Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Resident Evil Village, especially the ending.
In Resident Evil 7 Biohazard, your player character, Ethan Winters, is taken from you by a living mold. When you finally catch back up to him (while playing as his wife Mia), you barely see his face. At the time, I thought very little of it because who really cares, you know? He’s a first-person protagonist, it hardly matters what his face looks like.
As I played through Resident Evil Village, though, I did begin to care. Not because I deeply cared about Ethan, mind you. He’s corny and the perfect B-horror movie protagonist, but he’s hardly tugging at my heartstrings. No, I began to care about his face because the developers brought his face, or lack thereof, to my attention. What I could write off as a fluke in the previous installment became some bizarre mission statement, one that signals to me a lack of confidence not just in Ethan but in the series’ ongoing direction.
Pre-release art of Ethan Winters casts a huge shadow over his face, anonymizing the man we’re supposed to embody. It’s kind of ridiculous the lengths they go to shroud Ethan in some kind of mystery despite the fact we know him, his family, his motivation, and every cheesy one-liner that comes to his mind. The company line about this decision has always just been that he’s an everyman kind of character so what he looks like shouldn’t matter. On some level I get it… but then even Mario, the most iconic everyman in videogames, has a face. So why doesn’t Ethan?
There’s actually a boring answer, which is that the move’s meant to shroud him in mystery. There’s a central mystery surrounding Ethan and his family that does come to light by the end of Resident Evil Village, but it’s not nearly as titanic as it may think it is. It also seems like it takes points from Resident Evil 7 and just spins them into a big mystery, because it can? It’s fun still, so I won’t spoil it here so you all can enjoy it too, but it’s not sufficient or satisfying enough an answer to justify the decision.
Ethan just doesn’t feel like he’s a part of this world. It doesn’t help that he was only just introduced, but by mystifying who he really is and what he looks like, he feels like he’s from somewhere else, somewhere other than the world we live in. Ultimately, he kind of feels like a tool, which I feel is a disservice because y’all, I like Ethan Winters. He’s a cartoonishly stalwart husband and dad with terrible jokes and the comedic timing of a boomer. He has magically reattachable limbs, and seems to brush off mortal wounds and deep scars like I brush off social plans, which is to say coolly and effortlessly. I adore him as a fixture of what Nu-Resident Evil has kind of come to be and I almost selfishly want to keep him and it around.
His obfuscation is truly the most perplexing aspect about this weird ass videogame that pits me against a giant fish and then a pseudo-robot zombie army nearly back to back. I could roll with every punch the game threw at me, but as Ethan Winters collapsed on the ground outside of the titular village, drawing his dying breath with his daughter, whom he fought so hard to restore from dismemberment(?!), in his arms, I could not believe that they just didn’t pan the camera up a few more inches. This coming from Resident Evil, in particular, makes the game and direction feel at odds with what’s come before.
Since Resident Evil first released 25 years ago, the series has made icons of its leading characters. You know their names and to some degree you know their faces. Leon Kennedy, perhaps the single most popular of them all, has led two of the most acclaimed titles in the franchise himself and continues to just spin off into other adjacent side adventures, including an animated movie coming to Netflix soon. He has gone on to be as emblematic of the series as the lettering on the title, or the voice that says the title on most of the game’s starting menus.
The absolute refusal to let Ethan feel a part of this larger world by giving him a face feels instead like a rejection of what’s come before. The first-person perspective of the last two mainline titles (which he’s been the protagonist of) isn’t just a literal change in perspective for the games but the series in a larger way. They were and continue to be a flashpoint for some kind of deeper reflection the series seems to be exploring on a meta level, one that’s been examining what it really means to be a Resident Evil game or not. Maybe on some level an iconic character isn’t part of it.
However, this rejection of the past is a little worrisome. Remember when I said that a lot of Village feels like Capcom just making what they could out of plot points from Resident Evil 7? Ethan being anyone feels like part of that. While he may have started as an everyman, they seemed to have turned him into a conduit for this story and dropped him once they were done. Getting a tiny look at his face in Resident Evil 7 feels like a concession, but it is a world of difference compared to the complete obscurity it receives in Village. He’s been shelved, quite purposefully, throughout the latest game, almost like they don’t want you to get attached to him and this arc in the series. As this tale comes to some kind of conclusion, with the developers often talking about 7, Village, and the next game as some kind of informal trilogy, it looks to be merging back into the main series, with prominent characters like Chris Redfield playing an increasingly large role in things. With Ethan now looking firmly behind us, this era may already be mostly in the past too, and I sure hope it isn’t.
Resident Evil is in a strange place at the moment. Its mostly good last two mainline games, as well as two pretty successful remakes, have given the series a shot in the arm in critical favor that’s been dwindling some time. That being said it lacks any cohesive identity. Is it a survival horror series again or is it pivoting back to being an action title? Just looking at Resident Evil 7 and Village, you can tell that both work, but the developers can’t seem to make up their mind. It’s a patchwork (and a fun one!) without a face. I’m interested to see if it adopts one—or even needs one—again.
Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.