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Josh Tolentino avatar 2:25 PM on 03.13.2009
RE5 Could Have Aimed Higher. Too Bad It Didn't.


I've said before that the crew at Crispy Gamer are probably the most dissatisfied game writers in the world. The silver lining is that they try their hardest to elevate the discourse to a higher level, something that needs to be done if we're ever going to expect games to be more culturally relevant. It's kind of disappointing to see their comment threads riddled with simpleminded accusations that they're just doing it for attention.

I write this in light of Scott Jones' evisceration of the game. It made me almost regret putting up this post, horny idiot that I am.

You should read the review for yourselves, but to provide context I'll summarize a bit here. Scott takes great issue with RE5's subhuman portrayal of Chris and Sheva's African enemies. The natives of Kijuju are constantly portrayed as exotic "others". Chris and even Sheva share almost no common context with them besides being in the same geographical space. Sheva barely looks like her fellows, having lighter skin, better equipment, and much more posh clothing.

Just by reading the above, you can tell that this isn't any common review. It touches on issues which will undoubtedly go unacknowledged by many, in favor of STFUAJPG. Of course, they aren't necessarily wrong to do so. A game is meant to be played, and as such can be enjoyed (or despised) on as many levels as its players are willing to do.

Then again, it's not as if Resident Evil games have tried to be anything more than simple entertainment. They were making a game, not a point, after all. But that's what the game isn't, not what it is. You can't really blame Capcom for not doing something it didn't want to do. I suppose I'm just sad that they didn't bother to try this time around, either.

However, I don't quite share in Scott's outrage over the game's use of Africans, in part because of the above, but also because I felt different emotions as I pumped ammunition into their faces.

Perhaps this is because I operate from a different perspective. I grew up in a racially homogeneous society, relatively free of the historical tensions that have shaped the relationships between Africa and the various colonial powers that have abused her.

All the same, I'd like to think I'm not stupid, and that people aren't stupid (not all of them at any rate). I don't think RE5 is actively trying to advance the agenda of any particular racial group. It merely manipulates its chosen stereotypes and exploits their exotic qualities. That might be bad enough as it is, but it's not done with malicious intent. I don't think anyone in their right mind would make assumptions about Africa or its people based on its portrayals in a videogame. Whether this speaks towards our favorite hobby's maturity as an artform is a different question entirely.

Resident Evil 5 was designed in ignorance of the emotional and historical subtexts that can be gleaned by its players. It seems that Capcom is championing the newly global nature of gaming more as a business decision than a creative one.



But rather than feel offended at how the game seems to portray the people of Kijuju (Kijujuans?) as less than human, I feel pity for them. I feel sad for the society that has been consumed in its entirety by La Plaga, its citizens robbed totally of their dignity and humanity, leaving them shells of meat (and tentacles) ugly and hostile. The jackass attitude of Chris and the disconnect between Sheva and those she ostensibly would connect with don't quite help with the empathy-building, but I feel the same things for these African zombies that I might feel towards a family left destitute thanks to Bernard Madoff (except without the "Oh Christ they're going to eat me," part).

Perhaps more selfishly, I also feel a kind of "sucks to be them" thankfulness. Being a well-equipped super-agent, it is a sort of callous self-pity. "Now I'm gonna have to shoot these poor bastards, them-or-me."

Is that attitude I've drawn any more or less offensive? To someone it probably is. Is this what Capcom was really going for when they put the game together? Somehow I doubt that. Our interpretations of meaning from games too often come as a side effect of our personal history and the filter through which we view life, rather than by intended design.

All things considered, I don't hold it against Resident Evil. And unlike Scott, I don't believe this ignorance is especially common to Japanese game design alone. There are more than enough games on both sides of the ocean to scupper that notion. Should we only make "PC" games, then? Are there subjects that are off-limits?

Of course not. The caveat, though, is that the onus is on developers and publishers to be aware of the wider cultural context into which they release a game, and if necessary, to make very clear their own intentions, particularly with such a sensitive topic.

This isn't absolutely necessary. Resident Evil 5's insensitivity won't make its set-piece battles less tension-filled or its play less exciting. Cultural ignorance won't make it a worse game, but it certainly damages any attempts to make it anything more than that.

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