I watched the new Resident Evil film last night – spoilers: it was rubbish. My girlfriend, however, didn’t dislike it quite as much as I did. This isn’t necessarily an uncommon occurrence for us. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think she has bad taste in film, just that different elements engage her interest more than mine, and vice versa. This case was slightly different, however.
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a film review.
I am an avid Resident Evil game fan. I own all of the core series – yes, even Zero. I loved the slow paced survival horror titles more than the over the shoulder action horror direction the series has gone in, but I won’t deny that 4 and 5 were a lot of fun. With my favourite title, RE3, I can speedrun in under 1:30 and knife Nemesis Type I and II to death (not at the same time). I unlocked Tofu the hard way, and beat it. Hell, I’ve even S ranked all maps and characters in the Mercenaries from 3-5. I have been playing Resident Evil for over 12 years. I am not trying to wave my epeen, I’m just trying to put what I’m going to say in context. Suffice to say, I am a little familiar with the stories and characters.
My girlfriend, however, doesn’t have that background. She started with the movies. She likes the horror aesthetic, action sequences, and the feminist message. She tried 3 once and gave up because the tank controls frustrated her. She is not the most patient gamer. It takes all types, as they say.
I was wondering about that disparity in enjoyment. Sure, I enjoyed the flashy action, but to me, the characters, setting, and plot just seemed… off. Leon didn’t look right. Barry moved all wrong. Ada wouldn’t say that. I know it’s not right. I know.
Why do I know that?
One of the main ideas of postmodernism (don’t groan, stick with me) is that the author is dead. “Texts” aren’t a product of the writer, rather the reader/responder creates their own “text” within their own individual contexts. The way you read a book or watch a show or hear a song is completely different to the way I, or anybody else, would. Games, I would argue, with their focus on player choice, are more postmodern a medium than any other.
This has the interesting effect of making the experiences very much our own.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this. It’s called the watercooler effect. I ask you, when you’re talking about Skyrim with your friends, what do you talk about? Do you talk about how Ulfric is a well-rounded and believable character with flaws and foibles? Hell no! You talk about how you Fus Ro Dah’d half a dozen mudcrabs off a cliff. It’s not the fixed elements of the game we talk about, it’s the way we, as people, interact with the game world, building our own experiences and creating our own stories.
I’m going to call this narrative ownership.
Back to Resident Evil. I know this universe, it is my domain. It belongs to me.
Player agency makes us involved on a very personal level with these experiences. If a game grabs us, it can really transport us into the world. Our decisions have an effect on those worlds in a meaningful way to us. We take on the roles of the characters, projecting our morals and choices into this amazing thought-space. We can experiment and discover boundaries in a way we cannot in real life. It’s fascinating: this idea that we can do whatever we want within these microcosms. We own these worlds and stories, and they reflect us.
This narrative ownership is an important distinction between video games and any other non-interactive format. Game narratives are active, not passive. We shape and control them, and we give them a piece of ourselves for them to shape in return. How we play a game and shape a story is a reflection on ourselves, one that it is hard for us to lie about. And why would we need to lie? Games, especially single player games, are a personal experience that won’t judge us for who we are or what we choose.
We create our own experiences with games – more powerful than with almost any other kind of format. The world is not just our own in a postmodern sense, but in a literal, measurable way too. We have our own save games, our own stats and skills, in some games we even have our own faces. It is postmodernism codified. It was why there was so much outrage over ME3’s blond Femshep. We feel such a personal connection with the way we played a particular game that anything else just feels wrong.
The new Silent Hill movie comes out next month, and we’re going to see it. My fairer half loves the first movie. I really love the games. She played ten minutes of SH2 and got frustrated with the tank controls and camera angles. I’ve beaten SH3 with 10 stars.
I can hear the post-movie dissection in my head already.