Oh Resident Evil 5, why you gotta make me hit you? I understand that in Japan, there just isn't the sort of racial sensitivity common in the US (at least, not regarding people of African descent---I don't know how they deal with their legacy of brutality to Chinese and Koreans). But some of the recent leaks from Resident Evil 5 confirm that the game is, if not the interactive Birth of a Nation some feared, at least a bath in some ugly stereotypical oogedy-boogedy.
And that makes me sad. Not just because, like, racism is bad, but because I had really hoped for RE5 to be good.
Africa is a great setting for a Resident Evil game, or any kind of zombie story. Areas like the Congo have been torn apart for a decade by armed groups that operate somewhere between an army, a cult, and a Buffy-style gang-on-PCP---much of the climate of almost incomprehensible atrocity in Africa's civil wars is due to the heavy use of drugs to get its militias revved-up, not to mention extensive recruitment of children (child-level reasoning skills + heavy drugs + social pressure = bayonet rape as lifestyle). It's a level of brutality and hive-mind evil that's hard to wrap one's head around, and that's exactly where literature of the fantastic can step in and make us capable of at least looking it in the face. Using zombies as the stand-in for the large-scale Manson families ripping across the continent is a terrific metaphor, especially when you have the series' Umbrella Corporation acting as a stand-in for the colonialist history that got Africa into this mess in the first place. Done right, this could have been the most cogent use of horror as parable since Dawn of the Dead, or at least Ginger Snaps.
Which is why its so disappointing that the design team seems content with King Kong style bushwa. This is a touchy subject, and in order to get it right, you have to go in armed with perceptiveness and original thinking, exactly the things that prejudice and stereotyping make impossible. When you start throwing around images of natives in grass skirts, I start thinking you're not engaging with contemporary Africa at all, just throwing around a images from Tintin comics, and the story's whole reason for existing crumbles right quick.
But even if RE5 does turn out to be just as bad as we all feared, I hope someone takes up the challenge again. American sensitivity towards racial stereotypes is really not a bad thing much of the time; we're a country that's trying to overcome some ugly habits, and a certain amount of awkward self-monitoring seems a small price to pay for that. But video games, like animation, are a medium that thrives on caricature. And the (entirely valid) sensitivity towards caricatures of people of color often results in simple locking-out of black, Latino, or Asian characters in games, as designers think "What with the stylized art direction we're using, do these African-American characters end up looking too much like R. Crumb characters? Ahhh fuck it, just make 'em white guys---then no one will complain."
So far, interestingly, the only games that seem to be really taking the problem head-on are games adapted from other licenses, like Afro Samurai, the Def Jam games, and Fifty Cent: Blood on the Sand, which are the gaming equivalent of blaxploitation flicks---unapologetically lowbrow, but at least offering some kind of representation. Gaming's still a long way from sensitive representation of anybody, much less historically underrepresented groups, so I think gaming's Citizen Kane will have to happen long before its She's Gotta Have It.