header is screenshot from Resident Evil 4 (2023)
And Then There Are Things We Don't Remake
Ed Smith

It’s that bit where you play as Ashley, and she’s holding the door closed with her back while the cultists try and get in, and she kind of chides herself and says, “I won’t run.” Videogame makers have gotten very good at this, where they manage to gratify the liberal, perhaps more critical, “We should have better representation in games” type of player and the other, kind of anti-change, “Keep games like they’ve always been” player simultaneously. So you get Ashely saying to herself “I won’t run,” which sort of makes sure that the first type of player—liberal, etc.—sees what they want to see, and you get Ashley shrieking and screaming and not doing much really to interfere with the overall story to make sure the second type of player—doesn’t want games changed too much, and so on—sees what they want to see. 

Or when Leon and Ashley come to the bridge in the waste disposal room on the island base, and Ashley goes to turn the valve that lifts the bridge up, and says (paraphrasing), “let me handle it. I’m good at this stuff,” and what it does is offer the kind of flavour of a whisper of female agency—she’s doing something to help out the guy, and the game is acknowledging she’s in some way, like, combat useful—but she’s still just turning a valve. Same as when Leon lifts her on his shoulders to drop down the ladder right before the last boss fight, and then he says, “hey you’re getting good at that” and Ashley replies “right?!” You know, it’s like if you want to believe that games are Better now than they used to be and companies like Capcom, actually, as an entity, are in any way describable as human and believe in anything like better representation, then you can see that, if you want—she does something, and the game makes sure the player (and the male character) appreciates or at least notices she does something. But if you want to see it the other way, that she’s still subordinate and peripheral and exterior, like she used to be, well, it’s kind of like a magic eye thing, and you can see it that way, too. 

It’s not just games. Commercial entertainment has gotten extremely good at ensuring that your beliefs, whatever they are, are somehow reflected back to you—or if not reflected back to you, then anything within a particular example of commercial art that contradicts your beliefs does so in a way that can be ignored if you choose, like how Joker has Joker kill a bunch of guys who were grabbing that woman on the train, but he only does it after they start attacking him, so it’s not Joker doing something to stand up for a woman—don’t worry—but if you want to see it that way you can. 

It’s the perverse achievement of popular art in the 21st century, that it’s managed to make the concept of “something for everyone” so sinister, and synonymous with deception. Videogames of this type, the Resident Evil 4 type, have always been mass market, but I guess there was a time where the market was more homogenous, more like one big demographic. Now the mass market includes a lot more kinds of people, and big videogames have developed in this style of writing and characterisation and presentation that—miraculously, almost kind of admirably—ensures no-one has an excuse not to play. If you’re a feminist, Ashley talks more, does more, is kind of semi appreciably less sexualised than before. It won’t work on everyone, but enough people will be impressed by this ostensible progress as compared to 2005 that Resident Evil 4 Remake more or less passes the look test. If you like things how they were, and you’re worried about how videogames increasingly seem politicised or driven by a liberal agenda, Ashley still doesn’t do that much, and you still get to order her around, and there’s a few decent close-ups of her and Ada. 

Remake Ashley and 2005 Ashley are the same, both written, designed, etc. for their respective demographic. What’s changed isn’t the ethea or the aspirations or the artistry or anything to which you might apply any kind of noble word like this—what’s changed is just the demographic. 2005, the ruling belief was that videogames were consumed principally by sexually inexperienced straight men, hence the first version of Ashley. 2023, it’s understood a lot of different people play games now, hence the generalisable, universal, kind Rorschach version of Ashley, where you can see basically anything represented in her, if you want. And there’s only so much indignation you can have about this, because it’s obviously how it’s going to be, and always going to be—they’re always going to make games this way, the big games, because it’s an industry. I guess it’s just the idea that this is better somehow that I find complicated. Because, yes, it is, in a sense, better that Ashley has this fraction of more agency and this fraction of less invitations to leer at her, but it still comes from design. Everything’s about design. It’s not this way because of personality or passion or meaning or whatever other ingredient you’d find in decent entertainment and art. It’s just there by design—if the market skewed towards everyone buying tiger games, they’d remake Ashley with stripes and a tail. It’s not because anyone cares. But the greatest trick of all this stuff is making it seem like it’s true progress, and it is about caring, and it is because it matters to people somewhere, and so criticising it like this makes the critic sound like the conservative one. They’ve made it so if you doubt their product, you don’t just sound uncool or like a killjoy or something, you sound tantamount to like, immoral, like you’re somehow impeding progress towards improved representation by never being happy with anything, like you’re just inviting games and game-makers to give up because you won’t allow them to please you. But I don’t think wearing shorts instead of a skirt you can look up, and getting to turn some valves now is really all that much to show after nearly two decades. 


Ed Smith is one of the co-founders of Bullet Points Monthly. His Twitter handle is @esmithwriter.