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No S.T.A.R.S.: How Resident Evil 3 neutered a Nemesis

When the Nemesis first attacked me in Resident Evil 3, I was terrified. It was 1999, and I’d already played Resident Evil 2, dabbled in other horror games, watched too many episodes of The X-Files late at night while bonding with my dad; I knew all about scary monsters. But the Nemesis was something else; he felt like a real, living threat. The way he stalked Jill Valentine around the maps of the game seemed, at the time, to be a serious and ever-present problem that could ruin my day at any moment. This looming quality that the Nemesis has, a feeling that he might be reaching beyond the boundaries of the rest of the game, is one reason the creature continues to occupy the collective minds of horror game enthusiasts over 20 years later.

Capcom’s remade version of the Nemesis—repackaged and gifted high-definition by the 2020 remake of Resident Evil 3—should have been a triumphant return for the beefy, tentacle-whipping gentleman. Instead, it left me wondering what the big deal was in the first place. Resident Evil 3 Remake was subjected to a fair amount of criticism on release, from the short length of the game, to the absence of large sections of the original game. But, after finishing the game and sitting with the experience, I think there was a fundamental misunderstanding of the Nemesis as a character and as a mechanic, which made it impossible for the Remake to match up to the original game.

What does the original Nemesis represent in the world of Resident Evil 3? I mean that in a mechanical, practical sense, not philosophically; in the broader narrative of Resident Evil he mostly represents the idea that Umbrella will waste as much money as possible trying to clean up the mess they made by spending too much money on the last thing.

In terms of mechanical purpose, Nemesis is there to trouble the player, to harass them and create a general sense of unease as they attempt to work on whatever the actual problem is in Raccoon City. Essentially, RE3: Nemesis is about what it would be like to play a Resident Evil game if the final boss was chasing you for six hours straight. It’s a nightmare. Collecting gems from around the city streets so you can open a door with a clock puzzle is manageable, doing that while a brick-house maniac with a rocket launcher chases you at full sprint is tense. Add to that Nemesis’s habit of pursuing you across different parts of the game’s locations—something almost no creature in any of the games could dream of doing—and you’re set up for an experience far more tense than the normal flow of static enemies and scripted boss fights. You’re being hunted.

New Nemesis, in comparison, exists in a cage. Resident Evil 3 Remake is a much more linear experience than its source material, guiding players on a strict roller-coaster of fire, explosions and zombie mayhem which makes the 1999 game look positively sedate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but the concept of a relentless hunter existing only to track down the player simply doesn’t function in that environment. While there is a point right after his first appearance where Nemesis stalks you through a dollhouse-scale section of the city, this quickly gives way to a series of scripted encounters.

Worse, all of the later encounters are boss fights with an increasingly gooey and shapeless Nemesis, transformed into lesser and larger versions of himself to keep up with the rapid pace of the rest of the game. At two distinct points in the game, Nemesis acquires a new weapon—flamethrower and rocket launcher, respectively—in what should be terrifying moments for players. But both times the experience is undercut by a design that favours forward momentum at all costs. When he shows up with the flamethrower, Jill simply has to run up a bunch of ladders until she reaches the rooftop boss fight. When the rocket launcher appears, it’s just a matter of dodging while yet again running along a single path as quickly as possible. By making the Nemesis a collection of events rather than an independent force, his appearances are predictable and inevitable. He isn’t hunting you anymore, he’s just another obstacle to deal with, like a locked door, or a zombie sleeping in a hallway.

Boss fights against the creature are fine, I suppose, as boss fights go. Hit the big monster as many times as you can with all of your resources until he goes down. Thematically, though, they do nothing but damage to the idea of an unstoppable foe. Setting him up in so many boss fights with so little time in-between necessarily frames the Nemesis as an enemy that can be bested. If there’s a boss fight, then you can kill him; and things that you can kill over and over again are not very scary.

Nemesis was an outrageous bullet sponge in the original as well, but with the caveat that almost every fight against him is a calculated choice made by the player. Very few encounters with the Nemesis in the 1999 game make combat mandatory, and most players are encouraged to run. There are rewards for besting him at various points, however the resource drain and the constant threat to your life is presented as a large risk. This is in the Remake to a smaller extent, but the opportunities are diminished, most are gone and replaced with compulsory boss fights, and the concept is eroded by making Nemesis not particularly tough to take down. Even Jill herself doesn’t seem particularly worried, with her new action-hero coat of paint, constantly yelling at the monster and showing more annoyance than concern. The scary ragdolling of Jill in the original, when Nemesis would pick her up and throw her around like a helpless kitten, is replaced with a sort of resigned indifference.

One of the ways that video games build tension, particularly in the horror genre, is by using the player’s agency against them. You have to walk through that door, you have to decide when to shoot and when to run away, you need to make all of these decisions that could well be wrong. If something horrific happens to the character, it’s because you made some or all of their decisions up to that point. Resident Evil 3: Nemesis understood that well, even putting hyper-dramatic story decision points before many Nemesis encounters, as if to point at him and say “this guy is going to kill you if you make one wrong move.” The remake doesn’t want you to make any decisions at all, frequently putting you on rails toward the next encounter, or gifting you with so many supplies that it’s clear they want you to succeed in all cases.

There’s a desperation in the way RE3 Remake pushes the action focus of the original game into overdrive, harkening back to the edgy marketing of the 1990s and early 2000s. Remember Resident Evil? Well this isn’t your mum’s survival horror, it’s got explosions, and swearing, and everyone is running all the time, and more explosions. Please take us seriously. It wants to be an action game so badly, in fact, that it forgets how you make action meaningful in the first place. Remake opens with a few scenes in Jill’s apartment, just like the original, but these are rapidly interrupted when Nemesis smashes through a wall with a plastic bag on his head, throwing Jill through several walls and floors. The building catches on fire, you have to run away in a scripted sequence, and it’s all trying very, very hard to set up a big, frightening enemy. But there is no setup, there’s only a bombastic wall smash and a lot of fire. The action is all meaningless because there’s no tension or investment from the audience. We just got here, now everything is broken. This sort of in-media-res storytelling would be fine, except the story never slows down to do that foundational work later. In fact, it actively chooses to forget some important points it did manage to set up in that opening, like the attempted exposing of Umbrella, and Jill’s PTSD from the events of the first game.

This strange tendency to Go Fast and Break Everything extends, unfortunately, to the Nemesis’ physical and mechanical design. In the original, Nemesis remained as a seven-foot-tall, leather-clad mutant man for the majority of the game, and even when he transformed it was into something that was still clearly humanoid (albeit with a six fold increase in back tentacles). This recognisable and oddly familiar form was a big factor not just in making him an iconic enemy, but in making his presence unsettling. It’s impossible to avoid thinking about the human hands behind the creation of the bioweapon, the once-human shell that was used to build the monster in the first place, the distinctly human villains making specifically nasty decisions in the name of money and power. Unlike a zombie, or a licker, or a slightly bigger shark, someone made the Nemesis, had the perfect outfit designed for him, thought about what sort of weapons would be able to be fired by his mutated fingers. The ominous thudding of his enormous boots is an awful, humanising reminder of his approach.

You’re being hunted by something very explicitly designed to murder you, and it was sent here to do that. That’s far more troubling than just some monster. It has intent. When it mutters S.T.A.R.S. under its breath, it’s because Nemesis is thinking about you.

In the Remake, Nemesis spends about a minute with a bag on his head, then about an hour in his first “dressed” form. Before you can really get used to him being around, he mutates into a giant angry dog; and before you can get used to that, he mutates again into a slightly larger dog with bigger tentacles. By the end of the game, he’s a pile of pulsating goo, and then he gets blown up. Where Nemesis’ face and silhouette became a nightmarish reminder of your awful situation in the original, in Remake we never get a chance to care about any version of him one way or another. In the same way giving a human face to the enemy helps an audience connect, taking an enemy’s face away instantly distances us from them. We can’t relate, so we can’t care either. Nemesis’ degeneration at the end of the original Resident Evil 3 was cathartic, a subtle realisation that this thing chasing us wasn’t actually a person, that it could be destroyed after all. Remake’s Nemesis is a constantly melting rabid dog, dangerous but forgettable.

Ultimately, what purpose does the Nemesis serve? In the Remake, I’m genuinely not sure. Aside from being a scary enemy for Jill Valentine to overcome, he seems to just exist as a recurring boss. Original Nemesis provides an impetus for fear while exploring; an instant tension builder for every scene he isn’t in, and a big scare when he does show up. He permeates every aspect of how the player conducts themselves in the game. But the Remake version can’t do that, because there really isn’t much exploration, and once he becomes Clifford the Big Meaty Dog he no longer represents anything tangible during normal play. He just won’t fit, for a start.

Outside of redesigning the entire game to have more of a focus on exploration and looping through familiar areas (giving Nemesis a reason to show up and disrupt that loop), it’s strange that they didn’t use him to build on the existing themes brought up in the opening. Nemesis’ ability to infect people and zombies with a stronger version of the virus seems to dovetail very nicely into Jill’s hallucinatory fears about turning into a zombie herself. In the original and the remake, Jill is infected by Nemesis partway through the game; you can easily imagine a version of Resident Evil 3 where each encounter with Nemesis has the chance to increase that infection, where Jill’s anxiety and fear begins to overcome her to the point where it affects her ability to function. If something like that were included, avoiding the monster has meaning and benefits, every encounter has stakes for the player and the character.

As I said, Resident Evil 3 Remake got what is commonly referred to as a Mixed Response. But I don’t think the key problems with the game have anything to do with its length or specific mechanics; it seems more like the development team were so focused on being a sufficiently different follow-up to Resident Evil 2’s remake that they sidestepped actually making this game about anything. The action focus is a response to RE2 being more slow and designed around backtracking, the aggressive and bombastic characters are the antithesis of the softer Resident Evil 2 cast, and the Nemesis is the twisted result of a promise not to make something too much like RE2’s Mr. X. It’s a shame that this game wasn’t viewed as more of an update to the classic 1999 game, instead of as a companion to RE2 Remake. If it had been the former, we might have seen a little more respect paid to the Nemesis concept, and the important role it plays in shaping the story and mechanics around it.

A serious study of FFVIII summons, Part IV: Red string on a conspiracy board

The price we pay for using the GF. This article contains major spoilers for Final Fantasy VIII. You can forget reading this and return home by clicking here.

Time passes. And with the passing of time, comes the end. In Final Fantasy VIII’s world, the end means the compression of all time and space, so the end is also the beginning. Are we any closer to finding out what exactly Guardian Forces are and how they work, after all this? They’re pretty much everywhere, for one thing, and they eat your thoughts; they can control the flow of time and space with their god-like powers even though they seem eternally trapped; and they’ve been subjected to endless experimentation that nobody really wants to talk about. It’s tempting to cast them off at this point as a sort of unknowable anomaly in Squall and friends’ universe, but at the same time their ubiquity suggests they must play some vital role in how things work. At the end of the official GF list, there’s even a strong indication that they are involved in the shaping of reality itself, with their forms and powers far outstripping anything other entities are capable of, apart from Ultimecia.

“GF gives us strength. The stronger the GF, the stronger we become.”

There are no more Guardian Forces to pick apart, though, right? The list is complete, the endgame approaches. Actually, it turns out there are a few optional, pseudo-GFs floating around the game that are surprisingly relevant to the discussion. And, despite FFVIII’s reputation for a scattered and unfinished narrative, one of them might be the key to figuring out what the whole game is supposed to be about. That’s right, it’s been at least two discs since summons had any visible role in the plot, but maybe it’s about to turn around. Which would be particularly nice given the effort the game puts into making them seem like a big, scary, mind-eating problem at the beginning, all the while jamming them indiscriminately into the heads of children.

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Odin

Deep in the Centra Ruins, beyond the tonberry infestation and past the giant metal diamond, a god lurks with a challenge. Get to a specific room in the ruins within a 20 minute time limit and you are confronted by a huge masked figure on horseback who demands you to demonstrate your strength. This is Odin—named after the Norse god of war, death, and a dozen other minor concerns—and he will become your companion if you can slap him enough times before the clock hits zero. Curiously, Odin doesn’t fight back in this battle, but if the timer runs out at any point he unleashes his signature attack, Zantetsuken, which instantly kills the party and ends the game. Beating him doesn’t add him as a controllable force, but actually gives the player a 12.9% chance of Odin appearing to Zantetsuken enemies in any battle (excepting bosses, tonberries and cactuars), granting an instant win. When he appears, the sky darkens, he rides in on his trusty white steed, and his sword literally cuts the 3D models in half.

What’s interesting isn’t so much Odin himself, but the place in which he appears. Centra was a civilisation said to be extremely advanced and doing very well for itself right up to the point where monsters exploded from the surface of the moon and reduced the entire population to a dusty memory. Yes, in case you had somehow forgotten, monsters in the FFVIII universe come from the moon, and periodically get space-blasted down to the planet’s surface. With a little research, I discovered the reason this happens is because of gravity; when all the moon monsters gather on one side of the moon they all just get dragged off into space in an event very poetically referred to as the Lunar Cry. This had been going on for tens of thousands of years, but part of the reason it destroyed Centra was that it brought down a massive pillar of crystal with it, obliterating almost every sign of the world’s largest civilisation. The only pieces left are the Centra Ruins, Sorceress Edea’s orphanage, and the mobile shelters that eventually became the Gardens. Keeping up? Don’t worry, none of us are.

Centran architecture is a strange mix of Roman styles and futuristic technology, and the ruins provide plenty of both. Odin’s room houses a giant throne and is decorated on the outside with gargoyles, but pipes and wires run inside every wall and piece of flooring. Entering the final area requires moving gemstones and then putting a security code into an ancient device. It’s seemingly impossible to discern what these ruins were designed to be before the Lunar Cry, in much the same way that details about the Centrans is basically non-existent.

But hold on, that throne is bothering me. It’s huge, and it’s clearly part of the ruin, which means it was built to specifically be that size. That could mean Odin was around and functioning as some sort of Guardian Force before the calamity. However, the huge chair does fit with one theory that Centra was a society of very large people. Giants, even. This is based on a lot of conjecture, of course, and bits of evidence that might not really connect, but stick to the path for a moment. Adel, the other evil sorceress in this game, is demonstrably giant, towering over every other person in the game. Her size is never explained, and sets her far apart from the other characters in the game in terms of physical form. It’s conceivable, given the diaspora of the surviving Centran population, that she descended from Centran stock, and her size—combined with her sorceress abilities—allowed her to gain power in Esthar. Centra was also, incidentally, very into the whole idea of sorceresses, which would mean Adel having power passed down to her through living in that magic-friendly society makes a lot of sense.

With that in mind, Odin’s throne perhaps isn’t a seat of power for some outrageously-proportioned god, but a throne for a normally-sized Centran. Without knowing the purpose of the ruins before the pillar, it’s hard to extrapolate much more. But, given that GFs can clearly be shaped by environment, thoughts, and events, perhaps Odin is a reflection of what happened to Centra. It could be that all that death, all those lost souls, coalesced into one masked figure of vengeance that was doomed to seek out the strength that could have saved its people. And like the chaos of a moon-based apocalypse, he can only even manifest that cursed power at random. The wire-filled room where you find Odin also continues a theme throughout FFVIII of melding technology with magic, and perhaps hints at the idea Odin was partly created through those memories and souls continuing to exist in a digital form.

Gilgamesh

If the player collects Odin before boarding the Lunatic Pandora to find Adel, they will be confronted by Seifer and Odin will automatically be summoned. In this case, Seifer will use Zantetsuken Reverse to turn the tables on the GF and slice him in half, permanently killing him. Odin’s sword will then cut a hole in the fabric of spacetime and another entity, Gilgamesh, will retrieve the sword. If the battle lasts long enough, or if Seifer’s HP is depleted, Gilgamesh will appear to cut Seifer down and join the party. Gilgamesh also appears at random, with a 3.5% chance, but has four swords to choose from. One is Odin’s, and acts the same as it would for him; Excalibur and Masamune do heavy damage to the enemy, while Excalipoor does exactly one damage to foes.

All of this is very exciting, and Gilgamesh’s design is pretty neat, but as a Guardian Force he is essentially a collection of Final Fantasy references wrapped in a nod to an Akkadian poem. As such, there’s not much he can tell us about the world of Final Fantasy VIII, save for affirming its obsession with random events.

Boko, MiniMog and Moomba

Hold on, do you remember the PocketStation? It was basically a memory card that doubled as a Nintendo Game & Watch, it ran various software connected to different PlayStation games, and it was very hard to ever see one outside of Japan. If you did somehow have one, you could have used it to play something called Chocobo World and in turn used that experience to level up a Chocobo in FFVIII called Boko. This tiny chocobo can be summoned into battle using a specific item, and may put “being murdered by a baby chicken” at the top of the list of most embarrassing ways to die in the game. If you play even more of PocketStation classic Chocobo World, you can even unlock a moogle called MiniMog, who can heal GFs, and a Moomba.

All of this is nonsense, and not even the good kind of Final Fantasy VIII nonsense with time travel and secret parents. However, let me just say that Moombas are fascinating because they are actually one of the final evolutionary stages for the Shumi, and melty slug people who turn into tiny lions is exactly the right kind of nonsense. Shame it doesn’t tell us anything about Guardian Forces.

Griever

Speaking of lions, Final Fantasy VIII, in its very quirky and unhinged way, actually decides to drop the wildest and most telling piece of Guardian Force lore into the very final battle of the game, with the nonchalance of a smoker flicking a cigarette butt into the gutter. During the fight with Ultimecia—the reality-bending witch from the future—reaches into Squall Leonhart’s mind and plucks out a Guardian Force. Screaming about it being “the most powerful GF,” the sorceress casts into the floor, and an anthropomorphic purple lion with bat wings crawls out of the abyss to ruin your day. In the Japanese version, Ultimecia states that she is summoning the entity Squall sees as the most powerful, and when Griever lets loose with his big-time attack, Shockwave Pulsar, Ultimecia describes it as the GF’s true power. Shockwave Pulsar transports the party to a featureless energy field, where a beam of energy whites out the entire universe. Yikes. Griever takes on whatever name the player decided to give to their lion ring during the Battle of the Gardens, cementing the idea that this creature is a pure manifestation of Squall’s thoughts.

Okay, wait a minute, now we have definitive proof that Guardian Forces can be formed from nothing more than the anxious thoughts of a deeply-traumatised teenager. Griever didn’t exist, and then Ultimecia just brought him to life so he could slap the hell out of the party. This is moderately terrifying information, as it suggests that there exists the power inside any individual in the Final Fantasy VIII universe to create a literal god from nothing. Think hard enough and suddenly something infinitely worse than Doomtrain is setting off a nuclear magic bomb in the main street. Yes, it required history’s most powerful sorceress, but Odin appeared out of nowhere, Diablos exists outside of time, Pandemona crawled out of the abyss unprompted, Eden was a failed experiment, and Cactuar is literally just a cactus that got angry. FFVIII presents us with a world where the gods are as fickle as the ancient Greek pantheon, but can also spring from nothing like the worst Stephen King horror story. It is a nightmare universe.

Then you beat Griever, maybe, and the nightmare is over. Except that Ultimecia junctions herself to the GF, melding their bodies and powers together in an unholy mass of flesh. And that reminds us immediately of another case where this happens: on Lunatic Pandora, Adel increases her own power by junctioning herself to Rinoa. Body horror aside, this is upsetting news for the delicate barrier between reality and the chaos beyond the curtain. There is no functional difference between a Guardian Force and a normal human being; on a practical level, they occupy the same mechanical space. But we’ve just learned that GFs are also pure thought transformed into reality, which means that every character in FFVIII is half a step away from being nothing but a thought. Nobody really exists, outside of the fact that other people think about them existing. And then we remember that Centra is a nearly forgotten civilisation, that people are encouraged to erase their memories by junctioning GFs, that the central villain wants to remove all perspective from reality and exist in a single point. All of this runs through your mind as a mad witch climbs inside the physical manifestation of your own anxieties right in front of you. Griever is the single most existentially terrifying moment in this game, and, I remind you, he turns up as a final battle afterthought, 60 hours into the story.

Simply losing our minds

This series started with a simple question: what are Guardian Forces? Four articles later, the answer appears to be that they are everything. No part of the Final Fantasy VIII universe escapes their grasp, from the advances of technology, to the psychological effects of war, to the deaths of millions, to the workings of reality itself. At certain points it appears they were created by humanity to serve a purpose, but many of them simply seem to exist, or were brought into being by accident. They represent our greatest fears, our conflicting values, the desire to protect and destroy; they serve humanity, but this seems like a voluntary position that could very easily be reversed at a whim.

Ultimately, GFs seem to be an attempt by the game to represent the collective unconscious, which is an interpretation that fits nicely with this Final Fantasy’s more holistic approach to worldbuilding. Nothing in FFVIII makes sense in isolation, yet everything is connected in the end. Centra’s destruction, the creation of the Gardens to fight the sorceresses, a lost father who becomes the head of a secret civilisation, these are all utterly bonkers elements that end up fitting together conceptually, if not literally. The GFs are much the same; each of them represents something about the world of FFVIII without necessarily fitting into it. It’s easy to imagine a different story about this universe, where the role of these vastly-powerful thought monsters is scrutinised thoroughly. But maybe that’s what happened to the scientists at the undersea research base, they looked into the abyss and it looked right back at them.

What’s wild is these summons could have easily just been big monsters that appear when you want to hit things. Yet they exist as this kind of commentary on the tenuous relationship people have with reality. Every time the main characters summon a GF, a little piece of their identity is devoured to make room. Each time they fight, the world they fight for slips away a bit more. Whether you view them as a commentary on the damaging effects of war, the nature of reality, or a dozen other plausible ideas, Guardian Forces are a pervasive energy in Final Fantasy VIII. And much like the game, they seem to resist understanding by design.

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