«Return to Darkness: Representations of Africa in Resident Evil 5 Hanli Geyser University of the Witwatersrand 1 Jan Smuts Ave Braamfontein ...»
Return to Darkness: Representations of
Africa in Resident Evil 5
University of the Witwatersrand
1 Jan Smuts Ave
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Darkest Africa, the imagining of colonial fantasy, in many ways still lives on. Popular cultural
representations of Africa often draw from the rich imagery of the un-charted, un-knowable ‗other‘ that Africa represents. When Capcom made the decision to set the latest instalment of its Resident Evil series in an imagined African country, it was merely looking for a new, unexplored setting, and they were therefore surprised at the controversy that surrounded its release. The 2009 game Resident Evil 5 was accused of racially stereotyping the black zombies and the white protagonist. These allegations have largely been put to rest, as this was never the intention of Capcom in developing the game or selecting the setting. However, the underlying questions remain: How is Africa represented in the game? How does the figure of the zombie resonate within that representation? And why does this matter?
Keywords Post-Colonial, Zombie, Africa, Game, Resident Evil 5 ―The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was as unearthly as the men were... No they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman.‖ Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness Darkest Africa, the imagining of colonial fantasy, in many ways still lives on. Popular cultural representations of Africa often draw from the rich imagery of the un-charted, un-knowable ‗other‘ that Africa represents. When Capcom made the decision to set the latest instalment of its Resident Evil series in an imagined African country, it was merely looking for a new, unexplored setting, and they were therefore surprised at the controversy that surrounded its release. The 2009 game Resident Evil 5(Capcom, 2009) was accused of racially stereotyping the black zombies and the white protagonist.
This was neverthe intention of Capcom in developing the game or selecting the setting. However, the underlying questions remain: How is Africa represented in the game? How does the figure of the zombie resonate within that representation?
The core of this report investigates the figure of the zombie in an African context through a close study of Resident Evil 5 - the game itself is addressed as a completed text. Games such as RE5 and Far Cry 2 perpetuate the myth of the homogeneous Africa with very little differentiation made between various cultures and countries. While this is a theme to which the paper returns repeatedly, no attempt is made to offer an alternative reading to the homogenised Africa. This is a homogenising act in and of itself, but the scope of this paper would do any deeper engagement here an injustice. The zombies as presented to us in RE5 constitute what David Chalmers terms ―Hollywood Zombies‖, mindless, aggressive and bloodthirsty. This contradicts sharply with the ways in which zombies are represented in various African mythologies, where they are often depicted as subdued slaves, a concept widely explored as a parallel to the position of the native African under colonialism. The depiction of black Africans as the mindless mob reaches its zenith in works such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where Conrad explores the darkness of the Dark Continent, the darkness of the treatment of the natives under colonialism, and the darkness in human cruelty (Conrad, 1988). In RE5, many of the stereotypes that Conrad‘s text explored are re-enacted. Produced a century after the Conrad text by a Japanese gaming company, Capcom, under the direction of Jun Takeuchi these echoes appear surreal. This paper argues that, while created by a Japanese company, the game addresses an assumed western gaze. Takeuchi wanted the game to have a similar feel to films like Black Hawk Down (qtd in Gamespot 2005), a decision that immediately bases the game on a fictional Africa, removing it from the real toward a hyperbolic cinematic tradition. The representations in the game are clichéd. It presents the player with cut outs of both Africa and the West, embodied in the American. Gender is also stereotyped, with focus overwhelmingly falling on the body and voice, easily recognisable from a hundred Hollywood films. Capcom, cloaking western stereotypes around themselves while remaining a step removed, appear in everything to be trying to represent an archetype.
When traversing the terrain of RE5, the player moves through the devastated relics of colonial Africa, navigating the newer yet impoverished appropriations of the post-independence era as well as the living remnants of a pre-colonial, ‗traditional‘, life. RE5 depicts the fictional post-independence African state as vulnerable and the placement of the Western protagonist as a saviour echoes many of the paternalistic fantasies associated with colonialism. Using the zombie as an entrance point this report engages with the manner in which the zombie genre, as played out in Resident Evil 5, lends itself to the myth of primitive Africa, as the zombie is, in many ways, representative of a return to the animalistic, unthinking and manipulated.
While zombie-like figures have surfaced in works as early as the Arabic One Thousand and One Nights, the zombie in its current incarnation stems from Haitian voodoo, and was brought to the attention of the West through works such as William B. Seabrook‘s 1929 The Magic Island. As the Haitian zombie is a figure subdued through magical means to serve its owner as a mindless automaton, a labourer with no sense of self, it is easy to see why many analysts have focused on its conceptual links to slavery and subjugation.
Zombies are among the newest monsters to enter Western mythology, only appearing in the early twentieth century. A monster of the ―new world‖, as Kyle Bishop points out in his 2008 article ‗The Sub‐Subaltern Monster: Imperialist Hegemony and the Cinematic Voodoo Zombie‘, the zombie
reflects the fate of the colonised and the enslaved. Quoting from Joan Dayan, Bishop writes:
No supernatural fate could echo the realities of slavery more, for ‗‗the phantasm of the zombi [sic]—a soulless husk deprived of freedom—is the ultimate sign of loss and dispossession‘‘ (Dayan 37). (qtd in Bishop, 2008: 145) Bishop goes on to argue that the zombie uprising, the common theme in the Western representation of the zombie, therefore reflects the fears and phobias of the coloniser, of the master: that of revolt.
Tracing the assimilation of the Haitian zombie into Western popular culture Bishop continues:
It did not take long for this voodoo-based monstrosity to make the jump from folklore to popular entertainment, and the ﬁrst true zombie movie arrived in 1932: Victor Halperin‘s White Zombie. Based on the stylistic model of Tod Browning‘s Dracula (1931), this movie presents audiences with the exoticism of the Caribbean, the fear of domination and subversion, and the perpetuation of the imperialist model of cultural and racial hegemony.
(Bishop, 2008: 141) The image of the zombie has however not remained stable during its relatively short history in the West. Over the course of the century it has evolved from the Haitian ‗slave‘ zombie, to the satirical zombie apocalypse pioneered by George Romero‘s 1968 work, Night of the Living Dead, and subsequently to its most recent incarnation as the ‗scientific‘ zombie of disease and bio-terrorism.
Here the fear of the Other has moved from being represented by the supernatural to the scientific. While the nature and origin of the zombie shift in each of these incarnations, Jon Stratton reminds us that the core premise of the zombie remains: a person in a ―state that remains nearer death than life‖. (Stratton, 2011: 266) Since its appearance in Seabrook‘s The Magic Island and Halperin‘s White Zombie, the figure of the zombie has never faded from view, but over the past few decades, it has increasingly flourished in popular culture. With their rising presence in cultural production, proliferating in films, novels, comics and digital games, we are also seeing an ever expanding critical interest in them. Edited volumes and conferences dedicated to the zombie are springing up and the body of theory surrounding the walking corpse is fast growing. In what Bernard Perron, calls the ‗current climate‘ of zombie studies, the staggering undead are being theorised in a myriad of different ways. They are being examined as embodiments of the disabled, the diseased, the displaced, as symptomatic of Western fears of the breakdown of capitalism or the uprising of the disenfranchised.
For example, Kyle Bishop‘s article, ‗The Sub‐Subaltern Monster: Imperialist Hegemony and the Cinematic Voodoo Zombie‘, strongly and eloquently argues for the reading of the zombie as symbolic of the subaltern; individuals or entities located external to the existing power order. His analysis centres on Halperin‘s White Zombie from 1932 and closely examines the fear of domination and subversion exemplified in the spectre of Haiti, the first ‗Black state‘, raised in the West, and the manner in which this was echoed. It also considers the perpetuation of the imperialist model that underwrites the representation of the zombie in the film.
Jon Stratton, in another case, correlates the increase in popular cultural representations of zombies to the increased anxiety in the West ―over the numbers of displaced people attempting to gain entry across their borders.‖ (Stratton, 2011: 266) Peter Dendle on the other hand ties the increasing popularity of the zombie in the first years of the twenty-first century to the events of 9/11 and an increased fixation on the apocalyptic. (Dendle 2007: 54).
Regardless of their adaptation, it appears that zombies remain politicised figures, and in all of these analyses the core sentiment remains the same: the zombie is inextricably linked to the marginalised Other.
The zombie is a central figure in many digital games; Diane Carr argues that this is because they make the ideal enemy. (Carr, 2009: 1) As they are both human and non-human they provide a target that can at once be engaging but also avoid any moral ambiguity in the player character‘s actions.
This is not dissimilar to the depiction of the native African in colonial fiction, the character Charles Marlow‘s experiences in Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness again being the prime example. This liminal nature of the zombie also assists in the eliciting of an abject response from the player: a horror which repulses and attracts simultaneously, and keeps the player engrossed. In addition, the zombie narrative also suits the gaming format, pioneered by Romero zombies horror is not conveyed through a coherent diegesis but rather though their relentless overwhelming nature. The fragmented experience of game play narrative therefore only underlines their jarring duality.
Zombies thus became a fruitful subject matter for game developers to explore and exploit. Ewan Kirkland ties the zombie‘s state of half-death even closer to the form of the game itself through the avatar. In Kirkland‘s analysis the avatar echoes the zombie; it functions as a husk that the player
controls. Writing of survival horror in general he argues that:
These games are full of dead objects – zombies, dolls, puppets – which move or display the properties of life. Uneasiness concerning the possibility of life in dead things – the corpse lunging to life, the manikin‘s sudden animation, the stone statues leaping from their plinth – circulate the player‘s own avatar, a lifeless ‗object‘ nevertheless given direction, purpose and agency through the player‘s input. In fact, the zombie may be a metaphor for the process of video game engagement, representing the avatar without player, the computer-controlled figure, without the human soul to make it truly alive.
(Kirkland, 2009: 3) Part of the appeal of the zombie in survival horror as a genre is the idea that they are relentless and endless, they just keep coming and the protagonist survives only until they are overwhelmed. Everything in these games is geared toward focusing only on achieving the next goal, on surviving in the next encounter. To emphasise this, full control of the game space is crucial. Carr points out that game space in RE4 is presented as a collection of mazes for the player to navigate. To maintain the tension there can be no room for exploration in these games. Offering the player a sandbox would lessen the pace, and stem the tide of incoming foes. In many ways then traditional survival horror as presented in the Resident Evil series is about removing player agency, limiting player interaction only to combat.
Resident Evil 5 is set in an imagined African country, in and around the town of Kijuju, where it continues with the established Resident Evil storyline.
From the ashes of old conflicts, a new terror arises. The Umbrella Corporation and its crop of lethal viruses have been destroyed and contained. But a new, more dangerous threat has emerged. Years after surviving the events in Raccoon City, Chris Redfield has been fighting the scourge of bio-organic weapons all over the world. Now a member of the Bio-terrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSSA), Chris is sent to Africa to investigate a biological agent that is transforming the populace into aggressive and disturbing creatures. Joined by another local BSSA agent, Sheva Alomar, the two must work together to solve the truth behind the disturbing turn of events. Featuring a revolutionary new co-op mode of gameplay, Resident Evil 5 will let players experience fear together as terror moves out of the shadows and into the light of day. (Capcom, 2009) The focus of this analysis will be on the narrative, symbolism and content of Resident Evil 5. It is a textual analysis in the sense that Diane Carr defines: ―...structural analysis relates to game design and
form, while textual analysis relates to signification and to the game as actualised in play.‖ (Carr, 2009: