As I watched videos of Resident Evil 2 with a female friend before release we saw one of the two protagonists be chased, grabbed and clubbed by a huge indestructible masculine creature in a trench coat. The enemy is a Tyrant, usually referred to as Mr. X by fans, and is one of the many enemies from the 1998 that’s been revamped for the recently released remake. My friend got shudders from the footage. She recounted a story of walking home from a party late at night down an abandoned street and a hulking man in a coat, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, behind her who began walking faster and faster, his shoes banging on the cement. She ran and dodged into a 24/7 laundromat where thankfully a couple of late night washers were. She called a cab from there and got home, the worst behind her but the memory still lingers years later.
I wrote earlier about the God of War franchise’s problematic issues with women and how its newest entry choses to ignore this opposed to challenging its history. Thankfully, Resident Evil’s history with women is the polar opposite. Since the beginning, the games typically have either a choice between a male or female character, a split between the two through branching stories or co-op play featuring both. I’ll let women decide on how well that representation is (certainly there have been questionable portrayals through the years), but women have had a strong presence in the series since its inception. This is true here too, but more so than before it brings to the surface many fears and anxieties women face.
The plot of Resident Evil 2 is simple. An unknown event has happened in Raccoon City as Leon S. Kennedy, a rookie police officer, and Claire Redfield, a college student looking for her brother, drive into it unknowingly. You pick one to play and once you finish you go back and replay the other side of the story.
I’ll focus on Claire’s campaign (referred to as scenarios), but I will mention that in the case of the original game both scenarios saw their protagonists meet side characters that acted as a mirror to their own situation. Leon drives into the city after being dumped by his girlfriend and runs into Ada Wong, a seemingly normal woman searching for her lost boyfriend. Two people who lost lovers in different contexts (we find out Ada isn’t who she seems later). In the 2019 edition they alter this, changing Leon’s backstory to an overeager rookie going into the city early and Ada reveals her true self earlier. Most people seem to like the change and, to be fair, it reflects who the characters became later in the franchise. It guts a lot of the interesting subtext, however, and makes it far less interesting, but frankly I always found Claire’s scenario more interesting.
She enters the city looking for her brother, Chris, and comes upon Sherry Birkin, who too is looking for her separated family members. Sherry in the remake has been altered to resemble and act more like a preteen. While she was always that age in the story she looked and acted more like a seven or eight year old in the original. The mirror being put up becomes a dark reflection as the story progresses.
The remake never goes into detail, but we know from franchise history that Claire’s brother, is absent from her life because he’s preparing to take on the shadowy main antagonist of the older games, The Umbrella Corporation. It’s a separate of heroism and necessity, not rejection. Claire takes after her brother’s heroism. In a clever motif of the original game she wore a biker jacket with the words “Made in Heaven” patched over an angel dropping a bomb. Claire takes the role of a guardian angel to Sherry. When Sherry is with her, she’s safe, but when she leaves her side the younger girl finds herself in danger.
The story never explicitly talks about domestic abuse and neglect, but Sherry’s mother, Annette, is unstable and abandoned Sherry before the game’s story begins. She scolds Sherry through an intercom coldly for leaving the house she was abandoned in as this zombie outbreak occurs around them. Annette, through interactions from both scenarios, cares far more about her and her husband’s research than her daughter. Sherry’s father has turned into a monstrosity that’s actions will cause her body physical harm and, worse of all, do damage that will impact her entire life.
The dynamic of Claire being a guardian angel is changed in the remake, too. Sherry’s no longer is safe in her presence. We find this broken in the introduction to one of Claire’s villains, Police Chief Irons.
His introduction in the original is unsettling. He sits behind his desk, where a dead women in a glamorous blood-soaked dress lies, and he rants about death and decay of beauty. When you return to the room moments later he, and the body, are gone. His introduction in the remake is blunter, but lacks the eerie sexualized vibe. A large man with a dead young woman laid out in front of him almost like a sacrifice gives a feeling of unease, especially when both vanish quietly.
Still, in the remake, he’s a hulk of a man who chases Sherry around an abandoned orphanage. If catching her Iron will drag the girl behind a door with the ominous message “You Are Trapped” appearing that captures a similar, if more subtle, feeling of unease.
She does escape, thankfully, and reunites with Claire. But that heroic moment is undercut when Claire’s trench coated stalker mentioned earlier crashes the reunion. We see the ghost of the girl’s future, and it looks all too much like the immediate past. The older, confident woman who rescues her still deals with a huge stalking man, even more dangerous than the one she just face.
The game does end on a happy note. If anything it’s a little too sappy, but it leaves you with a pleasant picture. But Resident Evil 2 doesn’t reboot continuity, only alters small details to fit in better with the now sprawling franchise timeline, and the characters aren’t in for a happy future. Sherry will be taken by the government, experimented on due to her direct exposure to her father’s virus and only allowed out years later to become their forever agent. Claire will get caught up in several other biohazards, largely due to her part in this incident, and becomes more hard-worn and cynical like in her last franchise appearance, Resident Evil Revelations 2.
I doubt Capcom set out to create a comment on women in society per se. You can’t have a two-decade ongoing old franchise with happy characters after all. Their misery, especially in horror, fuels the plot forward. A lot of the things mentioned happen in Leon’s scenario as well, like the constant threat of Mr. X. And it’s unlikely there will ever be a time when the games publisher and IP holder, Capcom, will ever do a serious deep dive into the PTSD effects women suffer from their horrific experiences since the series will have to retain an air of levity if for no other reason than mainstream appeal.
Still, though, as more women come forward about past abuses from areas of politics to entertainment to everyday life, it’s hard not to think about the context of women’s fears, especially from a twenty-one year horror story reshaped to reflect today’s society and norms. The bulking masculine stalkers, family abandonment, fathers causing harm to a girl’s body that will scar her for life, never-ending leering and threating men, a sense of dread in dark places for who may be there, truly a saga of battered and tough women.
Just like the real world it’s a saga as true in 2019 as it was 1998 of a cycle of abuse women have to suffer and continue on. The women of the series help carry it and, despite their scars, keep going as best they can. For a game with zombies, mutants, and giant alligators that feels like the scariest thing of all.