Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Zombie genre feels real during pandemic

I’m a little fed up with the zombie genre. The mere fact that it’s become a “genre” in itself is half the problem, there are so few variations on the ideas and themes that seem worthwhile. The “twist” that humans are the real threat, the real monsters compared to the zombies is incredibly played out. AMC’s The Walking Dead waited until its last episode to have the protagonist say with great bathos “We are the walking dead.” Five seasons of set up to deliver the point that critics were making about the comic book series before it was even optioned for TV.

There is an excellent explainer of the history of zombies in media by Zachary Crockett and Javier Zarracina at Vox which notes both an increasing number of zombie based properties and how they have evolved to reflect changing cultural anxieties.

But despite my disdain, I’ve found myself enthralled by Resident Evil 3, a remake of the third entry in the series which codified the place of zombies in the ranks of video game enemies. It’s actually only the second entry in the series I’ve ever played, and there are 22 separate games that are considered the “core” of the series before counting the remakes, spin-off movies, novels, and mobile phone games.

Although the series spans two decades, multiple teams, and extensive localization since the lead developers are based in Japan, it nonetheless manages to tie it all together by pointing a single rotten finger at a single cause: corporate greed.

Critics and film historians point to George Romero’s zombies as critiques of both suppression of the Civil Rights Movement and (ironically, considering the many imitators) consumerism.  Resident Evil can certainly trace its inspiration back to his works, but as the ability of games to tell increasingly complex narratives has grown, the answer to “how did this zombie apocalypse happen?” has stayed consistent. A huge multinational pharmaceutical company , chasing profits allowed this to happen through shoddy safety procedures and a disregard for human life.

In many entries in the series there is a cartoonish ham-fisted villain who wants to be a god or pursue some eugenics program, but they are either trying to seize control of the omnipresent Umbrella Corporation to make it happen, or are simply being used by a corporate overlord. All the mutants, monsters, and zombies come about largely because of the profit motive.

The game has now become painfully relevant. A live action scene plays out at the start of a new game, made up of reports about a mysterious outbreak, failures to contain the disease, riots erupting, and an oversized body bag covered in caution tape being loaded into a helicopter. Shaq sized body bag aside, the primary reasons footage from the past week or two couldn’t have been used are that the game takes place in 1998, and was probably entering the final phases of development well before COVID-19 started making headlines.

That live action intro turns out to be diegetic, and players are first given control over protagonist Jill Valentine who had been napping with the television on. Players are directed to navigate her studio apartment to reach the bathroom, where a horrifying scene plays out before being revealed as a stress dream about contracting a deadly virus. Relatable!

Upon waking from that dream, the player can putter around her apartment in first person, taking note of the fact she’s been locked indoors for a full 30 days, a benchmark many of us have recently just passed. Likewise, her only recent communication with the outside world in that time appears to have come in the form of a high-risk pizza delivery, which now seems almost prescient.

Documents scattered around her room reveal though that her confinement stems from filing a report that her corrupt superiors in the police department want to suppress. The report, presumably a recounting of the first game, implicates Umbrella in zombie crafting and the municipal bribery necessary to cover-up a bio-weapons program that goes through an awful lot of unwilling test subjects.

And then the game starts with a bang, as the hulking monster in the aforementioned body bag bursts through the wall and begins a scripted chase sequence that also provides a chance for some tutorializing. The previous entry started slow, with a gradual and deliberate exploration of a police station and its adjoining environs allowing for dread to await the player around every corner, zombie or no. But this game is meant to play fast and hard, and the built-in scoring system restricts top rankings to beating the whole thing in under two hours.

The monster in the bag, a hulking human clone remotely controlled via parasite and directed to destroy evidence of Umbrella’s misdeeds, only ever growls the word “STARS,” the name of the unit Jill belongs to, but manages to be a memorable character. Relentless and capable of following the player even into the safe rooms on higher difficulty settings, this creature frustrates plans to take it slow, plan approaches. He’s persistent, annoying, and will not leave you alone.

While the game is far from a feminist masterpiece (indeed, Jill is the only female character) it lands some punchy lines with an empowerment vibe. The creature is often referred to as a stalker, and deuteragonist Carlos Olivera quips about Jill liking dedication in a man while also establishing a believable relationship between two people good at their jobs, full of joshing but also respect. We’re given a look at a fairly healthy heterosexual friendship emerging in the shadow of an unwelcome pursuit by a single-minded brute.

The portion of the game which actually manages to impart some fear without resulting to jumpscares is a hospital in the third act which has been ravaged by attempts to treat the infected. The narrow corridors cramped with makeshift barricades capture the current mood towards hospitals all too well. The protagonists go there in the first place in search of a vaccine sample, but the space is fraught with danger instead of healing. Even playing as the more heavily armed Carlos in this section, it’s unsettling. One of the tensest rooms actually has no enemies in it, only corpses, but after all the high octane sections, seeing carnage that isn’t moving just puts you on edge.

The final section of the game, which sees the player explore an underground lab beneath the hospital, is short and a little underwhelming. Some action set pieces play out satisfyingly, but the story peaks a little on the early side, and this new environment is only seen briefly. It’s also one of the few places players encounter a puzzle of the sort that is generally considered a hallmark of the series, but has been largely abandoned for the sake of more action set pieces.

But while the final act is too short, it does at least culminate in a satisfying conclusion. A pair of boss fights serve as tough but fair tests of the skills the game has emphasized all along, and show some satisfyingly effective game design elements. There’s schlock here too, and a handful of quick-time events that actually managed to feel like the player was in control instead of just pressing random button prompts to advance the story.

The ending also manages to neatly wrap up some of the core themes in a satisfying way. Obsession and dedication are neatly contrasted, and collaboration is highlighted as the way to overcome adversity, not greed or self-interest. Villains get their come-uppance, and the heroes make it out of the city just in time to avoid the government’s nuclear remedy. Importantly, this isn’t the end, and not just because the commercial viability of further entries is clear. A post credit’s scene shows Jill established in a new apartment somewhere else, hefting a memento of her time in the city. The fight goes on, greed and capitalism and the power accumulated by the few aren’t taken down by single incidents but by continued work.

It’s also important to note that the game comes bundled with Resident Evil: Resistance, a multiplayer game built on the same engine and with many of the same assets. I haven’t tried it myself, though many have speculated it was included to make up for the relatively short single player experience.  I guess part of me fears my warm-and-fuzzy feelings about banding together against overwhelming odds as the way to overcome a virus might get dashed by failing to work cooperatively with a random assortment of gamers.

All in all, the game is sort of a perfect piece of media for my quarantined self. It’s close enough to my current reality to feel familiar and empowering, but fantastic enough that it doesn’t force me to dwell on those similarities. It scratches the itch for exploration and leaving the house I now contend with daily without actually forcing me to do so, and I was able to buy it via direct digital download without visiting any stores or putting workers at risk. $60 is perhaps a little steep, but I’ve certainly spent enough time with it to justify the equivalent of four 90 minute films at most theaters.

Deeper analysis is possible, but I want to be able to examine this with post-pandemic hindsight. A diversion with just the right amount of thinking is what the doctor ordered right now.

Justin McGown is a grad student in the Magazine and Digital Storytelling Program





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