Tuesday, 13 June 2017

An Infamous Practice: Diversity In Video Games

Right now the biggest event in the gaming world, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), is coming to a close. It's the event where game companies and tech developers announce the projects they've been working on for the public. Everything from new hardware I'll never be able to afford, to games I'll never have time to play. Still, despite mostly being my own personal version of window shopping, I do enjoy seeing the new and innovative elements at play in the gaming industry. However, every year, I'm frustrated. Disappointed. The one thing the gaming world could use is the thing that never comes.

Spot the difference.

Back in 2009, one of my favourite games to come out was 'Infamous'. You played as every man Cole Mcgrath, a courier with a gruff demeanour that depending on how you played, became more "Good" and more "Evil" as the game progressed. When a package that Cole delivers explodes, it causes mass destruction to his home, Empire City, a fictional stand-in for New York City. The explosion grants him incredible electrical superpowers as well, and you play you can restore the city to its former glory, and keep it from falling siege to gangs taking advantage of the time of crisis. At the time I praised the game for its unique gameplay style, that emphasized fluidity, something that would only improve as the series went on. 'inFamous' was also an open world that catered to the player's individual experience. What I didn't realize at the time, was that beneath the surface, 'inFamous' had more to say than your typical superhero adventure.

The clip above takes place after it gets revealed to the people of Empire City, that the bomb that destroyed the lives of so many people was, in fact, a package being delivered by Cole. Of course, Cole has nothing to do with the packages he delivers. He takes them from his office and escorts them around the city being none the wiser as to what the package entails. Still, in a time of pain and suffering, the people around him look to him for blame. Since she lost her sister in the explosion, his girlfriend, Trish, even has a hard time dealing with the news.

The missed opportunity here is that Cole, like so many video game protagonists, is white. This is not to say that the story of 'inFamous' is not compelling because of the colour of his skin. Cole still remains a well-crafted character, as do the other characters in the game. But just imagine how much more potent that scene would play out if Cole were middle eastern, or even if he were a Muslim. Suddenly, it becomes a commentary on the prevailing Islamophobia that becomes more overt in the wake of a public attack. When Cole asks the player if they've ever been called a terrorist, it's supposed to be something to which that we the audience say "No of course not, I can't even imagine that." but for many people, the answer could very well be "Yes I have, and it was horrible."

It would bring a deeper level to the interactions of Cole with the other characters, as well as how you play the game. When the game asks you to choose between a good or evil act, at the back of your mind, you would take into account the resentment that comes with waking up brown in a city that isn't. When his best friend Zeke starts to look at him questioningly, it puts a strain on their relationship, because the two are such close friends. If Cole were a darker skin tone, it would be even more uncomfortable, as it would show the experience of a person of colour even with people they thought to be their friends. This would only be worsened by the fact that Zeke is a gun-toting Elvis enthusiast with a southern accent, whose middle name is Jedediah.

Not the typical picture of racial tolerance. 

The subtext gets even more powerful when the second game rolls around. In it, Cole and Zeke travel to New Marais, another fictional stand-in, this time for New Orleans. New Marais is a place that is overrun by swamp monsters, soldiers with ice abilities, and a privatized military force known as The Militia. The Militia is a gang of Chrisitan extremists who vow to rid their city of the people that cause trouble, coded here as 'deviants' of which Cole Mcgrath is the main danger. To do this, there's a strict immigration ban that's been placed on the city, even refusing refugees from the crisis in Empire City, so Cole has to sneak into the city on a fishing boat.

Again, this is just an added difficulty to Cole's adventure that's meant to serve as a challenge to the player, but it takes on a new meaning if Cole were to look like the people who normally have to suffer extraneous circumstances to travel from one place to another. The people who get accused of being the poisonous M & M's hidden in a bag of candy. The Militia essentially is presented as the worst case scenario of an Alt-Right group, right down to the leader who looks like a hybrid of Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer.

This is his good side.
All of this requires no other changes to the story, the gameplay, and anything else that goes into making 'inFamous' the game that it is. Everything in the games can stay exactly the way it is, but the events and how you play the game would change dramatically if Cole were a different colour. It would make scenes like the one's where Cole is called 'The Demon of Empire City' chilling, and it would create a much more conscious atmosphere, that affected how certain decisions were made. As it stands, the morality system in 'inFamous' is a less nuanced than it could be and as I said, while Cole is a compelling character, his struggle would ring truer were he wearing a less represented face. It's a missed opportunity for a story that could have been truly reflective of the times we live in today.

The most intriguing choice I came across in the games was in 'inFamous 2'. In the game, you're introduced to two new characters, Lucy Kuo, an NSA agent tasked with helping Cole save the world, and Nix, a New Marais citizen out to get revenge for her city besieged. They become more or less avatars for the games good and bad paths and influence Cole like the devil and angel on his electric shoulders. There's a point in the game where you're set to rescue Kuo from being imprisoned by the Militia. Zeke suggests freeing the police who have been rounded up and jailed by the Militia, give them weapons, so they can aid you in the rescue. This sparks an intense reaction from Nix. She instead suggests filling up a van with explosives and ramming it into the base where Kuo is being held, possibly injuring innocents in the process. Zeke is considered "Good" Nix is labeled "Bad"

At the time that I first played it back in the olden days of 2011, the choice was clear. Free the police, arm them up, and you have an army to help you in your quest. Now? The idea of putting a gun in the hands of a cop is far less inviting. It's much easier to understand Nix's vehement disapproval of Zeke's plan, especially considering she looks like this:

You choose Zeke's plan, Cole will remark at how crazy Nix is. How her destructive nature is completely out of the realm of reasonability. Cole says this because he would have had a different experience with the police than Nix. It's not hard to imagine why she's so opposed to the idea.

That right there is a small example of how important it is for characters in video games, movies, television shows, and all mediums of narrative to be diverse. The stories that are told can be drastically different if the perspectives are changed. They can become richer, more compelling, and important as they'd be giving a voice to those who are so often silenced. Not to mention, 'inFamous' has a character whose perspective has been explored ad nauseam. The idea is not that 'inFamous' would be a better game were Cole a person of colour. Rather that 'inFamous' would take on a much deeper, more complex role, sticking with you with a story that stands out amidst the crowd of generic white protagonists.

It's not all bad. Much has changed since Cole's last adventure in 2011. The 'inFamous' series itself continued on without him and embraced the path of inclusiveness when 'inFamous Second Son' featured a Native American protagonist. The game didn't just throw in that backstory for nothing either. It was instrumental to his character's motivations and was reflected in how his arc developed. He was played by Troy Baker who is very much not Native American but, baby steps. 

At E3 this year alone, 'Wolfenstein: The New Colossus' features a black female character, and 'Marvel's Spider-Man' teases the inclusion of Miles Morales. Even 'Beyond Good and Evil 2' featured a black female character. The throughline though, is none of these characters seem to take the centre stage. There's nothing wrong with a story that features a white protagonist, there's just extremely untapped potential at telling a story from an unexplored perspective, that also might just mean the world to a player that's less represented. 


Kyle Williamson said...

This is pretty thought provoking