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The Pleasures of Old School Resident Evil - Political Shenanigans


I suppose I'm just a sucker for politics, but I find the backstory in Resident Evil 3 pretty interesting when it touches on the machinations of the Umbrella Corporation and their dealings with the U.S. government. Almost everything else about the story--in which a group of survivors attempt to escape zombie-infested Raccoon City--is forgettable. RE3 works best when it functions as a world-building exercise, least when it functions as a zombie survivor story.

Jill, whom you play the majority of the game, is a motivationless cypher in a ridiculous outfit. Carlos, the other character you play, is both a stereotype and a moron. Nemesis, the boss monster who chases you throughout the entire city, is just a rehash of the far-scarier Mr. X from RE2. On the other hand the world of RE3--the destroyed city you get to explore with all the fragmented narrative information it contains--is quite interesting. Ironically, the written information one comes across in RE3 (in the form of diaries, journals, reports, and pamphlets) is better written than in most of the other RE games. One of the big reasons RE1 remains the scariest game in the series is the fact that the various documents strewn throughout the Arklay mansion were effectively cryptic, forcing the player to piece together information. RE2 was a major step backwards from this suspenseful storytelling, featuring a collection of journals and notes that left little room for interpretation, often referring to "zombie attacks" like everyone already knew what they were. There's a reason Simon Pegg in Shawn of the Dead admonishes his best buddy not to use the "zed word". Why, his friend asks? "Because it's ridiculous" is the answer. It is ridiculous, because it reminds us that "zombies" are movie monsters ingrained in our pop-cultural consciousness, and casually acknowledging the fact diminishes their impact. RE1 never crossed this line, but RE2 was lazy about it. RE3, however, seems to consciously avoid using the term "zombie" as well as return to a deliberately cryptic backstory. The result is that the backstory feels like the real story of RE3, a story in which Raccoon City is the main character and Jill, Carlos, and Nemsis are simply vessels to reveal this story to the player.

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This would be a fine storytelling strategy, provided the forestory involving the characters wasn't lame to the point of distraction. Unfortunately, the care with which the Raccoon City backstory has been crafted clashes greatly with the crassness of Jill's hotpants adventure. I don't need a great forestory. I don't need RE2's story. But Capcom could at least have the decency to give me something on par with RE1, where the characters are little more than witnesses but at least believable ones. Jill seems like she's fallen into RE3 from out of a summer wear modeling photo shoot, which gives a subtle sheen of "you've got to be kidding me" to even the best moments of RE3.

Regardless, the political aspect of RE3 remains interesting. If I remember correctly, RE1 implied that one of Umbrella's main clients was the United States, and that the zombie outbreak was merely an accidental byproduct of research concerned with creating military bio-weapons. RE3 seems to be the only other game in the series which picks up this thread, suggesting that Umbrella lobbyists in Congress are trying to stall government intervention in the Raccoon City disaster, assumedly in order to salvage as much of their research as possible. These ploys fail and an atomic bomb is dropped on Raccoon City in the closing cinematic. It's the government, and not Umbrella of course, which makes the decision to blow Raccoon City off the face of the Earth. If you take RE1 into account, the subtle implication is that the government dropped the bomb simply to cover its own ass, so that no evidence would remain of their involvement and Umbrella alone could conveniently take the fall.


Well, that's one way to deal with a zombie outbreak.

Even though RE3 is a side story, this one event--the destruction of Raccoon City--is in many ways the most interesting piece of world-building in the whole series. It contains all sorts of fascinating implications, none of which are ever explored by subsequent Resident Evil installments. My biggest disappointment with Resident Evil 4 was how the old politics of RE were forgotten in favor of what felt like a sudden rash of Bush-era xenophobia. Gone is the idea that you are somehow up against both corporate and government corruption. Next thing you know you're the loyal servant of Uncle Sam, in whose name you gladly exterminate the biohazard-infected locals of various foreign countries. They deserve it because, it turns out, they plan to use their biological weapons for world domination. Never mind that Umbrella was selling biological weapons to the U.S. government just a few years earlier, and for God knows what purpose. Apparently it's okay if the U.S. has them because... well... they're the U.S. It's just not okay for anyone else to have them.

In retrospect I am amazed (although I obviously shouldn't be) at the complete moral blindness the series has exhibited towards Umbrella's clients. Who are they? Aren't they partially responsible for the horrors of Umbrella's research? One of the things that was so scary in the original Resident Evil was the fact that the perpetrators were, shockingly, a pharmaceutical company. What's scarier than a monolithic corporation motivated by nothing but greed, to whom a zombie outbreak is a tragedy only because it might affect their stocks?

This is what made Umbrella so chilling back in the day. One imagined they were like the Omni Consumer Products corporation in Robocop: a bunch of uptight suits whose disinterest in human life was so extreme it became black comedy. You can just imagine some executive sweating that he'll lose his Christmas bonus over the Arklay mansion debacle, and this is largely what gave Umbrella its terrible ambiance. Unfortunately, as the series continued and the mythology grew more elaborate, the Umbrella Corporation morphed from a simple capitalistic enterprise to a sinister organization determined to do evil for its own sake. The most significant jump in this direction was Code Veronica, which revealed Umbrella was partially owned by a dynasty of sadistic maniacs. Resident Evil Zero pushed this trend even farther, making Umbrella seem more like a cabal of sorcerers than an actual corporation. With Umbrella's motivations sinking ever further into the fantastic, the notion that they were a company with clients (one of which was the U.S.) sank into the background and finally disappeared completely. In the end Umbrella was the villain, not unchecked capitalism... which would have been a lot scarier if you ask me.

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