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The real tragedy of Ethan Winters, Resident Evil’s ‘Village’ idiot

(The Washington Post illustration; Capcom)
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After an epic, violent battle, a dying dragon curses Ethan Winters with its last breath. And the only thing Ethan can muster up as a comeback is basically: “No, YOU.”

Horror stories are usually filled with dim characters who do moronic things, and the Resident Evil series is legendary for its bad dialogue. It’s the series that gave us some of the most memorable line readings in the medium’s history, including “You were almost a Jill sandwich,” and “Hey, it’s that dog.” Still, the third-person camera perspectives gave us poetic distance from these characters.

But Ethan Winters, the White systems engineer star of “Resident Evil 8: Village,” is the only main character in the series whose body we inhabit. Because of our view through his eyes, and the game’s insistence on obscuring his face, we further identify with him. He becomes the player personified. With nothing to separate the player from Ethan, his moronic mutterings feel that much more alienating. It’s no surprise published articles already peg Ethan Winters as the worst protagonist “in all major video games,” and that he’s the series’ “most forgettable character.

YouTube games critic SkillUp skewered Ethan in his review, saying the hapless hero is “completely incapable of grappling with the basics of the situation,” describing it as “narrative input delay.”

“The player is feeding Ethan a constant stream of information, but Ethan’s amoeba brain is in a constant state of buffering,” SkillUp said. “Ethan is this massive charisma vacuum. He has no presence, no agency, no personality. Nothing. He’s this wet mop of a character who slops awkwardly from scene to scene, and his biggest moments of character development are when enemies cut off a new part of his anatomy.”

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It’s important to note that Ethan’s line readings only stick out more today because, unlike the early games, the voice acting in “Village” is incredible. Maggie Robertson’s performance as Lady Dimetrescu bellows across the halls and still creeps into player’s minds long after they’ve turned the game off. By contrast, Todd Soley’s performance as Ethan Winters is fine, but his lines sound like he’s a 1998 video game hero dropped into a 2021 game. It’s like watching a character written by Tommy Wiseau (and also performed by Tommy Wiseau) acting in the same scene as Cate Blanchett.

Even when he’s in a direct one-on-one conversation with someone, Ethan is hilariously out of his depth. When an old witchy-looking lady overtly and specifically tells him the goals for his gothic adventure, he begs her, “Will you please stop talking in riddles?” She responds, “It’s only a riddle if you don’t know the answer.” This random grandma in Europe is verbally dunking on poor, clueless Ethan. Every conversation Ethan has with anyone ends up with him on the losing side, like the worst battle rapper in human history.

As I wrote in my review of the game, Ethan is not a “wise” character. Trapped in a burning house made of wood, he decides to ram a pickup truck through its foundation. The player is then forced to manually execute this extremely shortsighted plan: Grab the car keys and go. Ethan’s the kind of guy who would cook with a frying pan made out of wood; you have no choice but to play along.

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But in an entertainment era of Nathan Drake and Tony Stark wannabes, where everyone is a dashing hero quick with a joke and unflappable in demeanor, I can’t help but appreciate Ethan’s clumsiness. It’s like sending Mr. Bean into Transylvania to kill Dracula. His physical presence will be under siege at all times, but like the British buffoon, Ethan Winters persists.

There’s a file in “Village” called “The Tragedy of Ethan Winters,” meant to catch readers up on his story up until the beginning of the game. That story doesn’t amount to much. Despite being partially butchered in Louisiana while going through hell to save his wife in “Resident Evil 7,” Ethan doesn’t ever really learn anything. That’s just as true in “Village,” even as the eighth title gives him more life — in the form of less muted reactions — than ever before. He has no character arc. My growing affectation for him aside, Ethan Winters isn’t likely to enter the pantheon of great video game characters.

As the trailers promised, his story ends here. We don’t even get to see his face. When the player approaches a mirror, modern graphics technology should render an image of the player character back. Instead, the game reflects back a canvas as empty as the totality of his existence.

The real tragedy of Ethan Winters is that despite the game’s every effort to portray him as a desolate vessel for the player, his dogged, dumb persistence finally allowed a part of himself to pierce through. In an increasingly tired era where heroes are relentlessly cheerful and clever, the mild-mannered Ethan Winters stands out among the crowd, the kind of man who peers into hell and puts on a brave face no one can see, not even himself.

Read more:

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