Interview: Capcom’s Cancelled Blood Swimming Pool

Despite the dubious zombie-themed games launches which have peppered the last few years, Capcom’s Resident Evil: Revelations blood swimming pool felt like it had the potential to be fun and relevant. As it happens the event was cancelled, but I decided to interview the creative director anyway about how to negotiate the boundary between attention-grabbing and offensive when it comes to the undead.

***

photo

Zombie-themed games launches don’t have a great track record in terms of PR. At their most typical, an agency ends up hiring an incredibly slow-moving crowd to shuffle towards the cameras, arms outstretched, faces dripping with stage makeup, having raided my wardrobe back during my Seattle grunge phase. At the other end of the spectrum sit experiments in taste and traffic baiting.

One such launch event was the Resident Evil 5 torso treasure hunt where, as per Pocket Lint’s coverage at the time:

“From the three heads, three torsos and 12 arms and legs hidden at various locations around Trafalgar Square, only two heads, one torso and six legs were returned by players – yet the fake body parts disappeared from all the locations they were hidden.”

Oh, and:

“Apparently seeing people walking around at rush hour clutching decapitated heads and covered in blood was enough to offend some people, and the police were called to the competition finish line on Westminster Bridge, prompting an early finish to the competition.”

Another memorable moment was the, to my mind, actively malicious and cynical Dead Island Riptide torso collectible. You remember – the disembodied pair of biologically unlikely tits in a string bikini customised to your country and about which Deep Silver were really apologetic. Right up until the point when they released it as a limited edition with a £89.99 price tag.

Most recently we had a blood swimming pool created to promote Resident Evil Revelations. Despite the less-than-stellar legacy of zombie launches I had higher hopes this time around because Emma Thomas, the creative director of the event has put on a host of other gory events which have all managed to be fascinating and horrible without being offensive.

Or, more accurately, we would have had a blood swimming pool event, but the week of the event was also the week a soldier was stabbed to death in Woolwich and blood stains and pictures of his corpse dominated the news. Unsurprisingly, Capcom pulled the plug on the event before anyone dipped so much as a toe in the crimson waters.

For a little more on the pool and the problems in bringing death to the marketplace I spoke to creative director for the event, Emma Thomas (you might know her as Miss Cakehead on Twitter):

So how did the blood swimming pool come about?

We wanted to create a culturally strong event that would appeal to a wide audience, and crucially engage with those outside the core gaming press. In order to do so we felt it was important to create an event – or experience – that would appeal to the widest possible audience. The specific swimming pool was conceived for two reasons:

a) When creating a PR stunt I feel it is important to tie into current and future trends, the open air swimming pool being one of these.

b) It also needed to relate to Resident Evil: Revelations and not be bloody just for the sake of it. The setting for the game is an old cruise ship so we wanted to have an experience that would relate to this key element of Resident Evil: Revelations, swimming pools on deck being synonymous with cruise ships. A pool also features in the new title, so this seemed to be the perfect stunt.

How do you negotiate the line between what’s offensive or negative and what’s playful?

I believe it comes down to a creative approach more akin to an advertising agency than PR. We ensure a level of detail that heightens the experience and makes it much more than a PR stunt. We also look to create experiences that appeal to both male and female audiences – being a female creative director makes this instinctive.

What makes extreme PR stunts stand out and work is when there is a story being told, and gore is only used if it fits part of the narrative. If you look at Wesker & Son [a pop-up human butcher art installation also used by Capcom to promote Resident Evil] you’ll see that there was actually no blood involved for the final pop up shop and this was only featured for the murder scene press packs where it was highly relevant to the story.

You also need to be aware of potential issues before negative reactions start and take action. Wanting to have amputee butchers for example (we worked with the amazing Amputees In Action on this), we then also made the decision to donate all the money taken to the limbless society.

And what about the decision to cancel the pool event?

It was a difficult and brave decision by Capcom but there is no doubt it was the right thing to do. No only would the content not be suitable for the news agenda, it would run the risk of upsetting all those affected. This was meant to be a fun engaging experience and in light of the Woolwich attacks this was no longer the case.

Has the event been cancelled or postponed?

At present Capcom have not decided on the future of the pool.

What was the reaction to the pool from the general public before the Woolwich news broke?

The reaction has been incredible with all tickets to the event selling out in minutes. A few were rather concerned they would be swimming in real blood though!

Have any of the other gory projects you’ve worked on raised similar issues in terms of being controversial?

I believe that being purposefully controversial shows a lack of creativity, and that all PR is not good PR. For example vagina cakes could be considered ‘controversial’ but people of all ages flock to the shops to purchase them. That said I have been reported to the police for inciting cannibalism, although I have not yet managed to upset the Daily Mail…

BioShock Infinite: Did you kill a man without going outside the lines?

One of the comments scrawled on a friend’s book manuscript after proofreading was “Has anyone ever EXPLAINED paragraphs to you?” I remember being in his kitchen and helpfully offering the advice: “Every six lines just do a line indent and you’re sorted…”

I’m telling this anecdote because that seems roughly the same approach BioShock Infinite has to fight sequences. Every, I dunno, six minutes here are some dudes in an area for you to deal with in a shooty punchy fashion. These encounters quickly stop having meaning, they feel like road blocks in between chapters of a story.

At these points the game sneaks off like an irresponsible substitute teacher going for a cigarette break after asking you to colour something in. It doesn’t matter what colours or weapons or vapours you use or whether you do it particularly well or poorly. Did you kill a man without going outside the lines? No-one asks. All that matters is that you have something that keeps your hands busy lest anyone look in to check. Then the game comes back, claps its hands and moves on to the next bit of the story except you can’t quite remember which page because the colouring in disrupted everything.

I don’t think BioShock Infinite gave a damn what I did during those sequences. It didn’t matter how I played as long as everyone’s head fell off in the end. As a result I played how I wanted.

I get that one of the overarching themes is that it doesn’t really matter what you do because what you do is what you always have done and will always do. You are moving towards a predefined end point both in the game and the game conceit. I feel like perhaps you could make an argument that in that scenario it is appropriate that the game feels no need to react to your methodology or player agency, but it’s an intellectual exercise rather than a real answer which translates into the game experience.

I found myself not exactly bored, just completely uninspired by the combat. Shock jockey, shotgun, punch, whatever. An edge of brutality is necessary to so many of the stories BioShock Infinite seems to want to tell but it only comes through at rare moments – the baptism at the beginning, the first time I used the hook to smash someone’s face in – but the rest rapidly becomes a kind of aggressive shouty porridge. I wondered whether it was on purpose. A comment on becoming desensitised to violence or on being Booker? I can’t remember the exact phrasing but Elizabeth asks something like “Will we ever be able to wash away these sins?” – so maybe the fact they don’t feel like sins or have an emotional or personal impact is supposed to tell you that this Booker doesn’t view them as such. What sins? Why should I want to wash anything away?

Again, it feels like an argument you can make if you want to and there’s logic to it but not an emotional truth. The repeated sensation is that you’re playing across a divide. There are the bits where the game is telling you the story and where the environment and mechanics are geared towards you caring about particular things or paying attention to particular things, then there’s a confection of battles which lack that focus and care towards the player. Regardless of the intention, it felt jarring – like I kept falling through a tear in the game and out into a world where it had no gravity or pull.

The lack of investment in the player’s repeated battles manifests itself most obviously in the final sequence where you’re defending Comstock’s airship from a Vox Populi attack – if your existing play style lends itself to the battle Irrational have created then fine. If not you’ll suddenly experience a bizarre difficulty spike as vapours you completely forgot existed and the weapons you didn’t upgrade leave a gaping hole in your skill set. This fight rears its head like a remnant of an older draft where the systems made sense and fights hung together.

Obviously you can still succeed, but my point is that I don’t think the game does a good job of showing or teaching you the variety of combat or of prodding you into experimentation. As a result the end doesn’t feel like an exercise in earned skill, it’s just: bang bang whoosh aim the Songbird oh wait you can’t because Elizabeth wants to chuck pennies at you and it’s the same button and what the hell does she think you’re saving up for at this point and then ACTUALLY aim the Songbird and then more bang bang whoosh until the story comes back and takes you to the end. The closest BioShock Infinite came to caring about my gameplay was having achievements for using different kinds of weapons or attacks (I was playing the Xbox version) and if you’re relying on Xbox cheevos to spice things up then something has gone horribly wrong.

Violence is important to the game but for the moments when it creates a sense of shocking brutality, not the blanket of inculcated indifference and gore it spreads over everything.

I am sitting in a chair strumming a guitar and Elizabeth is coaxing a terrified child out from under the stairs by rolling an orange to him across the floor. It’s a moment which should stand out in my mind for its sudden gentleness. Instead I remember it so clearly because I spent the scene wondering whether I had missed my chance to shoot him in the face. To get the fight over and done with as quickly as possible. To spam vapours and bullets as quickly as possible. To slaughter this child as quickly as possible.

Then: clap, clap, children. Let’s put our colouring books away and get on with the next bit…