Unraveling Resident Evil: Essays on the Complex Universe of the Games and Films
Publisher: Zombie Studios
Cost: $38.00 (Paperback)/$13.99 (Kindle/PDF)
Page Count: 249 Pages
Release Date: 04/15/14
Get it Here: Drive Thru RPG OR Amazon.com
It’s always interesting, to me, when people opt to create books about the video game medium that go beyond the normal “art book” or “fiction set in the universe of the game” concepts we normally expect. Don’t get me wrong, art books are pretty fun to look at, and fiction books can be entertaining as expansions of the plots of the games we love (for good books) or as hilariously awful experiments in adding plot to games that have none (the Doom series comes to mind) but they’re common as dirt anymore. When someone tries to make something different, that’s when I sit up and take notice, and while the attempt isn’t always a winner (Game Over, 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die), sometimes you discover some real gems through this (Confessions of the Game Doctor, The Official Book of Leisure Suit Larry). As such, when Alex mentioned that he’d received Unraveling Resident Evil and that it seemed made for me, I felt like he was probably right, but not for the reasons he thought. It’s true that I’m a fan of the game series, but not to the extent that I derive much joy from the non-gaming media; the movies make me ill, and the fiction series is basically awful (and yes I own all the books, shut up). However, a series of essays on the Resident Evil universe, written by doctoral students and professors of various subjects, seemed like a really interesting idea, and one that I’ve honestly never seen before for any other game series. Having actually read through it, however, I can say that while the attempt was sound, there’s probably a reason this was never attempted before, and it has nothing to do with the people involved.
To break down the contents of the book, the book contains fourteen total essays on the Resident Evil universe, including both the games and the movies, as well as an Acknowledgements section, an Introduction to the piece, a section detailing information on the contributors, and an index for easy reference. Indeed, the book is almost structured as if it were meant to be something of a reference piece itself, between the way in which the piece is written and the format, so for those who, themselves, fancy writing a thesis on gaming in some form or fashion, this could prove to be an interesting resource. To expand on the contents down a bit further, this is what you’re getting from the book:
That’s a pretty interesting variety of subjects, isn’t it?
Well, while the writers are certainly competent and well-versed in their media and scientific concepts, the book itself suffers from one key flaw: while the idea is sound, the actual product is… for lack of a better description, boring. It turns out that two hundred plus pages of doctoral writings analyzing the Resident Evil franchise is very dry and hard to read; even as someone who is used to dry, technical writing and appreciates the franchise, this was a struggle to get through. Is it an interesting idea? Absolutely, and if you’re the sort of person who loves lengthy, technical documents or enjoys a good thesis now and again you can pick it up and pour through it at your leisure. For most people, however, it’s astonishingly high-level and, for the most part, very dry and hard to appreciate as intended. It essentially sucks the life out of the product in a lot of respects; as a scientific work it’s strong to a point, but as an entertainment piece I had more fun with the “Let’s Play” pieces created by The Dark Id for Something Awful, for example.
Further, even as an analysis piece, Unraveling Resident Evil doesn’t hit a lot of the notes one would come to expect from the piece. There are absolutely comparisons to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, but beyond that, there’s very little that comes from zombie lore in terms of reference points. Now, I’m not expecting anyone to reference The Zombie Survival Guide for their work (which is good because no one did), because that’s a borderline humor piece anyway, but speaking as someone with a fairly decent amount of zombie familiarity, I was, for example, expecting people to reference Herbert West: Reanimator a few times. You can, perhaps, understand my disappointment when I discovered that the piece was referenced twice, by Larsen and Crowley, and no one else in the piece touched it. Other classic pieces of zombie/undead media are given a similar treatment: I Am Legend is mentioned once (Bacon), Dawn of the Dead is mentioned once (Cadwell, though Carinae Pell Jones REFERENCES it for some reason) and Day of the Dead, again, is mentioned once (Larsen again). It’s fine if you want to write a piece on a zombie horror franchise that uses the zombies as a metaphor for something else, don’t get me wrong, but when only a third of your writers are showing more than a cursory knowledge of the subject matter, I don’t know if they were the best possible people to pick for the task. There are also some odd observations made throughout the piece, such as referring to the “recent trend in zombie romances” when Warm Bodies is basically the only thing I can think of that fits; you can count My Boyfriend’s Back or Return of the Living Dead 3, though both are over a decade old at this point. Goodreads does list it as a genre with over a hundred entries, so this may be where the reference comes from, but considering that “vampire romance” generates over eight hundred entries… well, if it’s a trend, it’s not one that’s catching on too fast.
Perhaps the most problematic part of the book, however, is that it tends to place more weight and focus on the films than it does the video games, which is totally reasonable from a financial perspective (more eyes on the movies means a larger market) but, honestly, does nothing for someone who hates the films, which, SURPRISE, I am. Analyzing the sexual violence inflicted on Alice or how her metahuman existence relates to the world in which she lives is fine enough, one supposes, if you’re the sort of person who both enjoys the films and likes scientific analysis, but the films, for those who haven’t seen them, are violent, bloody affairs that give Michael Bay a run for his money. They’re not “thinking person” films, and while the authors of these pieces certainly put a lot of effort into their work, they almost certainly put in more effort than Paul W.S. Anderson (or the other writers/directors who are attached to some of the films) did when creating them. Further, those who do write about the games don’t really have a lot to say about them: of the five essays that talk about the games exclusively, one discusses the popularity of the franchise, one discusses the agency of the franchise, one discusses the metacultural influence the franchise has on its genre, one discusses Ada Wong’s role as a femme fatale (and subversion of such), and one discusses how Resident Evil 5 is something of an analysis of American cultural ideals versus objective reality. Consider how many pieces go into breaking down individual aspects of the Alice character from the films and compare that to the fact that, at most, two of the game-centric pieces are character studies, and it’s apparent that if you’re not a fan of the movies, you really don’t have anything to look at here.
I mean, I don’t expect anyone to be a master of all things Resident Evil or have spent years studying the minutiae of the franchise, but when Carinae Pell Jones attempts to discuss, for example, the idea of scientific evolution in zombie media, I expect that she’s going to mention Reanimator. When the piece discusses the implications of the T-Virus and Uroboros, I expect the writer to mention, even in passing, that they’re both descended from the Progenitor Virus since this was mentioned in Resident Evil 5 and I could find it after a thirty second Google search. It’s fine that you know more about scientific analysis than I do, but if I know more about the subject matter than you do, I can’t take your work seriously.
That’s not to say that it’s all doom and gloom here; if you did enjoy the films, you’ll almost certainly find something to appreciate here, if nothing else, and from the gaming front, I did enjoy Crowley’s piece quite a bit. He does a very good job tracing inspirations here, referencing the aforementioned Herbert West: Reanimator, as well as Sweet Home and Alone in the Dark, though his mention of Ghost House as an inspiration is… puzzling at best, given that the only commonality is “a haunted house”. Otherwise, though, it’s a fairly interesting discussion of player agency and narrative structure that, while perhaps a bit more involved thematically than is merited for the subject matter, is worth reading purely on its own merits, as the concepts can be applied to other, more narratively sound, experiences.
That said, as an overall piece, Unraveling Resident Evil can’t really be sold on the merits of one thesis, which is a shame, as everything else is either geared heavily towards the films or doesn’t come across as terribly interesting or well informed, subject-matter-wise, making the piece hard to really appreciate overall. As a novelty, it’s a piece of video game literature that’s interesting conceptually and you’re unlikely to see too many pieces that attempt to do what this does, IE, treat video game discussions like a Doctoral Thesis. As a piece, it presents interesting concepts in a scientifically documented fashion, and anyone looking for a more intellectually involved point of view on the Resident Evil franchise should find a lot to appreciate from that perspective. However, as a piece of entertainment, the book drags as often as not and is very dry in execution, and as a piece that is written with an authoritative voice, many of the writers showcase a lack of authority on both the genre and the franchise specifically, which makes it harder to appreciate the authority of the writers than it should. Further, the majority of the pieces here focus on the movie and the Alice character heavily, making this a piece of work that’s unlikely to please anyone who isn’t a movie fan, and those that don’t are primarily broadly focused, which do little to analyze the franchise and more to analyze its existence in its own media circles. As an experiment, Unraveling Resident Evil might be worth perusing just to say you’ve done it, but as an actual body of work, it’s hard to recommend to anyone unless they’re, well, someone who enjoys reading dry, academically dense material on their favorite video games, which is… honestly probably not a large market to appeal to. If you’re amongst that group, you might have some fun here, but everyone else can safely pass it by and not feel as if they’ve missed out.