The Bakers were a threat in a game. They were also a mirror to reality.
Forgive me for having mental illness on the brain. When you’re on an Island, a thing you find yourself thinking about a lot is the conditions on other people’s Islands, ones that you’ve been adjacent to through others in your life. Addiction is one I think about a lot, because it’s one I believe could be my own death if I fully let it get its hooks in me. I had a time putting down the weed last year, from a very profound emotional perspective I mean, and I’m probably going to go to my grave with the residue of carbonated sugar drink on whatever’s left of my insides; you can probably understand why I’ve a complex about money problems and earnings, and I actually think part of it is my own unconscious cultivating just so I don’t develop a gambling addiction. Any sort of hard drug exposure to me would show you the human equivalent of throwing a cinder block in a washing machine during the spin cycle.
But I was taught not to shy away from things that are threats, because if you do, it makes you afraid. When you turn towards a threat, you find yourself learning about it, and start to understand it, not just that it is a threat, but the facets of it. And understanding is a lot more useful thing than fear. Understanding is one of the thing that keeps you from making bad decisions.
That’s why I think the most interesting aspect of Resident Evil 7 from the standpoint of it’s experience isn’t simply its tonal shift back to a slower paced, smaller scale, detailed and methodical roots. It is really, really interesting, mind, because RE7 is a super cool game in a lot of ways, and could very well represent a possible start point for the strange and unexpected wave of momentum Capcom may still be building. It’s the thread of reality that runs through the game and its antagonists, the Baker Family: it’s that they aren’t just the victims of the Resident Evil setting’s mix of big business, mutant germ theory and Frankensteinian Necroscience; it’s that they’re grotesques of the very real face of addiction, the many faces it can take.
When we first met the Bakers, they were evocative of the sort of sights and sounds from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They weren’t monsters from folklore, they weren’t some smirking, nose-up Imperialist’s conception of “savages,” they weren’t even some milquetoast suburbanite’s idea of what “insanity” looks like in a desperate and impotent effort to say, well, anything. What they were instead were the human family unit, gone horribly, terribly wrong. Mom, pop and junior staring at you from across a table of filth and viscera, leering with expectant smiles and taunting sneers, wondering why you aren’t eating.
Yes, there was something very apparently wrong with them beyond the extremes of our world, what with the casual mutilation of junior, Lucas, who then proceeds to skulk off, whining “AW, JEEZ, DADDY, NOT AGAIN” as he holds his stump in a way that’s a lot more nonchalant than it should be. But that was the escalation, that was the game loudly reaching out to your instincts to try and tweak them. The subtle frequency of tension and danger in the Bakers, the undercurrent that dread that accompanies them throughout their more human incarnation, isn’t that they’re monsters, it’s that they’re humans that have come fully out of control and aren’t actually aware of it. Their environment is substandard, at best a mess, at worst a health hazard, and they don’t care, because they aren’t in the headspace to see it. Their behavior is erratic, aggressive and sometimes outright nonsensical, and they don’t care, because they aren’t in the headspace to see it. Elements of their existence that would be alarming to outsiders are just a regular part of their world, because of a drastic shift of priorities and physical perception, both of which alone could account for the disgusting, dangerous and elaborately bizarre conditions inside what was once a lovely family home in the bayou. There’s no haunting, no demonic possession at work here; what there is instead is a mess caused by severe executive dysfunctions, hallucinations, obsessive thought patterns and a pervasive paranoia like you’d see in heavy meth users.
Granted, heavy meth users who have the resources of Jigsaw, in Lucas’s case. Still, this game is primarily a horror rollercoaster. Whatever deeper elements are in this game are left to interpretation. The most we can say for sure is that the team that made this game wanted to show the player squalor and decay up close. At that, wow does it ever succeed. Also, under no circumstances put the words in my mouth that I think that folks with substance issues are also the sort to have mechanical murder funhouses like Lucas Baker either, because no.
The game never overtly makes declaration of its themes, it never has a character openly declare who the real Walking Dead are. What it does do is juxtapose two entities and shows what happens when they’re forced into sudden cohabitation in an enclosed space, as a sort of ultrascience body horror parable. Those two entities are “the middle class” and “late capitalism.” The result, once you strip out the more fantastic elements such as the small child who is actually a living mind control spore colony, actually scans frighteningly well one-to-one with the real world. First, a tanker runs aground in the Gulf Coast during a hurricane. Then things get worse for the people that live there.
Yeah, that’s a real “stop me if you’ve heard this one before” we’re talking about here.
But beyond being a story about the common and unfortunate reality of our neighbors getting ground to paste in the gears of Important Moneymaking Opportunities, it’s the effect that this corporate disaster has on its primary victims. In this case, it takes a family that is at once both ordinary and extraordinary, at once the picture of Leave It to Beaver America, but also more real than that, and twists them into things that shouldn't be. Yep, it’s a white hetero married couple verging on their retirement years, with two kids that look as though they could be ready to leave home. But then it turns out dad’s a war vet and a former college athlete, mom’s both a botanist and entomologist, and the son is a remarkable yet worrying mix of gifted yet emotionally troubled; sister very much seems like the sort that’s grown accustomed to existing in the gaps where they don’t. These people had lives of their own, unique, and yet were not anything you yourself couldn’t have grown up beside.
And then, one day, fate brings a substance into their home that gets in them, starts to undo what they are and twists them to serve a bizarre need of its own. The metaphor of a chemical master that gives orders from within has been made before, by James Hetfield no less, but it’s sharp, and one ironically more humanizing than any depiction of people with addiction laid out by the average brutal cop mouthpiece or rock-headed conservative politico. The mind is a dicey place- believe me, mine likes to try and kill me with alarming frequency -and brain chemistry is a delicate balance. Something that can at first feel good instead starts feeling just right, because you’ve adjusted; you go past that, that thing that feels right instead starts feeling normal, and then what your normal is has to ride on the back of Some Thing That You Need to Get Regularly, and that’s what addiction is: a want to feel better, that became a need in a new, worse normal.
The Bakers weren’t addicted to any substance. Their story was a fantasy, not like the people who are our neighbors, friends, comrades and associates, who have their own more easily reckoned circumstances and reasons for the condition they’re in. What they were, instead, were decent, ordinary folk who went out of their way to help. We see this in a scene where, through the eyes of Ethan, RE7’s primary playable character, who himself has become infected with its biohazardous fungus, we are contacted by the remnants of the people the Bakers used to be. In a hazy vision between minds made strangely adjacent, father Jack tells us he feels terrible for all he and his put us through, and shows us how things were before. It all started with a scared little girl that happened to be dangerous government property, and a bighearted old toughguy looking to help anyone that was hurt or lost in his swamp.
One act of fate and one choice made by an individual, and a choice that could hardly be described as the wrong one. Yet it doomed him and his family to a horror beyond any he could have imagined. We can’t fall the exact same way he and his family did. But we can wind up bringing something into our homes that we think is harmless, even with good intentions, and be unmade by it. It can be someone without sense thinking they really can just use to boost their mood or make themselves feel better, and instead it just gets worse and spreads like a disease; it can be someone getting injured by a freak accident at work and getting overprescribed painkillers, and all they did was take what was in the bottle to feel better. Whatever the case, they weren’t some hunched over no-goodnik caricature of a heroin dealer commissioned by the DARE campaign or some cartoon ghoul of a junkie from a 90s PSA.
This isn’t a hypothetical, either. If you are in North America right now, you are seeing this in your hometown. Or if you aren’t, it’s because you don’t want to. But I came up in a town where meth was the problem when I was high school, and now it’s fentanyl. It’s the same people here as there always was, the same people who smile and hold doors for and say “have a good one” to strangers. It’s the same facade, and the same problem, and it’s getting worse. The Bakers start out as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but when a lady supposedly too gentle to harm a fly starts screaming enraged incoherence at you from a weathered and waxy face while trying to pull you out a window, you more start thinking about the person in the parking lot screaming and weeping, because they just got robbed out of whatever little money they needed for their next fix and their world is in crisis because, goddammit, they needed it and it was theirs. Or that story from the paper about the guy who refused a free Naloxone injector because he didn’t ever intend to use it, because he didn’t see the point.
Because this is how it goes, and I think the people behind RE7 realized this enough that it resonated in its overarching theme. In this game about the moving parts of the Global World crushing people too small to even see them closing in, there’s enough there to read true to people in communities touched by crisis drug use and addiction. The Bakers show the symptoms of what poverty, mental illness, capitalism and the War on Drugs does to us though their actions within the game. They turned their house into a strange and dangerous fortress, performing acts they in their right minds wouldn’t dream of in their worst nightmares, and they had to do it, because something was in them, telling them that’s how to feel right and normal. Whatever will or wants they had were overwritten by invasive chemistry, and they had no real choice in the matter. They were the folks that should have had every chance, and instead had none, reduced in their final days to beings too out of control to even grasp the depth of their fall. Their ending was not happy, but their day to day existence was miserable as well. It showed them as they were, and how they turned out, all because someone else wanted to make money. It shouldn’t have happened, because they were elements in a reaction that should never have mixed and catalyzed in the first place, but for someone else’s big plans gone wrong.
Because as I see it, Resident Evil 7 is a lot more real a horror story than most people think.