Thursday, April 17, 2008

Resident Evil 5: More Thoughts And Your E-Mail

I want to thank you guys for the intelligent, thoughtful e-mail you sent me about the Resident Evil 5 trailer.

By far, the most common question was "So if that trailer was racist, how could Capcom have done it differently?" That's a fair question, very fair, and I thought about that for a few hours yesterday.

What I think Capcom entirely missed in the trailer was the opportunity to make us feel real fear. Yes, the first 90 seconds, from a cinematic viewpoint, was powerfully done, but as soon as the trailer focuses on the mobs, the last minute was totally repetitive.

Plus, this is Resident Evil. Do we need to see any gameplay? Don't we all know how this series works? In a trailer, aren't they just trying to establish a mood?

So here's what they could have done.

In the opening of the trailer, they still show the village, and they still show people walking around, but these people aren't threatening in any way. They're having fun, laughing and smiling. Most importantly, they're relaxed.

It's a safe, happy place.

In a back room, though, an attack is taking place. Two of the infected are killing a man (in particular, we see a bite), and when they're done, they sit and watch the body. In a few seconds, it begins to twitch.

Think about the process of becoming a zombie. Living flesh and blood, freshly killed, must reanimate. How incredibly painful must that process be? And since this new virus is incredibly rapid, it happens in less than thirty seconds, an entire physical transformation.

It's agony. It's incomprehensible agony. And we watch it, and we hear him scream.

Then we cut back to the main street of the village on another day, one in the near future. Now, Chris Redfield looks down main street, but no one is there. All he sees is dust and the relentless sun.

Just like the Wild West.

He begins to walk, slowly (his gear jangling like spurs), and then he hears a scream. And another. And another. It's a cacophany of agony as villagers turn into zombies, but he can't see any of them. He can't see anyone.

We see the dust beginning to blow even harder, then shadows. As Redfield looks up, he sees storm clouds, and then a hard rain begins to fall. We see lightning and hear the crashing thunder.
But we can still hear the screams.

That's when the trailer ends.

There are all kinds of ways you could shuffle those images around, but the central element of the trailer is not the mob--it's the unbearable agony of becoming a zombie. And the people in village are the innocents. They're not ominous. They're victims.

Do the trailer that way and Chris Redfield isn't going in to fight a bunch of black mobs who are portrayed as disturbingly sub-human--he's fighting the horror, the unspeakable horror, of men who are undead.

I think that's much more dramatic, much more frightening, and much more effective. And it clearly establishes the populace as victims.

So that's how they might have done the trailer differently, yet still stayed faithful to the theme of the series. It removes the malevolance and replaces it with fear, which I think is a far more powerful emotion. But I still maintain that the zombies need to be more easily distinguished from the uninfected.

This week has made me think about the Jim Crow era and how few people today could even partially explain what that time was like. That, to me, is a great sadness, because that era speaks so deeply to what it means to be human. It asks fundamental questions about our character, questions that all of us, even today, must answer.

Some of the questions are angry. That doesn't mean they don't need to be asked.

So I was thinking about this, and thinking about the impact that games have had on our culture, and I remembered something I'd written about years ago. I think it still matters, and I'd like to mention it again.

Perhaps the most difficult feeling to gain from a study of the Jim Crow era is closeness. It's not distant history, really, but forty years in our accelerated world feels like a long, long time. We can read facts, and those facts can make us feel, but they can't create immersion, and real immersion would create a much greater sense of empathy.

You could, however, do that in a game.

Create a mod for the Source engine, for example. Recreate a Southern city in 1960. It's important to use actual photographs from that period as a guide, because this isn't intended to be propaganda--it's history. It would be a meticulous simulation of what it was like to be black and live in a small southern town during the Jim Crow.

The Source engine is first person, so we would be seeing that era through our own eyes. We'd experience the segregation ourselves. We would suffer countless indignities, both large and small, in the course of a normal day. We would also, on occasion, see kindness.

There are a wealth of source materials available to accurately recreate this period. As an example, we might see a newspaper from that period, and we would be reading the same stories. I think many people are unaware of the sheer hatred that existed in much of the Southern press during this period, particularly after the Brown v. Board of Education SCOTUS decision in 1954. Well, this is a chance to experience it--first hand.

The most poignant anecdote I've ever read about racism involved a young boy and his friend. The boy was ten years old, and black. His friend was ten years old, and white.

One day in summer, the friends decided to go swimming, and the white boy took him to swim at "his" pool. The black boy was allowed entry, and the friends began swimming.

One by one, the white parents began pulling their children out of the pool.

Within fifteen minutes, the boy and his friend were the only ones left.

A historical simulation that allowed us to feel that moment would be a service to us all.

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