There was a time when you could confidently say, "Nobody really cares about the story in Resident Evil games." They're the kind of things people enjoy for individual moments – being startled as a zombie dog leaps through a window, thrilling as you kneecap an enemy carrying a bomb and watch him safely explode before he reaches you – not for the convoluted mess of their backstories.
But thanks to the internet, you can't say that kind of stuff any more – because there are now entire wikis and TV Tropes pages and fanfic repositories where people earnestly interpret and argue about what's really going on in every Resident Evil game. Turns out everything matters to someone somewhere. So, with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard due this year (and looking like it might be one of the good ones), here's a look back over the key events of the series to help you figure out what the hell's been going on all this time.
The Mansion Incident – Resident Evil (1996) and Resident Evil Zero (2002)
As the glorious live-action intro for the original game depicted, a team of Special Tactics And Rescue Service (S.T.A.R.S) agents were sent out into Raccoon Forest to investigate a string of cannibalistic murders. They went missing, and a second team was optimistically dispatched to find them. A pack of monstrous dogs chased the second team into a mansion, which is where the first ever Resident Evil began.
But the story started much earlier. The Spencer Mansion was designed in the 1960s by George Trevor, an architect famous for his love of mysterious features like secret doors and hidden panels. Trevor also designed several other buildings you visit in later games, which explains why they're also full of puzzle locks – although since almost every building in the series turns out to have a knight's crest and two jewels that have to be placed on a statue before you're allowed into the bathroom – that explanation crumbles eventually.
Trevor was hired by Oswell E. Spencer, a sort of multiclassed aristocrat/naturalist/art collector/corporate CEO. Spencer was part of a team of scientists who found the Progenitor Virus hidden within a West African flower, a virus able to fuse with the DNA of its victims. Spencer wanted to use the virus as part of a eugenics program called Project W, harnessing it to genetically modify smart kids into geniuses who would go on to help him rule the world.
To secretly fund this mad scheme while keeping it hidden, Spencer founded the Umbrella Corporation, a pharmaceutical company that created everything from trauma spray to instant noodles. Umbrella's research budget hid various clandestine projects, including Project W. A secret laboratory below Spencer Mansion was used by a cabal of scientists within Umbrella to test the usefulness of the so-called Progenitor Virus as a biological weapon they could sell. They successfully bonded it with ebola to create the T-Virus, which resurrected its victims as zombies.
Other attempts to create a T-Virus had already started at other Umbrella facilities. One involved infecting leeches with the Progenitor Virus to create a strain that even humans immune to the ebola version were susceptible to, while another involved reptilian DNA and created mutant lizard monsters called "Hunters" who could be used to kill anyone who survived infection. The point where you make a mutant lizard monster is maybe the point where an ethics committee should get involved.
One of the scientists who founded Umbrella, James Marcus, had been a little too successful in his experiments with leeches. Spencer grew jealous and paranoid, had Marcus killed and his body dumped. However, after Marcus died, one of his experimental leeches bonded with him, eating his brain and absorbing his memories. This shapeshifting Queen Leech believed itself to be Marcus and in an act of revenge sabotaged the lab under Spencer Mansion so that the T-Virus infected its staff, which created the zombie outbreak of the first game.
Still here? A leech that ate the hippocampus of a dead scientist was responsible for filling a mansion with zombies. All Night of the Living Dead needed to explain its zombies was "there's no more room in hell," but Resident Evil is not the kind of series that's happy to do in six words what could be done with a history spanning decades involving sentient leeches.
Here's where the S.T.A.R.S agents came in, but of course there's hidden backstory there as well. Raccoon City's elite team were part of the police department, but also had private funding. Among their biggest donors? Our friends the Umbrella Corporation. The leader of S.T.A.R.S, Captain Albert Wesker, was secretly an Umbrella employee who wanted out of the company. His plan was to lead the S.T.A.R.S agents into the mansion, collect combat data as they fought and died against the bioweapons within it, then sell it to a rival corporation where he could land a new job. In particular, he wanted to see how they went against the Tyrant, a supermutant that was the result of a one-in-ten-million chance interaction between the T-Virus and its host DNA.
So on one level the plot of Resident Evil is about how it's hard to get science jobs in the private sector. Wesker gets his comeuppance, though, as the Tyrant he'd planned to profit from killed him. Or did it? No, it didn't because then he wouldn't be able to come back in the sequels.
The Raccoon City Outbreak – Resident Evil 2 (1998) and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (1999)
The Raccoon City outbreak had multiple points of contagion thanks to health and safety standards at Umbrella labs that would give even poultry farmers pause. In one lab beneath the city Dr. William Birkin had been heading up the G-Virus project, attempting to create a formula for biological immortality through a virus that gave its subjects regenerative powers. Some of its subjects turned into monsters with claws and even eyes on their shoulders while others had parasites burst out of their chests, which you would think might raise a red flag or two.
Birkin planned to sell his G-Virus directly to the US military and keep the money, an idea the rest of Umbrella were unimpressed by. They attempted to take the G-Virus back from Birkin and a fight broke out, during which he wound up infected. Other virus samples were released in the confusion, which infected rats spread to the surface. More T-Virus made it into the city thanks to Dr. Birkin's lab waste ending up in an incineration disposal plant, and it probably didn't help that experimental Umbrella drugs were being given to cancer patients at the city's hospital. Umbrella chemicals were everywhere, and when one batch got loose they all joined the party. The zombie/mutant outbreak that followed was ended when the entire city was bombed back to the stone age.
Among the survivors were Jill Valentine (one of the S.T.A.R.S survivors from the mansion incident), Leon Kennedy (a rookie cop), Ada Wong (a spy tasked with stealing a sample of G-Virus), and Claire Redfield (sister of Chris Redfield, who was another of the original S.T.A.R.S team). All would return in later games.
Los Illuminados – Resident Evil 4 (2005)
The T-Virus took a little holiday during Resident Evil 4, in which Leon Kennedy – now a government agent – was sent to Spain to rescue the President's daughter. She'd been kidnapped by a cult called Los Illuminados and held for ransom. Los Illuminados kept their members in line by infecting them with parasites called Las Plagas, which turned the cultists into Ganados, subservient zombie-esque beings who were still capable of speech and thought. They were almost human, although if you shot their heads off sharpened spaghetti erupted out of their necks and tried to murder you.
The Ganados were under the control of cultists infected with a subspecies of the parasite called the Dominant Species Plaga. The original leaders of Los Illuminados started infecting themselves with the Dominant Species centuries ago and although they went through a period of regret when they realized actually it's pretty fucked up to infect the local peasantry with grotesque wormy parasites, their modern leader Osmund Saddler had no such qualms. Saddler and his sidekick Ramon Salazar, a little guy who dressed like Napoleon, planned to infect the President's daughter with Las Plagas so she could spread the parasite to her father, allowing Los Illuminados to control him.
Leon Kennedy wasn't the only fly in their ointment. Wesker was back, having survived the Tyrant attack by injecting himself with a T-Virus variant beforehand. Now he was an inhuman monster but on the upside he got that job he was angling for and on behalf of his new employers got hold of a sample of Las Plagas with help from Ada Wong, who continued to specialize in stealing biological weapons while looking stylish.
The Kijuju Incident – Resident Evil 5 (2009)
Acts of biological terrorism are so frequent in the world of Resident Evil, several more happening in spin-offs like Code: Veronica and Revelations, that multiple organizations had to be created to fight them. The Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA) was one, and returning heroes Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield got jobs there based on having "survived a Resident Evil game" on their resumes.
When Umbrella CEO Oswell Spencer was discovered to have survived Raccoon City's bombing, they were the ones sent to apprehend him. They got there too late, however, finding Spencer dead at the hands of Albert Wesker. Wesker had learnt that he was one of the child prodigies of Spencer's Project W, infected and brainwashed as a boy to become a loyal ubermensch. Unimpressed by the idea of being a boy sidekick forever he took Spencer's dream of world domination through mutation and virus-bombing the weak for his own. During the confrontation with the BSAA agents that ensued Wesker and Jill crashed through a window, and both vanished.
They turned up again in Africa. Remember that West African flower that was the source of the original Progenitor Virus? Wesker and his new friends at TRICELL, a rival to Umbrella, found it in the Kijuju region and added it to his collection of every nasty biological weapon ever. A boy needs a hobby. Wesker used modified Plagas to turn Kijuju's locals into hosts called Majini and used a chemical called P30 to mind-control Jill while he experimented with the killer flower to create the Uroboros virus.
Fortunately Chris and BSAA agent Sheva Alomar arrived to rescue Jill and defeat Wesker by shooting rockets into his face.
The Edonian Civil War, The Tall Oaks and Lanshiang Contaminations – Resident Evil 6 (2012)
We're gonna have to go back a little for this one. Remember when Raccoon City got bombed to bits? That decision was made by National Security Advisor Derek C. Simmons, secretly a member of a global conspiracy called The Family who were the original employers of superspy Ada Wong. Simmons ordered the bombing to cover up his own research into Umbrella's bioweapons.
After the bombing he took in orphaned survivor Sherry Birkin, not out of the goodness of his heart but because she was the daughter of Umbrella's Dr. William Birkin and was carrying a version of his G-Virus inside her. Simmons extracted it, combined it one of the thumptysquillion variants of the T-Virus floating around, and created the C-Virus. Humans directly infected with it became J'avo – covered in eyeballs but still mostly human. Simmons' other creation, the Lepotitsa, was a spore-launching chubmonster that spread an airborne version of the virus which turned people into more traditional zombies.
Simmons was responsible for multiple C-Virus outbreaks, including one in the US town of Tall Oaks targeting the President, who was about to reveal the truth about Simmons' role in Raccoon City's destruction. Simmons was also indirectly responsible for an outbreak in the Eastern European nation of Edonia where he sent a clone of Ada Wong he'd created because he was in love with her (just roll with it) to retrieve a blood sample from Albert Wesker's son for his experiments. In typical Resident Evil style, the clone turned against him and founded a pharmaceutical corporation called Neo Umbrella in China and using the C-Virus to create Ustanak, who looks like a large tumour that found a new life as a professional wrestler. Fortunately Chris Redfield and Leon Kennedy were around again to save the day by shooting a lot.
It would be remiss not to mention the Resident Evil movies, which began in 2002 with a popcorn zombie flick starring Milla Jovovich that made only cursory nods to its inspiration. Largely ignoring the source material freed it to be one of the better video game adaptations, though it's a pretty low bar at this point. It attributed the outbreak to an artificial intelligence called The Red Queen, a character later games borrowed. The 2004 sequel Resident Evil: Apocalypse attempted to please fans by adding more characters from the games and even dressing them in the same ridiculous outfits, even recreating specific cutscenes.
By the time Resident Evil: Extinction burped into being in 2007 the movies had gone completely bonkers, inhabiting a continuity all their own in which the T-Virus outbreak had turned the world into a Mad Max-style wasteland. Different as they are, the movies followed a similar trajectory to the games, replacing horror with mindless action, and ended up just as far over-the-top. Movie sequels Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) and Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) went full Matrix with 360-degree slow-motion gunplay and martial arts. Once characters who looked like Resident Evil cosplayers started fighting armies of clones they were well and truly their own thing, but one so WTF it had become a campy good time. 2017's Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, in theaters January 27, promises to be even more ridiculous.
But the demo for Resident Evil 7: Biohazard has fans hoping the games will go in the opposite direction, returning to the subtle dread and more measured pace of the early entries. At first blush its Texas Chainsaw Massacre setup doesn't seem to connect to the sprawling canon of the series, but there are plenty of nods to what came before. In-game texts are attributed to familiar characters, a photo of an Umbrella Corporation helicopter sits on a desk, and a data mine of the demo's files found references to a character named "Albert". The next game in the series may be what Capcom has described as a "rebuilding" but it's likely it will also extend the strange Resident Evil universe even further.