So today, I was doing my normal routine, when I came across something disturbing. Not in the weird-and gruesome sense. Not in the weird-and-WTF sense. Something completely different, in a completely different disturbing sense.
Part of my daily routine is to read video game news on Gamasutra. Now, I know plenty of you fellow voice performers know about Gamasutra. For the uninitiated, it is a video game industry news site, which means it goes deeper than the regular old video game news outlets. The disturbing thing was an article about allegations of racism in the newly released Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Of course, I was immediately sucked in to the allegations and rhetoric, as most people are these days. While trying to avoid spoilers to the game as much as possible (because I haven’t played the game yet), the inflating controversy relates to the voice performance of a streetwise informant character. The Gamasutra article links to a video of the performance and the Time Magazine blog that gave momentum to the allegations. Go ahead…I’ll wait.
Now granted, taken by itself, the character is a bit over-the-top. Maybe even out-of-place. But labeling it as racist completely devoid of context related to the game and character development process is as shortsighted as it is ridiculous.
Let’s deconstruct this a little bit, to give the non-VO folks a little insight into character creation for video games, and some perspective of the things that we would use to shape interpretation of the character’s lines, and hopefully come to the realization that this whole thing is harder than it seems.
Place: Detroit, Michigan
Time: The year 2027
Character type: Streetwise informant
Most of the time we get a ‘side’ that gives us these details and screenshot of the in-game character. This allows a good sense of characterization when we audition for parts like these. We will also have lines from the character depicting several varying emotional states (Look at the subtitles from the linked video to see the lines). So what we have so far gives us a pretty good look at Letitia as a character. Let’s break it down even more:
Name, race and the obligatory character screenshot lets us understand that she’s African-American. The character type is a streetwise informant. OK, urban sound. Now, here’s where it gets tricky.
The year 2027 doesn’t give us much. It’s in the future, and the future hasn’t happened yet. The premise of the Deus Ex series has been an overarching struggle between forces that advocate augmenting human beings with technology, and the more Luddite forces that shuns technology. That’s great for enhancing our knowledge of the game world, but it doesn’t give us much insight into Letitia’s characterization.
The setting where the character exists is Detroit. That doesn’t give us much to work with from a uniqueness standpoint.
That leaves us with the lines themselves. The sampling from the video shows that the lines are written in a vernacular that, to me, don’t really match my expectations of a ‘Detroit streetwise informer.’ Probably one big reason that the performance in game sounds more like Minerva in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
Therein lies the rub: The lines were written in a way that pushed the voice actor towards the final sound. The lines have an influence in casting and direction of the actor. And the writer probably wrote the lines in vernacular in order to help force the uniqueness of the character, especially in a game that has over forty notable characters (and Letitia isn’t even listed as one of the notables).
A person playing a game goes into the experience with certain expectations. Immersion in the game world is one of those expectations, so when a character sounds so unexpectedly, it does many things. One thing is that it stands out too much. And that is jarring to a player, especially when the character speaks in such a unique vernacular one minute, but then the next, she speaks of real estate and unemployment. It ruins the immersion for a player, because they focus on the standalone character, rather than the game experience as a whole, and there, folks, is where we find ourselves…focusing on a near-throwaway character.
But racism? Please. I know actual people who speak this way. I wouldn’t say that any were from Detroit. More like people from rural Oklahoma. More like Minerva. OK, so maybe the actor injected some relocating-from-the-rural-south backstory into Letitia. Maybe those kind of details would come out in more conversations in-game with her. Maybe not. Maybe the characterization was accurate, but not authentic, and that was one of the nuggets that Pat Fraley touched on in his 25th Anniversary Creating Characters event. He mentioned people raking Tom Cruise over the coals for his Irish dialect in “Far and Away.” The fact is, it was very accurate. Some other acting choices were the thing that rubbed us the wrong way, and the authenticity suffered in the name of accuracy. Maybe that’s what happened in DE:HR. Maybe the actor was so focused on the accurate portrayal of the dialect as written that the acting suffered. Who knows?
The fact is, people who go looking for things tend to find them. People love to label. We love to simplify things, and why should such an abstraction such as racism be any different? When this situation came up, the first thing I wanted to do is play the game and hear more of what Letitia has to say. Then when I have the entire picture, I bet I know what I’ll think:
"This is a game."