Resident Evil: Village and Setup and Payoff
StoryScan: Critical hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Resident Evil: Village (Capcom, 2021), the latest entry in the groundbreaking survival horror series. This essay will cover content up through the end of the game. Players who have not completed the game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
Content warning: This essay will contain discussion and images of body horror, as it is an essential component of the game’s storyline.
Capcom’s Resident Evil franchise has repeatedly been redefining itself since its launch in 1996 when the first entry (Resident Evil, or Biohazard in Japan) launched the survival horror genre. While most entries in the series share the emphasis on exploration, inventory management, and atmospheric dread, the series has played with perspective and genre by changing the camera placement and emphasizing action. The narrative has also gone in countless new directions, fleshing out a large cast in a world plagued by biological weapons.
Twenty-five years after the original Resident Evil first hit the shelves, Capcom has released Resident Evil: Village, the latest entry in the series. RE: Village picks up three years after its predecessor, 2017’s Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, as protagonist Ethan Winters undertakes a new mission to find his kidnapped daughter in a desolate mountain town. Like the other games in the franchise, the narrative of RE: Village features surprising twists that reward players who paid close enough attention to piece together the clues on their own. One of these twists—the origin of Ethan’s terrifyingly potent healing—is exceptionally well-executed, satisfying both active audiences who seek out clues and passive audiences content to enjoy events as they unfold. RE: Village accomplishes this feat with precise use of setup and payoff by laying the groundwork, heightening the tension, and revealing the truth.
Setup and Payoff
Laying the Groundwork
The first step in building a compelling twist is defining the essential information the audience needs to understand the reveal. This process is what’s known as setup or foreshadowing. James N. Frey, author of “How to Write a Damn Good Novel,” further defines foreshadowing as ‘the art of raising story questions,’ adding: “If the story questions are slight, the reader is mildly interested. If the story questions are great, the reader is gripped.”1 Not all setups need to be gripping, as not every payoff can be—nor should they be—but the more compelling the initial questions are, the more likely the audience is to stick around long enough to see them answered.
RE: Village lays the groundwork for Ethan’s healing abilities by establishing the rules of his world and his body. When players first regain control of Ethan after the introductory sequence, they’re tasked with guiding him through a decrepit mountain village to find his infant daughter. Shortly after Ethan enters the village proper, he’s bitten by a werewolf-like being known as a lycan. It takes a chunk of his left hand, including two fingers, and the altercation leaves Ethan in both physical and emotional anguish. Even though he’s able to escape and bandage his hand well enough to keep using what’s left of it, the player can still see the visual reminder that this world is out to get Ethan, and he’s capable of being hurt.
Heightening the Tension
In its simplest form, setup and payoff is a two-step process. More complex forms can employ a multi-step variation, in which the intermediate steps are both payoffs for things that have happened and setups for things that will happen. This middle step hearkens back to the comedic Rule of Three, which consists of setup, repetition, and joke.2 While the setup exists to set the audience’s expectations, the repetition exists to reinforce them so that they’re firmly in place when it comes time to subvert them for the joke. Heightening tension follows the same principle, but instead of reinforcing the rules laid out in step one, the writer begins to subvert them early. This step both answers the audience’s initial question—“How will my expectations be subverted?”—while introducing a new question: “How far will this subversion go?”
Once RE: Village finishes laying the groundwork for Ethan’s world, it starts to turn the screw of tension by subverting audience expectations. As Ethan expands his search for his daughter, he visits Castle Dimitrescu, home of the towering Lady Dimitrescu and her deranged gothic daughters. Like Lady Dimitrescu, the daughters are driven to consume human flesh, so they’re all too happy to pierce Ethan’s palms with meathooks and hang him from the ceiling at their mother’s request. It’s an excruciating scene made doubly so when the Dimitrescu women leave Ethan to his own devices, giving him time to yank himself free of the trap. However, the hooks take their toll on him. He receives brutal gashes in each hand, yet players paying close attention may notice said gashes are gone by the next scene. It’s a subtle change, one that players could either miss or chalk up to a continuity error, but there’s no missing or confusing the way Ethan recovers from his next injury.
Ethan’s ill-fated escape attempt meets its end in the castle cellar when he’s cornered by Lady Dimitrescu. When Ethan tries to work the lever for the elevator, Lady Dimitrescu springs from the shadows and cleaves his right arm at the wrist. As Ethan clutches the bleeding stump, players must guide him on a circuitous route through the basement until Lady Dimitrescu loses track again. Only by creating that space can players go back and retrieve Ethan’s hand from the lever, then use it to open the elevator and escape. As if that segment weren’t shocking enough, players are then treated to a moment that simultaneously pays off earlier scenes while setting new ones up: Ethan reattaches his own hand. It’s an easy operation, one accomplished by simply resting the cut limb back on the stump, but the questions it raises are anything but simple. Even though audiences now know that Ethan’s healing ability is both real and intentional, they’re left asking much bigger questions, including: “Where did this ability come from?” and “How far can it go?”
Revealing the Truth
The final step, revealing the truth, builds on everything established throughout the story. This stage is the writer’s best opportunity to justify the time the audience spent engaging with the work, so it’s important to get it right. Karl Iglesias, author of “Writing for Emotional Impact,” offers the following advice: “The setup doesn’t have to be important—it’s just exposition. But the payoff should be emotional, in that it should arouse any of the major reader emotions.”3 Depending upon the setup (and the genre), the payoff can elicit laughter, terror, relief, or any combination of the feelings that have been building in the audience since the start. As long as the tone is consistent with the genre, the choice of emotion is up to the writer.
RE: Village reveals the truth about Ethan’s healing with a payoff that evokes multiple emotions, simultaneously surprising and disturbing the audience. At the end of the second act, Ethan finally comes face-to-face with the woman who kidnapped his daughter, Mother Miranda, but she’s too powerful for him to handle on his own. Miranda dispatches him easily, ripping his heart from his chest and leaving him for dead. By all accounts, it should have been enough to kill him, but there’s something Miranda doesn’t know: Ethan is already dead. This news also comes as a shock to Ethan, especially since he learns it from the ghost of a girl who was killed in the previous game (Resident Evil 7). According to her, Ethan died during the events of that game, and the only reason he still exists is that he was infected by the same mold that powered Mother Miranda and her acolytes, including Lady Dimitrescu. It’s a traumatic revelation for Ethan, but it works perfectly for the audience because it answers the questions they’ve been asking themselves. Not only do they now know the origin of Ethan’s abilities, they know their limitations since he shares traits with the acolytes he’s already killed. As a bonus, this also suggests that Mother Miranda has limitations of her own. That revelation adds a final layer of emotion to an already stacked payoff: hope.
Resident Evil: Village creates a satisfying twist by laying the groundwork, heightening the tension, and finally revealing the truth. These three steps create a chain of setups and payoffs that evoke strong emotions in the audience, commanding their attention until the end. Writers looking to use setups and payoffs in their own works can look to RE: Village as a solid example of foreshadowing done right, and by borrowing the above techniques, they can do it right themselves.
1 Frey, James N.. How to Write a Damn Good Novel . St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Schreiber, Brad. What Are You Laughing At?: How to Write Humor for Screenplays, Stories, and More. Allworth Publishing. Kindle Edition.
3 Iglesias, Karl. Writing For Emotional Impact : Advanced Dramatic Techniques To Attract, Engage, And Fascinate The Reader From Beginning To End (P. 137). Wingspan Press. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage: MKIceandFire. RESIDENT EVIL 8 VILLAGE Gameplay Walkthrough Part 1 FULL GAME [4K 60FPS PC] – No Commentary. YouTube, 2021.