Can you believe 20 years have passed since the first Resident Evil game released?
Seeing the opening cinematic of that game was one of the most vivid memories of my grade school life. Just the right to watch it was something special to those of us in the 5th grade; whenever the counselor brought in his Playstation to play the game, we were the only ones allowed to watch him play. We would all huddle behind the curtains of the cafeteria stage and watch every second with glee. I don’t know if he ever got in trouble for letting 10-year old kids see such a violent game, but I don’t think he did. I mean, it’s just a little pixelated violence. What’s the big deal?
Anyway, when the opening cinematic ended and the counselor took control of Jill Valentine to begin playing the game proper, I thought nothing of it. My childhood was spent around a great single mother and families ruled by matriarchs, and the idea that a woman could be the protagonist of a video game was nothing noteworthy to me. Let’s just say I was one of the few who felt that way. All around me were other boys and girls asking, “Why are you playing as a girl?”
While female video game characters weren’t exactly rare in 1996 (Samus Aran had already blown our minds a decade earlier, for example), Jill Valentine was still something of a trendsetter. She was not the sex idol that Lara Croft burst onto the scene as, or the numerous female characters from the fighting games of the time. She was also no side character or villain; she (mostly) did not have to share screen time with a large cast the way Celes and Terra (who I totally love) did in Final Fantasy VI. Jill was a bit more like the ever-iconic Samus. She just happened to be a woman main character in a kick-ass video game.
And let’s be honest; most gamers played as Jill instead of Chris. That was the way the game was designed. Jill was the character players were meant to start with and learn the game. She has more inventory slots. She gets access to powerful weapons sooner than Chris. She has a lockpick where Chris relies on finding small keys. In general her campaign gives new players an easier time with the game as they learn how to play. It was clearly intentional that the developers wanted to introduce us to the franchise through Jill Valentine. You tried out Chris when you were good at the game.
Considering the huge success that followed for Resident Evil, I’d say they succeeded. Jill is one of the most popular female video game characters ever and among the most highly regarded characters, period. A big part of this is obviously the gentler experience for players that drove players to choose her. However, it was also because they treated her right. Jill wasn’t meant to ogle, yet she also wasn’t some annoying try-too-hard who was Not Like Other Girls™ (see Samus in Metroid: Other M). She wore a reasonable police uniform just like Chris. She was vulnerable where you expect, and tough when she needed to be. She was intelligent. Both she and Chris were treated as somewhat blank slates, but they both appealed to millions with their strength and determination while navigating the mansion’s horrors.
That’s not to claim she was perfect or avoided every stereotype people resent. The easiest solution to the first zombie Jill sees is to run and let Barry and his Colt Python kill it. Barry also saves Jill a couple of times afterwards from other dangers. But those moments are more than offset by Jill’s numerous heroic acts throughout, as well as the fact that she ends up rescuing Chris. Ultimately Barry’s help is meant only to further draw players into the game by making Jill’s story initially easier than Chris’s, which, again, made her character the one people seemed to prefer. And is that really so bad?
(And it’s not as if Chris was perfect or without help, either. His story has its own moments of reliance on S.T.A.R.S. rookie Rebecca Chambers, so gender fairness was preserved no matter which character you played as.)
If Resident Evil’s overall success doesn’t convince you of Jill’s popularity (Chris and the quality of the game itself obviously plays an important role), or her consistently high rankings among other video game characters, perhaps the fact that they brought back Jill for Resident Evil 3 will. The game was originally meant to be a spin-off with a new main character, but it was decided that they would bring back Jill instead. That speaks volumes as to her popularity. People remembered Jill and wanted her back.
Though perhaps the less said about the…alterations made to her character model, the better.
Resident Evil 2 followed a similar formula as the first game. The game could be played with two separate main characters, each with their own versions of the same basic story. In a very unique twist upon the established formula, and something I wish was done more today, four separate campaigns were available. Each character had both an A and B scenario to play through. Upon completing the A scenario with one character, the B scenario became available with the second character, which was necessary in order to see the true ending. Besides adding impressive replay value for the time, this feature solved one of the bigger issues of the first Resident Evil: whichever of the awesome main characters you do not play as spends the game stuck in a cell.
Like the first game, Resident Evil 2 also gives the gamer their choice of a male or female playable character. And much the same as the game as a whole, Claire Redfield immediately shows herself to be an improvement upon Jill. The younger sister of Chris Redfield is no experienced cop like Jill but has the same determination. Right away she shows more individual character and motive than Jill ever does when she arrives in Raccoon City looking for her brother. She is compassionate, protective, resourceful, and tough. Just as they did with Jill, the Resident Evil team avoids turning her into some tough girl stereotype. She feels real. That’s something video games today still struggle to accomplish.
Besides her relationship with Chris, most people likely walk away from Resident Evil 2 remembering Claire for her maternal relationship with Sherry Birkin. While basic by today’s standards the interactions between these two were highly impressive for the time. Through these two other players were shown Claire’s goodness and compassion rather than simply told it existed. Sherry was a bit of a surprise as well. First impressions suggested an annoying useless little girl we would spend the game babysitting. Instead we both see and play a character that also possesses considerable courage and survival skills. Together they develop a bond that was something special for 1998. Claire’s dogged determination and protective nature of this lost young girl easily projected onto the player, and Sherry made you feel like she was worth your effort. Along with the search for Chris, Claire had human motivation beyond “survive the zombies” that made the game stand out from both its predecessor and the competition springing up.
Resident Evil 2 continued its impressive display of female characters with Ada Wong, who only appeared when playing the game as Leon, the second of the game’s main characters, and Sherry’s mother Annette, who manages sympathetic motivations while playing a minor antagonistic role she is entirely unapologetic about. These characters were not random appearances; they played vital roles in the game’s events. This may feel like a “duh” thing to those of you who weren’t playing video games then. I can’t really stress how different it was to have a video game so reliant on female characters in 1998. And that’s saying something since such games are still rare today.
In the years that followed the first Resident Evil, there was an influx of characters following in both it and Jill Valentine’s footsteps, even if they were not meant to. Fear Effect’s 2 entries were an interesting spin on the Resident Evil formula with their own female lead, who in an even more daring decision was also bisexual (though she was admittedly highly sexualized to the point of controversy, and it definitely felt like a “dude, lesbians!” thing when she was around her girlfriend). Meryl Silverburgh was one of the highlights of the first Metal Gear Solid. Parasite Eve gave us Aya Brea and Dino Crisis was basically Resident Evil with dinosaurs, right down to their red-headed version of Jill named Regina. Rebecca Chambers was given her own Resident Evil game. Were all of these characters meant to remind you of Jill, or some attempt to capitalize on her and Resident Evil’s popularity? Of course not. Lara Croft existed, after all. But their shared triumph most certainly helped inspire the influx of interesting female characters that followed.
It makes you wonder just what the hell happened with Resident Evil and their women characters.
Time has long since passed Jill Valentine and Claire Redfield by. Even Resident Evil itself has largely overlooked what made them and the series so compelling to begin with. Jill’s return in Resident Evil 3 was good, but that ridiculous costume change sexualized her in ways the original game did not while a very forced romance with another character fell largely flat. Claire’s return in Code: Veronica is handled better, but another lame romance hurt the game, and Claire was left out of the climax of the game in favor of her brother Chris. Despite the success of a remake of the original game, Jill’s third return in Resident Evil 5 was handled very poorly. She was given another “sexy” makeover and spends the majority of the game as a brainwashed prisoner until Chris saves her. Capcom’s missteps have many gamers suspect of their ability to properly recreate Resident Evil 2 in their coming remake of the game.
They were far from the only victims. Resident Evil 4 had the truly awful Ashley as a damsel-in-distress screaming for help throughout 90% of the game, and reduced Ada Wong to a stereotypical femme fatale strolling through danger in a slinky red dress. Sheva is one of the worst received parts of Resident Evil 5. Excella was no better in the villain role. Resident Evil 6 brought back Sherry Birkin, only to have her in what many argue is the worst of the four campaigns to play through.
(And I’ll be honest, the game was so bad to me that I never bothered playing it through and cannot tell you how the other female characters are treated. Maybe they were great, but when the game around them is so lackluster, who would notice?)
These newer portrayals were certainly not helped by the influx of terrific female characters created over the past 20 years. As much as I love Jill and Claire, they cannot compare to the excellence of Alyx Vance from Half-Life, Bonnie MacFarlane from Red Dead Redemption, Elizabeth from Bioshock, Elena Fisher from Uncharted, Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, or The Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3. Okami puts players in the motherly fur of the white wolf goddess Amaterasu. Mass Effect threw a considerable cast of amazing female characters at us and let gamers create their own female Commander Shepard. A little girl named Clementine became the darling of the video game world because of the excellence of her portrayal in Telltale’s The Walking Dead (which is by far the best version of the Walking Dead world I’ve ever experienced, be it gaming, TV, or the comic source). Ellie from The Last of Us did much the same. 2015 featured the incredibly powerful yet compellingly human sorceresses of The Witcher 3 and one Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon upon who the game’s story is at all times centered.
Still, as we look back 20 years ago at Resident Evil and the success it has experienced, hopefully we can also look back on Jill Valentine and Claire Redfield and remember them as well. After all it’s not like Resident Evil remembers. To say the series has not maintained its success over the years is an understatement. Other than a brief revitalization with Resident Evil 4, it has seen a steady decline in both quality and prestige. Resident Evil 6 sold well but is very poorly thought of to the point Capcom is again searching for answers with the series. A series of terrible movies are the only way that millions even know the name Resident Evil. Other horror series such as Dead Space have moved in to take its place (including with good female characters with Ellie).
The older and nostalgic of us still hope to see the series find its feet again. Recent word of the soon to be announced Resident Evil 7 made many react with caution, but loyal optimism. Hopefully Capcom can remember what it was that made characters like Jill and Claire such great characters, once upon a time. And if not, well…I’ll always have my memories of the first time I saw Jill Valentine on screen beside a group of shocked 10-year olds, and how much I loved getting to play the game myself later.
Images courtesy of Capcom