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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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11/22/2004 Archived Entry: "Resident Evil: Genesis"

Resident Evil: Genesis
By Keith R Decandido
Publisher: Pocket Books

Review by William Wentworth-Sheilds

Resident Evil: Genesis is the novelization of the first Resident Evil movie. When the movie first came out, it was (rightly) dismissed as a dim, thin, loud, bad action movie with zombies. No doubt the pitch went something like: “Imagine Aliens, with none of the tension, grace, charisma, and humor ... but with zombies!” RE: Genesis actually adds a little depth to the movie, especially in the first half. But it isn't enough. Not nearly enough.

The Resident Evil franchise (called Biohazard in Japan) is a very typically Japanese effort at cultural and technological blending. It was paired with the first (successful) home videogame console (pay no mind to the CDi's and SegaCD's gathering dust, and bankruptcy notices, in the corner) to use optical media as the medium for its games, giving game developers for home consoles their first real opportunity to create games with the kind of graphic detail, and length as those made for desktop personal computers. PC game developers had access to hard drives and CD-ROMS, allowing for lush, polished games like Myst, and Seventh Guest. They may or may not have been particularly good games, but there was no denying they looked darn nice, and sold millions upon millions of copies.

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), and other home consoles of the same generation could support long games, with very deep gameplay; but they used cartridges as their storage medium, and the longer, more beautiful the game, the more memory was needed, and the more expensive the cartridge became to manufacture. CDs were orders of magnitude cheaper, effectively ending the memory bottleneck. Enter the Sony Playstation.

Games created for the Playstation, released in 1996, the same year as the first Resident Evil game, could feature the kind of graphics that before then could only be experienced on a desktop computer. With less computational heft than PCs, loading screens were required for many games, in order to stream the data off of the CD. It was considered a worthwhile trade-off. The RE series employed one of the cleverest loading screens: as players advanced, the time required to load the next room or area of the game was filled with a scene of a door opening. Rather than distracting players, it built a sense of anticipation for what would be found the next screen over. Even as the series has been remade and expanded for faster, more capable videogame consoles, like the Sega Dreamcast, and the Nintendo Gamecube, it has retained the convention of displaying a door opening to segment, and pace the player's experience of the game, and heighten the suspense.

RE looked like a PC adventure game, with densely detailed, colorful backgrounds, and well animated characters rendered using geometric shapes to give them dimension and heft. It played like a twitch-action game; players had to solve puzzles, explore their surroundings, and advance the story, all while shooting zombies, mutated dogs and birds, and boss monsters. Or, lacking ammunition, run from all of the above, searching for weapons and devices that would even the odds. Biohazard/RE was an incredible success, and made the director of the game, Shinji Mikami a household name in Japan, where videogame developers are regarded as famous movie directors and producers are here in America. Since the first game, many, many derivative sequels, ports, and repackaged "special" editions have been produced. All of them feature variations on the elements of the first game: tank-like controls for moving your character around the screen, dodging and fighting the undead, the undead and assorted minions of the, er, undead, a healthy smattering of set-pieces designed to startle players with enemies jumping through windows, from the ceiling, out of ventilation shafts, etc, absolutely god-awful cinematics, painful dialog, and wonderfully mangled engrish.

It's pretty easy to picture Paul Anderson, the director of the first RE movie, and screenwriter of both, sifting through and discarding most of the convoluted backstory that knits the various games together. Unfortunately, the new material that's intended to make the movie accessible to people who've never played the games loses much of the sweaty, over-heated charm of the series. Ironically enough, in the videogame, the action drives the story; players kill zombies, clear rooms, solve puzzles in order to trigger cinematics that feature dialog, and advance the story. As painful as the dialog is, no matter how wooden the voice acting, nonsensical as the story might be, advancing through the game is measured not in carnage, but by uncovering the story. In the movies, the opposite is the case; the dialog and story is endured in order to reach the next scene of explosive, kinetic carnage and destruction.

The movie, like the first game, begins in a large, seemingly abandoned mansion, and introduces a new character, Alice. Alice, played by the inscrutable and grouchy Milla Jovovich, wakes from unconsciousness, having completely lost her memory. She doesn't know how she ended up where she is, and is floored by the presence of wedding pictures on top of and high-powered pistols in the bottom drawer of "her" dresser, as well as the night-vision wearing commandos smashing through the windows into a cavernous, marble-festooned foyer. This isn't a terrible start, and it mirrors, in its way, the mentality of the average videogame player holding the controller, manual untouched, waiting for the game to tell them what to do, where to point their gun.

Videogames, good ones, structure the experience of the player in several ways. There's the incentive to open new “cut scenes”, but that's (hopefully) only the beginning. Most typically, there's a learning curve where players are introduced to gameplay techniques, and then given a tasks to perform that involve chaining together a series of those techniques. To start, a player might run away from a zombie, pick up a gun in the next room, go to the next room, equip and aim the gun at a new zombie, and then shoot until it ceases to move and a pool of blood forms on the floor under its body (then realize that you have no bullets left, and realize that you'll be spending a lot of time running ...). In practice, this curve often resembles a staircase, as players master some techniques, clear a set of tasks, and are then challenged to learn more techniques, and perform more elaborate tasks. These usually involve subtle variations of the preceding iteration, such as learning to aim your gun toward the ground, causing the zombie to stumble, enabling the player to run past the momentarily disabled enemy. As the player becomes more proficient, the game introduces new challenges.

The movie largely ignores this element of the franchise. Alice may not remember her name, but she can kick the shit out of anything that moves, regardless. We (and she) are told straight off what the mansion is, who she is (an elaborate facade on top of a vast underground bioweapons laboratory, and head of security, respectively), and the movie abandons forthwith it's most interesting and enigmatic set in favor of gleaming, intermittently illuminated corridors, offices, and vaguely “scientific” rooms. The original game was much more intimate in scale, and players spent the first half of the game (many ... many hours) exploring the mansion that occupies perhaps the first seven minutes of the movie. This largely involved key “fetch” quests, exploring for items that would open new rooms to explore. Clearly not something that would translate well to a fast-paced action movie. Given that it's a terrible action movie, it might have been worth a shot to make a movie that actually built upon the experience of someone playing the game, showing Alice isolated, having to improvise weapons and plans to elude the zombies that have overrun the mansion and blocked her escape, and in the process peeling away at the mystery of how the zombies came to life. Instead, she spends most of the movie as a somewhat passive member of a team of largely inert muscle-heads that are armed to the teeth.

This may well have been making a virtue of necessity, given the limitations of the Playstation's computational prowess, but the RE series has never emphasized cutting down hundreds of enemies with massive firepower, Dawn of the Dead-style. It has always been paced more existentially and deliberately. One of the most fearsome bosses, a horrific, hunched creature, her arms shackled together with an enormous block of metal that she uses to tremendous effect as a mace, is named “Lisa,” and turns out to be the daughter of the architect of the mansion, George Trevor. She was infected with a virus that turned her into the creature the player fights. The founders of Umbrella Corp., who comissioned the building of the mansion, trapped George in a maze in the basement, where he starves to death. The player finds scattered remnants of his anguished notes, and letters from Lisa to him throughout the mansion. There are also diaries written from the point of view of grunts working in the lab who have been accidentally exposed to bioweapons that depict them slowly losing their sanity, and humanity. The prose is decidedly purple, but the games recognize, in ways the movie is oblivious to, that the zombies are objects of fascination, the one thing that players can actively interact with, and tries to serve that need. RE was a technological milestone, to be sure, but it wanted very much to be a serious contribution to Japan's ... extensive ... cultural reckoning with the folly of playing God. Can't imagine where they picked up that obsession.

One of the most evocative examples of this sensibility can be found in one of the innumerable games inspired by RE, Forbidden Siren. Actually, the commercial, advertising it to the Japanese market is probably more interesting than anything in the game itself. It featured a young girl knocking at the window of a house looking in over her shoulder, and then cuts to her parents inside who are stricken with horror. We then cut back and see that the girl is a zombie. RE: Genesis, to its credit, uses this device in structuring the first half of its narrative. One of the major characters in the book only appears as a zombie in the film; we learn more about her, and her relationship to her brother (one of the living characters), and something of the texture of working for Umbrella, the company that is at the root of the evil in Resident Evil. As the movie devolves into a desperately monotonous series of chase and fight scenes, the book succumbs to the limitations of its source, going as far as to reprint, verbatim, entire passages to pad the book to its 277 page length, as well as injecting an incredible amount of spectacularly awful sex talk. No sex, just a whole lot of mouth breathing about how damn sexy everyone is. Sigh. Coulda, shoulda been so much more.

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