swept under the rug. It’s so regressively, unthinkingly stereotypical, it’s almost hard to explain or view in its entirety.
There’s no point at which it’s self-aware, post-modern, or aware of the history of Colonial, Imperial, Neo-Colonial or military trends and actions in various parts of Africa. At its best, it vaguely gestures toward the bad things that have been and are still being done in Africa by foreign, white-owned companies. It never makes it this far, however, muddling in the same direction all Resident Evils have muddled: corporations tend to think only of their research and hurt people.
Something that should be noted is that the game obviously codes these villagers as Poor, Vicious, and Animalistic, but it’s not alone in this. Resident Evil 4 may have been about “Spanish” villagers, but it could have been set in any poor village in any part of the world. It could have been set in America. The significant elements of the initial stages of RE4 hinged on the player’s fear of poor, vicious, strange villagers. It’s not like poor rural people are strangers as villains in the horror genre, they’re often used by directors and writers as the receptacles for various societal fears and repressed urges.
It’s just that RE 4 was the first game in the series to so clearly emphasize their poverty and “uncivilized,” inhuman ways. It doesn’t matter if you, as a developer, don’t bother to humanize those who haven’t been infected. It doesn’t matter if the developer says “they’re all infected.” The onus is always on you (designers and artists) to show the humanity of these people, otherwise you slip dangerously close to the trap that many zombie movies fall into: using zombies as a convenient “inhuman,” “cleansable” population, as has been done in zombie movies (and comics, tv shows, etc.) for years.
Post-Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero was alarmed at how zombies were being used to make the slaughtering of marginalized people acceptable. Romero directly worked against this trend. In the original Dawn of the Dead, an early scene depicts S.W.A.T. members “cleansing” or “clearing” a ghetto.
It’s made clear that the soldiers shoot people who are obviously still human (or show every appearance of humanity); they are not zombies. They’re “being sure,” and it’s acceptable for them to kill these people to be sure, because they’re black and poor. Resident Evil 4 and 5 do the same thing, and they’re not trying to make a point like Romero was. For these games, these players, and these designers, it’s acceptable to depict this kind of situation and present it in this fashion, because of how it “scares” people and makes for a “good setting.”
This is by no means the last word on whether or not “the game is racist.” What it is is an analysis of broader, more easily identifiable trends in the presentation of Resident Evil 5. It’s something that we all need to discuss, and I really do mean “we all.” This can’t be something that gets discussed for five seconds and then thrown out of the bigger sites and forums, only to be caught and rejected again by the smaller sites.
This is a dialogue that we need to have, and it should be as inclusive as possible, featuring voices from various communities and points of view, not just your average 20-30 year old white gamer. If we don’t have these discussions, we’ll repeat this highly regrettable, extremely harmful mistake again and again. If we want to be taken seriously as a form of media and as a block of consumers, we have to take our media seriously, and we have to actually listen to points of view that we don’t necessarily agree with.
[I’d like to conclude this article by saying two things: first, this is a combination of various posts by myself about Resident Evil 5, as well as new ideas I’ve had as I’ve played the game. Second, it should come as no surprise to anyone that this is one of many articles written before and after the release of RE 5 that discuss the imagery and themes within RE 5 that are offensive or troubling.
It would be impossible for me to link to or mention all of them, but I’ll try to link to a good deal of them. You can find a lot of interesting and intelligent discussion going on, in the articles themselves and in the responding posts. I’d recommend checking out as many of them as you can. Related posts and articles: Acid For Blood, Brainy Gamer, The Iris Network, Evan Narcisse, Racialicious, Tom Chick. And those are just the ones I've been reading recently, there are many more great discussions out there]
Categories: Column: Diamond In The Rough