Fulci, after all, was the Italian director who brought us zombie vs. shark. That clip’s from Zombi 2. Capcom’s Resident Evil 5 setting is an African village (naturally, most of the zombies you’ll face will be black), while Zombi 2 takes place mostly on a tropical island (where a good number of the zombies are also black villagers, and the protagonists are white).
Bonnie Ruberg points out the racist premise of the game in the Village Voice. Now, admittedly, watching the trailer is definitely uncomfortable, just how stark the contrast is between the fact that the one protagonist is a white guy with a gun, and everbody else is black (not everybody actually seems to be a zombie, though).
But there’s not exactly enough there in the trailer to call the entire game racist (yet). Let’s see, if you wanted to make a game that looked at how subtle and pervasive modern day racial tension in America is, setting it in a completely different place, under the shadow of the apocalypse, and making the contrast between races as melodramatic as possible, seems like a fine idea to approach it via allegory. Not even to mention if you actually wanted to comment on all the problems going on in Africa!
It’s interesting how nobody really jumps to the conclusion Capcom is trying to explore any larger themes here. Admittedly, I don’t either, although the trailer gives me a small smidgen of interest in that regard. If it was coming out of an American indie studio, I’d be more likely to believe it (more on the American qualifier in a bit). Although Dead Rising did have some pretty funny satirial elements about modern consumer culture, this would be quite a jump in controversial social commentary, to say the least.
It’s not like this type of portrayal is a uncommon occurence in media, but applied to a game it’s obviously a call for controversy. Not just Zombi 2 in 1980 – in Peter Jackson’s King Kong the Skull Island natives were, hmm, how to put this… decidely black. Which upon viewing struck me as kind of racist. Jackson was no doubt just going for creepy, but he was using the extremely dark color of their skin to produce that effect. However, RE5 is a game, so the rules of crying foul are quite different as we all know (even amongst our own critics, apparently).
So I imagine there was bit of non-thinking on Capcom’s part as to how the setting would read among viewers of the trailer and players of the game – in America, that is. See the funny thing is, in Japan – not a whole lot of black people. The way an American is going to read a setting like that, since our culture has certain persistent underlying racial prejudices expressed in various ways, is going to be quite different than how someone from somewhere else is going to read that. Coincidentally, not a whole lot of black people in New Zealand either, where Jackson is from.
Which is why I’d have a little more (but not much) faith there was deeper themes being explored there if it was an American studio. To be clear, it’s not like you have to be American to comment on racial tension. There’s certainly enough problems in various places in Africa that few game developers would have personal insight into, but could still say something useful about. Zombie child soldiers, anybody? (Plus, if you had personal insight into some of those issues, chances are you’d have more pressing things to do than make a game).
It’s just hard understand the effect of something as minor as a short video clip without a lifetime of media bias to judge it against. The fact that they cut the clip that way (they could have gotten away with much, much less for a trailer), does dash my hope a bit that the game will explore themes about racial tension (and not “racist themes” – funny how small a difference in phrase can mean quite the opposite). If the game was about those themes (the good kind), they’d obviously spend a little more forethought about just the trailer.
I imagine the largest factor in the decision of the setting was what Ruberg pointed out as Capcom’s desire to keep the series fresh by changing it drastically. It is different, ya gotta give ’em that. Not too many games set in African villages.
One to keep an eye out for, in any case. (My prediction is that they are actually trying to draw some useful parallels between the world’s AIDS problem and zombie-ism, given the language in the trailer that Ruberg also notes, but they’re not going to handle the racial issues quite sensitively enough and put some people off, unless they perhaps course correct).