Resident Evil and Dialogue
StoryScan: Weak Point
StoryScan: Weak Point highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that don’t live up to audience expectations. In this essay, we’re covering Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996), the first installment in the Resident Evil franchise. This essay will cover content from the entire plot of Resident Evil. Players who have not completed this game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains spoilers for the main storyline.
In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stevens famously declined to define obscenity by saying: “I shall not today attempt further to define [it]…but I know it when I see it.“1 The expression “I know it when I see it” has since become indispensable for times when people understand something instinctually, if not intellectually. Such is the case with bad dialogue, one of the most common symptoms of mediocre writing in modern media. While the average person isn’t likely to know the specifics of what makes a given line ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ they can usually notice when something sounds ‘off.’ This is because everyone who’s ever had a conversation has some idea what human speech ought to sound like, so they can recognize when an attempt to emulate it fails. Nevertheless, bad dialogue continues to plague narratives of all shapes and sizes, and video games narrative are sadly not immune to this scourge.
Video game dialogue has improved drastically from the earliest days of the medium, but many of the worst lines live on in forum debates, viral videos, and ranked lists. Although there have been several contenders for the worst lines of all time, only one game has taken the top spot so many times that it’s earned the Guinness World Record for ‘Worst Dialogue in a Videogame’.2 That game is Capcom’s 1996 survival-horror classic, Resident Evil (known as Biohazard in Japan). While Resident Evil broke ground for both the genre and the medium in many ways, its laughable dialogue has become the stuff of legends in the decades since its launch. One line in particular is so infamously terrible that it earned Resident Evil the Guinness Record for bad dialogue all on its own, but the entire script is plagued with clunky exposition, awkward exchanges, and mistimed jokes. By studying just a few lines from the game, writers of all experience levels can learn something about bad dialogue, and how to explain it when they see it.
Realism in Dialogue
In Resident Evil, players can take on one of two roles: Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield, two capable officers of the Raccoon City Police Force. They’re each members of a task force called the Special Tactics and Rescue Unit—S.T.A.R.S—and their unit has been tasked with tracking a lost subset of their team. Their mission takes them to the Spenser Mansion, a dilapidated manor in the middle of a forest, and things quickly take a turn for the worse when members of their unit start disappearing one by one. The characters that disappear depend on which character the player chooses as their protagonist, and the game’s dialogue changes accordingly. Both routes have their stand-out lines, but the game’s most infamous line is on Jill Valentine’s side.
Early on in the game, when Jill first enters the Spencer Mansion, her teammates vanish one at a time. Soon, Jill’s only ally is another member of her unit, Barry: a thirty-something veteran of the squad with a wife and child back home. When Barry suggests they should split up to cover more of the mansion in less time, he offers Jill a lockpick, along with this classic line:
Barry: “Jill, here is a lockpick. It might be handy if you, the master of unlocking, take it with you.“
There are a lot of things wrong with this line. Setting aside the voice acting (which is its own issue beyond the purview of this essay), Barry’s line fails because it’s stilted, bizarre, and entirely for the audience’s benefit. The clunkiness is likely a localization issue, as a lack of contractions and awkward verb choices are both common signs of a lackluster translation, but the line’s real problem is its content. You don’t have to be ‘the master of unlocking’ to use a lockpick; it’s a basic tool meant for everyday people who don’t have the training and resources for specialized kits. Furthermore, if Jill actually is ‘the master of unlocking,’ and Barry knows it, he wouldn’t need to remind her of that. In a natural conversation, he would just hand her the lockpick and tell her she could use it. By spelling out a fact that both parties already know, the writers of Resident Evil are sacrificing the realism of the dialogue to convey information to the player. It would be bad enough if that information were important to the narrative, but Jill’s mastery of lockpicking doesn’t pay off in any meaningful way. The writers seem to acknowledge as much in the updated translation for the 2001 GameCube remake, where Barry’s line becomes: “I almost forgot. It’s a lockpick. You’d make better use of it.” It’s not perfect, but it uses natural language, removes superfluous information, and feels like something a human might actually say. Overall, it’s a massive improvement and proof of how a few minor changes can make a major difference in your dialogue.
Barry’s lockpicking line isn’t his only stand-out piece of dialogue on Jill’s side. After Captain Wesker goes missing, Jill and Barry are supposed to split up to find him, but Barry appears to save Jill’s life moments before she gets squished by a falling trap. In the direct aftermath, Barry tries to relieve the tension by making a truly inane comment—”You were almost a Jill sandwich!“—but the line that follows a few moments later has other problems. When Jill asks Barry why he was there to save her after they split up, he replies:
Barry: “Uh, I just had something I wanted to check. Now, let’s get back to searching for the lost captain and Chris, shall we?“
In the lockpicking line, Barry sounds awkward because he states a fact that he and Jill should already know. In the above line, Barry takes this concept one step further by referring to Wesker as ‘the lost captain,’ even though he, Jill, and the audience all know who Wesker is. Typically, writers will refer to characters using their titles instead of their names to establish their relationships, and they’ll keep those titles consistent throughout the rest of the dialogue. The only place where writers tend to break from this tradition is in written prose, when repeated appearances of a character’s name can make a paragraph look repetitive and clunky. Since video game writing is strictly dialogue, rather than prose, character names don’t appear with the same frequency, so there’s no need to refer to them with alternate titles. As a result, having Barry refer to Wesker as ‘the lost captain’ introduces confusion with no benefit, which is probably why the GameCube line became: “Anyway, we should get back to searching for Wesker and Chris.”
What's in a Name?
Barry has some of Resident Evil’s most memorable lines, but the rest of the cast has their moments. Chris Redfield, the other optional protagonist, has an exchange with teammate Rebecca during his route that highlights one of the more common problems with the game’s script. At one point in Chris’s trip through the mansion, he opens a locked door by pressing a key on a piano. The door opens to reveal Rebecca, which triggers the following exchange:
Rebecca: “It’s me, Chris.”
Chris: “Is that you, Rebecca?”
There are two problems here, one more obvious than the other. The obvious problem is that Chris’s line is unnecessary, as Rebecca already identified herself. The more subtle problem is the pervasive one: the insistence on repeating characters’ names. In real-life conversations, people rarely refer to each other by their names in one-on-one conversations, as the primary use of names is as identifiers. When you’re talking to one specific person, and no one else is intruding, there’s no need for you to identify each other repeatedly. As a result, you don’t usually hear names in conversations after the introductions. For whatever reason, some writers have a bad habit of ignoring this convention when crafting dialogue, and their exchanges are littered with unnecessary identifiers. Resident Evil is overflowing with them, and this conversation between Rebecca and Chris is just one of countless examples. While there are some situations where names are useful (introductions, separations, clarifying moments of confusion), the vast majority of these names could have been stripped out of the script. Unsurprisingly, the GameCube translation cleans up some of these moments, including the above exchange between Rebecca and Chris. Once again, it’s not perfect, but it’s a massive improvement over the original.
There’s no arguing that the original Resident Evil is a groundbreaking, beloved game. Despite its historical significance, Resident Evil’s dialogue leaves much to be desired. Writers who wish to refine their dialogue skills can look to Resident Evil and learn from its many mistakes.
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1 “I know it when I see it.” Wikipedia, 2022.
2 “Worst Dialogue in a Video Game.” Guinness World Records, 2022.
* Reference Script (Resident Evil Director’s Cut) – Schmidt, Gwen. “Resident Evil 1 Script.” GameFAQs, 2020.
** Reference Script (Resident Evil Remake) – Schmidt, Gwen. “Resident Evil Remake Script.” GameFAQs, 2020.
*** Reference Footage: Weiss Network TV. “Resident Evil 1.” YouTube, 2022.