Resident Evil 2 (2019) has a unique storytelling problem: two contradictory storylines. It has two main characters, Claire Redfield and Leon S. Kennedy, and players pick one at the start.The player goes through that character’s “Main Campaign.” Once the Main Campaign is done, the player can access the other character’s “2nd Run.” Leon’s 2nd Run shows what he was doing during Claire’s Main Campaign (and vice versa). However, key events in the Main Campaigns and 2nd Runs contradict one another. One Resident Evil 2 fan even started a petition to get Capcom to release “story dlc that introduces minor changes in a way that Leon and Claire have complementing stories that result in a consistent overall plot!” The game reuses key items and boss fights between its four campaigns, and this structure creates plot inconsistencies.
One of the most egregious story inconsistencies centers on Claire and Leon’s repeated fights with William Birkin. Birkin is infected with the “G-virus,” which turns him into a monstrous creature. In the following example—the fight against William Birkin’s third form—I will only discuss Claire Redfield’s Main Campaign and Leon S. Kennedy’s 2nd Run. If Claire is described doing something, it is in reference to the Main Campaign. If Leon is described doing something, it is in reference to the 2nd Run.
Claire fights William in an underground laboratory. Annette Birkin, one of the scientists responsible for creating the G-Virus situation and also William’s wife, helps Claire and then dies shortly after. Annette then appears to help Leon fight William again, in the same room. She dies (again) shortly after. During Claire’s fight, the room is completely destroyed. At the start of Leon’s, it is perfectly fine. As the petition puts it, “Leon’s game contradicts Claire’s and Claire’s game contradicts Leon’s...The official canon story about what really happened can’t be extracted that way!”
Maya Sonenberg described a similar “problem” in The Babysitter, the 1969 short story by Robert Coover. As she said, “following the path of a single character through this story might be possible, but followed together, the contradictions tangle, form a dense web, and are finally impossible to tease apart.” The Babysitter is an interesting companion to Resident Evil 2. Both take place over the course of one evening. Both shift tone dramatically by their endings. And both contradict themselves over and over. The Babysitter does so to create an “excess of plots” for its readers (to borrow another observation from Sonenberg). But Resident Evil 2’s contradictions are a result of how the game implements an excess of repetition.
In The Babysitter Jeanie, the babysitter, arrives to watch the Tucker kids—Jimmy, Bitsy, and an unnamed baby. Mr. and Mrs. Tucker are going to a party. Over the course of this evening, Jeanie takes a bath, doesn’t take a bath, is caught having consensual sex with her boyfriend, is sexually assaulted by her boyfriend, is sexually assaulted by Mr. Tucker, gives Jimmy a bath, doesn’t give Jimmy a bath, dies, and doesn’t die. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it illustrates that multiple things that “happen” in the story contradict other things that “happen.” On top of all of these contradictions, it isn’t clear which of these events are really occurring and which are taking place inside the many characters’ imaginations.
Annette cannot die twice. Jeanie cannot simultaneously take and not take a bath. These are just some of the contradictions in each text. One review of Resident Evil 2 suggests “The only way [these inconsistencies work] is if you treat certain parts of the A-scenario [Main Campaign] as if they don’t happen while playing the B-scenario [2nd Run] and vice-versa.” But The Babysitter tells us that contradictions in a story can have a purpose. In fact, the contradictions are the point. In Understanding Robert Coover, Brian Evenson states, “Much of Coover’s fiction maintains that the world cannot be objectively understood--there is just too much to sort through.” The Babysitter blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, and it presents readers with a story that cannot be fully deciphered.
In an article for Lithub, Emily Temple points out that Coover “keeps revising the turn of events...without weighting one over another.” The story actually has two “endings.” In the first, Mr. and Mrs. Tucker come home. Mrs. Tucker notices the dishes are done, and she says she’ll drive Jeanie home. In the second, the host of Mr. and Mrs. Tucker’s party explains to Mrs. Tucker that her children are dead, her husband has disappeared, and the babysitter’s corpse is in her bathtub. The first ending is ordinary, the second is disastrous. The second is also impossible. How could the host of the party know everything that happened at Dolly Tucker’s house? But if, as Evenson suggests, “there is no clear line drawn in the story between fantasy and reality[,]” does the first ending’s realism suggest canonicity? Readers have to answer that question themselves. The story refuses.
For all its contradictions, Resident Evil 2 only offers one ending, but it repeats it two times. If players complete Leon’s Main Campaign and Claire’s 2nd Run, they see a cutscene where Leon and Claire walk down a highway with Sherry Birkin, Annette and William Birkin’s daughter. Claire rescued her. The game reuses the scene if players complete Claire’s Main Campaign and Leon’s 2nd Run. Unlike in Coover’s story, there isn’t an ending to debate. And if that’s the case, why would Resident Evil 2 contradict itself?
The contradictions in Resident Evil 2 are created by its repetitive structure. In her Main Campaign, Claire gets a grenade launcher from the police stations’s weapons locker. It is the only weapon there. In his 2nd Run, Leon goes to the same locker and finds a shotgun. Leon finds the shotgun in his main campaign, and there’s no grenade launcher present. Claire still finds it in her 2nd Run. If players choose, they visit the weapons locker four times, and they never get any clarity about who arrives first or where the other weapon came from.
Repetition in The Babysitter is similar—it makes it impossible to really discern what’s happening. Coover uses the following sentences twice in The Babysitter: “He loves her. She loves him.” Both times, he uses them to open a story fragment. In the first fragment, readers don’t know who he is describing, but it is a fantasy. Coover describes a “magical landscape of rose and emerald and deep blue.” This fragment isn’t grounded in the mundane reality of two adults attending a party while someone watches their kids. The woman could be Jeanie or Mrs. Tucker. The man could be Jack or Mr. Tucker. The second time these two sentences appear, the story fragment is from Dolly Tucker’s perspective:
He loves her. She loves him. And then the babies come...Dishes. Noise. Clutter. And fat. Not just tight, her girdle actually hurts.
Dolly is the only person wearing a girdle in the story. Because she has kids with her husband, readers can guess the “he” in the second fragment is Mr. Tucker.
The meaning of the repeated sentences changes depending on who the pronouns in the first fragment refers to. If it’s Mark and Jeanie, the repetition creates a parallel between their relationship and the Tuckers’ marriage. If it’s Mr. Tucker and Jeanie, the two fragments demonstrate how dissatisfied the Tucker’s are with their marriage. While Mr. Tucker fantasizes about the sitter, Dolly uses the same two sentences to imagine where her life went wrong. If it’s Dolly and Mr. Tucker, it tells readers they were happy once. Readers don’t even know which character is fantasizing in the first fragment, and the story doesn’t provide clear answers.
Both Coover’s fantasy and Resident Evil 2’s trips to the weapons locker create practical questions about the stories. Is Jack thinking about Jeanie? Is Mr. Tucker? Is Mrs. Tucker reminiscing about falling in love? Who arrives at the locker first—Claire or Leon? Does the answer change depending on the order you play their campaigns?
But this similarity is superficial. Resident Evil 2’s repeated elements seem like they cast the same doubts as those in The Babysitter, but Resident Evil 2 has players, not readers. Its narrative contradiction doesn’t obscure the meaning of getting to the weapons locker. For players, a new weapon for Claire or Leon represents progress, and as players we have to learn the path to the weapons locker. By repeating it, we can practice it. Unlike The Babysitter, the contradictions here are a side effect. Repetition is the point. In his work on Coover, Evenson suggests people “search for patterns, means of ordering and cataloging.” If we accept that as true, The Babysitter is meant to frustrate our efforts to order its plot. Its repeated phrases and patterns don’t manifest in definitive answers. Resident Evil 2 may create an indecipherable plot by repeating itself, but every repetition gives a player more information about how the levels are organized, how the enemies behave, where weapons and key items may be, and what the fastest routes are.
In her Main Campaign, Claire collects three medallions from three statues in the police station. The statues use combination locks with different symbols. When the player enters the combination, they get the statue’s medallion. In his 2nd Run, Leon collects the same three medallions from the same three statues. Claire already collected the medallions, but somehow, they’ve been replaced. The combinations are different. Leon collects the same three medallions in his Main Campaign, and Claire collects them in her 2nd Run. It is impossible to say who really collects the medallions within the text. But the player collects the medallions four times, and because the statue locations never change, they gradually become more familiar with the police station’s layout.
In the 2nd Run, the player collects the medallions again because they have already done it once before. They fight William Birkin because they’ve fought him before. By having players repeat fights and find the same items, Resident Evil 2 gives players a meaningful approximation of mastery. Finding the same items faster and beating the same bosses more efficiently isn’t necessarily the same as mastering the game’s systems. Players could learn to beat William Birkin quickly without learning to dodge zombies. But knowing what lies ahead can instill a sense of confidence. And as players become more confident—more familiar with the game—they see a tense, survival horror game become more approachable. Resident Evil 2 becomes a more knowable experience, even if its plot is indecipherable.
The Babysitter and Resident Evil 2 have different goals, despite superficial similarities. The Babysitter destabilizes our ideas about narrative, and it never settles on a chronology. Resident Evil 2 has a consistent beginning and a definitive end—unlike The Babysitter. What happens in the middle of both is a question of who did what and when. After playing through four campaigns, Resident Evil 2’s audience know the answer. The plot does not need to be “extracted.” Who did what in Resident Evil 2? The answer is “us.” When did we do it? We did it in whatever order we did it. The real question is “what did we learn along the way?”
David Bowman writes about games, music, and literature at dwbowman.com. His work has appeared in DomiCile and Thrice Fiction. He's @DavidWBowman on Twitter.