The Evolving Narrative and Horror of the ‘Resident Evil’ Series [‘Resident Evil’ at 25]

Resident Evil Village looks nothing short of haunting. Few details are known about the story at this point besides the return of Resident Evil 7 Biohazard’s Ethan and Mia, along with the iconic Chris Redfield (who may or may not be a villain). Upon the initial trailer for Village, I was instantly hooked; the cold atmosphere filled me with dread while also fueling my curiosity for what horrors were in store. 

But that first trailer and the follow up cinematic prompted a question in my mind – What is Resident Evil now? 

If you were to ask six or ten year old me to explain what Resident Evil was at the time, I’d say something like – “It’s a zombie game with different types of monsters and takes place in a creepy mansion.” A few years later, if I were to be asked about the second and third installments in the franchise, I’d say they’re similar experiences to the first. From Resident Evil two to three, the franchise displayed bits of growth, incorporating different types of creatures and expanding the game setting little by little. Most noticeably perhaps is the action approach Resident Evil 3 offered, with gamers running and blasting away at Nemesis.

Now to some, labeling those first few Resident Evil titles as “zombie games” may be too vague; to be fair, from game one, Resident Evil has been upfront with its narrative regarding the corrupt Umbrella Corporation. Whereas the first Resident Evil introduces this story point, with the second adding some additional context through new characters, the third entry brings nothing major to the lore (minus the destruction of Racoon City). Code Veronica and Resident Evil 0 bring some interesting new characters to the table, but not much otherwise to the overall story. Along with the game’s use of zombies, Resident Evil has always involved a bio-horror focus (whether it be monsters or other forms of bioterrorism). One could argue that this is the main concept at work throughout the franchise. 

The first three Resident Evil games play out like George Romero films, with one lone protagonist (working with a small group), striving to survive an evening of terror. The bio-monster angle is prominent throughout all the games, but the corporate conspiracy narrative dips and rises in focus over the course of each entry. Part of this is because of Resident Evil 4 and how much it diverts from past titles before it. Not only did this game make for the franchise’s biggest shift in gameplay, but also narrative. 

There’s still the mutant creatures, but now the iconic T-Virus has been replaced; now it is the Las Plagas, and there’s an element of vagueness as to how this virus is connected to Umbrella and past events. Furthermore, there’s the game’s tonal shift. With minor similarities to Resident Evil 3 (e.g. the action-oriented gameplay), the atmospheric presence and narrative are different. The player will stumble through a creepy castle during their playtime, but the distant, European landscape establishes a new and fresh mood compared to the closed-off innards of a mansion or that of a city thrown into chaos. Up to this point in the franchise, many were accustomed to the Umbrella storyline and zombie component of the games. Resident Evil 4 isn’t a continuation of this narrative though – it is more of an expansion. Resident Evil 4 brings up new questions for fans to mull over – With these new events, virus and characters, what do they mean for future titles?

Resident Evil’s fifth and sixth main entries place emphasis on action-driven gameplay, opting for environments where one can pump away with different weaponry. Story-wise, they make a return to the wild corporate conspiracies of Umbrella, but each also represents an identity crisis for the franchise (regarding gameplay and presentation). Some have noted frustration with these games for the tremendous lack of survival horror, as both titles play out more like a Gears of War game. However, Biohazard not only made for an awesome return to survival horror, but also flipped the script on narrative approach. 

Biohazard is more of the old creeping tension, as traveling down corridor after corridor leaves one on edge as to what may appear (or what’s following them). Umbrella and the origin of game-related bio-monstrosities are briefly hinted at, with exposition coming across as vague for the most part. Along with its phenomenal gameplay, Biohazard’s presentation is equally impressive. The Baker family makes for fascinating antagonists, given how their minimal appearance allows for startling horror when they finally track the player down. And while I’m a huge fan of the Bakers and their creepiness, I think a large element that works in their favor is the environment and tone of Biohazard.

Where fans have ventured through abandoned mansions, creepy laboratories, city streets, African and European villages, Biohazard immerses the player in a southern gothic setting. Again, we see a brand-new Resident Evil pulling inspiration from its past (the Baker house being similar to Resident Evil’s mansion). Coming into this experience, however, there are an abundance of questions – how exactly do the Baker’s fit into the whole Resident Evil narrative? Is Umbrella involved?

Pulling inspiration from such works like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the gameplay has a drawl to it; the atmospheric mood is meant to exude dread. This presentation also works to further fuel the mystery of the narrative and expand upon the schemes and bioweaponry surrounding Umbrella. Through minimal context and exposition, lines begin to form connecting the events of the game to the grander Resident Evil universe; the player learns how the Bakers came to become monsters, as well as their connection to Eveline and her connection to Umbrella. The game not only further expands upon the franchise’s narrative, but it also provides a new shade of Resident Evil.

Though Capcom is guilty of dealing out action-adventure after adventure with high octane adrenaline and plots with generic sinister corporate plans, they’ve also introduced fascinating new depth to these games. Particularly through Resident Evil 4 and Biohazard, these games introduce exciting new flavors to the Resident Evil world, opting to tread new narrative paths, tones, and blends of horror. 

Returning to that thought of how I would have described Resident Evil back in the 90s, that initial answer would not fly at all today. Additionally, I couldn’t even say that these games are just about an evil corporation and viral outbreaks. These story components are still present, but they’ve been altered to provide new layers to the Resident Evil lore. 

With Village, Capcom appears to be returning to a European setting similar to Resident Evil 4; but yet, the familiarity is once again warped. There is a great gothic appeal throughout the two trailers for Village that stirs an air of fascination alongside those werewolf-looking creatures. There also appears to be a folklore element teased at (in the second trailer where Mia is telling Ethan a story about a little girl in the woods). In what ways may this creepy tale have to do with Village’s story? And with the hints of cult-like activity, there also appears to be an element of something militaristic involving Chris Redfield. As Resident Evil fans, gamers are once again made to wonder how this new setting, characters, and presentation tie into the franchise. 

Besides being excited about this new game because it’s Resident Evil, I’m also excited to see where Resident Evil’s future is heading. There has always been so much potential for these games to encapsulate an even grander array of horror; their niche in bio/zombie-related horror is very much appreciated and effective, but those outside-the-box narratives offer intrigue and excitement for all the other stories that could be told. Considering where the games began and seeing how they’ve evolved – Resident Evil has come to represent a variety of horrors and could very well continue to grow.

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