Resident Evil is an incredible series. While recent incarnations may have shed much of what I loved of the original’s slow paced B-movie horror styling, they have continued to enthrall me. But Resident Evil 6’s three-pronged campaign has solidified a niggling trend in the series. It isn’t the move away from traditional horror to cover based shooter, or even the replacement of ‘real’ zombies by a variety of increasingly odd mutations, no, it’s that women no longer take ‘alpha’ roles.
As a franchise Resident Evil has for the most part been fairly balanced about it lead protagonists. The first two games saw a split 50:50 between the sexes, with each gender facing similar challenges. True the first game saw Jill relying on Barry’s brawn at points while Chris needed Rebecca’s more intellectual talents, with similar gender divides maintained in the second, but despite these lazy stereotypes the split felt fair.
Resident Evil 3 leaned even further into its female leads, with Jill Valentine acting as the sole lead as she escaped Raccoon City. Here, Jill managed to survive the collapse of civilisation around her almost single-handed. She could have been better dressed for a zombie apocalypse to be sure, but for a character caught unawares of the oncoming zombie outbreak Jill was portrayed as being capable of dealing with any situation she was presented with, even in a short skirt.
Various other titles in the series followed a similar narrative styling, but the release of Resident Evil 4 saw a real change in pace. A new game engine meant a massive change in the style of gameplay and also, as a result of this change, in the personality of series veteran Leon Kennedy. Suddenly Capcom’s portrayal of Leon shifts from well-trained cop, to almost superhuman.
This shift in character tone is rooted in the new play style. Over the shoulder third-person action shooters do not lend themselves well to co-dependence, co-operation yes, dependence no. To remove the focus from Leon and suggest he needs help (for any length of time) by introducing a split narrative would disempower him, destroying the power fantasy.
With RE3 and RE4 splitting the starting genders between each other, the real test for the series direction lay with Resident Evil 5. While it tried to split the difference, RE5’s focus on Chris Redfield (of RE1), left the new female ‘lead’ Sheva Alomar feeling at best a poor second choice. Sheva’s diminished importance due to being the new character was further undermined by her useless AI in single player, leaving her vilified by players as dead weight. All this while Chris played the hero in his battle with old nemesis Wesker, again casting the male in a considerably more empowered role.
The announcement of Resident Evil 6 came with the promise of three complete stories. This had me anticipating the series returning to its roots, and focusing solely on the stars of the original games, bringing back Jill or/and Claire. Instead Capcom have again focused on men, going as far as creating the new Jack Muller to take the third lead position. Women still to feature as partner characters, but they do not take the main stage as they once so readily did.
It is an upsetting turn of events because there was a time when the women felt like the series real focus. So iconic were the women of the game that when Paul W. Anderson came create the movie spin-offs women have consistently been the most empowered characters, even ignoring the Milla Jovovich character.
It would be unfair to solely blame Capcom for this trend. While they have arguably abandoned an artistic direction in favour of mass appeal, they are just a company out to make money. It is the focus testers and we, the audience, which have really dictated this change and turned RE into a generic empowerment fantasy.
This is not itself a bad thing, both RE4 and RE5 were fantastic games, but they did not retain the feel of the earlier games. I always felt that despite Resident Evil’s tacky writing and plot, Capcom had intended something more… grounded. Stories about capable people who found themselves in exceptional circumstances, as in any good zombie fiction. Now it seems, I have to concede that Resident Evil is just another muscle bound action game, albeit wrapped with a bow that keeps it close to my heart.