Crispy Gamer

Into Africa With Resident Evil 5

Resident Evil 5 producer Jun Takeuchi is sticking to his guns. Earlier this year questions were raised about the way Capcom was handling the game's African setting. Many felt the first trailer for the game was insensitive to issues of race. The clip, which debuted at E3 last year, depicted S.T.A.R.S. operative Chris Redfield mobbed by angry African villagers -- a single, well-armed white man dispatching a sea of blacks. It wasn't hard to see where critics were coming from.

Resident Evil 5
Redfield's new partner may hail from Africa.

Speaking to the gaming press at a Capcom's Captivate '08 press event the developer aimed to set the record straight. "We chose Africa as the setting for very specific reasons," Takeuchi says through an interpreter. Redfield, he explains, is on a mission to find the source of the Progenitor virus and, just like all civilization, the mutant bug calls Africa its birthplace. "We feel that people got the wrong impression from the first trailer. Maybe it was just a little bit of a mix-up. But with what they'll see today and what they'll see in the future they'll get the right impression of the game."

To be honest, Takeuchi doesn't get off to the best start. The new trailer for Resident Evil 5 finds Chris Redfield back in familiar territory -- the same riot-stricken African village we saw in earlier clips. Redfield narrates as the images of unrest unfold. "I knew it from the moment I arrived," he intones in a foreboding deadpan. "There's no reason here. No humanity. Everywhere I look I find vacant stares. All I see is death." You couldn't write more xenophobic-sounding voice-over if you tried.

But as we get a closer look at Resident Evil 5 the concerns begin to fade. With co-producer Masachicka Kawata behind the wheel Takeuchi walks us through some gameplay. In that same village we see Redfield, again surrounded by infected enemies. The scenario feels quite a bit like the opening moments of Resident Evil 4 -- when Leon Kennedy finds himself under assault in a rural Spanish village. The crowd of shambling enemies looks slightly more multicultural -- like a United Colors of Benetton ad crafted by George Romero. Chris takes potshots at the slouching baddies. Their heads explode into masses of tentacles; alien appendages whip the hot, African air. Redfield was right. These guys aren't human. Not anymore.

Resident Evil 5
Day of the Infected.

Takeuchi remains emphatic about Resident Evil 5's apolitical stance. "We're in the business of making entertainment and not making political messages, so we're just trying to make an interesting new product." He may be missing a point. George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" was rife with subtext. In 1968 actor Duane Jones' turn as the lone sane survivor in a world gone mad was made doubly potent by the color of his skin. It's hard to deny that inverting the palate won't have a similar effect. Even the zombie myth, which originated in Haiti, was a parable about class and the way the working poor could be managed so long as they never taste the spice of life.

"I don't think it's just because it's a videogame that it's a problem," Jun Takeuchi adds. "This kind of problem appears in any form of media -- in TV or movies or books or whatever. It's a little difficult to use Africa as a setting with an entertainment product, but that's what we're going with."

There are work-arounds for such touchy subjects. Best-selling novel "World War Z" by Max Brooks wrote the book on dealing with issues of modern-day politics when telling a zombie yarn. Outbreaks in China, Russia and South Africa have citizens of all races, colors and creeds joining the ranks of the undead. And, for the most part, when we see man take on ghoul in the novel's pages, the struggle is between folks of the same nationality. Chris Redfield's sexy local backup looks to cover that base nicely. In the last moments of the new Resident Evil 5 trailer we see a young woman, armed and equipped with headset and body armor similar to Chris'. "Welcome to Africa," the unnamed operative says after squeezing a round from her pistol.

Resident Evil 5
Horror in broad daylight.

Once the 500-pound gorilla of race politics is escorted out of the room Takeuchi is much more interested in talking in terms of black and white. "One of the things that the next-gen consoles have allowed us to do that we haven't done before is create bright outdoor environments. So now we can use lots of different filters and improved lighting systems and make those environments much more interesting and realistic than they used to be." Traditional horror yarns, the Resident Evil series in particular, tend to depend on the cover of night to keep things spooky. This creates unique challenges for a scary tale that plays out in broad daylight. "You definitely can't approach horror in bright areas the same way that you can in dark," he says. "What we're trying to do is create one sense of horror in the dark areas, the more traditional sense of horror. The bright areas are more action-based -- a different kind of tension." Light will also play a bigger part in the game's more traditional, shadowy moments. "When you have light shining on something it's automatically going to create shadow. Using both of those simultaneously to create the horror effect is something we are also seeking to do."

He's even more confident speaking on the legacy of Resident Evil 4 -- especially the massive influence the game's over-the-shoulder camera has had on other shooters. "[The people on] our development team do play a lot of different games themselves, and they have sampled a lot of different titles that have used that system, but we kind of feel that the one that was used in Resident Evil 4 really hit the spot for that game. Maybe that's the one that there is the most to learn from." This is a bold statement considering the way that games like Gears of War have empowered players to feel agile and in control.

It's hard, when speaking through an interpreter, to accurately gauge a person's emotional state or their attitude, but I sense a willfulness in Takeuchi's responses. His unwillingness to concede that Resident Evil 5's politics could be misconstrued feels in line with his proud crowing of Resident Evil 4's control prowess. There's a palpable confidence here, even when he's saving face in the midst of controversy. But no position is unassailable. Takeuchi admits this himself when talking about Resident Evil 5's destructible environments. "The player goes into a building, hides behind a wall and thinks, 'Thank God. I'm safe,' but the environments get knocked down and take away your hiding places."

Takeuchi and Resident Evil 5 may have found safer ground now that we've learned of Redfield's African partner and seen more of the infected but, like a S.T.A.R.S. agent crouching behind a flimsy shanty wall, they're most certainly not out of the woods yet.