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 tokenminorities.wordpress.com 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.