The following article contains spoilers for Swamp Thing, Resident Evil 7, and Resident Evil Village.
How do you solve a problem like Ethan Winters? If you’re Capcom, you take a leaf out of Swamp Thing’s book and turn his life into a brain-scratching existential nightmare. I’m not saying that Capcom set out to copy DC Comics’ slimy superhero, but Resident Evil Village all but delivers the same magnificent twist as Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run.
Before Moore (also responsible for Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and many more) came aboard, Swamp Thing was scientist Alec Holland, who’d been exposed to toxic chemicals and transformed into a monster, albeit one with a heart. Two things kept him going: love for his girlfriend, Abby Arcane, and the prospect of, one day, finding a way to turn himself back into a human.
In 1983, however, Moore joined The Saga of the Swamp Thing, which was struggling with poor sales. Faced with a stagnating Swamp Thing, he delivered an emotional gut-punch to both the readers and the monster himself.
Moore revealed that Swamp Thing wasn’t Alec Holland, but a mass of plant material that had absorbed Holland’s memories. Holland’s corpse was still rotting somewhere in the swamp; Swamp Thing could never be human because he never was in the first place. In one fell swoop, Moore ripped away everything that gave Swamp Thing a reason to “live.” It was a stroke of genius that revitalized the series, which ran for another 40 issues.
Resident Evil Village’s grand revelation mirrors Alec Holland’s horrifying Swamp Thing predicament, revealing there’s nothing left of Ethan. The “real” Ethan Winters died in Resident Evil 7 and was either duplicated by Eveline’s mold or resurrected to the extent that he’s all mold. Like the (questionable) story of the planarian worms, the mold has absorbed enough of Ethan’s memories to think it is Ethan.
On reflection, it’s a twist we should have seen coming, with Ethan proving more durable than all but a few video game protagonists. But it’s still utterly gut-wrenching and succeeds in turning Ethan, who up to that point has been as bland as a bucket of oatmeal, into a character worthy of our attention.
Like with Swamp Thing, Ethan’s condition raises a raft of questions that, if Ethan did survive Resident Evil Village, he’ll be drinking to forget. Questions like… if there is such a thing as a soul, what happened to Ethan’s? Is he looking down from the afterlife, cursing the thing that’s been sleeping with his wife for the last three years?
Are we, as author Michael Scott put it, “nothing more than the sum of our memories and experiences?” If so, is Mold Ethan every bit as valid as Original Ethan? If Ethan was gradually infected, at what point did he stop being Ethan? The latter has been giving me nightmares ever since I watched John Carpenter’s The Thing, dwelling on the horror of thinking you were human only to have control of your body wrenched away from you.
But Resident Evil Village’s big twist has wider implications than even Swamp Thing’s, reaching back in time to reframe Resident Evil 7. Replaying RE7 after completing Village, you start seeing events in a new light. Sure, people have survived major head injuries, but how does Jack Baker blow his brains out and then come back at you five minutes later? The same way Ethan survives having his heart ripped out, the same way Swamp Thing’s plant matter pretended to be organs — Baker’s losing a hunk of mold, nothing more.
Then there’s Mia Winters, the sole reason Ethan was dragged into this mess. I explained that, by making her as mundane as pre-revelation Ethan, Resident Evil Village had squandered her. But replaying Resident Evil 7, seeing her take bullet after bullet to the head, there’s another, more disturbing possibility.
What if, when Mia refused to join Eveline’s family, she killed her, then made a new Mia, altering her just enough to be compliant? Even if Ethan had avoided Jack Baker’s assault, he’d have risked leaving with a fungal facsimile of his wife.
If the “cure” he gave her really did take, she almost certainly knew about Ethan’s non-human status. How many nights did she stay awake, agonizing over the Ethan she got back? What lengths did she go to hide the truth from him?
Resident Evil Village isn’t the only game to dive into the subject; the superb Soma, from Frictional Games, is an excellent sci-fi take on the nature of existence. But filtered through Resident Evil Village’s gloomy lens, that single twist opens a Pandora’s box of gloriously existential terrors. Alec Holland’s decaying corpse would be proud.