THEATRE REVIEW: Biohazard The Stage

Biohazard The Stage

As previously documented, my long-standing relationship with Resident Evil (or Biohazard, to give its original Japanese title) has been somewhat tortured of late. Therefore, the prospect of going to see a stage adaptation of the franchise (having already spun-off into films, books, comics, and theme park interactive experiences) was met more with caution than excitement, but still a morbid curiosity. What form would it take? How would it work? Would it be scary? Embarrassing? Hilarious? Awful? Given that it tied in nicely with a trip to Tokyo and I would be accompanied by a friend with a similar take on all things Resident Evil, how could I not go?

Performed at Roppongi’s swish, new EX Theater, with a short run in late October/early November, Biohazard The Stage (a glorious linguistic misfire of a name) is set sometime between the events of RE5 and RE6, in which a virus outbreak turns the staff and faculty of an Australian university into zombies and fan “favourites” Chris Redfield, Rebecca Chambers and Piers Nivans have to contain it. The plot devised by Capcom is not based on any one game, but follows the same predictable narrative beats that would make it fit neatly amongst the official chapters. As such, it won’t surprise anyone who has played any of the games (and God help you if you see this without any prior experience), or probably anyone who has encountered a work of fiction for that matter. Will the scientists with the wonky tie harbour a dark secret? Will the bleach blonde guy in the red shirt turn out to be a bit of a bad’un? Will the mysterious stranger with the leather jacket hold the key to everything?

Perhaps this is more a ‘greatest hits’ package, assembling these well-worn elements (and fairly cohesively) as a nod to the fans. And there is certainly fan service on offer, notably flashbacks to RE0 and RE1, as well as appearances from those infamous door animations, a rocket launcher and even a First Aid Spray (no typewriters or item chests that I can recall though). These winky references are to be expected, and as cringe-inducing as they may be, they made me smile, in a chucklesome “oh, you went there, didn’t you” kind of way. The same can be said of the staging, a large shifting multi-tiered set onto which are projected different foregrounds and backdrops to change location. And yet, these projections are low-resolution and/or created with crummy CG, unintentionally mimicking the basic polygon models and basic textures of the original game. It’s a shame though that the key thing lost in its translation to the stage is the horror. What little blood and gore and gruesomeness there is in Biohazard The Stage is largely confined to pre-recorded video, nothing especially scary happens, and the zombies are disappointingly unthreatening. It doesn’t help that the action gets repetitive quickly, with scene after scene of our heroes darting into a new location, popping some caps, fisting some cuffs (in a reminder to just how much the games have been influenced by the films, there is an awful lot of kicking and hand-to-hand combat), and making their way to point B. But at least the actors are no slouches in that department, maintaining an impressive energy level throughout.

In fact, for all the inherent silliness, the cast are completely committed to the premise, taking everything very seriously, as if a stage adaptation of a video game franchise is just as legitimate as Pinter or Beckett, or at the very least a jukebox musical. And why not? That a stage version of Phoenix Wright was playing down the road suggests this wasn’t as novel a proposition as it first appeared. Though the principals are mostly culled from TV dramas and idol groups, Sonny Chiba (best known in the West for the Street Fighter – not that one – movies, and Kill Bill) lends the production a bit of emotional heft and gravitas, though the best character is the impossibly-monikered Posh Brown, a jittery security guard whose comic relief antics, while played broad, break the po-faced earnestness elsewhere. During the interval, my friend and I joked that what it really needed was a musical number, and lo and behold, the second half commences with a big zombie scuffle choreographed to a hi-NRG dance-pop tune. There are some other fun stage effects and ideas too – the backstory for the Umbrella corporation features actual umbrellas twirling on stage, text messages are projected onto the backdrop, a genetic mutation happens with the aid of simple but effective costume trickery.

So, for better and for worse, Biohazard The Stage is a faithful adaptation of the Resident Evil games as they currently exist. It is closer to the games than the live-action films in execution, and while it plays like one long cut-scene, it’s at least more interesting than the straight-to-DVD CG offerings. Faint praise, maybe, and there’s certainly nothing there for anyone but the most dedicated fans, but despite feeling burned out by all things bio-weaponry, it was not the abomination it could have been.

A DVD release is due in January with English subtitles, but I imagine much would be lost removed from the live setting (where at least there is something fascinating about experiencing it in the flesh with an audience). Viewed through a screen, I can see it becoming especially tedious. One for only the most hardcore/foolish (delete where applicable) Resident Evil enthusiast.

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Has gaming become too ‘American’?

“Shock and Awe” or “Shrug and Yawn”? Call of Duty: Black Ops II

The dust has settled on another E3. As the booth babes were packed up and put in cold storage until San Diego Comic-Con, gaming journos, companies and punters take stock of everything that flashed before their eyes over during the tumult of show-and-tell. If there were two key stories to come out of the whole shebang, it would be 1) the seemingly increasing insignificance of the Big Three’s press conferences as a source of anything interesting, and 2) VIOLENCE, the jumping off point of this particular piece.

With the industry and its defenders still trying to find some believable explanation as to why Hitman: Absolution’s new trailer was in any way acceptable, E3 should have been a helpful distraction to highlight the rich diversity of videogames today. Unfortunately, it seemed to make everything worse. From the near-rape of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, to the “gunshot (and subsequent cheers) heard around the (gaming) world” in The Last of Us, it was like having to repeatedly apologise for a family member’s embarrassing behaviour in public. To condemn or to apologise? It certainly couldn’t be ignored.

However, the talking point here is not whether video games have become too violent, rather ‘Has gaming become too ‘American’? Before I qualify this statement (note the inverted commas), let’s make it clear I know E3 takes place in LOS ANGLELES and LOS ANGELES is in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, hence an inevitable skewing towards American tastes. It explains why Microsoft (yes, the only American company to have one of the big press conferences) devoted so much time letting people know they could watch more ‘sports’ on their Xbox, with all that blabber about UFC and luxury cars. Clearly they know their core demographic – the “Hey bro, let’s get some brewskis, watch the ‘game’ and play Call of Duty” crowd – but it just all seemed so feeble and appealing to the lowest common denominator.

So, to explain, what I really mean by ‘American’ is in the sense of a global popular culture (big sweeping generalisations coming up!). Although the influence of American culture has been eroded of late as the likes of Korea, China and Latin America have become more commercially exportable as a cultural entities, it can certainly still be regarded as the de facto ‘other’ to the rest of the world. And the biggest exporter of American culture worldwide is Hollywood, so much so that in recent years, international box office takings for American movies have outstripped their domestic takings when the very opposite had been the norm. But Hollywood’s output generally consists of franchise-ready flat-pack block-busters, delivering undemanding spectacle at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

What has this to do with videogames? Well, given that we are constantly reminded that the videogames industry now makes more money than the film industry, it’s interesting to look at parallels between the two and what product reaps the biggest rewards. And while it might be the case that games are bigger now, they still can’t help but draw much from Hollywood, aping movies but rarely with the scripting ‘talent’ to back it up – macho posturing dialogue sticking in their animated jaws. What sells though is what I’d call “shock and awe gaming”. Looking at the big sequels shown at E3 to the established AAA franchises, the focus is on violence and explosions and little else. Processing power allows so much detail and so much happening on screen at any one time, the beauty of simplicity has been lost in a cacophony of firepower and a sea of washed out browns and greys, punctuated by yellow and orange fireballs and the splatter of crimson. It’s Michael Bay’s Transformers everywhere you look.

Brawn in the USA: the meatheads of Gears of War: Judgment

With money-spinning franchises such as Gears of War, Call of Duty, Halo et al en vogue, it seems like truly idiosyncratic titles are becoming few and far between (at least at the top budget level). Even those which look like they are trying to do something innovative with gameplay (such as Watch_Dogs) feel obliged to adopt the generic bland-o-style mix of gritty urbanism, casual swearing, and indiscriminate blood-letting lest a more distinctive style (in something like Mirror’s Edge for instance) put off the punters. It’s not something that has passed Japan by either – I recently waxed lyrical about the increasing action focus of the Resident Evil series, but only recently were Metal Gear Solid’s Hideo Kojima and Keiji Inafune lamenting Japan’s position as the dominant force in gaming being eroded, and citing the need to adopt a more Westernised approach to their titles. While games have never been as easy to pinpoint culturally to their country of origin as say cinema or literature, beyond perhaps no longer relevant lines of taste defined by ‘Japan’ and ‘the West’, but it does seem a very long time since, say, Sega’s Dreamcast output which, though attempting on occasion to emulate Western styles of game, were always quintessentially Japanese in their execution. But then again, the scale of these projects now means studios across the world work on different aspects of the same game, so a uniform, global approach is perhaps a given as well as a desirable outcome.

It’s clear the demographic has changed – the Nintendo and Sega kids of yore are now the PlayStation and Xbox adults of today, even if their maturity often hasn’t caught up. Though Nintendo opened up new consumers with the Wii and its move towards ‘casual gaming’, it feels as if their blockbuster output has slowed of late, with smaller Mario and Zelda titles biding everyone’s time until the key biggies. But if the multi-million-dollar titles in development reflect a sea of indistinct mundanity, the burgeoning indie game sector still shows that they do not always reflect the country produced, be it American, Japanese, French, British or anywhere, but the individuals behind them, displaying their own style, sense of humour, and interests.

Gaming is still a young art form. It’s grown out of its early arcade infancy, passed through post-PlayStation puberty, and is now in its brash cocksure college student days, filled with frat parties, road trips and attempts to get laid (or so I gather from American comedies). Let’s hope by the time it graduates to the next generation, it straightens out and gets a decent hardworking job, instead of moving back home to its parents’ house and reverting to bad infantile habits.

Resident Evil: Reservations

Six Shooter - Leon takes aim in Resident Evil 6

A couple of days ago, Capcom and Sony, in a bit of cleverly orchestrated marketing, unveiled their first big trailer reveals for the freshly announced Resident Evil 6 and the recently wrapped Resident Evil: Retribution respectively, this the week before Resident Evil: Revelations is released on the Nintendo 3DS, in a clear attempt to whip geeks up into a Resi-frenzy.

It seems like a good time to take stock of where we are at regarding Resident Evil in its various iterations. I was going to save this up for an article in which I watch all four films back-to-back upon the release of the fifth in some kind of hideous masochistic movie marathon but I will only touch briefly on the film series here, so it may still happen (lucky me/you). And I’m not going to enter into much speculation on the story, characters, and call-backs per se, rather I’m interested in looking at where Resident Evil as a franchise is headed. Of course, this is still just another knee-jerk trailer reaction rant, but permit me one moment to state my case.

Let’s just get it out of the open and say right now, Resident Evil 4 was the best game of the decade. Not this decade obviously but the previous one. Though the Gamecube remake of the original had briefly reignited interest in the series, the static camera angles, inventory system and unwieldy controls were becoming tired for previously loyal customers, and still as much of a hurdle for newcomers as when it debuted in 1996. Resident Evil Zero had added a few novel mechanics (the most obvious one being the ability to switch between two characters), but the quintessential survival horror title was looking increasingly like the very walking dead for which it was best known.

Enter Shinji Mikami, director of the first instalment, and now returning to the fold to direct Resident Evil 4. The game had already had a couple of false starts, but Mikami tore up the rule book the way only its original creator could, and the franchise was given a complete overhaul. Gone were the zombies and archaic gameplay mechanics, and in came new intelligent enemies, a shift in camera perspective, and slick tight controls. Incredible set-pieces, interesting characters, creepy locations, and a genuine sense of progression and increasingly overwhelming odds meant Resident Evil 4 stood out not just from the previous games, but everything else out at the time on any console.

So surely I should be excited by the new Resident Evil 6 trailer then? Well, then came along Resident Evil 5. See, Resident Evil 5 is not a bad game, not at all. It plays very much like Resident Evil 4, it has some exciting moments, and there is a lot of fun to be had when playing the co-operative mode. But it lacked the spark of its antecedent. It would always have a tricky time following up a stone cold classic, but it felt like the developers were happy to coast on the good will of Mikami’s offering while failing to understand what made it so successful.  And any game is more entertaining playing in co-op with a buddy – witness the mindless repetitive blast-a-thon Gears of War, which owes a very heavy debt to Resident Evil 4 anyway.

Resident Evil 5 also marked the first time I gave up paying attention to the story. In the previous games, I enjoyed all the scattered diary extracts and documents as much as I did the overarching juicy conspiracies tying Umbrella with Raccoon City’s local government and police force.  However, Capcom went and stuffed it all up by positioning game one traitor Albert Wesker as the franchise supervillain, crowbarring him into the background of every situation, and magically making sure he had a hand in practically everything. Wesker’s Report and The Umbrella Chronicles were feeble attempts to make the story work when it wasn’t needed. By bringing the storyline to the fore, it only highlighted all the plot holes and inconsistencies which hadn’t really mattered anyway.

Taking a look at the trailer for Resident Evil 6, it’s crammed with garbled exposition, throwbacks to past instalments, and lots of messy carnage. Sadly we follow the adventures of the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA), a taskforce set up to investigate and eliminate Bio-Organic Weapon (BOW, an acronym I’ve come to loathe) threats. It seems that the continued presence of the BSAA is one of the problems with Capcom’s direction of the franchise, and seems to lose the essence of ‘survival horror’ being an act of ‘survival’. Whereas in the past, your character would be caught up in a situation they never expected, here you’re entering into a situation, guns blazing, with the intention of defusing a biological threat, which just doesn’t have the same appeal.  With the demise of both Umbrella and Wesker, naturally a new story has to go somewhere. But the escapades of the BSAA are uninspiring in comparison. Perhaps when I get Resident Evil: Revelations (and I have played, and enjoyed, the demo), I will warm to them more as an entity, but right now, they seem like morons.

Resident Evil 4 managed to create a contained story, with only the odd hint and reference here and there beyond the returning characters. Resident Evil 6 in comparison seems far too desperate to ladle on the call-backs. We have Chris Redfield and Leon S Kennedy back (and Ada Wong/Sherry Birkin/Ashley Graham depending on what you read), Raccoon City Mk. II with a viral outbreak in Tall Oaks, and the President’s gone all deaded, not a million miles away from if Lord Saddler’s plan in Resident Evil 4 had come to pass.

And rather than scaling back the much decried focus on action that Resident Evil 5 suffered from, here it seems they have upped the ante even more. From the trailer’s brief non-cutscene snippets, there’s kung-fu, explosions and a shot of Chris sliding towards chest-high cover in a style reminiscent of practically every third-person shooter released post-Resident Evil 4 in an act of gameplay cannibalisation. Okay, Resident Evil 4 suffered from similar accusations of abandoning scares in favour of combat, but there were still tight close-quarters enemy encounters amongst the one-man-army battles, and plenty of moments of real horror to choose from. A crazed chainsaw-wielding maniac banging down the door. Evil monks muttering moans of muerte. Regenerating shape-shifting freaks stalking dark prison corridors. But here it seems Capcom have lost the thread. Funnily enough, the only franchise that has managed to conjure up worthy scares recently has been Dead Space, perhaps the game most blatantly inspired by Resident Evil 4 itself.

Evil Shall With Evil Be Expelled - Alice (Milla Jovovich) takes aim in Resident Evil: Retribution

So where does Resident Evil: Retribution fit into all this? Well, it seems that for all of the problems that Resident Evil 4’s great achievements have unwittingly spawned, the movies have been partially responsible too. As both series have developed, they have fed into each other, leading to an increasing push for bigger action, bigger set-pieces and, frankly, more stupidity. Just as Milla Jovovich tries to outrun a chopper firing up a glass corridor in Resident Evil: Apocalypse, inspired by the opening cutscene for Resident Evil Code: Veronica, so too does Albert Wesker become a psychic superhuman in Resident Evil 5 a la Alice’s magical powers in Resident Evil: Extinction.

When Paul W. S. Anderson dropped the first adaptation into everyone’s laps in 2002, fans were somewhat distraught that it had very little to do with the games, with none of the characters featured either. But given what’s come since, I wish they had kept them completely separate given the mangling of story and scenario in the subsequent adaptations. So now, Resident Evil: Retribution, we have returning characters from all the previous films, while Ada Wong, Barry Burton and Leon all make their cinematic debut, whereas Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles even featured an appearance from Umbrella super-computer Red Queen, which originated in the first film. Confused? Well, if Capcom’s attempts at creating an overall story arc to the games seem misguided, Anderson’s series is an even worse offender when it comes to tying itself up in knots and ending in plot cul-de-sacs. By the end of Resident Evil: Extinction, we have an army of Alice psychic super-clones. Then, in the first 15 minutes of Resident Evil: Afterlife, all the clones die and Alice loses all her powers and we’re back to square one. Anderson has indicated that this is the start of a second trilogy (yes, there will be six films in total), but all the back-tracking stinks of making it up as they go along. Of course, the success of the previous film determines whether a new one will get made, but quit with the inescapable cliffhanger endings then.

Ultimately, this is a question of what Resident Evil represents, both to the game developers and the film-makers. In its original incarnation, it was a game of investigation, exploration, and horror. Your actions were limited by the controls and the camera perspective, but also your ammunition and environment. A spooky old mansion, filled with the shuffling undead, nightmarish creatures hiding in the shadows, and you, only with a crummy knife, a pistol, and the inability to aim properly or turn and run away quickly.

For better or worse, this all changed with the advent of Resident Evil 4, and there are still many naysayers out there who claim it is not a ‘true’ Resident Evil game. I can see their point, though I would still argue it still carries enough elements over for it to feel true to what came before. And if that’s the cost for getting such an incredible game as Resident Evil 4, so be it. And it’s not as if Capcom have neglected the past – quite the opposite in fact, given their constant rereleasing of previous episodes and returning to Raccoon City in new titles.

Perhaps the Japanese name for the series – Biohazard – just works better in summing up what the series is all about, less survival horror and more sci-fi action. And maybe, semi-George Lucas style, Resident Evil as it exists now is how they always wanted the game to be. The original clunky controls and B-movie voice acting were just the technical limitations of the time, when all they ever wanted to make was a smooth kick-ass action entertainment experience (just with zombies and block-pushing puzzles).  And the films are just an extension of this.

With three games and one motion picture, 2012 would appear on the surface to be a golden year for Resident Evil fans. While I should be giddy with excitement, I am instead fairly cautious. Will I buy Resident Evil 6? Definitely. Will I go see Resident Evil: Retribution? Inevitably. With regards the former, at the very least it will be a passable way to waste a few hours. And concerning the latter, well, I’ve seen all the others at the cinema, and despite continually being angry with myself for subjecting myself to them, I’ll keep going against my better judgment. But do I have high hopes for either? Not really, I’m afraid.

The gauntlet has been laid down. Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong.