It is the silent “u” that needles me. A silent “u” not only insisted upon by Capcom’s PR in the run up to the release of Resident Evil Village, but remaining unspoken even by the characters in the game. House “Dimi-tresk” says Lady Dimitrescu herself, mangling a uniquely Romanian surname, with that telltale patrilineal suffix -escu. The first time I heard it I flinched, a reflexive response to a character not just mispronouncing their own name, but distancing themself from its meaning, its context. “Dimi-tresk-oo” is the correct pronunciation, in case you were wondering, but you may not be. After all, what does a single mispronounced name matter in a game where werewolves and vampires roam free and where a bottle of “first aid med” sloshed liberally over an injury is enough to heal any impalement or wound, even reattach an entire hand and the jacket sleeve too, if you are quick enough?
But then it isn’t just a single name. Resident Evil Village is steeped in Romanian cultural markers, centred on them. It builds plot, locations, characters around the kind of details, words and names that leap out to you if you are Romanian or have a knowledge of that fish-shaped country, its tail always leading to the Black Sea. I’m of the second category, my Romanian partner meaning I have spent a lot of time in Bucharest and travelling elsewhere within the region. For this reason, playing Resident Evil Village was particularly disjunctive, an experience I’m sure was shared by many others with connections to the country and its people. This wasn’t a surprise. In the run up to release Resident Evil Village heavily trailed what would become the star of its marketing, Lady Dimitrescu, a towering vampire in an anachronistic 1960s evening gown. That name, the first glimpses of the game with its currency listed as Lei, and its propensity for draping surfaces with white cloth embroidered with red geometric patterns, immediately suggested an engagement with selective elements and aesthetics of Romanian culture.
From the very opening of the game I found myself in a strange push and pull between these elements and the way they were presented. Here were a raft of cultural markers, recognisable, carrying meaning and atmosphere, but also stretched and squeezed into places and shapes that they did not fit, recontextualised and separated from these meanings. Ethan and Mia’s house, the first location in the game, seems to foreshadow this troubled relationship the game has with its setting. The house itself is huge, a distinctly American construction of wide doorways, open-plan living spaces, and hardwood floors. But it is stocked with an almost absurd volume of Romanian folk art: clay decanters with yellow flowers, beige pottery plates with floral borders, woven shawls and rugs draped across every available surface. Mia is even shown preparing ciorbă in ubiquitous red enamel cookware. It is almost as if the Winters family furnished their house with the contents of the gift shop of Bucharest’s Muzeul Național al Țăranului Român (National Museum of the Romanian Peasant) in an effort to appear authentic to their new adopted home. These Romanian decorative details set within an American architectural frame provides us with a symbol for the rest of the game's uneasy relationship with its cultural context.
Resident Evil Village would of course not be the first piece of culture to reframe Romanian cultural markers from a Western perspective, especially when it comes to horror. This is just another entry in a long line of vampire stories set in Romania, tracing its lineage all the way back to the originating text itself, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Notoriously set in the now Romanian region of Transylvania (which was part of Transleithania at the time), Dracula is thought to be inspired by two figures. The first is Vlad Țepeș otherwise known as Vlad Drăculea (“The Devil”) or in the West, Vlad the Impaler, a violent but successful 15th century Wallachian ruler. The second, is Elizabeth Báthory, a 16th century Hungarian countess who infamously murdered, tortured, and in some cases ate hundreds of women and girls. Lady Dimitrecu certainly seems like a revision of the Dracula story pulled back towards Báthory’s grim crimes, but both origins can be traced through Stoker’s work and the countless imitators that followed. Despite this Stoker never visited Romania, and so the lasting image many have of Transylvania is one explicitly framed from a distant exterior, painting a picture of a gothic region of haunted villages and crumbling mountaintop castles. This image is one that has been encouraged over the years by Romanian authorities, mostly to drive tourism to the region and Bran castle in particular, an atmospheric location that has been labeled “Dracula’s Castle” despite having little to do with Țepeș, as no records show him to have ever visited it. So it is to be expected that the vampire-focussed Resident Evil Village would be just another distant reconfiguration of the region around tired tropes. And yet, it becomes quickly apparent that the game is attempting something more than this.
Despite its touristic opening, once we arrive at the game’s titular village the game’s relationship with Romania becomes more complicated. For those unfamiliar with the particular vernacular architecture of rural Romania, the central hub of the game, snowbound and rundown, might seem like a prototypical “European” village. Its humble wood and brick constructions, when overshadowed by the gothic absurdity of Castle Dimitrescu, perhaps appear to be medieval or derived from traditional fantasy tropes. However this is not the case. There’s an uncanny accuracy to, even affection for, the particular qualities and atmospheres of Romanian architecture in the game’s hub. On my first arrival I found myself wandering around it almost as if in a daze, fascinated by the attention to detail throughout its handful of streets. Unlike the Winters’s home, this was no kitschy folk-art display, but a delicately researched, genuinely meaningful rendition. Carved wooden entrances, modified to carry barred and patterned iron gates, modified once again with dull blue steel plates to block the view into the courtyard. Painted houses with fading floral designs, their cracked plaster falling away to reveal clay bricks beneath. External clay ovens, raised ground floors, wooden shingles. Then layered on top, markers of encroaching modernity: blue tarps, Monobloc plastic chairs, rusted UTB Tractors.
Games speak to us through many channels, and here Resident Evil Village was speaking with care and intelligence about the particulaires of Romanian village architecture, its tensions and histories, the stories it houses and the worlds it evokes. I was genuinely taken-aback to see a game ostensibly appropriating the region for its horror credentials put this much care and attention into its cultural context. And yet, moments later after finding the inhabitants of this village (gurning “lycans” notwithstanding) once again I flinched. Here was a group sporting typical Romanian names, Iulian, Elena, Luiza, all speaking in American accents. This delicately detailed Romanian village is a Romania without Romanians. If it wasn’t for the care and attention given to the village itself, it would be hard not to see this as another symbol for the treatment of Romania in the horror genre generally. Hell, any country in the poorly defined grouping of Eastern Europe seems to be treated with the same disinterest and confusion, the countries and cities all interchangeable to a Western eye. After all, Michael Jackson, Iron Maiden, and Lenny Kravitz are among the many musicians who have, while giving performances in Bucharest, called out to the crowd "Hello, Budapest!" But in Village’s case, there is not so much a general disinterest as there is a disorienting inconsistency in awareness and care. The effect, for me at least, was a constant whiplash as the game both evoked and escaped its Romanian context in equal measure.
The result of this uneasy duality is hard to feel comfortable with. There’s a part of me that is fascinated by the choices the game makes, from making all of its stat-boosting recipes traditional Romanian dishes (Sarmale! Mititei! Pilaf!) to naming many of its enemies after Romanian folklore. This latter example means we get a Vârcolac rather than a werewolf, an Uriaș instead of a giant. The names Moroaică and Samca are used too, though the enemies they describe barely match the original usage. Because of this we are left with a revision that overtakes the original reference: try putting any of these terms into a search engine, you’ll now get countless guides and wikis detailing how to battle these “East European” ghouls, the folklore behind them now buried in the detritus of a videogame release. I don’t think Resident Evil Village’s intent was one of erasure, in fact in relation to the series shaky history of representing cultural contexts (see the nonsensical Spain of Resident Evil 4 or the rampant racist imagery of Resident Evil 5) Resident Evil Village seems to represent a genuine attempt to engage with its chosen context. But in doing so it erases nonetheless, while simultaneously creating a distorted image of Transylvania as a cache of Romanian cultural markers when in reality its contested nature makes it a hybrid of Romanian, Hungarian (and even older Ottoman) cultural influences.
Because of this, it is an attempt that in its inconsistency and lack of self awareness, ultimately fails. And this failure is one that I can’t help but feel is a missed opportunity. I think we should be cautious of treating countries and nationalities as symbolic objects. In my mind national images have always been abused and used as positions of power, from which to judge and expel those who do not adhere. Having said this, the choice to represent a people, a place, a context, comes with responsibilities. What if Resident Evil Village had taken up those responsibilities? What if its entire development team, not just those that created those detailed and affectionate Romanian houses in the village, had engaged with the folklore, the history of the place they had chosen as a setting? There are hints of this everywhere in the game. I can see it in Castle Dimitrescu’s evocation of the esoteric and varied interiors of Peleș Palace. In the T-77 tanks, the exact tank that rolled through the streets of Bucharest during the so-called Romanian Revolution of 1989, rusting in the long grass on the edge of the village. In the mirroring of a typical Eleusa orthodox icon depicting a golden-haloed Mary and baby Jesus in one of the final images in the game, that of Mother Miranda holding Ethan’s daughter Rose, a golden crest rising behind her head. These images gesture at some connection, some working through themes and ideas that might have sparked something truly worthwhile. But without support, without a sense of context, these moments fail to cohere into something meaningful, and the context is lost in its totality, remaining as silent as that unspoken “u.”
Gareth Damian Martin is an award-winning writer, designer and artist. Their first game, In Other Waters was widely praised by critics for its “hypnotic art, otherworldly audio and captivating writing” (Eurogamer). Their games criticism has been published in a wide variety of forms and they are the editor and creator of Heterotopias, an independent zine about games and architecture. Find them @jumpovertheage.