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The Death of Survival Horror

It's tough to say, but I think I actually prefer the story of Resident Evil 4 to Resident Evil 5. Yes, I know how that sounds. RE5's story is, in a lot of ways, much better than RE4's. It's far less cheesy and far more coherent. But... well, I suppose it comes down to the fact that RE4 at least didn't reduce the entire series to a Michael Bay movie. RE4 eventually became like an idiotic action movie, of course, but only near the end... and even then it in no way reflected on the rest of the series because the plot was essentially self-contained. RE5, on the other hand, does a good job of giving the franchise a sense of closure, but the sort of closure it gives is pretty underwhelming. So everything--the whole saga--was just a build up to Wesker's doomsday plan... and that all ended when Chris shot him in the face with a rocket launcher? Yay. I guess... I guess that's the end of Resident Evil. And I only waited 13 years for it.

I imagine most people would wonder how someone could care about the overarching storyline of Resident Evil, and for good reason. It's inane and moronic, and I wonder myself why it bugs me when it is especially bad, as in the case of RE5. My guess is that I had such a powerful experience with the first two games--before the backstory became silly--that I still harbor some frustrated fascination with the narrative possibilities of the franchise, though they have been repeatedly unrealized. I'm not naive enough to hope each new game will satisfy me, but for some reason I never tire of charting the ever expanding, Byzantine stupidity of the storyline, as well as noting whatever flickers of inspiration it may have along the way.

RE5, to my astonishment, made me miss RE4, mostly my virtue of how seriously it took itself. I guess Japanese developers are beginning to get really good at making games for Western audiences, which is depressing. RE5, with the possible exception of Wesker, is almost indistinguishable from a Hollywood action film. Chris and most of the other characters are so goddamn sober you get the feeling that the game is taking itself way too seriously. RE4, by comparison, has a lot more tell-tale signs of Japanese-ness. The story in RE4 was moronic Hollywood pap as well, but its Hollywood tone was undercut at several moments when you could see the playfulness of the designers winking through. The way Leon could sit in Saddler's throne, the hilarious laser hallway sequence, the skirt gags with Ashley, the giant clockwork Salazaar... all these things made it feel less like a Hollywood movie and more like a Japanese distortion of a Hollywood movie. In RE5, unfortunately, it seems like they've finally gotten it right. It feels like a real Hollywood movie, with none of that weird cultural dissonance that normally makes Japanese games interesting. It doesn't feel playful design-wise like RE4 did. It is dead-fucking-serious about giving kids reared on Gears of War and Halo exactly what they want and expect: wave after wave after wave of dudes to shoot, giant bosses to kill, and an uber-macho hero.

I never thought RE4 could seem subtle or reflective, but it is by comparison to RE5's stripping away of every element that didn't fit the design paradigm of Western multi-player co-op games. Virtually every screen in RE5 is a variation on the same concept--fight off hoards of enemies in an arena-like map--whereas RE4 had a lot more variety in its level design. It had long stretches where you were alone, being hunted by just one enemy, bits where you just explored, and even parts where you played as Ashley and could not use weapons. And RE4 was still what I'd call an over-the-top action game. It apparently wasn't action enough for RE5, however, which pulls out all stops, dispenses with all variation, and gives you head-popping hysteria from beginning to end. Given the fact that the main protagonist is now a steroid-guzzling meat head, rather than a slim pretty boy, I suppose this is all just part of the same cultural shift.

Of course, it's not unusual for Japanese games to harbor a fetish for Hollywood action cinema. Resident Evil has had it since the very beginning, but it was always redeemed somewhat by its total failure to be what it obviously wanted to be. The series was always at its best when combining the colorful characters of anime/manga with the apocalyptic horrors of George Romero. It was always at its worst when attempting to imitate Michael Bay and cater to the action market. In RE4 Michael Bay seemed to be on the offensive, but there was still a lot to like about the series. In RE5, however, the transformation is complete, rendering the series dead to anyone who ever loved it for its odd combination of Japanese character design and storytelling and the existential terror of Western zombie cinema.

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