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Saturday, December 2, 2023

The RE4 Merchant Exemplifies Everything Great About the Game

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The Resident Evil 4 merchant is one of the most absurd parts of a game that’s already jam-packed with completely ridiculous over-the-top stuff — but he also exemplifies everything that makes that game so great.

This guy first pops up in a random window like a sock puppet and then coaxes Leon to meet him around a corner with all the subtle salesmanship of a crack dealer in a 1980s anti-drug PSA. He’s vaguely menacing at first but you quickly realize how goofy he is — and that’s like so much of the resident evil series: it’s scary at first, and then it’s silly.

So many games bend over backward to explain around their own 'video-gaminess.'


The merchant’s design also distills RE4 visual sensibilities into one guy: his clothes and mask and knapsack almost make him look like he stepped out of a fantasy RPG, but then he opens his coat, and it’s clear his area of expertise is the OTHER kind of RPG — And that’s really the game’s whole aesthetic, this incongruous mix of creepy old fairy tale stuff like villages and castles but also slick futuristic stuff like scientific laboratories and submachine guns with thermal scopes.

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In what universe would someone trade an antique goblet covered in hand-inlaid gemstones for an automatic rifle and a spraycan of bactine? Well, in the Resident Evil universe — it doesn’t make any sense, but it works, because video games! You’ll guide Leon through the most arduous, death-defying obstacle course, fighting off unthinkable horrors, and then walk around the corner, and this chucklehead has folded out his little table and put up his spooky lantern he got from Spirit Halloween, ready to buy your dead fish and chicken eggs and sell you a laser sight for your gun.

How did he get there? It doesn’t matter, you’re always happy to see him, and he’s always happy to see you.

I’ve seen theories that maybe this merchant isn’t one man, but a bunch of different guys who dress up the same and spout the same one-liners, but if anything that makes him even more ridiculous, like… what, he’s a scary mall Santa who sells firearms?

So many games bend over backward to explain around their own "video-gaminess," adding as much context as possible to try to quell any ludo-narrative dissonance that the player might feel when one of the systems that make the game fun to play shatters any sense of realism or immersion. Resident Evil 4 not only doesn’t try to hide its video gaminess, it flaunts it, and whether you’re suplexing a little old lady, stealing an antique jewel off the corpse of a genetically engineered monster, or rearranging all the crap in your purse so you have room for a crossbow that shoots landmines.

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What is the merchant doing with all these valuable antiques? Who is supplying him with guns? Do any of the game’s many horrible enemies try to kill him, or is he cool with them? Do THEY buy stuff from him? Most importantly, if his back is killing him, why doesn’t he take his pack off and sit down? Also, he’s apparently friends with The Duke from Resident Evil Village… what do they do for fun?

As far as completely nonsensical things in video games that we take for granted go, the merchant is right up there with finding an entire roast chicken in a castle wall or fitting a rocket launcher in your back pocket – and really, RE4 wouldn’t be the same without him


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