Uncomfortable Echoes: A Conversation With Resident Evil 5 Director Jun Takeuchi
(Contributor: Scott Jones)
There's a sacred dogma in journalism that holds that you're not supposed to insert yourself into a story. Maintain objectivity, the intro classes say. Avoid the "I" pronoun. That's often easier said than done. I ran up against that wall when I first saw the trailer for Resident Evil 5. The destitute, vacant-eyed black people in the trailer looked like they could've been in Haiti, where my parents were born. Even after learning that the game was set in Africa, I worried about whether I'd be able to play a game in which poor African villagers were the avatars of evil. In my own life, personally and professionally, I've dealt with and still deal with the legacy of negative stereotypes that dog people of African descent.
The controversy surrounding the game and its supposed portrayals of African life grew. Over time, I built up a mental block that prevented me from playing the preview builds of RE5 that were sent to me. I finally broke through that barrier two weeks ago, in preparation for an interview with Jun Takeuchi, the creative lead on the RE5 dev team. My experience playing the game brought up some uncomfortable historical echoes, but I went into the interview open-minded. More than anything, I was interested in a conversation, one where I'd be able to get understanding and hopefully grant some.
The interview happened at the Red Rock during DICE Summit 2009. Scott Jones and I went to a hotel suite where Capcom PR honcho Chris Kramer, Takeuchi and his translator were waiting for us. In the sometimes serious and sometimes silly conversation that followed, we talked less about gameplay mechanics or controls and more about the cultural understandings that come into play when creating and receiving a work like Resident Evil 5.
Evan Narcisse: Let me begin, Takeuchi-san, by saying I'm a fan of your work, particularly Lost Planet and Onimusha. I agreed with your talk yesterday when you said that Japanese pop culture would do very well across the world. I think Resident Evil 5 looks amazing, and I like the way that co-op has been implemented. Resident Evil 4 was seen as the highlight of the series so far. What kind of decisions did you make as a creative lead to try and raise the bar?
Jun Takeuchi: Resident Evil 4 was such a well-received game, both with critics and fans all over the world. We felt tremendous pressure when we started making this game to add something new to the Resident Evil series and to put something into the game that would separate it and take it a bit further than Resident Evil 4. Our answer was to use the online capabilities of the current-gen consoles. We felt it was a very smooth process, going from Resident Evil 4 and adding co-op.
Scott Jones: There's a weird discrepancy in the game between the people who star in the game and the people you fight. The people you control both look like they just came from a Bally's fitness center and just finished drinking wheatgrass shots. Then, they're in this place that's barren and the people there are killing goats. It's so raw. You have these people who are so well-groomed and fit and put-together, juxtaposed with enemies who seem like they're living this subsistence kind of life. Talk about that as a design decision.
Takeuchi: It's not something that we deliberately thought about and made in that fashion. Those things that you're talking about come from the setting and the story of the game, where these agents in the BSAA are sent in. Obviously they've got the latest equipment and guns. [As far as] where the game is set, we did our best to recreate what we had seen when we had gone there ourselves. So, I think if the game had taken place in America, we would also do our best to recreate what we would really see in America. The zombies there would be wearing shirts like yours, and they would be representative of people who live in America. So, it's not really a conscious choice to make that discrepancy you're talking about. It's something that comes about as a result of the setting and story.
Clearly, the attacker's not human anymore. But does that alone negate the resemblance to unsavory images of the past?
Jones: I've played through most of the game at this point and the localization is a lot better in Resident Evil 5 than it was in Resident Evil 4. It seems like you guys made some efforts to make the game more accessible to other parts of the world. But, I always feel with Capcom games that there's a not-so-subtle subtext of making fun of Americans. Chris Redfield; he's kind of a dickhead. [To translator] Can you ask Takeuchi-san about that?
Takeuchi: How do you mean that he's a dickhead?
Jones: He's just not somebody I'd want to be friends with. He looks like he spends too much time working on himself. He's too self-involved. He cares about Jill Valentine and he wants to find out what happened to her, but he also seems to care a lot about how his hair looks.
Takeuchi: That's not something we ever really thought about. Now that you say it, I can see where you're coming from. Chris has been in the series a long time, obviously, and we view him as being a very serious and straight-laced person. He probably isn't a nice person to be around. He probably isn't good at dealing with other people because he takes his work so seriously. You can see that in a lot of other games, too. Japanese people tend to like those kinds of characters more than Americans do.
Narcisse: You're trying to make a great game, something fun and scary and in a new, interesting setting, and you pick Africa. You've been clear about wanting to follow the roots of this virus back to a place where life on Earth probably started. How frustrating or surprising is it that the response to the setting has caused some controversy?
Takeuchi: I guess that you could say the main feeling that we had was that we were a little taken aback by the reaction to it. I think that people who've played the full game and can see everything in its context can see that there's no political message that we're trying to put into the game. We do feel that it was a natural continuation of the story that had been in previous Resident Evil games. It seems to me that, rather than if the game were set in America or Japan, because the game is set in Africa, people have a different set of eyes or look at it a little bit differently just because it's in Africa. People are like, is that okay? That did take me aback a little bit.
Narcisse: I had a strong reaction upon seeing the trailer. But, also I understand the series and I understand the fiction that it's building on. How do you feel about people having strong reactions about the game without prior knowledge of the series? There's potential for a large part of the audience playing the game to feel like a judgment is being made against them by virtue of their portrayal in the game.
Jones: He's having a hard time shooting poor black people. That's the core of what he's trying to get at. He loves the series but he's having a difficult time getting involved?
Narcisse: Maybe this is getting a little too personal, but I'm only a generation removed from that kind of experience.
Chris Kramer: Was it easier for you to shoot poor brown people in Resident Evil 4?
Jones: There were no brown people in Resident Evil 4.
Narcisse: Spaniards, they're swarthy ? Because there was a certain aspect of normalization in that game -- in that the contrast [between Leon and the human enemies he was fighting] was not as stark -- I didn't have that kind of reaction.
Kramer: Skin-color contrast or social contrast?
Narcisse: Both. And because there's a history of demonization and subhuman portrayals with regard to people of African descent, there's a certain sensitivity around that. I understand that legacy for the most part is completely different in Japan. But that history of negative portrayals was what informed my reactions. I'm not judging the game. In seeking to portray a certain kind of terror, the game may make people of certain backgrounds feel like they're being portrayed as frightening or less than human. How do you feel about this unintended consequence? I just want to know Takeuchi-san's reaction to that.
Takeuchi: You mentioned that you're one generation removed from those kinds of problems. If you look at us in Japan, one generation ago Japanese people who hadn't done anything wrong were being bombed in Tokyo and other places during the war. That doesn't mean that we think that Americans are all bad or that we think that Americans are bad at all. [These are] just things that have happened in our pasts. That's maybe not something that we should try to be too sensitive about, or not try to be too sensitive about, when we make these kinds of things? [telephone rings, startling us all] At the end of the day, we're making a piece of entertainment. We're not making anything that has a political message to it. And, I feel that if you start to decide who you can treat as enemies or who you can take on in a game?
Narcisse: And, I don't advocate for that either, by the way?
Takeuchi: ?that's not a good thing. That kind of self-censorship is limiting. Just as everybody has the right to live in this world, everybody has the right to be treated the same way in a videogame. That's the perspective we're coming from in this.
Narcisse: It's interesting that you mention postwar Japan, because of one the things I thought about in trying to draw an analogy was the way some World War II games characterize the Japanese as crazy, kamikaze or more savage than other combatants. Has Takeuchi-san ever had any feelings about those portrayals?
Takeuchi: Certainly, I could see where you're coming from in looking at those kinds of games that you mention, those kinds of World War II games. Maybe I have had the same kind of feeling as you're describing?
Narcisse: And, you know, it's fleeting. You can still enjoy the game. I'm going to enjoy [RE5] on its own merits. I just thought I could draw a parallel?
Takeuchi: Even if I do have those kinds of feelings, at the end of the day, it's first and foremost a piece of entertainment. That's the most important thing. I think another thing to remember about Resident Evil 5 is that the people that you're fighting in the game aren't human. They've been infected by the virus; they've completely lost all their humanity and they're zombies now. To go back to your comparison, even the craziest soldiers in the Japanese army in those games are still being portrayed as humans, so that might say more about what people think about Japanese people or the Japanese army than [RE5] would [about African peoples.] It's a particular tenet of Japanese culture -- you see it a lot in Japanese comedy -- where people exaggerate [the characteristics of] other countries, and even people in other parts of Japan. In entertainment, I think that's something that's going to happen and that's not something that people should be upset about.
Narcisse: This will probably be the last question on [the culture] track. Does Takeuchi-san feel like the criticisms would be different if the development team wasn't Japanese? And, as a corollary, does he feel like criticisms like this would matter less if there were development studios from different cultures and different backgrounds than there currently are now in the industry?
Takeuchi: I guess maybe some people would say that Japanese people don't understand the context, or that Japanese people don't understand the history of this [issue]. I don't think that's true. We in Japan, of course, know about the histories of different parts of the world. I don't think we know about it as much as you would?
Narcisse: Sure, and, I wasn't trying to intimate that?
Takeuchi: When we were making the game, in various parts of the game, we did talk to many different people from Africa. All the opinions we got were positive. People said, "It looks like it's going to be an interesting game and something really great." I guess what is the most unexpected is that, having talked to so many people from Africa and gotten good feedback from them, this reaction feels like it's not coming from Africa?
Narcisse: From the United States or Europe?
Takeuchi: Yeah. That's probably one of the most surprising things.
Narcisse: I'm very much looking forward to playing the finished game. I don't want to seem at all disrespectful; I just wanted to have a conversation.
Translator: Takeuchi-san says he would like to talk in the future.
Narcisse: When I finish the final version, I'll take him up on that.
Takeuchi-san and his team weren't looking to build metaphors or hold forth on the state of affairs in Africa past or present. My main takeaway is that knowing the history of misconceptions about Africa and African people and being able to address it in a piece of entertainment seem to be two very distant things.
For more on this subject, read Gus Mastrapa's Into Africa With Resident Evil 5.