Over the past year, I have taken a liking in the Resident Evil franchise. Not that I had anything against it before that, but until recently, I had only ever played the original Resident Evil 2 first published in 1998 – it was, actually, one of two games (along with 1999’s Silent Hill) that introduced me to the genre of survival-horror, at a very early age (too early, actually, I still remember my nightmares as a kid). To be fair, Resident Evil is most likely the franchise that introduced everyone to that genre. Borrowing elements from earlier games such as Alone in the Dark, the Resident Evil franchise – or Biohazard as it is known in Japan – has defined (and re-defined over the years) the key elements of survival-horror.
As an amateur of horror, especially in gaming, this is the reason why I decided a year ago to get to know this series better, by starting playing other episodes of the series. I started with the 2002 “remake” of the original Resident Evil, then played Resident Evil Zero, the Resident Evil 2 remake, and now Resident Evil 4. I then plan to move on to episodes 5 and 6, and then perhaps 3 and 7, as well as spin-offs such as Revelations 1 and 2 (don’t mind the order in which I’m playing these games, I know it’s a mess but I don’t care). To say that the Resident Evil games can be very different from one another is a euphemism. It’s common for a franchise that spans over two decades to reinvent itself from time to time, and Resident Evil is no exception to the rule. Think of how Resident Evil 4 dramatically turned the series from pure horror to a more action-oriented franchise, how the “Chronicles” spinoff series was an on-rails shooter, or think about the 360° shift in perspective that Resident Evil 7 offered with its return to classic horror… with a first-person camera. As I discover and play more and more of these games, I start wondering: what keeps me going? What is it about Resident Evil that I like, no matter how (sometimes radically) different these games are?
There are of course several elements that bind the Resident Evil games and universe together: its eerie ambience, its focus on survival, its story (always based, some way or another, upon bioterrorism and human mutations) some of its most iconic gameplay mechanics (the use of green herbs to heal your character, the “save rooms” and the typewriters…). These are all things that I enjoy and that remain mostly consistent from game to game, but really wondering about what kept me coming back for more, I realized what it actually was: its cast of characters.
This is the story of their apocalypse
More than any other franchise, Resident Evil has consistently featured the exact same cast of characters throughout its 20-year-long-and-counting lifespan. In Resident Evil, first of its name, we are playing as S.T.A.R.S. elite forces Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, and in its sequel Resident Evil 2, as police academy graduate Leon S. Kennedy and young student Claire Redfield. Claire is Chris’ young sister, and she’s looking for him after his disappearance in the first episode – already, we can see that the developers wanted to connect the cast members altogether. From then on, EVERY main entry in the franchise – and even most of the spinoff titles, have used at least one of these “Original 4” as the central, playable character. Resident Evil 3 features Jill Valentine, Resident Evil 4 stars Leon S. Kennedy, Resident Evil 5 brings back both Chris Redfield (in the main story) and Jill (in a DLC), while Resident Evil 6 centers around both Chris and Leon. Even the very different Resident Evil 7, that noticeably made very little nods to previous games, couldn’t help but reference Chris Redfield in its enigmatic ending, as well as make him the lead character in a free downloadable sub-campaign.
The series’ overarching plot is that of these four characters, which we follow around the world, across several time periods, as they face very similar (but different) apocalypse-like situations. Spin-off games and prequels also use the opportunity to give us more information about a certain character’s whereabouts as the events of other main games unfold. As if the franchise absolutely wanted you to know where all of its characters are. For instance, the series’ prequel Resident Evil Zero brings back an iconic character from the first game, Rebecca Chambers, and shows the events that led her to Resident Evil 1. Similarly, Code: VERONICA‘s whole plot revolves around Claire Redfield sometime after the events of Resident Evil 3, and Revelations bridges the gap in Chris and Jill’s storyline between Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 5, while Revelations 2 follows Claire and first game alumn Barry Burton between the events of episodes 5 and 6.
The franchise also likes bringing back iconic characters from their (apparent) death, such as Ada Wong who apparently dies in Resident Evil 2 but appears to be alive looking VERY good in Resident Evil 4, or the main villain, Albert Wesker, who always finds a way to come back. We also get to see some characters grow up, notably Resident Evil 2‘s Sherry Birkin, a young child that Claire has to protect, who becomes a central character in episode 6.
While Resident Evil tells us stories about bioterrorism, what keeps us coming is that we get to see these individual stories through the eyes of beloved and recurring characters. They’re the unifying element to this universe, what binds it all together. The use of recurring characters is of course nothing new in arts. It’s actually the most common element in serialized fiction – from novels to soap operas. The most typical example of a series that relies on an ensemble cast that evolves in a vast universe is Game of Thrones. Similarly, the story of Resident Evil relies on several “point-of-view” characters that evolve through time and space. And while this is common in fiction, in video games, however, I believe it’s much more rare, especially with AAA franchises. Recurring characters are a thing, of course, but they’re never really the main focus. In video games, either the main character(s) change game after game (Final Fantasy, Assassin’s Creed) or the main character remains the same throughout the course of the series (Tomb Raider, Uncharted). With Resident Evil, though, there’s this consistency of keeping the same ensemble cast in every game. There’s not one hero, but heroes, plural. And it’s not just fan-service: the characters are a crucial element of the games themselves.
Characters as the center
As mentioned above, Resident Evil is probably the one game that has defined the codes of the survival-horror genre. In which the pivotal gameplay element is that you must make sure your character survives. The environment is as hostile as possible, and death lurks in every corner. Your mission: staying alive. And what better way to make you care about your character’s fate than by making you care about the character himself?
A perfect example of how the series makes you care about the characters is the first Resident Evil‘s iconic, oh-so-cheesy FMV intro. You may have erased this dreadful memory from your brain, but the game indeed started with a terrible live-action sequence (and I do mean terrible, even by 1990s standards). But what’s interesting about it, besides the cheesiness of it all, is that it ends with a sequence emphasizing each member of the cast, with a voice-over shouting their names at you in order for you to clearly remember it. They’re not just random avatars, they have a name, and personality traits which you need to remember.
In part due to the low-poly nature of 3D graphics at the time, each character in the game also had an instantly iconic and recognizable design. The characterization and voice acting was also very stereotypical. I’m not sure whether that was 100% intentional or not, but the benefit of it is that it makes you, the player, understand easily who these characters are, what their motivations are, and so on.
The game wants to make sure you remember their names, their faces, and that you start identifying to them, and caring about them. Which is of course crucial, since only by identifying to them will you be able to put yourself in their shoes, and start believing this otherwise far-fetched universe is real. There can be no sense of dread, of danger, of fear, without a sense of caring about the cast. Empathy is a necessary element for immersion in a survival-horror game. The minds behind Resident Evil understood that very well.
The gameplay itself relies heavily on characters, and caring about characters. And I don’t just mean that in a “heal your character with herbs or he’ll die” kind of way. In the first Resident Evil, the way the story unfolds, as well as some game mechanics, vary whether you play as Chris Redfield or as Jill Valentine. Choosing your character at the start of the game conditions the gameplay itself.
The game’s sequel went even further. In Resident Evil 2 (and, to a lesser extent, in the 2018 remake of the same name), the relationship between both characters is crucial, thanks to a gameplay element called character zapping. Namely, your actions as Leon S. Kennedy will affect Claire Redfield’s story, and respectively. Pick up a weapon or fight a boss as Leon, and said weapon and boss will be absent from Claire’s gameplay, and so on. The game actually features 4 different scenarios, depending on the order in which you decide to play: Leon A and Claire B (if you start the story as Leon and end it with Claire), Claire A and Leon B (the other way around).
Character zapping was also pivotal in the 2002 franchise prequel, Resident Evil Zero, in which you control two characters at the same time: Rebecca Chambers and Billy Coen. It’s not Scenario A and Scenario B anymore: you play as both characters simultaneously and their fates are intertwined. By the press of a single button, you may switch from one character to another, and you sometimes have to voluntarily split their paths in order to reunite them later. The sense of danger is even greater, as you have to focus on both character’s health bars at the same time. Other games have done that since then, but in 2002, having two simultaneous playable characters was something quite new. Resident Evil 4, finally, only let you play as Ashley Graham for a little portion of the game, but the rest of it relied heavily on having you, as Leon, protect her as she follows you around everywhere and is extremely vulnerable (sometimes even too much, as Ashley can be very annoying because of her stupid IA).
Resident Evil All-Stars
In every work of fiction, characterization is essential. Interestingly, what is Resident Evil‘s most stereotypical element – its cast of characters – is also one of its driving strenghts, and what has kept it going for more than 20 years. Over the years, the character’s designs and stories have become much more subtle, but they have still remained consistent with what was established in the first two games. Resident Evil as a franchise uses its characters, both story-wise and gameplay-wise, to induce empathy, fear and danger, and ultimately, as the one defining element of the series. So here’s to more adventures alongside Chris Redfield, Leon S. Kennedy, Jill Valentine, Claire Redfield, and all the others!
- About the character zapping system in Resident Evil 2, on the Resident Evil wiki.