Special Topics In Gameology explores a specific corner of the gaming world in a miniseries of articles. The current theme is commerce, in which we examine games’ representation and use of business and trade.

“Money tops charts of significant sources of stress,” begins Stress In America: Paying With Our Health, the 2015 edition of the American Psychological Association’s annual survey measuring just how stressed out everyone is. “For those Americans who feel the burden of stress about money the most—parents, younger generations, lower income households, and women—it seems that emotional support is even harder to come by. Even within families, talking about money and finances can be challenging.”

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It is ultimately a massive study proving what Pink Floyd already explained 40 years ago: Money’s a drag. Monetary stress, stemming from poverty, gender inequality, or anything else, is a plague and made worse by the fact that no one likes to talk about money. If only we could be Leon S. Kennedy, the star of Resident Evil 4. That guy’s got a whole mess of problems in his life that the average American family will never have to deal with, but money isn’t one of them. Quite the opposite: Resident Evil 4 made money the sole source of comfort, as it slowly but surely empowered your survival in a game that had transformed into something unrelenting and unfamiliar, and because of how and with whom you spent it. In a series that is all about enduring stress, the biggest relief comes when you’re hanging out with The Merchant.

In previous Resident Evil games, resources were precious and only found in carefully plotted locations around beast-infested mansions or police departments. When zombies and freaks were chomping down on you, you had to make sure you’d saved some of the scarce bullets and healing herbs found tucked away behind a desk an hour earlier. Much of the horror—the intentional, pleasurable stress we play these games for—came from enduring a starvation economy. Resident Evil 4 changed up the pace and perspective of the series, opting to give you more resources to combat an increased number of mobile man-eaters and exhausting claustrophobic conditions. Ammunition and healing wares are in greater supply, but fewer spaces are truly safe. Quiet rooms with tranquil music and chests to store your precious wares are replaced with seemingly empty hillsides where peace gives way to runaway boulders. Who cares that you have more guns and medicine when there’s no place to run?

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While you’re fleeing from or shooting all those slavering, parasite-ridden farmers trying to sickle you in the groin, though, you’re also gathering something else that’s new to Resident Evil: cash. It feels weirdly out of place to see a glowing pile of bullion after shooting the spiked tentacle head off a villager, but even the jingling sound effect of picking up the goods provides a sudden, tangible relief from the action. There’s little lasting comfort to be found in accruing wealth or the size of your savings, though. That only comes when it’s finally time to spend it.

While the safe rooms of past games are gone, Leon regularly runs into a lonely soul wearing a giant hooded trench coat and a blue bandana across his face. This is Merchant, the functionally named entrepreneur who repeatedly pops up to sell you helpful goods and buy those shining baubles you find along the way. The guy’s an impossibility and totally out of place in his surroundings. All he has is a backpack, but he’ll sell you everything you need and more. Rocket launcher? Even bigger, preposterously roomy briefcases? How about some upgrades to your pistol that make it shoot faster, harder, and hold more ammunition? Merchant can provide all of that while, just 500 feet away, a score of monsters are waiting to rip you apart.

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Exchanging dosh for this guy’s goods and services is a relieving diversion on multiple fronts. The Merchant is essentially a hilariously detached human vending machine. When you show him a jewel-encrusted chalice you found in Ramon Salazar’s castle of doom and he growls “I’ll buy it at a high price!” in return, it’s hard not to laugh while watching Leon’s coffers fill back up. And shopping sprees lead to the most meditative part of the game: organizing all of your newly purchased weapons and herbs so they fit into the grid of your briefcase. The metagame of shifting and clicking your stuff into place is fun in a fiddly way, and never a chore like trying to organize the cramped list of the item crate in Resident Evil 1 through 3. Even though you’re not totally secure from the Ganados hunting you, a visit to the shop is the closest thing to safety.

By introducing a monetary economy into the game and taking away the secure locations that were so calming in the originals, Resident Evil 4 could have become even more stressful. The Merchant could have been a cruel taskmaster, lording over your attempts to pull money together as you scratch and claw your way from location to location. Instead, money’s psychological impact here is the opposite of the real world. It soothes the body and mind in Capcom’s horror game, and thanks to that friendly freak always asking, “What are ya sellin’?” there’s never a concern about replenishing funds. Your new purchases make excursions into dangerous territory less stressful, and just surviving an attack means you’ll have more moolah.

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The only comfort in zombie survival stories comes from how they limit choice; you don’t have to worry about saving for rent or unforeseen expenses when you’re just trying to stay alive. But the escapist fantasy of doomsday scenarios is made even more potent here by how Resident Evil 4 values money and purchasing. It does the zombie fantasy one better by making any monetary transaction a vacation from just trying to survive. Merchant’s not there to make sure you pay on time. He’s just there to make sure the rest of the game doesn’t drag you down.


Previously in the Commerce series

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