I have maintained, and shall until I die, that Resident Evil 2 is a comedy. Claire Redfield, bucking zombie trends, does not live in the epicenter of infection, instead happening upon it and deciding “Well, whatever.” Oh, and she’s a college student. I remember being a college student—in between ill-advised Dickens courses I got the full run-down on how to keep calm in the apocalypse. On Leon’s end, this is his first day. His first day. Imagine if it was your first day at the peanut factory and you showed up to find all the nuts murderous and alive. That’s what’s happening to Leon. Every single time either of these characters does or sees something horrific, it is comedy.
But, of course, death is death, gore is gore, and realism is realism. There’s an uneven balance happening in the RE2 remake, hinged precariously on its hyper-real aesthetic. It has taken the place of the original’s fixed camera angles as the primary mode of visual tension. Directorial tricks used to mask past technological limitations are—irrespective of structural viability—no longer a necessity. As such, we’re handed a brutal, nauseating level of fidelity—not just in terms of gore, but in terms of space and character. The RE2 remake relies on precise lighting and photorealism to cultivate mood in a way the original couldn’t. When Leon winces and doubles over, shoulders swaying loosely in a light-headed stupor, we are witnessing a desperation the original could not represent. Its aesthetic grounding heightens our dread during play.
By the same hand, the visual overhaul also affects the more comedic elements. Though personal preference ultimately dictates your reaction to cascading innards and blown-out skulls, there is a sort of anti-camp on display: the details of violence are so real that absurdity of the whole situation cranks up to eleven. Leon and Claire remain surprisingly cool as they pull a man out from under a sheet door, only to reveal his legs are missing. He dies in your arms as a large intestine spills from his torn stomach… on Leon’s first day. During Claire’s unperturbed search for her brother. Their straight-laced, unaffected reactions allow the story to progress beyond traumatized wailings, but it also creates a stark juxtaposition; we are in the land of the dead, and—as far as I can tell—no one seems to mind.
I concede that my own proclivities for horror allow me to overlook discomfort during these moments of violence, but there is, undeniably, a comedic undertone in RE2 acknowledged by the general public. I’m, of course, talking about the cultural treatment of Mr. X. Memes, mods—there is something about Mr. X, widely considered to be one of the scariest elements in the game, that people think is funny. The way he bursts through a door; you almost half-expect him to open his mouth and shout “I’M HEEEEERE.” An inherent comedy exists within the fright he engenders, inalienable despite his dead features and murderous intent. Perhaps, more than anything else, Mr. X exemplifies the draw of camp-horror, and how Resident Evil’s hyper-realism merely transforms the genre, rather than erases it.
This complex tones serves the game well; during play, I jump and shout. During cutscene, I gawk. Despite the jarring tonal differences, I’m more or less inhabiting the characters in the moment—my panic made manifest in their actions, my detached voyeurism mirrored in their lack of hopeless tears. Notably, play and story remain fairly separate when you’re playing as Leon or Claire. Aside from a few walk-and-talks, play is largely about obtaining keys that unlock doors or the next cinematic sequence. To some, this may be perceived as a flaw, but I regard it as a strength—it allows each piece of the game to breathe with some room, allowing for the two disparate tones. It’s when they merge that problems begin to arise.
Enter: Sherry Birkin; or, rather, we enter Sherry Birkin—kidnapped, alone, terrified. Unlike Leon or Claire, she doesn’t choose her situation, nor is her premise particularly conducive to RE2’s blend of horror and hilarity. Briefly: her parents are dangerously negligent, but important, making her an ideal source of leverage. She’s also a child, coloring the threats of her surroundings in a different light. Can it really be read as “comedy” if the threat to Sherry is real—man, not zombie? Is there absurdity in this? Something ludicrous about an adult man who kidnaps and kills young women? There’s something odd about how deeply this sequence exists in a vacuum. No zombies—it’s just you and the police chief, bearing down with murder in his heart and a barely-dressed dead girl in his office. Though no overt reference is made to a sexual element in Iron’s killings, it’s hard not to feel an implication—especially given how the mayor’s daughter is bestowed with a romantic angle in her DLC story.
This uncomfortable tone exists in both cutscene and play. Yes, moving around the orphanage boils down to acquiring a key, but it’s a key he holds as you hide. Sorry, speedrunners, you have to wait for this segment to play out. Wait for Irons to reach a door, then pinch the key from him as he washes his face, all while he screams and cusses. “Where are you, you little bitch?” Again, I’m unsure what absurdity can be found here. The threats, explicit and implied, throughout this sequence break from the tone of the rest of the game (wow, what if that big man hit you), and mires itself in this discomforting sequence. Even the way Sherry begs to an uncaring God, “Oh god, oh god, make it stop” yanks this entire moment too close to reality. It, perhaps, doesn’t help that her adult voice actress can bring a level of emotional complexity and expression a real child may not have.
Perhaps Resident Evil‘s tone works best when attempting to realistically render impossible scenarios. Sure, the motivating factors behind Iron’s killings are absurd, but their actual execution feels alarmingly real. Were zombies giving chase after Sherry, this sequence would uncouple from reality in an almost relieving way—even if the threat of death still lay on the table.
As the technology improves, we will see the trend towards hyper-realism continue. We’ve been at this game a long time now, and it shows no signs of stopping. That being said, it’s important to remain critical of how it is applied, and the way that it affects the tone of what we play. Photorealism is more than a sort of mathematical picture-match with the real world, it’s an aesthetic choice that holds major ramifications for the content it frames. Due to its often conflicting tones, Resident Evil is a complicated example, but its broad spectrum of content serves as a robust test of photorealism’s effect. It may be contradictory, but in that lies a richness of tonal analysis—a wonderful testament to the complicated execution of art.