Based on critical reception alone, the newest Deus Ex will likely be a hit. And that’s with good cause. Human Revolution is a great game, designed to support a variety of approaches and chock full of the kinds of nuts-and-bolts customizations that make a player’s experience feel really unique.
But it’s also a huge title and the problem with that is players probably won’t see everything. In fact, it took a random tweet for me to find out about the worst thing in Deus Ex: Human Evolution. A thing named Letitia.
Letitia’s a really bad part of a really good game. When lead character Adam Jensen encounters her in Detroit, she’s picking through the trash. It becomes clear that she’s an informant from Jensen’s police days and, as their conversation continues, she gives Jensen a few hints and a general sense of the mood of the city. Letitia’s horrible character design doesn’t stop you from exploring the cyberpunk world of 2027. Instead, she makes you wonder about how she even came into existence.
Look, I get what Letitia’s supposed to be. She’s an informant in the Huggy Bear mode, the street person whose access to the underworld helps the hero get to the next part of the plot. Is she a have-not? Absolutely. Does she sound like the other have-nots in the game? Absolutely not. From 1:57 to 2:12 of the above video clip, Letitia talks about people losing jobs and homes, going on to say that the city feels likes its going to explode. If things were different, if Letitia was at all recognizably human, you could read those chunks of text as either a reference to the infamous 1967 Detroit Riots or the current discomfort created by the global economic downturn. The potential metaphorical depth that DXHR could hold in that moment gets squandered by the character delivering it.
Letitia talks about people losing employment and real estate, and it makes one ask if she ever had either or even any dignity. Did she make bad choices in life that had her digging in the trash? Or was she born in the gutter and never made it any further? If Letitia is supposed to communicate how broken society is in the DX: HR universe, she doesn’t need to look and sound like am homage to Amos ‘n’ Andy.
Why is this in here? Humor? Any mirth to be had from watching the sequence dissipates about 30 seconds in. No, the purpose of talking to Letitia is to move the player forward and give some hints about Jensen’s backstory. Yet in doing so, you encounter something really ugly. Letitia embodies a strain of racist stereotype that renders black people as less than human, as the worst that society has to offer.
Mind you, I’m not calling Eidos Montreal or Square Enix racist. What I will say is that the Letitia character swims in the same dirty stream of ideas that gave America the welfare queen myth and the mysterious black criminal often cited as an alibi in other people’s crimes.
The horrible broken English Letitia speaks is so far removed from any actual slang that it renders the character practically extra-terrestrial. It’s not from an alien planet, though. That slang harkens back to the worst blackface minstrelsy of the last century. Even the voice actor sounds embarrassed at the things she—even though it sounds like a man, at times—has to say.
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I don’t like Gears of War‘s Augustus ‘Cole Train’ Cole as a character, but he at least sounds grounded in some sort of reality. Epic design director Cliff Bleszinski once told me that after seeing the “Terry Tate, Office Linebacker” commercials from a few years back, he and the Gears dev team thought that type of character would be the kind of person you’d like at your side in a war. I believed him. It doesn’t make me like Cole Train’s role as loud, crass brute any more than I did before but I believe the motivation for his existence.
I can’t imagine anything Eidos Montreal would say that would make the existence of Letitia understandable. The problem generally tends to be one of under-representation. If there’s only one black character in a game and he acts in wince-inducing fashion, then your construction of that character’s going to be called into question.
But that’s not to say that there’s a magic algorithm that diffuses upset. Jenny Alexander—Adam Jensen’s old police buddy—speaks in full, understandable sentences and she’s apparently black. Even if there were five noble, upstanding black characters, it wouldn’t make one insulting persona okay. Because the insulting one still isn’t a human being.
Some people reading this might counter with, “Ok, fine, Letitia’s just a poorly drawn character. What’s the harm in that? Weak character construction isn’t racist.” But it’s what this particular weak character construction draws on that makes it so appalling. Making her a black, jive-talking street person echoes decades of racist imagery about poor African-Americans. That imagery’s said that blacks are too inherently dumb, lazy or foreign to America to share in the American Dream. It’s “those people, they’re not like us” talk.
Oh, I can imagine some of the responses to my criticism: “You want to censor creativity. You just want everything to be politically correct. It’s just a video game; what’s the big deal?” Those responses are wrong. To those who’d retort in that way, I ask this: Can you stand by Letitia? Could you sit someone in front of one of the best games of the year, have this sequence come up and not squirm at her every line?
If you care about respectability for video games, then this has been a big year. The Supreme Court decision that establishes First Amendment protections for video games, the NEA’s funding for interactive digital art and next March’s The Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian have all signaled an acceptance for the medium that’s long overdue. The question now is what game designers and developers will do with that acceptance.
When the player leaves the Letitia conversation, she offers, “I bees right here waiting for you, Cap’n.” Hopefully, you won’t be, Letitia. Not in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, nor in any other game.
[UPDATE: Square Enix has issued the following statement on the matter: "Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a fictional story which reflects the diversity of the world's future population by featuring characters of various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. While these characters are meant to portray people living in the year 2027, it has never been our intention to represent any particular ethnic group in a negative light."]