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Villains, enemies, and antagonists in the world of Persona 5

We begin with the protagonist being arrested, drugged, beaten, and accused of unknown crimes by a corrupt police force. Players are quickly asked to sign their name to a confession, without knowing what they’re confessing to, let alone whether they’re actually guilty. A butterfly tells you that you are the only hope for humanity, but that your chances of victory are slim to none.

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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.

Final Fantasy VII Remake is thinking hard about sex

Video games have a complicated relationship with sex. Relationships in general, romance as a side note, but particularly sex, and all the sex-adjacent parts of life. If I ask you to think about sex in games, some will immediately remember the Hot Coffee incident, where Rockstar accidentally left code in GTA San Andreas which allowed the main character to have poorly animated, full-clothed dry humping sessions with NPCs; it was hard to swallow that as a controversy even at the time, but still occupies the industry consciousness. Some might think of Bioware’s adorably tame fades-to-black, where Commander Shepard or Thedas’ Inquisitor culminate their game-long romance by cuddling their special someone in bed and, well, you know, the thing happens.

What you won’t see very often (outside of games literally about sex) is characters in a story who are absolutely gagging for one another, consumed by sexual or romantic feelings in a meaningful way. Nobody really wants to bang in mainstream video games, basically. They might talk your ear off about their emotions and how important you are to them, or how the galaxy exploding really made them think about what matters, but they don’t get messy. It’s all sterile, calculated, friendly the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Windows 11, or a Children’s Illustrated Bible is friendly.

And then there’s Final Fantasy VII Remake, kicking in the door, covered in sweat and dirt, shirt half untucked, confused and embarrassed look on its face. Even if you haven’t played it, the first thing you probably learned about the game was that the character designs were all uncomfortably hot, and that’s part of the appeal, but beyond the superficial FFVIIR has a raw, haphazard sexuality present in every aspect of its design. The characters aren’t just sexy, they’re sexual. Human. They want one another in a breathtakingly forward manner, stopping the plot in its tracks frequently to have an indulgent pine over one of their very sexy colleagues.

Let’s take a look at Jessie Rasberry, which absolutely is her real name. In the original game, Jessie is an Avalanche freedom fighter who helps blow up a few Shinra reactors before getting unambiguously pancaked by a falling city block. In the Remake, however, she’s reimagined primarily as Someone Who Wants to Have Sex With Cloud Strife. This version of the character flirts mercilessly with Cloud, teasingly attempts to get his attention at various points, gives him gifts, and invites him to meet her parents (in order to rob them). Jessie kisses Cloud on the cheek during one mission, which makes Cloud very flustered, because he’s a very large human-shaped golden retriever. Jessie’s flirting is so overt that Cloud at one point tries to divert her by calling her desperate, and she invites him over for a date that has particularly intense sexual implications.

They’re not all so in-your-face horny in Midgar, but that same feeling of humans being humans despite themselves runs through all of the characters. Cloud clearly has heavy feelings for Tifa and weird new emotions bubbling up about Aerith, but he was a Soldier, and they never taught you what to do about awkward sex thoughts; Tifa is a powerful and independent woman, and she still seems very ready to try and make herself known enough to get some romantic attention; Aerith is the quirky Zooey Deschanel next door, however she dedicates a good portion of her energy to making herself come across as sexy and capable as Tifa. Even Barrett—whose sexual exploits are limited to the ones that produced his daughter—exudes a messy vigour in every scene.

A tremendous amount of developer energy has gone into making sure players don’t just find these characters sexy, they find them to be sexual. Ridiculous skin textures, realistic sweating, and hyper-realistic anime-style hair exists not merely to impress the audience, but to impress upon them the three-dimensional nature of the cast. Yes, they’re sexy, but they don’t want to have sex with you, they want to have sex with each other. Which is far more interesting.

That’s what’s so intriguing about the overwhelmingly horny nature of this game, it treats the character’s sexuality as an integral part of the storytelling process. Where many video games may have sexy character designs simply to titillate the player, FFVIIR uses it to increase the emotional and intellectual connection we have to these fictional people. Beyond the literal plot points about terrorism, capitalist hellscapes, living planets, human experimentation, Remake makes us care about the individuals and their dirty thoughts. Aside from Jessie’s eagerness, a lot of the steaminess is communicated with 10% dialogue and 90% body language. In fact, have you seen how good these characters look when they’re touching each other? Do you know how difficult that is to achieve with 3D graphics? Just the scene in the ghost-infested train yard, where Tifa and Aerith both grip Cloud’s oblivious and perfectly-toned arms, must have cost a fortune in technology, time and labour. All to give us another indicator that these people absolutely want to get nasty.

This isn’t a game that shies away from sex or the sexual, and it doesn’t get weirdly defensive or judgemental about it either. Aside from Cloud’s reflex deflection of Jessie’s advances, nobody ever shuns anyone for being sexual or expressing themselves. Midgar is a safe place, at least down below.

Having that sort of acceptance allows them to use these aspects of the characters—and aspects of the human experience—in broader pieces of the game. On several occasions during the game, you have the chance to determine what sort of attractive outfit a character wears. In Tifa’s case, this is done by choosing the description which you think best suits, rather than by just picking the hot one; for Aerith, the dress she wears is picked by the game based on how many people you chose to help with side quests in the Wall Market. Both require you to connect on some level with the characters and the world.

The section where you need to enter Corneo’s mansion, infamously played for laughs in the original because Cloud needs to dress as a woman, is transformed into a complex minigame where Cloud needs to learn to dance as a gateway to learning to express his true self. It’s not accidental that this part of the game uses the language of burlesque, a performance art known for allowing participants to harness their sexual confidence. So many parts of the game that seem frivolous and ridiculous at first glance are actually using the raw humanity of the characters to bring you closer to them as a player.

On a macro scale, this is all serving the bigger story as well. Flirtation, romance, and sex are all framed as a necessary distraction from the soul-sucking dystopia in which these characters live out their lives. Midgar is a horrible place filled with inequality and death, but the people in the slums survive and thrive because they maintain what makes them human. And yes, that includes sex, sometimes. Compare the Wall Market—which we first see as a seedy nightmare full of debauchery and criminals, but later come to embrace as a melting pot of people simply trying to enjoy themselves—to the cold, harsh architecture of the Shinra Headquarters. Shinra represents the cutting away of everything human, flattening and removing imperfections until only things that are ‘useful’ remain; the Wall Market is excessive, loud, filthy, and it has texture. You can sense the stories behind every corner in the Market, and imagine all the inappropriate acts happening behind every door. Nothing sexy has ever happened in the Shinra building, unless you find black marble and expense reports arousing.

Final Fantasy VII Remake’s sexy and sex-distracted characters exist to tell us the same thing that the story of the game does: life is messy, and exciting, and it makes you want to kiss people and make horrible, sexy mistakes, and enjoy all the weird parts. If you take out the sex, the dirt, the fumbling looks and awkward touching, the colour, then you’re killing it. So I sort of hope other developers look at this oddly horny JRPG and see that games could stand to be a little less sanitised and a lot more emotional, to match the unsanitary, emotional people that play them. Let more video game characters bang each other, it’s good storytelling.

Stories in a toybox, or how I learned to worry less and play Skyrim forever

Don’t panic, but they’ve released Skyrim again. With the 10th anniversary of The Elder Scrolls V’s initial release, Todd Howard, that little scamp, has graced gaming enthusiasts everywhere with the aptly named Anniversary Edition. We’ve seen all of this before in one form or another (although now there’s fishing, apparently? I promise not to make this about the fishing), and Skyrim itself has rightly become a memetic representation of the industry’s laughable slide toward endless remakes and remasters. The Anniversary Edition was preceded by the Special Edition, which came after the Legendary Edition; you can play the game on PC, 14 flavours of Xbox, Amazon Alexa, select refrigerators, and simply by closing your eyes at night and allowing Bethesda to jack into your dreams. I fully expect to be greeted at the gates of hell upon my death with a copy of Skyrim’s Inferno.

And yet, here I am, lined up to have one more adventure across the frozen wastes of Tamriel, prepared to finally be awake, saved by circumstance, ready to choose no sides in a war between bad people and bad people from slightly further away. Why? What is it that compels me—and thousands of others—to return, over and over, to this world? Ten years on, it’s abundantly clear the primary target audience for Skyrim isn’t fresh faced youngsters, it’s people who have already played the game multiple times. It’s practically a guilty pleasure by now, friends sheepishly noting that they were playing Skyrim again, trying not to make direct eye contact with the dozens of untouched new games that have come out in the interim.

Skyrim is not a masterpiece of narrative, nor is some mythic pinnacle of game design. It is, however, a near-perfect expression of player agency. Many, many jokes have already been made about Todd Howard’s infamous pseudo-quote “See that mountain? You can climb it,” referring to the supposed limitless possibilities and grandiose scale of the RPG. While there are certainly mountains you cannot climb in the game, because a game simply cannot code toward infinity, the core message in the quote does ring true. Do whatever you want, have fun. Skyrim’s central theme is not the discovery of new and exciting story beats, the overcoming of challenges, the chance to meet compelling characters; its guiding principle is to be interactive, to encourage play. In that light, many of the game’s limitations actually begin to look more like boons.

Players interacting with the world of The Elder Scrolls V are essentially akin to children given unfettered access to a full toybox. Inside, there are brightly-coloured figurines, spooky cave sets, plastic animals, dragons, shopfronts, even a CD player. Like a box full of toys, there’s minimal value to knowing the contextual importance of particular characters or locations. Ulfric Stormcloak has as much narrative value to me as decades of Batman comic history has to my 8-year-old. He acts as a gateway to my own exciting adventures, more than a fully-formed character.

Near the beginning of the game, if you’re playing without any time and space-bending modifications, you quickly end up in the town of Riverwood. Inside the Riverwood Trader—the town’s only shop—you can quickly pick up one of your first irrelevant quests, as the proprietor wants you to help return a golden dragon claw that was stolen from his shop. If I do go to Riverwood, I always pick up this quest, even though it’s been completed a thousand times. There’s a warm and familiar comfort to meeting Lucan Valeruis and his sister Camilla, hearing their argument about the theft, offering to be the hero who saves the day. The content of their discussion isn’t vital, they’re archetypal characters: a shop owner in distress and his attractive (and available) sister. You can almost picture a dozen variations of this scene playing out while I hold my Lucan, Camilla and Dragonborn action figures, doing all the voices myself and smashing them together if this is the one time I decide to rob them instead of helping.

Characters and situations in Skyrim are paper thin, largely pointless affairs, which certainly isn’t a compliment to the game. And yet, it’s hard to imagine a more rich universe like ones crafted in titles like The Last of Us or Horizon Zero Dawn ever supporting similar levels of engagement. Context is demanded in these games, where the why matters as much as the how, and your enjoyment is linked to how much you connect with the narrative. In Skyrim you’re dumped into a world made of LEGO blocks and objects designed to help you have fun at the expense of everything else. It inspires a kind of admiration to recognise how deeply the game cares about entertaining you by leveraging methods largely unique to games as a medium.

This inherent malleability means players can interact with the Skyrim box on any number of levels without having to experience significant cognitive dissonance. A wolf glitching out and flying 200 feet into the sky, or an NPC trying to arrest you after they already died, isn’t breaking any immersion, because we were only ever immersed in the play itself. If all the world’s a stage, and we merely players, then everything is part of the show.

Similarly, this blasé attitude to the complexities of worldbuilding and storytelling explains why Skyrim is so heavily and gleefully modded by almost everyone who plays the game. Plugging in new mods to change the way people look, add new adventures, change the genre of the combat, yank out vital parts, or turn all the chickens into kaiju is just throwing more toys into the toybox and encouraging more imaginative play in a world where it was already all about your own imagination. Where discussion might swing toward artistic intent with more narratively and mechanically meaty games, here it seems to practically beg for experimental button-pressing—even before Bethesda’s Creation Club codified and commodified the whole idea. You can’t play Skyrim wrong, any more than you can eat a delicious pie wrong. Stick your fingers in the middle and shove it straight in your mouth if that makes you happy. It goes some way to elucidating why nobody ever really goes out of their way to finish what counts for the main plot in game; you simply take what you need from the story until you’re full, then you leave the table.

Viewed through the lens of play, rather than a deliberately coherent experience, the constant replaying and rereleasing of Skyrim becomes much less puzzling. Nobody begrudges a kid for returning to their favourite toys, and it’s actually a healthy part of developmental psychology for them to exercise their brain in coming up with new versions of familiar scenarios. In a similar vein, there’s no shame associated with owning a train set or some other kind of endlessly tweaked hobby. So, as I head into Whiterun, again, to be told that I need to climb the 700 steps and learn to do magical screams, again, I’m doing so with a clear conscience and a new appreciation for a game that has consumed hundreds of hours of my life. Because it’s okay to just play for the sake of play, sometimes.