I recently engaged in a discussion about the new Resident Evil game where a few people expressed their dissatisfaction with the beginning of the story. In their opinion, the story was too unbelievable. For them, the moment of the story’s failure is the protagonist (Ethan Winters) suddenly driving to Louisiana with no backup, no cell phone, no guns, and then the fact that he just walks into a creepy house. In their view, it’s unreasonable to ask the audience to believe that anyone would do this, and starting a story with an unbelievable moment devalues the immersive experience.
I think most people feel the responsibility resides with the author of the story to provide believable details that make the events seem plausible. The story is judged based on the audience’s immersion, or in other words, how easily the story invites the audience into the events. This is quite accurate, and stories that are absurd are usually only loved for their absurdness itself and not for its immersive nature that makes the audience feel as if they are a part of the story. Yet when a story like RE7 is criticized, we should assess whether or not that criticism is displaying a willing and reasonably applied suspension of disbelief.
I can see their point, but these critics are unaware of, or unwilling to do, what is required on their part as audience members. This is a story that includes regenerating flesh (Jack caught me once and chopped off my leg with a shovel. One splash of healing liquid and I was as good as new.), monstrous fungal enemies, human metamorphosis, and supernatural-like psionic powers, obviously fantastic elements. Yet, I am going to restrict my comments to the opening events.
What these critics are suffering from is an overemphasis of the rational that impedes their engagement with the story of RE7. Since it is not often repeated in its original text, I would like to provide Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s text here regarding the matter of the suspension of disbelief as an integral part of the interaction between audience and story. Coleridge writes, “…yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (Biographia Literaria, 1817). While Coleridge is referring to the crafting of effective poetry in the face of a rising rationalism in society, we continue to use the term Coleridge coined in order to emphasize that writers and readers both share a burden of engagement in order to produce satisfaction in any story. In other words, authors need to craft a story that invites the audience into it, and the audience must be willing to allow that to happen. Our modern society needs far less convincing as Coleridge’s, who were newly in love with all things rational; we are quite used to rationalism these days. It is the fantastic in which we willingly engage. One needs only to look at the popularity of movies like Lord of the Rings or superhero tales from Marvel to note that perhaps we not only enjoy the fantasy but we are growing to need it in a society that offers us an increasing emphasis on scientific and rational thought. We should then be careful to practice this poetic faith of Coleridge’s. Providing an open mind and a suspension of disbelief would increase immersion and thus enjoyment of the story RE7 offers.
So during this conversation I imagine that if they were able to read and agree with what I’ve offered here these originally critical people might open their minds to think that perhaps Ethan’s actions are believable, if not reasonable as well. Perhaps we might imagine with our willing belief that someone may be so in love to think of nothing else but their spouse. I imagine that after three years, about to give up hope that my spouse was alive, if I get an email asking me to come to them that I’m out the door immediately to go to them. I’m not stopping at the local gun store to load for bear first. Perhaps I’m a hopeless Romantic. Part of the benefits of the suspension of disbelief is our opening ourselves to others who may choose differently than we would. So even if we would grab all of the guns, multiple cell/satellite phones, and body armor, we nevertheless move along with Ethan because it is his thoughts that drive the narrative. And we should begin to feel and think as Ethan would, instead of demanding that Ethan think and feel like we would. In this way we enjoy the story that is being offered to us fairly, letting all the less credible parts go so we enjoy the wonderful creepiness Resident Evil offers without an unnecessarily critical lens.
Is it more enjoyable to engage with a story critically and logically or emotionally? I think the answer lies in a combination of both, as long as we want to believe.