Sunday, March 9, 2008

Lucas Kane, Carla Valenti, and Racial Ambiguity in the Game Fahrenheit

This post is somewhat outside the course material, but I thought it noteworthy enough for a topic of discussion. I don’t know how many of you are gamers, but among those of you who are, I’m betting that even fewer of you are adventure gamers. Adventure games, due to their intricate plots and characterization, are quite interesting to read from a perspective of politics and social criticism. The game I’m talking about in this case is Fahrenheit, otherwise known by its US release title The Indigo Prophecy. This game was designed the French developer Quantic Dream, headed by David Cage (David de Gruttola), and it is perhaps this European perspective that makes the way race operates in this game quite unconventional.

Just so we’re all on the same page, I’ll recap the storyline of this game in a nutshell. The game features three playable characters, the most central of which is Lucas Kane. Lucas Kane, an ordinary salaryman, finds himself waking up from a trance in the bathroom of a diner, with a bloody knife in his hands and a dead man on the floor. He flees the scene and tries desperately to make sense of what had happened. Meanwhile, the two other protagonists, detectives Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles investigate the crime and are hot on his trail. Slowly, the three characters unravel a vast conspiracy spanning hundreds of years that threatens to herald an apocalypse for the human race. What is interesting here is that at no point does any character explicitly comment on race or identity. Even though Tyler is undeniably African American—and Carla, at least, is undeniably non-white—we learn nothing of the identities of these characters aside from how they appear on the screen.

I’m not the first person to attempt a racial reading of this game. In fact, I was motivated to write post by this by the lengthy treatment of this game on the blog, which is dedicated to the topic of race in computer games. The author of that blog, Pam Miller, in no uncertain terms calls the game thoroughly racist and misogynist.

Basically, her argument is that the main character, Lucas Kane, represents the standard white male protagonist who completely overshadows the “ethnic” characters of Carla and Tyler. Tyler is a sidekick character who exits the plot before the final stages, and Carla too steps aside to let Lucas face the final battle alone. The point of misogyny is well-taken, for the bad writing and the inexplicable romance between Carla and Lucas only serves to hypersexualize what appears to be an Asian or Hispanic woman and casts her character as one who is always sexually available. In the words of one Youtube commenter, “she’s a total whore.”

However, I have a problem with this reading, since this reading rests on the assumption that Lucas Kane is a white male. You see, for the whole time I was playing this game, I was under the distinct impression that Lucas Kane was Asian:

Carla Valenti too, I thought, was Asian:

Even though I believe that the ill-scripted romance between these two characters makes absolutely no sense and is misogynistic to the extreme (as well as making the last quarter of the game deeply disappointing), the ambiguousness of racial identity in the character of Lucas Kane complicates any reading of straight racial oppression. David Cage really plays with racial ambiguousness in these two characters. Even though Lucas looks East Asian, he looks nothing like his brother Markus, who looks completely white. Moreover, in flashbacks to his childhood, Lucas is depicted as brown-haired, freckled white kid. Similarly, Carla’s last name is Valenti, which suggests an Italian background, but it’s obvious that she doesn’t look like your average Italian.

I believe a clue may be offered in Miller’s reading of Tyler Miles:

“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.”

Both a walking stereotype and a subversion of that stereotype—in fact, when I think about it, it can apply to a number of characters, beginning with our “white” protagonist Lucas Kane.

While Tyler Miles fits into the mold of a stereotypical African American masculinity, I would argue that Lucas Kane fits the archetype of the model minority nearly to a T. He possesses habits and peculiarities that many would associate unconsciously with Asianness. He grew up next to a military base, has musical aptitude, keeps Chinese calligraphy in his room, and even does martial arts. He works in the computer room of a bank, together with another Asian character, an Indian American named Warren, whose last name is never revealed (incidentally, he speaks in a nasal yet unaccented English). During the course of the game, Lucas develops superhuman physical and mental abilities. In the final acts of the game, Lucas even participates in leaping and flying wire-fu sequences, and he eventually has a fight involving energy blasts that seems to be lifted straight from Dragonball Z.

The name “Kane” is also an important symbol, because it appears to call forth the yellowface character of Kwai Chang Caine, who was played by David Carradine in the 1970s TV series. Kwai Chang Caine was a Shaolin martial artist with the symbols of the tiger and the dragon burned into his forearms. Likewise, Lucas Kane is a martial artist with a two-headed snake scarred into each forearm (done while he was under the trance).

Despite these stereotypical characteristics, Lucas’s Asianness is never mentioned, even when the police try to profile him as a murder suspect. Lucas, like Tyler (whose blackness is never mentioned either), is a fully fleshed out and humanized character, displaying a full range of emotions and human interaction that truly make the player care about the character.

If Lucas Kane is somewhat ambiguously Asian, Carla Valenti represents complete and utter racial ambiguity. There’s nothing in her life to mark her ethnoracial identity—she exists in a strangely deracinated yet distinctly non-white state. If I were to guess, I would read her as being of mixed heritage. Her character is the weakest-developed of the three, perhaps due to her relative isolation from human contact outside of her job, so there’s unfortunately not much there to read.

These two characters are not the only ways that The Indigo Prophecy presents this enthnoracial ambiguity. It’s been a long time since I played the game, but off the top of my head, there’s one old, bespectacled Japanese-American bookstore owner named Takeo. When Tyler first enters, Takeo puts on a chop-socky Chinese accent that reminds the detective of the “Chinese dude from Gremlins.” However, by the end of the scene, it is revealed that Takeo was really putting on an act. He had lived his whole life in New York, and speaks with Brooklyn accent. He says to Tyler, “I’m more American than you.” In addition, the game’s version of the Illuminati are not the typical Illuminati in conspiracy literature that traces its lineage back to Adam Weishaupt in Ingolstadt. Instead, they, their “clan,” are descended from Mayans in a seeming reversal of the conquest narrative of the New World.

Since the game is incredibly cinematic, it can be watched as a machinima film. I’m embedding a few video plays in this blog entry for the sake of convenience, but if you want to watch the whole thing, it’s up on the guy’s account:

I'm interested to hear what everyone's comments on this are.


Patrick said...

nice post.

a few things:

-i never pegged lucas kane as ambiguously asian, though i think it's interesting that the david carradine reference was read as a clue towards an asian identity. after all, david carradine's role was, notoriously, a white man in yellowface. if anything, i'm inclined to believe that the carradine reference was even MORE supportive of the lucas-kane-as-white reading, underneath the "yellowface" of chinese characters and musical aptitude. and while we're talking about musical aptitude, kane's electric guitar isn't really one of those instruments that is generally racialized as fitting in the model minority.
anyway, i based my reading of kane as white in part because of his parallels to keanu reeves from the matrix, which, although he's actually hapa, never gets read as asian american by general audiences. really, considering that Warren and Takeo get such obvious signifiers of asian-ness in their characters, i doubt kane was originally intended to be asian american. but read him how you wish. :)

-my reading of carla valenti as latina was based on her 'experience with latino street gangs' mentioned earlier. i think she's heavily inspired by michelle rodriguez.

-my name is pat (short for patrick) miller, and i'm a he. :)

anyway, great post! glad to see someone else writing about race and games - and a fellow asian american, at that.
pat m.

wj said...

I wrote that post because I actually had a bunch of friends remark to me that Lucas Kane looked so Asian. It's quite frankly bizarre to me that no one's picked that up.

Also, it might be worthy to note that Caine's racial identity in Kung Fu was Hapa, which can actually go into your Keanu Reeves-Matrix reading.

"generally racialized as fitting in the model minority."

You should check out the thousands of youtube vids of Asian people playing guitar. We're getting recognition. :)

"considering that Warren and Takeo get such obvious signifiers of asian-ness in their characters"

But that's the thing. Aside from that reference to Gremlins, race is never mentioned. Warren doesn't speak with an accent, and his last name is never mentioned. Not even Tyler's blackness is ever mentioned. Because I was actually a French history specialist in undergrad, this game just struck me as quintessentially French in the way it handled race. The official government policy of racial equality means for them that race is rarely officially acknowledged.

It's a huge controversy right now whether or not they would they will take ethnic statistics in the next census. The drive towards that is led by the right wingers under Sarkozy, who want to use it to clamp down on immigrants.

mizkreant said...

Being hapa myself, when I played the game I thought the character of Carla Valenti looked very hapa.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure everyone looks Asian to you... black hair and if the eyes look that way......... sad... really

As for them being together...

Info taken from another user:
That did happened way, way to quickly. But there personalities and attitudes match, they did have things in common so they make a good pairing but there should have been far more scenes of them working and talking together in order to really build up there relationship. Now they did spend some time together, but it wasn’t seen. According to the timeline in Chapters, after level The Pact where Lucas explains himself and what’s going on to Carla, that takes place on 02/01 (February 1). Lucas spends a month at Carla’s apartment because the date on level Where Is Jade is 02/27 (February 27)

Ardalan said...

There are two delicate illusions to Lucas & Carla's racial identification some parts in the game!

What i wanna say is that, i just can't figure out why there should be a "Noodle Box" in Lucas's kitchenette and a "Pizza Box" in Carla's!

It's not something extraordinary for some New Yorkers eating Noodles or Pizza, but considering Lucas's Asian looks and Carla's Italian last name, it explains many things!

Maybe David Cage wants us to know something...because, just take a look at Marcus's resemblance with Lucas, yet brothers! and all those illusions to Lucas Asianity, but never actually stated!

He even bears no resemblance with his Childhood!

Guess the only one capable of solving this mystery is the very David Cage, and no one else!