In 2009 Steven Porfiri was accused of never having played a video game before by someone on a GameFAQs message board, and the insult has haunted him ever since. Now, as the Senior Games Writer for Merry-Go-Round Magazine, he’s finally been given a platform to prove that not only has he been playing video games, he writes about them as well. I Played a Game Once is an inside look into what he is playing, and how it has any bearing whatsoever on our current moment. It’s basically like Carrie Bradshaw’s column but with more discussions about save-scumming.
Before anyone asks, no, I’m no closer to finishing DISCO ELYSIUM now than when I published my previous article on the subject. Maybe I’ll write an article on that particular failure later when I can gussy it up with some musings on the online video game criticism environment (or something). Maybe use the word “simulacrum” a couple times. Should be dope.
I was pulled aloft by the siren song of staying relevant with the most recent iteration of Resident Evil, RESIDENT EVIL 8: VILLAGE. The opportunity presented itself to bring home the latest addition to the story of Ethan Winters and his horrible luck with vacation destinations, and by golly I took that opportunity like it was one of Ethan’s limbs and I was a mutated villager.
By many accounts, Ethan Winters is one of the worst protagonists RE has ever served up to players. Despite having as action hero-y of a name as, say, Leon Kennedy, Jill Valentine, or even Chris Redfield, Ethan Winters is as blank a character as his last name implies. Or at least he is for a good portion of the game.
Be warned, in our dissection of Mr. Winters (nothing he doesn’t seem used to) I’ll have to give away the actual ending of RE8, so if you’re looking to keep that a secret for your playthrough, you might wanna click away to another article on MGRM. Well, first, click an ad on this page, then find another article, click the ad on that one, do that like three more times, then, I dunno, do something else.
With RESIDENT EVIL 7: BIOHAZARD, the franchise largely revitalized itself and is seen as a return to its survival-horror roots; dark hallways, limited ammo, and enemies that seemed to absorb half of that ammo before kicking it all served to ratchet up the terror not seen since the first dog burst through the window of the Spencer Mansion. What also made the game terrifying were the villains the player was pitted against: The Baker family, consisting of hulking Jack, terrifying Marguerite, and diabolical Lucas. Each member had a specific trait or characteristic that made their section of the game memorable, and you remembered the characters when someone brought them up later. Even Eveline, the bioweapon codenamed E-001 who appeared as an aging grandmother had a creepy habit of showing up when you least expected it and following you around with her eyes.
In VILLAGE, Capcom put way more of their special sauce into their villains, giving us the Four Lords of the Four Houses. Each one of these characters is a distinct individual with a distinct feel to each level, to the point where each one has been described as a different area in a “theme park of horror.” Lady Alcina “Vampire Mommy” Dimitrescu’s Gothic vampire castle, Beneviento’s Haunted Puppet Mansion, Moreau’s monster-infested swamp, and Heisenberg’s macabre machine shop. All distinct! All stand out! But then there’s Ethan Winters.
From the get-go Ethan likes to do things only done by characters in horror movies that are about to get brutally murdered. Wife says “don’t come to Louisiana” after saying “please come to Louisiana,” he goes to Louisiana. He finds a filthy abandoned house decorated with decapitated livestock and mutilated animals, as well as mutilated humans, and darn it, he keeps going ’cause the guy’s gotta find his wife! When he reunites with Mia, she shows her appreciation by cutting off his hand with a chainsaw. But still, Ethan persisted. Even after a local cop, one of the actual symbols of outside authority over the horrifyingly isolated Baker House, is given an over-enthusiastic lobotomy, Ethan still figures that his best option is to charge headlong through an almost literal house of 1,000 corpses in order to find his wife.
It seems pretty apparent that Ethan Winters was designed to function as an everyman character, a blank slate for the player to project their fears of the world around him onto. Here’s a guy who doesn’t have nearly the same experience fighting off legions of undead as ex-cop Leon Kennedy, secret agent Ada Wong, or even co-star Chris Redfield, who is once again forced into a situation he couldn’t possibly imagine along with the player (according to a Famitsu guidebook, Ethan used to be “a systems engineer” in Los Angeles). The happenings and kaleidoscopic characters of the REverse are supposed to bounce off of him in a relatable way, but for many players this technique had the unintended consequence of turning him into a bland annoyance.
I get that if you don’t want your character to sound like a comic book hero or someone in a Joss Whedon show you definitely have to cut out your snappy comebacks. No one has the level of wit after watching a zombie with a jet propellor fused to their head explode in a shower of flame to respond with “Talk about engine troubles!” or “Looks like there’s some turbulence!” or something like that. Even for a guy that has already been through a similar circle of hell, that’s a lot of extraneous brain usage that could be better dedicated to “shoot the bad” and “run from propellor man.”
Throughout both games, Ethan’s dialogue tends to fall a little flat and can be a bit eye-rolling, so the idea of being strapped to this guy’s neck for the whole game is simply another sickle to hamstring for the player. But something happens right at the end of VILLAGE that finally gives him a burst of character, and might even make him likeable.
Right before the final conflict between Ethan and primary antagonist Mother Miranda, Ethan learns that the reason he can recover from injuries like losing a hand and having it fuse back together after splashing a little juice on it is because in Louisiana he was infected with the same Mold that infected the Baker family and Mia, and was killed by Jack Baker during his rescue attempt. Despite this, he’s informed by The Duke, another village resident that acts as this game’s version of the Merchant from RESIDENT EVIL 4 and might also be a victim of mutation (?), that after his final confrontation with Miranda he won’t be able to “return to his world.” After dispatching Miranda Ethan becomes severely weakened, his remaining hand hardening and crumbling away in a similar manner to all the other inhabitants of the village once they’re defeated.
At this point Ethan makes one of the first choices that isn’t entirely forced upon him by handing over his rescued daughter and taking a detonator from Chris Redfield that will activate a powerful explosive designed to level the entire village and annihilate the Mold completely. Pretty much every choice he’s made at this point has been more or less thrust upon him by outside sources, but the decision to give up his own life to ensure that these particular evil residents are snuffed out is all him. In typical Ethan style it’s not even the smartest decision he could’ve made, but it comes across as one that he personally chooses to make in order to help out as best he can.
And you kinda feel for the guy at this point. Dude had to save his wife from a swamp, witnessed that wife be seemingly murdered by the man he thought was going to protect them (Which is STILL technically fridging, Capcom!!), then saw his daughter kidnapped by a gang of mutants and broken into pieces, combined with every other nightmare that happens in the game. It’s almost as if giving up his life is one final “I’m too old for this shit” so that he doesn’t have to deal with spooky happenings like this again.
Ethan’s sacrifice is played as very noble, and was indeed a moment that sort of crystallized the character’s ethos in a way not unlike the defeated village Lords. In a post-credits time-skip we see Rosemary Winters roughly 15 years later, grown into a teenager and visiting her father’s grave. The epitaph reads “a kind husband and loving father who put family before all else,” which is one hell of an understatement considering everything this guy went through.
Being overwhelmingly bland and simple compared to the other characters in the game kind of becomes part of Ethan’s charm. Every bad Dad joke, every less-than-wise choice (Hear Heisenberg out is all I’m asking!!) solidifies him as Just Some Guy who wants his family back together. Miranda also just wants her child back, interestingly enough, and the other lords want to impress Miranda, with the exception of Heisenberg who wants to kill her. Chris wants some shadowy paramilitary objective, but Ethan, man, Ethan just wants his daughter back. And just as it takes a village to raise a child, it took a wife guy who lost his child to raze a village.