Resident Evil 4: Otome Edition takes the absurd, over-the-top Resident Evil 4 and tries to look at it from a more subdued, grounded angle. Taking the perspective of lovestruck Ashley, players will get to see Leon’s actions, as well as those of the other oddball characters, in a new light.
Siliconera spoke with Shawn White, Co-Founder of Erotome, developers of Resident Evil 4: Otome Edition, to learn more about what drew them to look at things from Ashley’s point of view, how that made them see the original in a different light, and why everyone feels that Leon is just so dreamy.
What drew you to bring a little romance and tenderness to the Resident Evil series?
Shawn White, Co-Founder of Erotome – We might contend that romance already abounds in Resident Evil. Chris Redfield has a weird, unrequited love for Jill Valentine (and she’s just not that into him). Leon Kennedy has an unhealthy attachment to Ada Wong. We’re pretty sure everyone shipped Rebecca Chambers and Billy Coen. And there’s something going on with Albert Wesker and test tube babies, but the less we think about that, the better.
So, there’s certainly no lack of romance, but the tenderness does leave much to be desired. We see that as a framing problem – it’s hard to delve into tender feelings when a giant snake is chasing you around a library. From the perspective of romance, RE is like a butler bringing you a Marlowe while dressed in a clown suit and there are explosions everywhere. There might be a decent (albeit cheap) drink in there somewhere, but the noise surrounding the experience is… well, distracting. Fun, but distracting.
We thought we’d turn this experience on its head – bring the romance to the fore and turn the action into a backdrop. Naturally, it’s still absurd. But perhaps a little more honestly so.
Why explore Ashley’s perspective?
The idea came to us rather randomly back in spring of 2014. My partner and I (who together run Erotome) were fumbling through ideas for a different otome game, which led to a broader conversation about the silliness of most otome heroes and heroines. Somewhere in there, we had the thought that most romanceable men can’t really hold a scented candle to Leon S. Kennedy – and from there it was an easy leap to “Wouldn’t it be fun to romance Leon?” Then it occurred to us that we needn’t invent a character for this purpose. There was Ashley Graham and her surprisingly frank request for overtime.
Ashley is particularly fascinating to us simply because we know very, very little about her. She’s a college student, the president’s daughter, and rather inexplicably, a qualified bulldozer operator. That’s a solid basis for an interesting character, but here’s another instance of that framing problem: RE4, to its great credit and also detriment, is a game about encounters. It’s a beautifully sequenced thread of carefully designed encounters. And as classic action games have proven time and again, good encounter design does not necessarily require that those encounters make “sense” in and of themselves. RE4 is a paragon of this philosophy: The game follows its own internal logic, and does so with such confidence and finesse that the player can’t help but be swept along from one thrilling (read: crazy) encounter to the next.
But Ashley doesn’t have the privilege of this perspective. For her, this is a harrowing, life-or-death ordeal. However, because the game is framed around encounters, her character is essentially a cog in a larger machine. She is given no more voice than is demanded by the game’s systems. And yet, we see human elements in Ashley—the anxious way she looks around, her snooty remarks, that little leg lift she does when hugging Leon. We thought it would be interesting to discover the person behind all those quirks, and simultaneously inject a perspective that expects “sense” out of a world that baldly rejects the notion.
So three years after the idea first sprouted, we decided to give Ashley some overtime.
Did you find yourself seeing the story in a different light when looking at it from Ashley’s perspective?
Yes, definitely. As I said, Ashley brings a grounded perspective to a drama that is effectively being played out by superhumans. When you play as Leon, you’re just immediately awesome and snarky, so whatever confusion and awe you might initially feel are quickly folded into his sheer confidence and laser focus. But true to her role as an otome heroine, Ashley is helpless and perplexed; the story is something happening to her and she’s not in a position where she can piece any of it together. So we had to more closely imagine how it feels to be the “damsel in distress” and simultaneously try to show that Ashley is never mentally passive; she’s just at the mercy of forces beyond her control. I’m sure we can all relate.
From a story perspective, Otome Edition has two goals: first, to fill in the gaps of Ashley’s experience where she’s separated from Leon, and second, to faithfully recreate the original game’s events while filtering them through her perspective. The end result of this, ideally, is that people will actually like Ashley as a character and enjoy RE4’s plot more for her contributions. We want people to replay RE4 and think, “Oh hey, remember how Ashley was checking out the Merchant at this part?” That would make all the thankless toil worthwhile.
How do you feel about the narrative after exploring it with a visual novel style? What was it like to change the play style over?
We were surprised by how readily the events of RE4 lend themselves to characteristics of the otome genre. Naïve young girl gets kidnapped and swoons over her stoic, handsome bodyguard? That’s the basic plot of a dozen VNs. But it’s funny precisely because it fits such a tired narrative, but only coincidentally.
In a normal otome game, the protagonist’s tender feelings would be “protected” by the narrative itself, which is written specifically to guide her to a successful romance. But poor Ashley can never get quite so comfortable inside this narrative shell, because it doesn’t fundamentally care about servicing her feelings. Probably the best example of this is the “choice” options that we gave Ashley. Most otome games are built around making some limited – and honestly, quite arbitrary and meaningless – choices in order to improve the romance. Ashley has those, too, but literally nothing happens; Leon has other things to do, like avoid communication entirely. It hopefully makes you feel a little more for Ashley’s bizarre circumstances than the original game does.
The other fun thing about this approach is that it actually drags the story of RE4 into the limelight, for better or worse. This took quite a lot of grunt work on our part, what with repurposing in-game screenshots as “backgrounds” and official artwork as “sprites” in order to make the game conjure the original while adhering to genre conventions. We also wanted the game to convey a sense of the RE4’s kinetic ‘energy’ in the format, hence the use of stop animation, character shaking, etc. Obviously, the lack of interactive encounters negates RE4’s pervasive feeling of tension, but in its place is a different kind of tension—between the game and the genre, where the former perpetually refuses to indulge the latter, and thus has its mad, gruesome scenario bludgeoned with self-awareness.
By fusing qualities of RE4 to the genre, Otome Edition ends up being more kinetic and mysterious than a lot of otome games. On the flipside, by fusing qualities of the otome genre to RE4, Otome Edition is able to make sense, however flimsy, out of its source material, while offering new takes on old characters. In this way, we hope the game appeals to those who like visual novels, but aren’t interested in horror / action games, while delivering a fresh perspective for long-time fans. Obviously, people who are familiar with both will derive the most enjoyment from our rendition, and in that way, we hope the game provides something of a bridge between two types of gaming worlds—the console and mobile markets—that very rarely interact.
What thoughts went into re-imagining the heroes and villains of RE4 into hunky (or very, very not hunky) bachelors?
Obviously, it all begins – and ends – with Leon. When you play RE4, you realize—male or female, it doesn’t matter—that Leon is generally a hunk, but the game itself doesn’t encourage you to dwell on how hunky he is – and dwelling is such an important part of romantic feeling. So we had a lot of fun trying to dwell on Leon in a way reminiscent of a frightened young woman. How would she look at him? What parts would she admire? How would she feel about him standing uncomfortably close to her, which he (i.e., the player) often does unconsciously? How would she interpret his (i.e., the player’s) proclivity for kicking doors and slashing boxes?
All right, we admit there are some things about Leon that… detract from his hunkiness. But, y’know, love is a package deal.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an otome game without a superfluous cast of male romance options, so we had to look beyond Leon. There’s Luis, the mysterious Spaniard who is exactly as suave as we would expect a science nerd with decent fashion sense to be. There’s Lord Saddler, who is pretty much what happens when you cross the gerontophile romance game Dandy Shot with the evil doctor bird from Hatoful Boyfriend. And then there’s the Merchant, who apparently captured the hearts of countless Internet denizens with his relentless gaiety and sheer dubiousness.
With each guy, we generally let their in-game behaviors speak to their characters. But we also took advantage of “gap” moments to flesh out some of their personalities, and we hope people look forward to discovering new dimensions of previously static characters…
That said, let’s be clear: You can’t romance the Merchant. You can’t romance anybody. But even if you’re disappointed, that doesn’t mean you can’t be surprised.
This story seems to be at least a little bit tongue-in-cheek. What did you enjoy about taking this humorous look at Resident Evil 4?
We believe that when you truly love something, you can laugh at it. Our mockery of the game is really a frank appreciation for what the experience is – and what it isn’t. RE4 is masterfully designed, but it is also really, really dumb. I mean, there’s just a room full of lava in Salazar’s castle that’s being used to store fire-breathing dragon statues, who are guarding a lone treasure box containing what is effectively a puzzle piece. The game is so effective at training the player to see this as an encounter, rather than as a real experience happening to a real human being, that you gloss over just how profoundly dumb (i.e., “senseless”) it all is.
But if there’s one thing the Internet has taught us in spades, it’s that dumbness is a fertile soil for humor. And in a strange way, filtering the world of RE4 through Ashley’s (relatively) more sane perspective has only enriched the whole experience for us. Not only can we swoon over Leon all over again, but we now have a new way of appreciating all the game’s little details that would normally be glazed over.
Your work seems to have stirred up some issues, despite being a parody. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Obviously, we were hosting the game on Itch.io – mainly to expand its reach and allow us to monitor interest. But because Itch is a third-party platform, copyright holders such as Capcom have the right to file DMCA notices to force the removal of content they deem to be an infringement on their copyright. The platform obliges the request without question in order to avoid being wrapped up in litigation. So that’s why the game’s demo was removed from Itch (though it is still available on our website, www.erotome.com).
Now, we have the right to counter-notice a DMCA claim on the grounds that the game is protected under Fair Use. That’s where we are currently. We expect that the use of official artwork in the game triggered a reaction from Capcom, but we have argued that our use is still protected as parody.
What sort of feelings does this situation drum up? How do you feel about protecting your work?
It’s frustrating, certainly. We spent an unreasonable number of hours preparing Otome Edition just for a demo stage, and our effort is largely just for the entertainment of other gamers and lovers of Resident Evil 4. We aren’t looking to profit from the game, even though it is legal to sell parody; we just thought it was a fun idea and wanted to create something other people would enjoy. So to have the game taken down was something of a slap in the face.
We understand that companies like Capcom are trying to protect their intellectual property, but at the same time, Fair Use exists for reasons such as this, where an existing work can be transformed into something novel for the sake of humor. I’ve seen a number of armchair commentators on the Internet rush to Capcom’s defense, arguing that the project was always doomed because we are using official assets. However, after extensive research on this matter, I think they are mistaken.
Parody law does not set a hard limit on how much of the source material can be used; what matters is using an amount necessary to recall the original while also interjecting sufficient new material to create a transformative work. We can point to other examples, such as DragonBall Z: Abridged, which is in a very similar boat as our game and has not run afoul of the copyright holders. Given our confidence that Otome Edition safely satisfies all criteria for parody, we choose to stand behind it. Because what’s the point of having legal protections for parody if we don’t exercise them?
That said, we aren’t interested in a conflict with Capcom. Otome Edition is effectively a love letter to the game that inspired it, and it’s awfully cruel to throw a love letter in the garbage. We hope that Capcom will retract their position and that their fans will offer their support.