It feels shameful to say it now given how enamored I am with the genre, but Resident Evil 7 was my first foray into horror gaming. I’d been a horror fanatic (some might say obsessive) since I was too young to be watching “that sort of thing.” Films didn’t scare me, video games did. There’s something about the interactivity of the thing, that need to press forward, to move forward, was terrifying. I was 10 when I watched my first horror movie, I was 20 before I even tried to pick up a horror video game. But that game was Resident Evil 7, and I did it. How did I make it through? Why did I continue? Because of Ethan Winters.
3 years since I played it and Resi 7 remains one of my favorite games. It’s a horror giant, something I’ll likely be dwelling on for years to come in articles like this one, and the latest entry in the franchise, Village, only served to bulk up all the things I love about new-style Resident Evil. I’ve since gone back and played all the horror I’ve missed out on, the Resident Evil games especially. There’s much to love: the swelling bombast of the action, expertly engineered tension, and scripts that would give professional screenwriters an aneurysm (I’m sorry Welcome to Raccoon City). But towering above that in the collective canon are the characters: Leon S. Kennedy, Jill Valentine, the Redfields, and Albert Wesker. Resi 7 gave us the Bakers, Village gave us the Lords, but more than anything, they gave us Ethan Winters.
In a risk nearly equal to the jump from third-person to first-person, Resi 7 abandoned their action heroes and gave us…some dude from LA. And you know what? It bloody worked.
A Short History: From B-Movie to Bombast
Resident Evil’s primary protagonists up to this point have been muscle-bound or otherwise expertly proficient professionals, ever-confident smarmy dorks speaking in B-movie one-liners and delivering roundhouse kicks on undead hordes, only ever made weak by the consequences of Resi’s consistently tense gameplay. It was delightfully campy in earlier iterations: Resi 1, 2, and Nemesis are pure B-horror camp. Their plots and characters are dumb and charming enough to provide a comic release-valve from the building pressure of panicked dashes around blind corners, dwindling ammo supplies, and risky encounters with the worst Umbrella can throw at you. Sure, they become big damn heroes, but they start as larger-than-life characters in a larger-than-life world, special because of the increasing chaos of their environment.
Not so with later sequels, which ditched tank-controls and fixed-camera-angles, and added a suplex button. These games are expressive, creative, and tense, sure…but not really scary. With characters that have become de-facto superheroes, now remediated into more self-serious packages, much of the actual fear falls away- Resident Evil 4 requiring artificial odds-rigging in the form of Ashley Graham to stay the course.
All this said, by 2012, the Resident Evil franchise had teetered into action mediocrity, losing much of what had made it scary in the first place. It needed a new kind of hero for a new era of horror.
An Ordinary Person in Extraordinary Places
Enter Ethan Winters, the narrative equivalent of white bread. A twenty-something schlub who could’ve easily walked out of any slightly upmarket coffee shop, and who encounters the terrifying revelation that he is, in fact, in a Resident Evil game.
It’s this collision of worlds that works so well in Ethan’s favor and that makes him such a delight to be around. He’s so aggressively normal, so brilliantly boringly real-world, that his encounter with the various monsters and goofball maniacs that are so normal to Resi’s world by now forces a total reshift in how we even understand these games.
It’s the chief reason why the Bakers, who in any other Resi game would be charming but uninteresting killers, become so existentially absurd and nightmarish—because in a world with the potential for the ordinary, the fantastical start to feel terrifyingly out of place. Matching almost the exact demographic of Capcom’s target audience as a milquetoast young white guy, Ethan fills the relatable niche that Resi was missing, and in turn, collides horror and reality in a way that is both genuinely frightening and brilliantly human.
A New Perspective
The first-person camera contributes massively to this feeling: we aren’t just witnessing the horror, we are present within it, with Ethan there to mediate our fears through a lens less distorted than that of Chris Redfield or Leon S. Kennedy. Ethan’s frequent quips and reactions match our sensations, his terror, laughter, and even action one-liners are ours. Resigned to the fate of being a Resident Evil protagonist, Ethan Winters simply becomes that: commentary, situationally relevant, a reactive vessel. It’s in those moments between gameplay, before and after the game, that he is fully his character, his tragedy comes from the forced participation in horror-movie fare—as scriptwriter Anthony Johnson describes, Ethan just “doesn’t want to be a hero.”
He’s oddly reminiscent of the Doom Slayer of 2016’s DOOM in this way, but where the Slayer is a stoic emblem of the player’s violent urges and drive to slaughter demons no matter what, Ethan’s role is to suffer, and he does that so, so well. Ethan is an embodiment of player hesitancy and fear, keeping a running nervous commentary, and when you get the chance to fight back, he deserves this moment as much as you.
A Deserving Hero
Ethan Winters suffers…a lot. He loses his girlfriend twice, breaks bones, loses his hands an untold number of times, and suffers real material harm to his body. This is resolved by the typical video-game magic healing of course, but those moments of sheer torture and violence afflicted onto Ethan’s body do so much more to help embody him than any heavy breathing, red glare or greyscale low-health filter ever could. In fact, Village opens with this, within minutes of the game-proper, Ethan slices open his hand on a piece of barbed wire, and has two fingers irreversibly bitten off and swallowed by a Lycan. It’s Capcom’s torturous reminder of just how out of his depth Ethan is, that he is a fragile human being, only surviving based on a combination of narrative luck and player skill.
It all amounts to brilliantly tense gameplay and moments of pure empathy. Resi 7 kept me going because, in Ethan, I had someone to connect to, a character who yelled in fear with me, whose trepidation was mine, whose anger and terror brewed like mine into delicious “f*ck you”s blasting away at a boss in moments of spectacular action.
Playing the Victim
It’s a kind of catharsis for the player that explodes into a rage in Village, as Ethan contends with his linear existence as a protagonist, that he must be a hero. What develops is a narrative where Ethan has his normality and humanity slowly stripped from him, forced down a path of video-game-revenge-rage, in the hopes that at the end, he might have a normal life. But a horror game requires a hero, and, when the last vestiges of his autonomy fall away with the destruction of Luiza’s house and the loss of the remaining survivors, Ethan explodes in a rage of “why me?” It’s brilliantly brutal storytelling and cements the Ethan of Village as someone utterly sick and tired of his narrative obligations. He knows he must suffer, he knows that he must face the impossible, and he just wants a normal life—but he can never have it.
I relish Ethan’s suffering almost as much as I love his presence. As much of a gorehound as I am, I can’t help but love the delightfully gnarly animations that Capcom’s art teams worked so diligently on. I can’t help but smile as a nail rockets through his hand or bugs work their way under his skin. I can’t help but feel hoisted brilliantly as he is tossed through a window by a 7-foot beast, or nauseated as he chokes digging through a corpse for a necessary item. Ethan’s suffering isn’t exact to mine, but it parallels just enough, it made me realize that were I in that position, I’d feel the same way. But crucially it never felt too dour. Yes Ethan Winters is a glutton for punishment, but so am I, and I love it.
Conclusion: Strength in Normality
That’s what always made me love Ethan, his unforced reflexivity—the way he always felt like he was reacting how I would. If horror is catharsis then the joy of Ethan Winters is in his survival and endurance, of reaching forward toward it just as the player ought to. When I started Resident Evil 7, Ethan was as new to this song and dance as I was—he was as eager to escape as me. Through Ethan, I found a character easy to connect to, as well as a new source of horror. His failures felt material, thanks to the buckets of gore, but we pushed on. Ethan Winters is many things, but he is never a coward, not when I’m controlling him. He is ceaseless progression, punishment, and apotheosis—he’s the sense of an ending, and a counterpoint to dread, a friend in the dark. When his story was over, I was hungry for more, for him to suffer and for me to suffer alongside him.
And when the time came to do it all over again, I jumped at the chance.
We might not see more of Ethan Winters, but the mark he’s left on me, and on horror gaming is, I think, something we’ll be remarking on in years to come.
In a world of the extraordinary, sometimes what we need is a little normality.
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