“I’m just a realist. It’s a capitalist society. Not everyone is cut out for that kind of constant pressure. Sure, there are opportunities to be had, but at what price? You gain, someone else loses”
Released in 2009 to both critical acclaim whilst mired in racial controversy that continues to permeate and resonate long after its release, the 5th chapter in Capcom’s Resident Evil series celebrates its 10th Anniversary this month, a notable milestone for any gaming title and one, given my predilection and enthusiasm towards I decided to go back and revisit to mark this occasion. Drawing undue comparison to its previous chapter released on the 6th generation of consoles as a Gamecube timed exclusive as part of the Capcom 5 series of games before appearing on the Playstation 2 towards the end of its life cycle, the 5th chapter was as radical a departure and change from the 4th entry as the Gamecube title had been to the last mainline entry Code Veronica. Certainly a similar aesthetic and presentation permeated both titles, perhaps somewhat unduly the 5th game had a reputation at first as being little more than a reskinned version of the 4th game with a very similar corridor based mechanic that funneled the protagonist down a predefined set path towards the next encounter. However it was the influence and strength of the co-operative mechanic that drew a great deal of praise from across the board with a functional and strong style of play that neither hindered nor impeded your progress as you ventured through the heart land of Africa up until your final encounter with the memorable Wesker. Perhaps because of the success of Resident Evil 4 and the expectations of the direction Capcom would choose the 5th Chapter remains the best-selling entry of all the mainline games and with the resurgence of popularity of the series following the success of both the series changing, first person perspective 7th entry and the remastered 2nd chapter, Resident Evil 5 continues to be fondly remembered by those who experienced this release during the 7th generation of consoles, a solid co-operative experience that took the best elements of Resident Evil 4 and expanded upon them to produce this award-winning title.
With no direct continuation of the events witnessed in Resident Evil 4, the 5th chapter begins with you playing as Chris Redfield, the returning character from the original game and the spin-off Code Veronica as he arrives in Africa with the assistance of his new partner Sheva, both agents of the fictional BSAA as they attempt to apprehend a suspect about to release a B.O.W onto the black market. In the best traditions of the series, the virus is unleashed upon the unwitting, native population who find themselves transformed into aggressive mutations and the hero’s are forced to traverse the wilds of Africa, following a path that eventually reunites you with an old friend in the returning Jill Valentine seemingly under the control of the series main villain Albert Wesker. You continue to survive having liberated your friend and progress forward through a series of challenging and hostile environments before your final encounter in the middle of an active Volcano and eventual escape to safety. As with its immediate predecessor the scope and reach of the main plot is kept somewhat restrained in contrast to the more grandiose and outlandish narrative of the earlier entries and the eventual downfall of Racoon City, although I will admit I don’t recall despite having played the game on numerous occasions whether the overall plot is resolved or concluded. No mention to the best of my knowledge is made to whether the continent and the infected population were cured of the virus, perhaps this was explained in later material. Unlike Resident Evil 4 which despite a returning Ada Wong and brief allusions to the Umbrella Corporation attempted to shift the narrative away from the familiar plot and story threads of the earlier games, the 5th chapter is resplendent with examples and continuations of themes and general legacy issues from the earlier series. The return of Whesker and his eventual demise concluding a long running plot narrative from the earliest titles, Jill’s return to the game series alongside Chris expanded upon in the DLC content. I adored, Resident Evil 4 one of my highest rated titles and always a contender in any list I compile but due to its repeatability and customization I do have a fondness for this game despite what flaws exist.
To not address the race controversies that surrounded this game when it was released and became available to play in its various states would be disingenuous. Set in a fictional, West African coastal nation, the game does feature and allude to a great deal of societal stereotypes and imagery that in our present climate would perhaps draw accusations of a white saviour complex or prejudices on behalf of the developers. With the exception of your partner and the supporting BSAA agents, nearly all of the indigenous population are hostile towards you from the beginning of the game, even without any great exposure to the viral strain. Very early on you are forced to engage in combat with the attacking crowds of civilians, armed with various basic weaponry such as bottles and knives leading to you engaging and often shooting down large crowds of villagers and locals to the extent, it does feel somewhat unsettling when you stop to consider the spectacle around you. Equally, by intention or design the games mechanic of dissolving the downed bodies almost absolves you of your actions and consequences, a cleansed country, a sterile continent to explore and progress through. understandably a gaming mechanic designed to reduce the demand on the console given the quantity of generated figures on the screen that would have to remain rendered long after any relevance until the next chapter loaded, subjectively it does feel given the somewhat dubious connotations the game allows you to bask in the violence of the moment without any of the visual consequences of your actions. In contrast, most modern titles do at the very least retain a great deal of the fallen soldiers, perhaps scaling back the amount shown or portrayed and even hinting at the emotional resonance to the main character as seen in the Tomb Raider series of recent years. Resident Evil 5 before its release and subsequently after did suffer from a perception of implied racism, critiqued from various sources for its depiction of the African continent and certainly within the UK refered to the BBFC for judgement. Summarily dismissed with the passing of time, as with most contentious issues it continues to generate discussion and whilst some of the more volatile and reactive arguments have been dismissed or resolved, its legacy does still permeate. A fascinating opinion article from 2009 on IGN discussed and challenged a great many of the issues that were permeating the wider gaming and social circles around the implied racism of the title, eventually and how I would position the article arriving at the central point:
Resident Evil 5 takes place in Africa. As such, it is inevitable that a good majority of enemies will be Africans. While RE5 might be guilty of being insensitive in an over-sensitive world, at least it shows Africa the respect of making it a real place with the very real problems of poverty and disease. That’s not a stereotype. That is a sad reality in some parts of Africa.
As stated within the article and on a number of other sites during the height of its controversy, largely the plot of this game follows similar beats to that seen in its predecessor with experimentation upon an innocent target base in Spain and the subsequent combat against mutated and turned individuals. That title garnered almost no negative media backlash or criticism. What perhaps drew my attention back to this title was the recent controversy between a member of the British Parliament David Lammy and the charity Comic Relief with criticism directed towards the presentation style and narrative of the ‘white host’ travelling to Africa and using selective imagery and perceptions of the continent that were out of touch with the reality of the country today. Arguably that element does still exist and thrive in Africa however there is objective truth to be told the continent in its entirety has a diverse and complex history and existence today opulence and wealth as common place as poverty and famine and whilst the game, to bring this article back in focus does begin in a fairly clichéd shanty town environment, a type out of any western film it does to its credit diversify and present other locations that showcase a number of different aspects of Africa today as noted with a range of environments similar to that seen in its predecessor. Ultimately, subjectively I would argue the game’s legacy has survived to this day with minimal changes to its content and presentation, perhaps suggesting to developers to avoid certain locations and demographics or at the very least to attempt to present a more nuanced and balanced depiction of environment and populations.
Though the publicly released RE5 demo includes a run through a shanty town, there are other environments, such as a massive oil refinery, that show Africa’s modernization. It may not be a representation of Africa that people admire–it certainly doesn’t show the full breadth of African culture–but it also doesn’t liken African society to an ancient and outdated culture.
I wasn’t to keen or excited with the return of Wesker, as a character he was clichéd and buffoonish with his pantomime villainy however no more so than other similar characters within the wider series however with his eventual demise at the game’s conclusion it brought a fitting and deserved closure to his narrative perishing in his transformed state at the hands of the two heroes of the game. The return of Jill and Chris were a welcome touch, as much as I had enjoyed Leon’s return in Resident Evil 4 in keeping with the tradition of the series it felt natural to rotate the main protagonist between its more established cannon of characters. Depth of characterization is never really an argument you can make for a Resident Evil title and this game doesn’t fail to continue that dubious tradition of somewhat bland archetypal heroes and villains limited in-depth of motivation beyond basic values of good and evil. As a basis for the title there is perhaps a very real and pertinent story to tell with the foundations echoing the revelation of medical experimentation as reported by CNN in 2005 dominantly targeting for the cost implication poorer societies in return for capital investment. The notion of a pharmaceutical corporation infecting entire villages and town populations for more nefarious reasons is far more ‘grounded’ than earlier titles but in keeping with the overall lore of the series of urban populations becoming unwitting victims to the evils of capitalism and corporations. It gives the title a grounding in real world evils that permeate and exist with the prevalence of capitalism in developing nations and perhaps, had the focus and narrative been more focused on this area it would transcend the base racial arguments to a greater extent. As such, arguably, any attack based on the surface level tensions suppresses the far greater ‘evil’ of corporations using these populace’s for a cost benefit purpose. In contrast, and one of the games greatest strengths that still remains today was the co-operative nature of the title and the integration of two player gaming. As with many titles during this generation of gaming, arguably at the zenith of local co-operative gaming both primary gaming consoles at this point were producing both online and local experiences that allowed you to play with a partner in the same room requiring a split screen approach to be used. Whilst you could take your gaming experience online, there was still a place for this type of game in the market, one that has very much fallen out of favour in the recent generation as seen with a dominant focus on online playing experiences. Interestingly and perhaps a topic of conversation for another day whilst games allowed you to play locally without the need for an online connection today with both the XBox and Playstation requiring a paid subscription for online play and this being the only way to play socially the option to ‘play together’ for free has been removed in its entirety as an option without resorting to networking consoles together. Certainly there are ‘free to play’ titles, themselves a controversial topic for discussion but genuinely there is a real shame where it feels we have regressed from the best aspects of the previous generation to the state we find ourselves today in chasing the curve. I’ve enjoyed online experiences with my friends however equally, there is a place for the social gaming aspect and this has perhaps best been recognised by Nintendo with the Switch who champion this style of gaming and has seen great success with their latest console.
Mired in controversy before it was released, its imaginable had the game released today there would have been a temptation to hold off or at the very least make substantial changes to both the tone and setting of the title. Certainly, in some aspects you can understand the concerns of individuals and the negative impact its setting would have on the racial debate and presentation. Certainly, as argued there is also the contrary view-point that having been developed in Asia, which didn’t suffer the oppression of the black population through slavery as experienced in Europe and American the awareness of just how strongly the imagery presented would resonate amongst society is also a view-point to take. As with many issues of this nature, it’s a discussion that continues to permeate and resonate today, whether in another ten years it will continue to be seen as a controversial release or perhaps will have even be removed in its entirety is another question. Gaming, as with other forms of fixed point media exist at a very specific point in time, where we find contention for example with a certain painting or image shouldn’t require or dictate us to remove it from existence. Instead we should challenge our attitudes and mindset, question why we find it controversial, for objective or subjective reasons for example. With continual, living world games today that continue to change and adapt to audience feedback in order to continue to generate income there is always temptation to remove any contentious items or areas to provide as smooth and encompassing an experience as you can. Why, ultimately I would defend a title such as this, yes there are contentious and controversial issues but it is a work of art, whether you consider gaming to be art is itself open to debate, and as such deserves to be judged, analysed, critiqued but ultimately accepted as the artistic vision of its creators.
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