The trailer for "Resident Evil 5" upset me. The game does not. Here's why:
A few weeks ago, I did what the most cynical people who have followed the debate about race in "Resident Evil 5" might have expected me to do: I turned on the game and, instead of playing it, I started counting the black people in it.
I'm not kidding.
Allow me to take some time setting this up, so you can understand where I wound up.
Go back to the trailer and look at what the presented options were then.
Much has been written and said about the depiction of black people in Capcom's new survival horror sequel. I've been party to some of the elements that built the fire. In August of 2007 I wrote about the game's E3 trailer, expressing my discomfort with the player-fantasy presented in that debut footage of the game. And in April of last year, my colleague, Tracey John, ran her infamous interview with my friend, ex-Newsweek reporter N'Gai Croal about his reaction to that trailer and its depiction of white hero Chris Redfield's relationship to the African environment and infected black people around him.
My discomfort with the trailer involved ideas of class as much as it did race. In that August 2007 piece, I wrote: "My problem is that [the trailer] presents a fantasy I don’t desire. It looks like it’s an advertisement to virtually shoot poor people ... when I see a town of what looks like impoverished African villagers — the very image of global poverty, the very spectacle that since my youth has been coded in me to evoke sympathy and charity — I don’t want to pull the trigger."
That may seem like a strange statement now, given what we've seen of the game since then. Among other things, we've now seen that Capcom allows us to shoot a wide and diverse array of characters in the game. But go back to the trailer and look at what the presented options were then: E3 2007 "Resident Evil 5" Trailer.
Not much more was revealed about the game by the time we ran the N'Gai interview in the spring of last year. It was only afterward that Capcom confirmed that the game was set in Africa, then showed that a black woman -- Sheva Alomar -- would accompany Chris. It was also only afterward that N'Gai's notorious gut-reaction quote -- "I looked at the 'Resident Evil 5' trailer and I was like, 'Wow, clearly no one black worked on this game.' -- was disputed by the game's producer, who said that some black people were involved.
There was a roiling reaction online to N'Gai's interview. There were people castigating N'Gai for expressing a supposed double standard regarding the shambling Spaniards in "Resident Evil 4" about which he hadn't complained and the shambling Africans in that "RE5" trailer (those critics seldom betrayed any sign that they had read N'Gai's comments on that point already published in the Tracey John interview). There was some support for his views, some agreement, some happiness that a conversation about race in games was occurring. There was also anger that the game was being criticized or prejudged. There were people, black, white and whatever else, who said they had no problem with the trailer.
Takeuchi: "I think everyone understands that we never set out to with the intention to make anything that was racist — that was never our intention."
Capcom kept quiet until the summer of 2008, when "RE5" producer Jun Takeuchi granted some interviews at E3. At the big trade show, he told me that "I think everyone understands that we never set out to with the intention to make anything that was racist — that was never our intention. We think it was a bit of a misunderstanding when we published the first images of the game back in the day." He had added that he'd seen the "reverse problem with some games in Japan as well."
Press demos came and went in mid-2008 and then early this year. New screenshots were released and video. One memorable clip showed Chris and Sheva shooting not just poor, infected Africans but also some Africans wearing tribal dress and carrying spears. You could view things either way, but who wanted to rush to judgment?
Last month, in Las Vegas, I interviewed Takeuchi again. He told me he didn't think that race was going to be an issue when the game was released: "When the game is out to the mainstream and on the shelves and being played by users, I’m not expecting it to be a problem. People will be able to play the game and see what it is for themselves."
And that gets us to a couple of Fridays ago, when I invited N'Gai over to my apartment for our second split-screen co-op session with "RE5." I will refrain from describing his reactions to the game -- I'd like to let him do so at a time and place of his own choosing -- but I'll discuss my own. I'd already told N'Gai during the first session we played that the game wasn't troubling me the way the trailer had. We had spent that first session playing through the game's first chapter, from which most of the original trailer's imagery was drawn.
Why was the depiction of race and class in "RE5" no longer bothering me? I told N'Gai at the beginning of our second session that I wanted to figure out why that is.
I had some theories:
As a participant I was no longer judging the depicted actions with the values of an observer, for better or worse.
First, we were in it. A lot of genuinely horrible actions depicted in video games don't seem horrible when viewed by the player of a game. They horrify only the onlookers watching you play -- or watching the trailer of someone else playing. It is borderline uncivil to watch footage of someone playing through a game scoring headshots and not find something odd or disturbing in both the action and the frequency with which it occurs in a few minutes of gaming. But if you play the same game, the execution of headshots loses much of its menace and reveals itself to be a strategy, a survival technique used to most efficiently dispatch the horde of zombies. It becomes a mechanic, disassociated with any morality and engaged only with survival within the rules of a game. I expect someone looking over my shoulder might still be alarmed at Chris Redfield shooting down infected Africans in "RE5," but I could see them having the same horror at many other things I might do in games. Playing the game myself, I was preoccupied with playing successfully. As a participant I was no longer judging the depicted actions with the values of an observer, for better or worse.
Second, we were in a theme park, not a minstrel show. As I wrote in my review of the game, "['RE5'] doesn't trade in stereotype or caricature but in cliché. The African villagers? They’re stock casting. Here’s an angry guy in donated t-shirt. In the marshlands? Fire-breather guy in grass skirt." What I had seen in the trailer were black people being used as stand-ins for menace. Dark-skinned black people scowling. Crowds of angry black people yelling. The only sign of good and right was a white man walking in their midst. Africans, infected or not, were the boogeymen. That felt like stereotype: black people = scary threat.
But the game? By the time I was playing the game, I was controlling a white guy who was shooting enemies alongside a black woman. We were in the world of cliche. She, as player ally, was, of course, hot and in tight-fitting clothes. Her and Chris' enemies were, of course, poor villagers, then angry guys on motorcycles, then guys who hung out near huts with shields and spears, then guys who worked in a factory, then military guys, etc. All of them infected. All of them from the Official Rogues Gallery of Video Games. And not all of these guys were black. What they had in common, instead, was their behaviors of crowd-swarming and sniping and never-ending anger that read clearly as: prototypical video game enemy actions. They were as under-developed a set of characters as any other class of video game bad guys. They were fun to fight and hard to take seriously.
Third, the scenes had changed. The "RE5" that we are all playing-- and that N'Gai and I played that Friday -- isn't the "RE5" of that first trailer. Remember that the trailer turned me off from the idea of shooting what looked like poor people.
Here is one of those poor people in the trailer, the guy who gets infected:
Here is that same person in the game:
See a difference? The game shows this guy getting some weird organic thing being stuffed down his mouth. It makes it clear he's been transformed. And he's been made to look a shade more infected. Plus, remember, this all happens with Sheva standing nearby.
I was uncomfortable with the scenes that seemed to scream that Africa was a place of fear, something I read in this shot from the trailer:
And this crowd scene:
In the game, that first person is absent. And that crowd now looks like this:
Apologies about the quality of the above two images, but the scene goes by a little more quickly than my camera could capture. We can debate whether the game is improved or cheapened by the inclusion of light-skinned people in a riot in the middle of Africa. But what I think we can all agree on is that the new red-eye look of some of the rioters sends a message that the trailer didn't: these angry-looking people we want you to shoot are no longer human.
Compare the trailer and the look of that crowd yourself and you'll see that key difference: the bad guys' eyes now blaze red. That one effect literally changes the color of the scene.
I saw these things on that Friday a couple of weeks ago because I had opened my laptop, played the trailer and compared it, with N'Gai, to some of the game's opening cutscenes. We were looking for checkered-shirt guy and angry-crowd-people. We were counting black people, white people and noticing the differences.
Regardless of where the race debate about "RE5" had gone, it had started, for the both of us, with the trailer I had running on my laptop and had reached the game on my TV.
Watching the trailer again, it still made me feel uneasy. I still didn't like the fantasy it portrayed. I still didn't like how it set Chris against an Africa that looked like a horrid and inhuman place.
In the game, however, I saw something different. The white vs. black racial dichotomy was gone. The infected people looked infected. The characters who once looked like poor Africans whom I didn't want to shoot now looked like undead menaces I needed to stop to stay alive.
I don't know if I have changed. I don't think I have. But what I've seen of the game has changed. The game gives a different feeling than the trailer. It uses race and color differently. That's worth more discussion, and I hope people will engage with it.