Time has accused Square Enix of racist portrayal of blacks in it recent transhuman stealth shooter Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
The (admittedly terrible) character in question:
Time’s writer rants about the inclusion of a black character who he views as embodying a racist stereotype of African Americans, though he otherwise rates the game highly (as does practically every other reviewer):
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.
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.
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?
Defenders keen to burnish the game’s politically correct credentials (or avoid lawsuits) might point out that a number of the game’s many black characters (most of it takes place in the rotten core of Detroit) are scientists and managers, and that the game only features a grand total of two characters speaking with folksy accents in any case.
Oddly, the hammy faux Asian accents the game’s English speaking Chinese (a third of the game takes place in a dystopian Chinese city) universally speak with escape mention, as well as the fact that virtually all of the game’s Chinese characters are either triads, prostitutes or scientists.
The obligatory inclusion of the “English accent arch-villain” character also tends to suggest the game is more guilty of constructing its cast from crude Hollywood character templates and stereotypes than any actual racism.
Square Enix still takes the accusations seriously enough to dismiss them with an apologetic non-apology:
“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.”