Archive for December, 2006

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On Indigo Prophecy, Part 2: So Bad, It’s Racist

December 26, 2006

So far, I’ve been dissecting Indigo Prophecy by analyzing our straight-white-male main character, Lucas Kane. As anyone who has been unfortunate enough to play the game knows, however, we can’t really finish a discussion about Indigo Prophecy without talking about Carla Valenti and her half of the game.

Carla is a tough NYPD detective who has some kind of vague experience with Latino street gangs, and she’s in charge of the investigation on the series of mysterious murders in which Kane is a suspect. Visually, she seems to be inspired by a slightly more feminine vision of Michelle Rodriguez; physically attractive but still tough enough to be a cop. She is significant for more than just her race and gender, however. Cage describes in his 1UP.com article that he intended to have Carla and Lucas share the spotlight as heroes:

“Splitting the focus of the game between the main characters was an important task. Because the game was based on the idea of switching between different characters, all of them had to present some kind of focal point, although it was obvious from the start that there would be only two real heroes to the story, Lucas and Carla. Their roles were defined quite early in the process. Lucas would be the cursed hero, accused of a murder he did not really commit, and the victim of visions trying to kill him while he searches for the truth, while Carla would be the professional, cold investigator, only believing in reality. He would be on the supernatural side; she would be on the reality. “

In this respect, it seems like Cage is actually trying to subvert gender norms by characterizing her as the “professional, cold investigator”; not only is she a woman of color in a position of authority, but she is not, at first, defined by particularly feminine characteristics. This is actually emphasized through the actual gameplay, which requires the player to pass a firearms test at a shooting range and improvise a radio antenna – tasks generally considered more masculine than feminine – while controlling Carla.

Unfortunately for Carla, whatever claim she has to share the spotlight with Kane quickly vanishes in the face of his straight-white-maleness. Just like how Kane is less than the typical, two-dimensionally masculine film superhero, Carla is more finely nuanced than simply “professional” and “cold”. Her more masculine traits, like “professionalism”, are offset by her highly feminized weaknesses; in particular, she is strongly claustrophobic, and her claustrophobia is presented in two highly gendered scenes, one of which is highly reminiscent of Jodie Foster’s excursion into an insane asylum in Silence of the Lambs. Her “coldness” is thus balanced by her irrational, and therefore female, claustrophobia. While writing nuanced characters is admirable, Carla’s femininity becomes inversely related to her capacity to act within Indigo Prophecy as the story progresses.

Carla is not, at first, overtly sexualized; while she is attractive, she dresses in outfits that generally would be considered appropriate for a professional detective in the middle of a frigid New York winter. In Cage’s Gamasutra.com Developer’s Diaries, he briefly describes Carla as “a tough young police officer but discreetly sexy, totally immersed in her work to compensate for the lack of any emotional life.” While it’s questionable exactly how “discreetly sexy” Carla is – part of Indigo Prophecy’s pre-release promotional advertising included a photo-shoot of Carla posing in her NYPD office completely naked – there is no explicit mention of any romantic figures in Carla’s life for the first half of the game or so. She seems to be independent and in control of her own balance between her work and her sexuality – that is, except for a mysterious email from one “Tommy” that the player reads early on in the game.

“Tommy” turns out to be Carla’s gay next-door neighbor, and it is through him that Cage introduces Carla’s secret yearning for a man. Immediately following a shower scene, the player controls Carla (dressed only in a bra and panties) and guides her through her apartment to a conversational scene where it’s revealed that Carla is not quite the independent, self-assured woman that she appears to be. Indeed, as the story progresses, Lucas has sex with his ex-girlfriend, Tiffany, who gets killed off shortly thereafter, leaving Carla as the only remaining object of Lucas’s straight white male gaze. Once Tiffany dies, a combination of awkward scriptwriting and narrative pacing puts Lucas and Carla together, with one or two scenes distinctly lacking in romantic tension leading them to consummate their newfound relationship in an abandoned underground New York subway car before the final climactic showdown with the forces of evil. (All of which happened despite the fact that earlier scenes alluded to Kane having been killed and reanimated in a zombie-like state, which wouldn’t seem to be particularly conducive for sex.)

Interestingly enough, the bad writing is instrumental to Carla’s subversion; since Lucas’s character didn’t manifest any particular kind of personality or romantic interest in Carla before they fall passionately in love, it appears that Carla is not falling for Lucas Kane in any kind of characteristic, personal sense, but rather simply playing out her role as the woman of color who is supposed to fall in love with the white man. After their attraction has culminated in abandoned subway car sex, Carla is effectively removed from the spotlight. By then, Kane has mastered his supernatural powers, and Carla’s role has been demoted from co-protagonist to devoted wife; it’s all she can do to watch her man stride bravely into the final battle. Cage apparently felt compelled to emphasize this in the game’s endings, too; out of the three different possible outcomes of the final battle (Kane wins, Mayan Sorcerer wins, or the weird Matrix-like computer wins), the only common thread they all have is the revelation that Carla is pregnant with Kane’s child. Indigo Prophecy takes the assertive, ass-kickin’ Carla Valenti and turns her into just another woman who is defined by the man who puts his penis in her. Screw keeping the peace and saving the world, Indigo Prophecy tells us, only by making babies can the good guys beat the bad guys.

Once we watch Carla’s share of the spotlight die most heinously, it seems that Carla’s earlier sexual independence may have been written in to keep her single for the player, who is most likely a straight white male, to have for himself via Lucas. While the game’s script seems to generally portray Carla as the independent, take-charge woman of color that is part of Cage’s intended alternative narrative (until the ending, anyway), the scenes that emphasize her underlying femininity, like the claustrophobia scenes and the shower scene, and the pre-release Playboy photo shoot, seem to indicate that Carla is sexually independent not out of an earnest desire to grant her a role as Kane’s co-protagonist, but rather as a blatant push to cater to the “typical” 18-24 year old video game audience.

The last character who deserves a mention is Tyler Miles, Carla’s black male sidekick. Like the two main characters, Tyler is written to be a fairly nuanced character, at least relative to general depictions of black men in video games. On one hand, he is surrounded by signifiers of black masculinity; he’s phenomenal at basketball, less than responsible when it comes to money, and loves ’70s funk and white women. However he is also defined almost exclusively by his relationships with women – specifically, his working relationship with Carla and his romantic relationship with his white girlfriend, Sam – and within these interactions he is portrayed as a fully written character rather than a stereotypical black man. He is sensitive and sexual, loyal to both his job and his woman but very conflicted when the two are at odds. Tyler is both a walking stereotype and a subversion of that stereotype.

Personally, I found that he kind of grew on me as the game progressed because he did develop past the confines of his initially blatantly stereotyped characterization. Unfortunately for Tyler, however, he is pushed aside from the spotlight simply by virtue of being a black man; Cage writes Tyler in his 1UP.com post-mortem:

“Tyler Miles, Carla’s teammate, was an interesting character for us to develop. I tried to characterize him as much as possible, by making him a kind of Shaft-style character, stuck in the 70’s. He is also the only character with any funny scenes in a story that is generally quite dark.”

Tyler is thus stuck playing the role of supporting comic relief, which is incredibly frustrating given the way he briefly manages to shine through his stereotypical features. Interestingly enough, he seems at first to be a viable competitor for Kane’s role; he does have his own sex scene – with a white woman, no less – and generally comes off as much more competent than Kane in any given scenario. His sidelining, however, is no real surprise. He is Carla’s sidekick, rather than the other way around, because he is not a woman, so Lucas will not have sex with him. Just as with Carla, Tyler’s backgrounding is abrupt and clumsy due to poor writing and narrative pace, which only emphasizes his black masculinity as the real reason he departs from the spotlight. It is not because of any particular character flaws that Tyler leaves the game to follow his girlfriend to Miami (and sell shoes instead of being a cop); it’s simply because he’s a black man, and since Indigo Prophecy is centered around a straight white man, there’s no room for him beyond the occasional humorous scene.

Playing through bad video games is hardly a novel experience for me. In this respect, Indigo Prophecy shined; it’s the first time I’ve played a game that is so badly written that it ends up being a tale of white male supremacy. While all of the characters were no doubt written the way they were to try and tell a story of real people doing amazing things, it ended up being a story of a lone straight white man singlehandedly saving the world pretty much by virtue of the fact that he’s a straight white man.

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Indigo Prophecy Reinforces White Male Supremacy, Part I

December 22, 2006

Figured I’d break in my spiffy new MacBook with a post on Indigo Prophecy. This is actually derived from a paper I turned in for class, but it’s chopped down to cater to shorter attention spans. =) As usual, there are a few significant spoilers in this post, but Indigo Prophecy really isn’t worth playing for the plot twists, so who cares? Read on.

For those of you unfamiliar with Indigo Prophecy, it was released about a 16 months ago by Quantic Dream. David Cage directed the game, and made it very clear that he was aiming to create a game that married film and video games together in the name of telling a “mature’, compelling story that appealed to adults in all places on the gaming spectrum. This, by itself, is an interesting and possibly laudable goal. Unfortunately for Cage, Indigo Prophecy doesn’t really manage to live up to his own hype (cop the post-mortem articles at Gamasutra and 1UP.com for more examples). Instead, Indigo Prophecy‘s “alternative-ness” gives us a game where our straight white male main character manages to save the world from evil Mayan sorcerors and the Internet pretty much solely by virtue of being a straight white male. While Cage goes on at length about the “elasticity” of Indigo Prophecy‘s storyline, particularly in regards to the multiple playable characters, everyone in the game eventually disappears because they’re either not-white or not-male.

Indigo Prophecy‘s protagonist, Lucas Kane, is our straight white male of the hour. He seems like an unlikely hero at first. Instead of a conventional health meter, the game tracks his mental state (which fluctuates between “neutral” and various states of depression all the way to “wrecked”, where the game ends with Kane committing suicide) and as the game progresses, the player witnesses Kane experiencing all kinds of hopeless, despairing, confused emotions. The more we learn about Kane, the more he seems even less like our typical Hollywood heroes; he’s sad about having recently broken up with his girlfriend, he favors fairly light independent rock music, he has a guitar and a punching bag lying around his New York loft apartment that indicate his hobbies. His apartment is somewhat tastefully decorated, he works a desk job (systems administrator at a big bank), and he looks good in a sweater – a far cry from the routine over-muscled male video game protagonist, and perhaps the first cue the player has that the story is not intended to be inspired by your average action flick.

Kane’s “alternative hero” image becomes substantially eroded when sex enters the picture. During the course of the game, Kane winds up bedding both his ex-girlfriend, Tiffany, as well as his primary foil, Carla Valenti (more on her later). Hooking up with Tiffany is a particular surprise, not only because the two broke up before the events of the video game take place, but because she winds up helping Kane hide from the cops, tells him she still loves him, and dies shortly thereafter, only to have Kane move on to Carla. Tiffany is an object rather than a subject of sexuality – in order for the two to have sex, the player must successfully seduce her with Kane’s guitar – and in what will become a reoccurring trend for Indigo Prophecy, whatever agency she maintained was lost in the face of Kane’s apparent masculinity.

Also worth noting is Kane’s ridiculous physical transformation. As the game progresses, Kane becomes physically stronger and more agile. He gets powers roughly equivalent to those of Neo from The Matrix; the only difference being that he manages to attain similarly superhuman levels of ability despite no apparent training montage or mentored guidance from an equivalent Morpheus. Instead, Kane manages to best an immortal Mayan sorceror (notably a man of color!) at a contest of combat skill despite said sorceror presumably having had thousands of years of experience using the same kind of powers. Watch out for white men, Indigo Prophecy tells us, for even an emo bumbler like Lucas can win with little effort. What’s more, the struggle between Lucas and the sorceror is over the “Indigo Child”, a young, virginal white girl. This game equates saving the world to saving white girls from predatory not-so-white men. Yes.

Next: On Carla Valenti

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Survivor spoilers

December 18, 2006

Yul won! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

Sadly enough, none of the ethnic studies/media studies crowd at Claremont has been watching this season of Survivor, which is heartbreaking for me because some fascinating things have happened over the course of the show.

Of particular interest is the Aitutaki tribe, who all made it to the final four. Becky (Asian American), Yul (Asian American), Sundra (African American) and Ozzy (Mexican American), all people of color, managed to hold fast after Jonathan and Candice, the two white people on Aitutaki, took the opportunity to “mutiny” over to the opposing tribe and join their fellow whiteys. Admittedly, I missed out on a few episodes between the mutiny and the very end, but it seems like the game had a very intriguing racial undercurrent that was completely ignored by the actual material of the show. As soon as the mutiny happened, Aitutaki managed to dominate each challenge, forcing Rarotonga to go to tribal council and vote a member off over and over – and as it turns out, it generally ended up being the white majority voting out the non-white members of the tribe. Even once the tribes merged, it seemed to be fairly racially polarized, though it looks like infighting eventually sank Team Cracka.

Poor Becky, on the other hand, really had no chance. It’s nice to see an Asian American man and woman working together so well, but Yul and Ozzy outshined her.

Also, Yul and Ozzy both mentioned during the last tribal council that they wanted their appearance – and victory – on the show to alter the dominant images of Asian American and Latino American men, respectively. Props. Apparently Yul was even on a spread in People magazine or something. Time to put your money where your mouth is, Yul – we’ll see if we can’t get you to speak at a college event some time.