The secret meaning of Resident Evil

Resident Evil's secret philosophy

The wonderful thing about subjectivity is that you never know what you will get out of anything. The ways we perceive media, for instance, are largely influenced by hidden mechanisms within our cognitive functioning. Different people can spontaneously come out with different understandings of the same subject, offering us fascinating insights into the minds of one another.

The scary thing about subjectivity is that not all interpretations are necessarily valid.

For all the buzz surrounding the Resident Evil series these past sixteen years, few people have yet to grasp the true meaning behind each successive instalment. Many claim them to be simple experiments in videogame horror and action; others instinctively chastise what they see as bad design and misguided focus. While these assessments come close, they fundamentally fail to realise that Resident Evil is actually an allegory for the discussion on human nature in 19th century German philosophy.

Nihilism manifests in funny ways

You might be thinking how that could be in any way plausible given the pure ostentation and silliness of the franchise, as if these factors preclude the possibility of satire. Bear in mind that even when the series began, it was filled to the brim with absurd character archetypes, dialogue, plot points and game mechanics which have been retained in collective memory to this very day. The incredulity of this world-building could be nothing else but a manifestation of a deeply nihilistic worldview: in the Umbrella mansion reality itself is twisted and mocked, nobody acts like a normal human being, but all is taken as if customarily usual.

This is clearly an implementation of Arthur Schopenhauer’s rejection of logic as a principle underlying cosmic operations. Schopenhauer denied that the universe works in any sensible or pleasing way to the rational perceiver, instead citing all human will and action as futile and meaningless. In his opinion, human beings are merely subjectively functioning creatures unconnected to any social consciousness or truly objectively existing stimulus. The erratic reference to a Jill Sandwich could not exist in any reasonable world.

In support of his nihilism, Schopenhauer advocated what is called the “Will to Life” as the source of motivation for human existence. Since the universe isn’t conductive to human operations, people must be motivated by an innate desire to prolong and preserve their lives. The survival horror of the early Resident Evil games took a form where the player was forced to prioritize survival in his/her mission to escape from a hostile environment. The player was instilled with a will to live from the core mechanics and outwards.

It is not only the player’s actions that are characterized by the Will to Life – the Umbrella Corporation itself was originally presented along the same principles. You have zombies, the living dead, obviously a manifestation of the desire to preserve the self past our mortal constraints. Umbrella created the T-virus in the hopes of finding an out from the final counterpoint to the Will to Life: death itself. The goal, of course, is to transcend humanity’s natural limitations and forgo the Will to Life by forging a new path beyond death. It’s no coincidence that creatures of the T-virus are often described by their proponents as ‘perfect’ and ‘ultimate.’

The Will to Live being challenged by a scary monster

Over time, the series began to shift in gameplay focus and take on a more action-orientated form. This transformation in genre coincided with the thematic adjustment of Umbrella’s research from the T-virus to Las Plagas. After so many failed attempts at surpassing nature by overcoming death, Umbrella adopts a new perspective on spiritual transcendence. Whereas zombies served as remnants of an adherence the Will to Life, those infected with Las Plagas represent a more existentially-centric ideal: the Will to Power, as espoused by Friedrich Nietzsche.

In reaction to Schopenhauer’s overt pessimism and disregard for the spiritual wealth of humanity, Nietzsche suggested it is actually the Will to Power, meaning a desire to improve and empower oneself, that forms the basis of our earthly motivations. Ruling out nihilism as a worthwhile worldview, he proposed that the universe is a wonderful creation and that life should be considered not merely as the slow plod towards death but as a magnificent manifestation of the self and existence.

Similarly, the plodding, restrictive control interface of the early games was replaced in Resident Evil 4 by a more empowering and player-accessible framework. Stationary and railed cameras were ditched for a third-person perspective; ammo became abundant to fit a much more active gameplay pace. While before the player could only slash impotently in the air as a last resort of defence, now he/she can roundhouse kick the enemy in their stupid head. This most definitely exemplifies a transformation in philosophical perspective to one of power over futility.

As the player became more and more empowered, so too did Umbrella adapt its goals to better strive towards human perfection. The methodology of Las Plagas differs significantly from the T-virus in that it does not require the prior destruction of the self through death, but rather it preserves the infected subject’s identity and will. Schopenhauer maintained that human will was predetermined, represented through zombies as mindless, vapid automatons, void of cognitive agency. In contrast, those infected with Las Plagas better retain their sense of identity and it empowers them beyond their undead precursors, rising above metaphysical nihilism through a valuing of the self as a causally-consistent entity.

The face of Nietzschean transcendance

That’s obvious enough but it’s worth considering how the transition to a more existentially-pleasing ideology did not occur spontaneously on the release of RE4. On the contrary, the Resident Evil series have always been about a shift from the Will to Live to the Will to Power – as a rule each new instalment was more action-orientated than its predecessor.

Although the world of Resident Evil may appear logically incongruent through the dialogue and character interactions, a significant portion of the player’s time is devoted to resolving various locked-door puzzles that abide by a logical causality. The player ultimately escapes each game’s faux-nihilistic setting and resolves the constant struggle for survival through positivistic willing, countering Schopenhauer’s dismal presentation of action as utterly futile. Even the imposing boss characters that haunt the player in RE2 and RE3, those seemingly indestructible avatars of immutable, deterministic Schopenhauerian will, are in the end overcome and defeated. Along the same lines, RE1 featured multiple endings in stark defiance to Schopenhauer’s disbelief in human agency and the meaning underlying human actions.

You may have wondered why this transition has even occurred, given the undeniable success of the franchise at its survival horror roots. The answer is that the series’ genre has consistently taken a form best represented by the cultural zeitgeist in protest to Schopenhauer’s denial of social consciousness as a characterizing force of humanity. It’s no secret that AAA developers have grown more and more inclined towards action-packed shooty adventures as the years have passed, and likewise RE has incorporated this into the series’ shifting gameplay. Although at first Resident Evil was about horror and survival, now the series sardonically mocks Schopenhauer’s disbelief in the natural flow and ebb of shared cultural ideals.

Similarly, recent instalments have seen the further introduction of cooperative and online play into the series’ core structure, in compliance with the games industry’s ham-handed gratification of current trends. This keeps true to Nietzsche’s acceptance of zeitgeist as a social factor. On the other hand he also asserted that society serves to repress and limit each entity’s existential power, as is represented by the co-op mechanics being deliberately stunted and awkward for each player. Many critics have erroneously cited this as a negative aspect of the series.

While the earlier games may have broadcast bleak nihilism and lulled the player into apparent adherence to Schopenhauerian philosophy, in fact they actually functioned to critique that philosophical pessimism by facilitating player ability and success to greater and greater degrees as time went on. It’s no mistake that the series has slowly drifted towards action-orientated gameplay – this has been Capcom’s plan all along. The clues have been right under our noses this whole time. Umbrella was originally founded by Ashford and Spencer – A.S. for Arthur Schopenhauer. The German even looks kind of like a zombie.

Schopenhauer cameo

Note also how Chris’ character has changed from one who gets squished by oncoming boulders in Resident Evil 1 to one who punches boulders in the face in Resident Evil 5. That’s evolution of character.

Ultimately Umbrella is in the business of developing a new form of life which humanity can adopt for its future betterment. You don’t need much imagination to make the connection between the company’s recurring motives and the Nietzcshean ideal of the ubermensch, the next stage of man in the journey of existential fulfilment. The ubermensch is a metaphysical break away from the burdensome constraints of worldly existence, first manifesting as zombies free from death but still leashed by the Will to Live, then as Las Plagas consumed by outwardly stimulants as a means towards power. For all his supernatural abilities, Wesker often touted himself as godlike and transcendent to mortal man.

But in Nietzschean philosophy God is dead; Wesker was beaten time and time again despite all his villainous boasting of perfection. The means by which Umbrella struggled towards its goals were consistently proven deficient in ideology and execution. In each game, the true path towards existential completion takes the form of the player character’s journey; in Resident Evil 6 we are given multiple playable characters, each one representing a step in the spiritual metamorphosis into a more consolidated being. Leon is the camel, a beast burdened by the hardships of life (zombies, representing the Will to Live and survival horror). Chris is the lion, more active and free but still occupied in battle with the dragon of worldly values (Las Plagas and shooty videogame clichés). Lastly is Jake, who functions as Zarathustra, the prophet and harbinger of the ubermensch.

So who is the final stage in the metamorphosis, the child at play, free from worldly burdens and happy? Why, that would be the player, of course – constantly winning out over the struggles of power-hungry Umbrella, all the while growing more capable and powerful with each passing year. The player, who is forgetful of the dipping quality of the entire series as of late, or rather, unconcerned with the perceived dip in quality by other critics and fans. Who buys and plays the game anyway, and maybe even enjoys RE6 somehow. Existentially fulfilled, perhaps oblivious.

You never would have thought that Resident Evil delivers a narrative on the spiritual evolution of humanity as depicted through a debate spanning about a century of German philosophy, but it’s true. Many might criticise the series for the path it has chosen, unaware of the actual profundity that’s there if you just read between the lines a bit. Nevertheless, when you’re in the know, it helps you appreciate the series just a little bit more.

6 thoughts on “The secret meaning of Resident Evil

    • I think the central theme of early RE is a discourse on militarism and its causes: the fear of defeat, destruction and enslavement. The desire for power, (and with it absolute security), is taken to its ultimate conclusion, (Nemesis & other bosses).
      But the dedication of existence to the pursuit of power, driven by insecurity, is exposed as absurd, because it displaces all other content (which might make up a “meaningful” existence).
      Biological survival is all that matters in nature and evolution. That which survives, survives.
      Many have replaced in their minds the richness of human LIFE with this crude truism, have defined “Life” using the biological definition, rather than a richer, existential, historic, being-in-the-world outlook.
      It is indeed sad that this outlook frames modern western ideology. I cannot also be denied that a crude biologistic outlook formed the main pillar of German Nazism.
      Ultimately it is part of a comic book mentality cultivated by a right-wing establishment which encourages ignorance and alienation from reality.

      This is what I’ve always felt to be the “Message” behind Resi: the colourful exposure of a phoney and harmful mass ideology, cleverly using the very same populist methods of the oppressors, (the ruling class= Umbrella),to get that message across.
      The zombies are a parody of R.Dawkin’s (et al), notion of “DNA robots”. Their existence is purely survival: to all joy and experience, and to any historical dynamic, they are truly DEAD.
      The “Ultimate” survivors (the aforementioned bosses), are ,(though admittedly powerful), deformed wretches with absurd, weaponised bodies, ultimately controlled by a mindless virus.

  1. You know, having played RE6 (and by “played” I mean “suffered through”) I was about ready to write off the franchise and never look back. But you know what? You’ve got a point.

    My best impression of RE1 Chris is that he was a bit of a weenie. Relatively speaking, of course; he’d certainly do better than me if I was in the same situation, but he never gave off airs of being tough, battle-ready, experienced, or even competent (people elsewhere have wondered why no member of STARS has any ability to break down doors or locks). Come RE5 and RE6, Chris is a hardened soldier ready to get the job done with power and weaponry. If you’ll let me go off on a tangent, the Marvel vs. Capcom games have featured Resident Evil characters before; whereas Jill from MvC2 had some awkward-looking physical attacks and relied on the creepy-crawlies from the games to fight on her behalf, come MvC3 Chris relies on surprisingly-high physical power, explosive weapons, AND has more health than a good 75% of the cast. (Jill also returns, and has become a high-speed, karate-kicking offensive juggernaut.)

    So yeah, maybe there is some evolution and meaning to Resident Evil that’s gone unnoticed. But even so, that doesn’t make it a good idea.

    I don’t think I can stress how jarring it was for me to be able to hit zombies with a low roundhouse kick/elbow drop combo with Helena, or power-bomb mutants with Piers. Not just because of the tonal inconsistency with the somber epic Capcom tried to paint, but because these are two new characters to the franchise — two people who might have received training, but haven’t had the time to develop over the course of a half-dozen games like the others. I don’t think that the shift in style from survival horror to action is necessarily a bad one, but it is if the shift is cartoonish and ill-fitting — certainly so if that shift can’t offer anything half as fun as the games the style tries to ape. I get what you’re trying to say with this post, and I do agree that the evolution of character is a definite (even preferable) possibility…but I think that Capcom SERIOUSLY overdid it in recent installments.

    “Chris is the lion, more active and free but still occupied in battle with the dragon of worldly values (Las Plagas and shooty videogame clichés).”

    And that may be the biggest problem. Nobody forced the developers to put in shooty videogame cliches, but they did it regardless. Even if it’s to establish a point or offer interpretations, that doesn’t make it a good idea.

    Ugh…sorry, but that game just brings out the worst in me. Still, I really did like this post; certainly entertaining as well as intellectual. It’ll be interesting to see if what you’ve proposed here will be kept in mind for the inevitable RE7; I’d assume that’s where the undeniable proof of your argument will be found.

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