Since my week has been draped in female facade, I thought I would continue to persist in my service to my better halves. Doing service to gaming, but analyzing some of the pitfalls of female representation, can be offset by looking at some of the better examples of females we, as gamers, do have. I thought about a few characters that definitely do a fine job of representing in a field where there is little, but one name stood out strongly in my own musings. I take a look back now, at one of my favorite video game characters, who just happens to be from a series I held very dearly through many of my gaming years.
Jill Valentine, from the Resident Evil series, stands as a great example of a woman done right in video games. Not just a dress up doll to gawk at, nor a ridiculous over the top satire of a male action star in a bra, Jill helps to represent a portion of the female persuasion often over looked in gaming, and that’s just being herself.
One of the reasons from the very start I enjoyed Jill, was that she was just “one of the guys”. Not in a disfiguring way, robbing her of her gender identity. The sheer notion of her being a member of S*T*A*R*S meant she had already passed the trials of worth to get where she was, which was the same place all of the men were: a self made success. Barriers destroyed, and obstacles over come, she had passed her litmus test before the series had even begun. This early establishment of a strong sense of character existed by her merely being present amongst a group of elite (male) peers, who respected her as a comrade. A valued member of the team, her many qualities, much like her compatriots, practically ignored any sense of gender divide to begin with, leaving us with a simple notion: a strong person working with strong people.
In all honesty, the novelty of playing as a woman in a video game attracted me. This was in just being able to go against the grain, and contradict the video game norm in general. Having the option of choosing between Jill and Chris was a refreshing take on single player games, providing two different perspectives. Jill even seemed to stand out more, this innate sense of character and relatability within her eyes I just didn’t see in Chris’s. This may not have been complete coincidence, as the creator of Resident Evil, Shinji Mikami, did indeed favor Jill as his favorite character. The bias showes through, and Jill became a go to for gamer a many looking for the coolest.
While the mention of her as just a valued member of the team is important, her skill set was not a palette swap of Chris’s. The differences in play style existed as pronounced, even foregoing the remakes and looking back at the original title. Where Chris could take a hit, Jill could move faster. In the instance of Chris having a lighter, Jill possessed a lock pick. As anyone who’s been around the gaming block at least once, Jill’s exploits are renowned in and out of game, and have been far more fondly remembered than anything Chris ever did. You don’t have to look far for Jill’s memetic legacy in regards to her gracious feats of accomplishment.
One very important aspect of Jill’s play also precluded troubled item management. The original Resident Evil was a mid 90’s survival horror game at it’s core, leaving the player to suffer at every corner. One major instance of this was needing to back track, and having a limited inventory. Jill possessed two more full slots for items than Chris did, making her a go to for newbies and vets alike. She was both friendly to those who first needed help just surviving, and those who appreciated these important aspects that lent them selves to end game speed running. Jill wasn’t just self-reliant in relation to the player, but her added ability in extra item weight equated to some kind of god damn super empowerment, in a completely dis-empowering environment.
As I turn to the focus of the ever important role she played in the series overall, we stay far outside of offensive territory, and even admire Jill as a full on role model.
The original Resident Evil had a different take on single player than most, which was an added focus of replay ability. Being able to play through the game two different ways, with both Jill and Chris having their own story lines, made important both of their characters in equal fashion. While some of the most major events unfold the same way, the player did have a degree of control over how the story played out, and even adjust the outcomes of how to escape the mansion, through a few key actions.
While the original Resi was a little more limited in it’s scope of the separate story lines without some rose colored glasses on, this divide of consequence, and representation of two fully distinct characters, was a major deal for video games at the time. More so, (due in part to both Jill and Chris individuality), and the influence of the first game, helped to make Resident Evil 2 become a smash hit. Putting not only the series in the spotlight, but survival horror in general. This was a 50/50 split of success inspired directly by what Chris and Jill represented, which was a mutual partnership with two different personalities…something a cheap palette swap of the male character in creating Jill could not have accomplished.
Further, the Jill/Chris dichotomy helped to lay a reliable formula that really jived with gamers, and gave people a better sense of empathy and distinguish through characters you root for all the way. This successful character blue print gave way to Leon and Claire, representing a different take on the same foundation set by their predecessors. With the added experience of the first game under Mr.Mikami’s belt, he was able to blow gamers away with RE2, by having both characters inthe sequel, effect one another’s story line, upon replays. Reframed, if you played through as Claire first, you would follow a story that would produce direct cause and effect when you played through as Leon the second time.
With a mix of subtle foreshadowing through radio conversations with the yet to be played character, you also got this slick narrative presentation akin to Pulp Fiction, being able to see where each character was and what they were doing at different times. All of this, due in part thanks to the success story of Jill being her own woman, and the mass of gamers who appreciated her for it.
So, beyond Jill’s distinctly impressive abilities, and her meaningful contribution to game design in general, does she still fall whim to a sad trope that contradicts all of her better qualities? In short, no, and I will get into the exception a little later.
The Resident Evil series has two very distinct eras in it’s own lineage, Pre and Post Resident Evil 4. For the time being, we will focus on the Pre-Resident Evil 4 era, when the RE series remained familiar to a sense of pressured terror, rather than action fueled adrenaline. More importantly, this was the Mikami produced portion of the series, when the original creator was still involved with development.
In this “Pre Evil 4” period, we see Jill through thick and thin as the courageous, resilient force we need her to be. Acting out as a character independently, and equipped to deal with the horrors of the T-Virus confidently so in game. From a fourth wall stand point, she even helps to set precedence, by influencing her own series, and the genre around her. What is even more impressive, is Shinji Mikami’s mindful awareness, of never giving into cheapening the state of Miss Valentine’s integrity and resourcefulness. In the first title, while playing as Chris, Jill can represent the “Damsel in Distress” trope I’ve been recently discussing. Where Resident Evil differs itself, however, is that when playing as Jill, the exact same is true, with Chris acting as prisoner. The trope is balanced with both sides falling victim, and Jill an equidistant success and failure to her partner Chris.
Moving forward in the story, after her near death experience involving “The Mansion Incident , Jill Valentine opts to stay behind in Raccoon City, to further investigate the fallout of the event. This, keep in mind, is after her encounter of zombies and monster of the most gruesome kind, and rumors of the evil Umbrella corporation still a looming threat. Any one who is familiar of how fucked Raccoon City is between the months of July and October in the year 1998 can do nothing but commend this act of selfless bravery, on Jill’s part, re-cementing her as a complete bad-ass.
Oh, but it doesn’t stop there.
After a now infamous excursion involving Umbrella’s Swat Team (of HUNK fame) retrieval of the T-Virus fromWilliam Birkin, the infection finally spreads to the inner city limits. All hell breaks loose, and Jill Valentine must flee Raccoon City, using nothing but a couple of guns, and a strangely large variety of cranks to make her desperate escape. To make matter worse, she does so, while being surrounded by tens of thousands of the undead, and the known eventuality that the entire city is about to be sterilized with a missile strike.
The end of Resident Evil 3 is one of my favorite endings, as it appropriately wraps up a great trilogy of survival horror. Jill, barely making it out of the city in time thanks to some team work, looks upon the ghastly state of Raccoon City being wiped off the map. One final brutal reminder, of one corporations greed, and an innocent towns folly of trusting them.
One of my biggest admiration’s of the series is it’s focus on positive female reinforcement, and that is in large part to the bravado of one Miss Jill Valentine. From every angle: in game, fourth wall, symbolically, and from a design stand point, Jill succeeds in “Pre Evil 4” times, as a testament to how a female can kick just as much ass, if not more so, than her male counter parts. Hell, Jill’s feminine angle on the original RE is so well appreciated and inspired, her refreshing presence even leads to further female inspiration, with RE2 even passing the infamous Bechdel Test with flying colors, which most major movies miss their mark at.
Bravo, Miss Valentine.
Now, while I would be more than happy to end my analytic love letter to Jill on a positive tone, not all inspirational stories have a happy ending. In this case, art imitates life, and Jill Valentine is stripped of her empowerment, much like her creator was.
I now return to my earlier mention of my divide of the Pre and Post era’s involving Resident Evil 4’s release. The game itself, was a great testament to accessibly amazing game design, and set the standard for not only reboots, but all survival horror and action games moving forward. The game wasn’t a triumph in every regard however. While many, including myself, lamented the loss of many of the foundations of survival horror itself, a different kind of betrayal was also starting to develop. One, that would be the slow demise of important females and their worth in the series as a whole.
Not only was RE4’s plot literally “save the president’s daughter”, which is text book “Damsel in Distress” trope, no multiple characters, or kick ass females were playable of any kind. Later versions gave us access to Ada Wong (though I am discluding her appearences, as the mini games she‘s playable in are after thoughts, and non-consequential to the games initial launch ). Speaking directly to the original Gamecube release, and the complete lack of both Jill and Claire as front and center, was alarming to any regular resi fan up to this point. Add on the more than tired story of saving powerless Ashley Graham, and you start to see Capcom’s pressure on the series, and Shinji Mikami start to lose control of his own creative child.
This is where Jill’s story takes a sad turn.
Due to external business factors in dealing with the series, Capcom (the publishing company for RE), had disputes with series creator Shinji Mikami. Capcom’s mis-handling of one of their most prized creative talents (and a start of a trend repeating in coming years), left the RE series without direction. Capcom pushed forwardly, and awkwardly so, in giving us the horribly mis-guided title of Resident Evil 5, and all of the downright betraying elements the game represented. Women and Horror thrown into a garbage compactor, with a trace of neither to recycle.
Worst of all, one of the most heart breaking moments for me in the game, was finding out Jill had been reduced to the trope of “Damsel in Distress”, this time, without a fair balance, and in violation of her basic tendencies. This happens through her abduction by Wesker, in a climactic confrontation her and Chris deal with in pre-game events. While the cinematic lends credential to Jill’s heroic side, she ends up becoming just another mindless puppet, and must be saved by Chris, unable to do it herself, ending up in a lame boss battle with Jill acting “The Femme Fatale”.
In my opinion, this represents the desecration of Jill Valentine’s character in every way imaginable. Where once Jill possessed capableness, she now lacked even basic personal freedoms. Where Jill once represented the savvy of distinction, quick wit, and the will to survive through the horrible, she now lashes out as a predictable action cliché that must be shot, and destroyed. Shinji Mikami’s departure, and complete absence on the development of RE5 is felt through out. His obvious influence of the series positive qualities missing. All of this culminates into the complete degradation of the Resident Evil series, and is no better seen than in the tragic fall of our beloved heroine, Jill Valentine.
So here, in a sense of eulogy, I commend Jill for her contributions to gaming, and what she represented. While Capcom may have destroyed one of the very series that made them into a household name, they can not destroy the memories of my early days playing Resident Evil, and can not rob me of what Jill Valentine represented.
While there is some vague visage of Resident Evil shambling in our current days of gaming, it, like many of the victims in it’s own series, has succumbed to zombism. I believe Resident Evil died within the same symbolic moment Jill Valentine did, and now lives in the cruel state of the undead.
A fate far worse than death.
My only regret, is the thought of Jill living long enough to witness her own funeral. Despite her symbolic destruction, Jill’s memory lives on. She continues to exist my mind, as a testament of what it takes to be the only thing all of us can hope to be…
…and that’s a survivor.
I salute you, Miss Valentine.