Monday, April 19, 2010

Race and Rain

This post contains spoilers for Heavy Rain.

Although Heavy Rain is set in a nameless American city, David Cage has been forthright about Philadelphia's strong influence on game. When members of the development team visited the city, it inspired the dark, gritty world players would ultimately explore:
"What we discovered in Philadelphia was beyond anything we could imagine. We saw despair. We saw violence. We saw fear. We saw poverty, in a way that no one in Europe could imagine takes place in the U.S."
While most games have a subtextual American slant, it is rare to find a game that so earnestly addresses the country's failings. Trying to say something meaningful about a society is difficult, and even games like Grand Theft Auto tend to sneak their messages in subtly via satire.

While Heavy Rain stands out as a game that explores the ugly side of American life, it does so without making much of a comment on the elements of that society. Specifically, Heavy Rain says almost nothing on the subject of race explicitly, even though it is one of the most important factors in shaping the country.

Although race is never addressed directly, the game does engage with the concept. Unfortunately, as the game glosses over racial issues, it also partakes in a long tradition of creating stereotypical portrayals of non-white characters.

1. The Non-Character

The lack of a non-white playable character ultimately made as much of an impact on me as any one of the characters themselves. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, black people account for approximately 43.5% of Philadelphia's population. White people account for approximately 42.5%, and Latino people account for approximately 11%. Without making any kind of idealistic judgment, I think it is fair to say that it is at least strange that every single major character in the game is white (including many of the NPCs).

To take inspiration from a city and then strip it of a large portion of its identity strikes me as artistically disingenuous. To model the game so closely on Philadelphia in regards to its geographic layout, climate, and social problems while at the same time scrubbing it of the people who inhabit the space turns real human pain into an abstract tool through which to elicit generic sympathy from the audience.

2. Set Piece Characters

When non-white characters do crop up, they often take the form of the speechless black children that inhabit the early playground scene. While it is nice to see some diversity, they have little impact in the story besides setting the mood. They represent naivete and innocence in the face of their terrible surroundings. These children are suspiciously parent-less (unless all the other white folks in the park are adopted parents). They carry their hardships gleefully and without complaint while Ethan and his son seem to be the only ones aware of life's cruelty.

Similarly, there are a surprising number of black police officers in the police station where Jayden works. None of them seem to be participating in the case, and most are confined to menial-looking routines. They exist to fill in the scene while Jayden and Blake spearhead the entire investigation as a two-man squad.

3. Mad Jack

Mad Jack is the first non-white adult the player meets who offers any direct impact to the story. Based on his potential to affect the story, the amount of dialogue he has, and the extent to which the player can interact with him, he is the story's leading non-white character.

Unfortunately, he turns out to be a burly, murderous, ex-con whose only role is to aid the killer and try to kill Jayden. He conforms to the long-standing cultural trope of the menacing black thug and voices the game's only racial epithet: "cracker."

4. Paco Mendes

While Paco's skin tone makes him appear ethnically ambiguous, his name and accent identify him as the game's sole Latino character. Like Mad Jack, he is quickly cast as one of the game's villains and his role consists of threatening one of the protagonists.

Paco exhibits and is defined by extreme machismo: In the nightclub, he lustfully summons women for his entertainment and dismisses them after he gets bored. After Madison flirts with him, he decides he is entitled to her body and makes her strip at gunpoint. In doing so, he simultaneously evokes undercurrents of the dangerous, sexually-obsessed Other and reenacts historical fears based on miscegenation and the defiling of white women.

Ultimately these traits become his own undoing, as Madison shows that his lustfulness is also his weakness. His defeat is a metaphorical castration precipitated by the threat of a physical one.

5. The Gravedigger

In the scene when Shelby and Lauren search the graveyard looking for clues to who might be the origami killer, they encounter a variant of "the magical negro."

While the gravedigger has no explicit magical powers, he still conforms to the trope of the folksy black person who happily and inexplicably offers advice that aids the white protagonist. Lauren and Shelby find themselves wondering what the connection might be between the dead boy and the origami killer. Luckily for them, the old gravedigger saunters up to share "Alls ah know" about the fate of the "poor youngin'."

Somehow, this grave digger knows the exact details of the boy's death and that he was adopted. After imparting this wisdom he dismisses himself: "well, better be gettin' home," having moved the plot along and served his sole purpose.

To make a game explicitly about life in the U.S. is to wade into the complex racial dynamics that define the culture. While none of the choices in the game seem malicious, they do speak to a either a lack of understanding about the forces that shape U.S. society.

With Heavy Rain, David Cage "wanted it to tell something about, maybe our societies in general, maybe about the US especially." Without fully exploring the contours race makes on a culture, Heavy Rain makes only the bland, obvious statements about social ills: urban blight is a problem, serial killers are bad, it's sad when children die.

Left unexplored are the more complex questions. For example: Philadelphia's mayor, police chief, and district attorney are black. Why is the city's video game doppelganger represented by Mad Jack?


  1. "While none of the choices in the game seem malicious, they do speak to [...] a lack of understanding about the forces that shape U.S. society."

    This seems to be a fairly common theme lately (cf. RE5). Is it just because we're seeing the shortcomings of foreign developers trying to target games at an American audience? I mean, it's unreasonable of us to expect them to understand all of our myriad racial insecurities, but at the same time this is kind of a glaring flaw in their depiction of Philadelphia. I mean, does it really need to be set in the US to appeal to us? Do they think we're really that ethnocentric? On second thought, don't answer that. >_<;

    I'd be much more interested to see Cage's depiction of France. They say write what you know.

  2. Haven't played the game, but I caught your previous post and figured you'd get around to this subject - nice work. Couple thoughts I wanted to share:
    -The game seems to be about sexual terror, the constant threat of sexual assault. It is obvious, then, that a character like Madison would be the lead, as US culture has been deeply historically constructed by the normalization of white male rape and the demonization of the sexualities of all people of color. White women occupy an ever-contested space where purity and chastity are virtues that enable a male pseudo-purity through chivalrous mythology that rarely ever sheds its overt racial character; though white women are clearly victimized by this order of things, the aim is to get them to build coalitions with white patriarchy that make them complicit in the victimization of others, hence making white male victimization of white women morally clouded and normalized. The various "feminist" movements that receive succor from (essentially speaking) the white patriarchy feed on this, using centuries-old racialisms to motivate women to achieve independence - because there's not always a good *enough* male around to save you. Madison, seemingly named after the female lead in "Splash," is just such a disconnected pseudo-feminist heroine, attempting to avoid sexual terror because the urban surrounding cannot provide it. The police force of Philadelphia, now adorned publicly with black faces because it has one of the world's most notorious histories of out and out racist brutality (does the game reference MOVE?) is the perfect environment for acting out the fantasy of being a white woman strong and cunning enough to evade sexual terror, because the police force has been made (in the shadow side of the popular imagination) entirely untrustworthy - white people could trust it before, but now no one can. I wonder if the game's cinematic visual style quotes such iconic texts of white femininity as Birth of a Nation, which is still oft-copied in popular films today. In any event, it seems to be at the core of the game's narrative construction: when black faces are in power, the decay of the social order becomes entrenched, and the purity of white womanhood becomes a target to be vigilantly protected.
    -It's not as if European game developers can claim ignorance about these racial urban dynamics. David Cage is surely aware that the racial "problems" in the US and Philadelphia are as acute as they are in his native France, which not only has generated what Americans (at least in a different era) would see plainly as "race riots" with regularity in recent years, but elected Sarkozy in large part because of his racist comments in response to them. Has Cage made anything about French society that has an Algerian or Senegalese person as its protagonist? I highly doubt it. The undeniable reality is that racism is inextricable, by virtue of a number of heavily, clearly documented but officially obscured phenomena, from any commercial product in our "globalized" era because racial ideology was at the heart of how it became "globalized." One of the flaws I have noticed about the vast preponderance of US-written blogs that tackle racism (and I mean to imply this is a tendency that sometimes appears in your work but generally does not that is epidemic or possibly endemic) is a failure to come to terms with the international history of how racism is globally produced with local histories. Racism becomes reduced to the local conflicts, and these details are used to "complicate" the question of "what is racist" rather than to illuminate how racism is structurally bound to play a major role. The consequence is that

  3. the residue of racist designs is interpreted as multicultural coincidence, with racism left to be "debated" as if it were a substance of individual, Cartesian minds rather than a structural element in institutions and communications. French people prefer African-Americans to the negres of their own colonies and former-colonies, owing to popular entertainment (jazz music especially) and their important military role in the first half of the 20th century. Iconic French statements on modernity rarely can fully evade the race question, from Jacques Tati's "Playtime" where the only non-white people on screen are jazz musicians or more recent films like "Amelie" where the country is cleansed of its "ethnic" elements save for one stuttering character so that the audience may focused on the unbridled pleasure provided to the haggard white faces. Meanwhile, employers in Philadelphia are generally much more interested in having black workers from the Caribbean or continental Africa than from Pennsylvania or New Jersey. These international questions are very interesting, but unfortunately they are hamstrung by an education system that has as an unstated but undeniable goal the suppression of historical information and lines of inquiry that implicate the present in the genocidal past.

  4. dude, spoiler alert?

  5. Race is a funny thing. In spite of all the bluster around Pres. Obama's "historic" election, this country is still deeply, bitterly divided along racial lines in a lot of ways.

    It is indeed bizarre to me that Heavy Rain, as described, didn't do much with the people of Phillie. Could it be chalked up to ignorance or timidity?

  6. Hey Julian, thanks for stopping by.

    I get the sense that, in Heavy Rain's case, it isn't so much targeting us as Americans rather than trying to make a story that fits into a genres popularized and largely defined by American culture. So many noir/thriller/cop dramas are set in America, it is understandable that even folks from other countries would want to partake in that tradition.

    Unfortunately, just wading in without taking into consideration both racial history as well as the historical failings of those genres themselves simply leads to re-living old mistakes.

    I'd also be interested in seeing his depiction of France, although Tom makes a compelling argument about why that might not be much more enlightening than his depiction of the U.S...

    Hi Tom!

    Totally on the money about Madison; her character is a tool first and foremost.

    Regarding any reference to Philadelphia's history: I imagine a potential excuse for this could be that the game is "faux-Philly," but that still wouldn't justify the complete absence of any social discussion. Most disappointingly, Cage said he and members of the development team actually visited Philadelphia while making the game. It's hard to imagine what the game would like if the didn't visit!

    As you point out, one of the most insidious things about racism is that it's easy to get preoccupied with it on a local level. I think for many people, myself included, living in and as part of a world infused with structural racism normalizes it. It still takes active effort for me to recognize personal privilege as well as the fact that local examples of racism are simultaneously the cause of problems and symptoms of bigger ones.

    It's hard to make a case for moving past the local "complications" when they are so much easier for folks to grasp quickly. Coupled with that is the task of trying to convince people (especially white people) that the system so beneficial (and seemingly benign) to them is deeply flawed. Quite the uphill battle.

    On a practical level, I think local histories are a good starting point and have potential to prime people's thinking, especially when juxtaposed to one another. I would love to see a game series in which single titles dedicated to specific geographic locations and cultural contexts culminate in a final game in which all those narratives begin to intersect.

    I have (perhaps naive) faith in people's abilities to notice similarities and see the big picture. In addition to thematic elements like graphics and dialogue, shared control schemes and gameplay dynamics would convey interconnectedness on both a ludic and tactile level. Who knows: perhaps with enough study and experience, someone like David Cage could start by making something honest about France, transition to other countries, and end up with a stable of titles that demonstrates how local stories create global narratives?

    Of course, I'm sure this would be a much harder sell to publishers than "Madden 2011."

    Hey Anonymous,

    My apologies for any spoilers. When I posted it, I didn't think there was anything too terrible. But, now that I have some distance, I see how some parts could impact someone's playthrough and I added a warning at the top. Hope it didn't ruin too much for you! :-(

    Hi Tesh,

    Agreed about the bitterness. Even more insidious is how the bitterness is often covered up by mounds of tradition and apathy.

    As to what to attribute it to, I'm always a big fan of blaming ignorance. I don't even want to imagine what it would look like if an American company tried to make a Heavy Rain equivalent for France.

    On a positive note, I gather from his interviews that David Cage is genuinely enthusiastic about exploring new territory. Maybe now that Heavy Rain has proven successful he'll have the freedom to experiment with more complex topics.

  7. Because the game focuses on white characters in Philly, the game is unrealistic? I guess Scott isn't a "Rocky" fan either. I don't know.

    Clearly this game is not about dissecting race relations or lecturing players on societal problems in America. What David Cage says and what he does with his games seems to be two different things. The biggest inspiration for this game had to have been when Cage lost his own son. Why wasn't that mentioned in this article?

    He may have mentioned in passing that the team was surprised to find urban decay instead of roads paved with gold upon visiting America, but Cage has bluntly said the game is his final "serial killer" story, and based on Indigo Prophecy, that is the kind of story he's been interested in for years.

    This is where Juster's accusations become mostly irrelevant in my opinion. If the focus of the game is to get to the bottom of a murder mystery, I as a player am not focused on anything like magical Negros. I notice that the gravedigger is black, but I don't think too hard about it. I notice that Mad Jack is black, but again, I don't think too hard about it. When he calls me 'cracker,' I wonder about it, but I don't wonder too much. Maybe I'm in the minority here.

    Culturally, Heavy Rain is very much a product of French video game makers. It's not perfect, but I have to say that no matter what Cage says, the point of the game is simply solving a murder mystery and rescuing your child. Interesting piece for sure, but it misses the point in my view.

  8. Hey there, first time I've stopped by, after reading your re-post on Kotaku.

    I'm working my way through a PhD on videogame critical theory at the moment, and am pleased to see this kind of intelligent criticism being performed on this game (or any game really).

    To paint it very broadly, it seems to me that Cage is a very capable director, but not much of a writer. The 'feel' of the game is quite good, looks good moves well, etc, but the actual content is pretty woeful. I've spoken to film students, film production mind you not theory/criticism, and one in particular always tried to force me to 'understand' that film-making was about formula, structure. He just wouldn't accept that his structuralist view of narrative was only one of many ways to construct a narrative. Cage seems a little bit that way too: he develops and deploys tools to get a job done, rather than linger in the characters themselves.

    So I look at Heavy Rain and ultimately see a step in the journey of videogame history, rather than a culmination of anything. It suggests an interesting genre/platform for videogame technology, whereby a more talented writer could more fully realise a story that's worth playing, while using some of the structural ideas Cage has developed here.

  9. @ Paulie

    I really enjoyed Heavy Rain, but I still disagree with the general notion that a subject need not be discussed if it is not "the point" of the game. I am sure Scott is very aware Heavy Rain is not "about" race relations in Philadelphia, much the same way Babar isn't about "colonialism." That doesn't mean, however, exploring those aspects is not a worthy endeavor. On the contrary, examining background elements of cultural artifacts is important in and of itself.

    While many people may not have thought twice about race in the game, it certainly was obvious to me. Considering Cage's explicit intent to set this story within America, it stuck out very much. To some extent, it was counter-immersive. Yes, you are right it is a product of a french developer, and that shows in more ways than just the bad accents. Why not lament a missed opportunity?

  10. Hey Paulie,

    You know, I'm fine with someone disagreeing with my arguments. But calling my love of Rocky into question? I take umbrage, good sir! :-)

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    Like Jorge said, works of creativity often make commentaries on unintended subjects. Star Wars: Episode I wasn't about human race relations, but Jar Jar Binks makes an (unfortunately) strong case for the ways in which minstrelsy has ingrained itself in popular culture.

    All that being said, I still think Heavy Rain is an impressive accomplishment and that people should play it. As Adam Ruch suggests in his comment, it is n many ways a good example of the current technical, ludic and thematic issues games are dealing with and I'm excited to see what happens next.

    Hi Adam,

    Thanks for stopping by! I think I share your feelings about the game: it's an impressive work, and even what I consider its flaws are fascinating.

    I hope your dissertation is going well. Even though academia seems like it is catching on in terms of studying video games (especially in Australia), I still get the feeling it's a bit of a "wild west" at the moment. I'm looking forward to reading more of your work!