Unraveling Anthologies

A review of Unraveling Resident Evil

Betsy Brey is a PhD student studying game narrative, mechanics, and gamification at the University of Waterloo. She is the essay section editor at First Person Scholar, a pretty cool games studies site. She spends too much time playing RPGs and obsessing over horror games, Dragon Age, rogue-likes, and TwitchPlaysPokemon.

Over the past few years on listservs, social media, and at conferences, I’ve seen more calls for anthologies focusing on a single game rather than a theme. Single-topic anthologies are common enough outside of game studies, but this does indicate a certain level of canonization (which has been traditionally resisted) occurring in the field. Rather than canonization, it might instead reveal there’s simply enough media within a game franchise to permit the collection of its scholarly work, but that does not guarantee the organization of that collection makes sense. When I pick up an anthology, I have specific intentions and expectations. Arguably, the role of an anthology is to present works within a particular theme and hopefully, to reveal a line of argumentation uniting those works; anthologies, for all the eye rolls they may earn from some readers, have a distinctly important role in introducing, continuing, and archiving critical conversations in a given theme or argument. Is “related to a single franchise or title” a cohesive enough string to hold together the focused line of reasoning I’ve come to expect from an anthology?

I recently read Unraveling Resident Evil: Essays on the Complex Universe of the Games and Films, published in 2014 by McFarland & Company, Inc. as part of their Contributions to Zombie Studies series. There is no doubt Resident Evil is a significant franchise across media—we’ve had a new Resident Evil game title almost every year for almost a decade, and a sixth movie is scheduled for release in 2017. As the games and films only occasionally intersect in terms of plot, characters, and settings, the world we see painted based off this transmedia landscape is quite complex. Perhaps a little too complex for a single anthology.

Unraveling Resident Evil in summary

Unraveling Resident Evil offers a wide spread of theoretical approaches to the Resident Evil franchise. According to the editor, Nadine Farghaly, this book seeks to “examine Resident Evil in literature, games, and other media through the theoretical frameworks of sexuality, gender, social change and feminism, among others.” (1). This is no small task, given the vast number of games, films, books, and comics inspired by the 1996 game. Because of this, the book’s material can feel highly compressed—beneficial to those of us who are familiar with the ongoing discussions about zombies in film and/or game studies. However, to those of us who aren’t, this compression can inhibit readers’ ability to engage with all the chapters.

This is not to say that you need to be an expert in the role of zombies in game studies, film studies, and adaptation studies to find value in this book. Instead, Unraveling Resident Evil supplies readers with a close inspection of the franchise from many possible angles. But, it is entirely up to the reader to find which of those angles pertain to which topic. The first essay, which traditionally sets up the tone and argument of the collection as a whole, Tanya Carnae Pell Jones’ “From Necromancy to the Necrotrophic: Resident Evil’s Influence on the Zombie Origin Shift from Supernatural to Science,”made it seem as if the anthology was about zombies as a whole and how Resident Evil impacted our cultural understanding of zombies. This is a fascinating point and an argument worth consideration, but it also indicates a line of argumentation that the anthology does not deliver.

After the introduction and first essay,  I knew that I was not the ideal audience for this particular collection, as I was only interested in the games, but I wasn’t sure where to begin. There did not seem to be any kind of organizational method behind the placement of the essays in the collection. As I read and took notes, I found myself organizing materials by media types, so I will structure the remainder of this review using the same method, first discussing the chapters on the films, then on the games.

Approaching the Resident Evil Films

The main focus of the anthology is on the film franchise’s protagonist , Alice. She is a unique and fascinating character—not to mention a female action lead. The book features six pieces specifically on Alice, including essays about Alice as a feminist (Aiken); a posthuman figure (Collins); a sexual abuse survivor (Stone); a symbol questioning ethical science (Larsen); a vessel of “Alice-ness” (Priest); and memory (Bacon). These explorations of Alice are as varied and complicated as the character, but the placement of the essays was equally complicated: spread out over the anthology rather than collected together. I would have had an easier time focusing on the critical examinations of Alice if they were organized in a way that allowed me to focus on her before moving on to another topic, preferably with introductions between sections by the editor.

In spite of the anthology’s confusing organization, the essays themselves were interesting and well-researched.  As someone who studies games, narrative, and rhetoric, I personally enjoyed Susan E. Aiken’s examination of rhetorical silences in the first Resident Evil film. In “The Strong, Silent Type,” Aiken argues that Alice’s lack of dialogue is productive rather than oppressive, stating silences are a “resistance to dominant power structures or defiance of expectations and social-political constraints” (81), developing her character and strength through actions rather than words. There are a huge number of silent protagonists in games. However, a female protagonist in film can be perceived very differently from her catch-phrase wielding, one-liner masculine action-hero peers.  Framed in the beginning of the film as a victim, Alice’s silence throughout the movie acts as a survival strategy and method of control.  This kind of analysis of a lead role in an action film would be fascinating to see expanded into other examples and franchises2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road comes to mind.

Approaching the Resident Evil Games

Where the essays on the films seemed to have a slightly more focused thread of argumentation, I struggled to connect the game-focused essays thematically, aside from the fact they’re on similar games. Considering their widespread popularity and notoriety, it was surprising to see so little focus on the games within the anthology. After all, Resident Evil games are equally well-known for their poorly delivered dialogue as they are for standardizing the biohazard zombie and its rise to fame in popular culture that allowed the film franchise to flourish and expand in the first place.  In “Why They Keep Coming Back,” Adam M. Crowley applies narrative theory from Barthes, Genette, and Todorov to supplement Žižek’s concept of cyber-liberation, all in the note-worthy mission of explaining why it is, as players, we keep doing exactly that—coming back to Resident Evil games in spite of all their cringe-worthy flaws that we love to hate. The wonky camera angles, the nonsensical inventory system, and yes, that horrible dialogue; any of these could ruin a game, but not Resident Evil. By approaching the question in terms of narrative theory, Crowley repositions the oddities of the games from design flaws to components of an impactful narrative. He draws this conclusion by looking more at the reception of Resident Evil games than at the content, a rhetorical structure that  brings external perspectives into a close analysis of the gameplay itself.

A similarly interdisciplinary approach is seen in “The Woman in the Red Dress: Sexuality, Femmes Fatales, the Gaze and Ada Wong” by Jenny Platz. Expanding on Yvonne Tasker’s definition of the femme fatale character-type in film, this essay examines Wong’s portrayal in both the games and in the films, arguing Wong is the “ultimate incarnation” (118) of a 1940s/1950s femme fatale due to her ability to shift gaze, her control of her body beyond sexualization, and most importantly, her refusal to disappear. Wong breaks the rules of the patriarchal systems in the Resident Evil universe and does not suffer the consequences typically felt by femmes fatales; she “has a future, where the other femmes fatales only have an end” (119). The argument is fascinating and well-researched, though the majority of her sources are based in film studies which she then connects to games.

While the two aforementioned essays share similar methodologies (theory from disciplines brought into close-analysis of particular game elements/characters), they do not share a larger argumentative thread within the anthology. The other essays in the anthology vary dramatically in scope, argument, and conclusions in addition to methodology. Brok Holmquest’s essay, “Survival Horror, Metaculture, and the Fluidity of Video Game Genres” examines the evolution of Resident Evil games and makes a larger argument about the zombie genre as a whole, noting the genre’s rise to popularity, its oversaturation of the market around 2003, and how Resident Evil “completely reinvented” the genre again in 2005 (71). This kind of wide-perspective analysis varies drastically from the kind of cultural-contextual/close analysis combo seen in Nicolas J. LaLone’s “Chris Redfield and the Curious Case of Wesker’s Sunglasses.” This essay “pursue[s] this clash of fantasy and reality through the thin veil of a court case” (141),  balancing real-world cultural impacts by taking a theory-based inspection of what real-world ideology does in Resident Evil 5, beyond the initial controversy. The unique framing of the argument aside, its claim draws a very different kind of conclusion than other game-centred essays in the anthology.

But then again, all the game essays seem to only have Resident Evil in common and not a wider thematic or argumentative thread. Had I read them in another circumstance, in journals or games publications, I would not be left reeling. But without an organizational or argumentative theme to connect them, the pieces feel scattered and disconnected; it was, bizarrely enough, at times difficult to remember they were all about Resident Evil games because I was so caught up in trying to connect the larger thematic dots. And that is a problem.   

Approaching the Resident Evil Anthology

This review began with a question: if we accept that anthologies should have a cohesive argument made through multiple essays on a similar theme, then where does that leave essay collections on a single game without a main theme? On this account, I have mixed feelings. The film-focused essays have a more cohesive argument throughout due to their focus on Alice as a character. However, the scattershot organization of the anthology made it difficult to connect the common threads the film essays presented. The game-focused essays were even more loosely connected, making arguments on many different levels from metagenre to deep analysis. Shifting from close-reading analysis to cultural-contextual analysis to character analysis and all the way to meta-analysis is a rough trip in a single volume, especially when the volume lacks a centralized organizational scheme. I would have had an easier time parsing the different parts of this anthology were it more precisely divided. Perhaps it was deliberate to illustrate the multitudinous weaving of themes, issues, and concepts within the series as a whole, but that’s an argument without evidence.

But the lack of focus in the anthology’s argument does not mean the essays themselves are unfocused or uncritical. The essays within the volume are interesting, thought-provoking, and well-researched.  However, as an anthology, I can’t see a larger argument arising from the act of bringing together all these essays, beyond the statement “Resident Evil media is complicated”—a broad claim at best and an unnecessary one at worst.

It goes without saying that as someone who studies games and not media ecology at large, I understand I am probably not the intended audience for this volume. Unraveling Resident Evil would probably be most useful to adaptation scholars because some chapters focus solely on the movies, others solely on the games, and others discuss both. For game studies readers, the chapters about the games certainly are worth your time, just be aware this isn’t a book entirely about games. Instead, this is a book about a complex ecosystem of remediations.


Image source: https://steamcommunity.com/workshop/filedetails/?id=144362732