That Weirdly Racist NPC In Deus Ex: Human Revolution

For the most part, the characters in Deus Ex: Human Revolution stick to the middle of the road. There's the tortured, hard-to read protagonist, the brilliant woman with a secret, the sassy British tech guy, and so on. But among them, one character sticks out — Letitia, a street informant that Adam Jensen meets in Detroit.

Letitia speaks in a ridiculously exaggerated dialect that could charitably be termed "Southern Black Caricature". It feels jarring in a game with such generally low-key characters, and it's anachronistic to boot. In the year 2027, would a down-and-out Detroit woman really speak like this?

Over at Time's "Techland" blog, Evan Narcisse wrote a well-assembled analysis in which he calls Letitia the "worst part of a very good game". In Narcisse's words, "Letitia embodies a strain of racist stereotype that renders black people as less than human, as the worst that society has to offer." He continues, breaking down how the character undermines what could have been a powerful interaction:

Look, I get what Letitia's supposed to be. She's an informant in the Huggy Bear mode, the street person whose access to the underworld helps the hero get to the next part of the plot. Is she a have-not? Absolutely. Does she sound like the other have-nots in the game? Absolutely not. From 1:57 to 2:12 of the above video clip, Letitia talks about people losing jobs and homes, going on to say that the city feels likes its going to explode. If things were different, if Letitia was at all recognisably human, you could read those chunks of text as either a reference to the infamous 1967 Detroit Riots or the current discomfort created by the global economic downturn. The potential metaphorical depth that DXHR could hold in that moment gets squandered by the character delivering it.

Letitia talks about people losing employment and real estate, and it makes one ask if she ever had either or even any dignity. Did she make bad choices in life that had her digging in the trash? Or was she born in the gutter and never made it any further? If Letitia is supposed to communicate how broken society is in the DX: HR universe, she doesn't need to look and sound like am homage to Amos 'n' Andy.

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?

You really do have to see the video in action to get a sense of why it's so offensive; indeed, if I were to sit someone down (particularly a black friend) and watch them play this segment, I'd squirm at every line. Letitia certainly sounds nothing like the other hobos that dot the Detroit map, and her initial greeting ("Well, Sheeeeeit. If it ain't the Cap'n hisself!") is utterly cringe inducing.

In response to the criticism from Techland and several other sites, Human Revolution's developer Eidos Interactive released the following statement:

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.

It's nice that the company has responded, but that's not exactly an apology; lack of intent doesn't make a problematic stereotype any less problematic. Generally speaking, lazy racial clichés simply have no place in games (or indeed, in any other media). Granted, we're in something of a murky area here; playing with racial stereotypes can work or even be humorous, depending on the context. But it depends hugely on tone and delivery, and it's much trickier with a crudely animated video game character. The actor's voice has to do most of the work, so if the vocal performance is off, it can hugely affect the scene.

As Narcisse points out, the character of Letitia is in the game mostly for the purpose of offering advice and filling in some of Adam's backstory. Does it add anything to make her sound so casually, anachronistically offensive?

A good chunk of Human Revolution takes place in China, and I enjoyed how detailed and immersive the setting was. The game rarely (maybe never?) felt like it was easing into Asian stereotypes; it was immersive and distinct, and many of the NPCs spoke in un-subtitled Chinese.

In fact, the Chinese levels were so well-done that I get the sense that Letitia was a rare slip-up from a team that was dedicated to creating a convincing sci-fi setting filled with various races and ethnicities. Unfortunately, that doesn't make her character any less offensive.

The Worst Thing About Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Techland]


Comments

    Bad voice acting is hardly unique to that character in Human Revolution, and bad voice acting does not make a game racist.
    By the way, top comment on that video as of this posting:

    I'm black and a lot of black people talk like that

    god, fucking white people feel that they need to get offended for us

    I've shown this to all of my black friends too and they see no problem with it either

    ifarah12 2 hours ago 17

      That's pretty much what I was thinking. Do people sound like that, yeah. Sometimes racism just lives in the minds of idiots.

      Remember when Resident Evil 5 was racist because you were killing black zombies? It's Africa... there's a lot of black people there. What else would you be killing?!

      What I as ACTUALLY expecting was the janitor in Jensen's apt. You know the one by the elevator who thinks they should toss Adam out because he was Aug'd, "No offence though sir!" Thats the closest to racism in the game.

      I'm sorry, but I think that's bullshit. I actually GREW UP IN DETROIT, and I have never, ever, not even as a joke, ran across anyone who sounded like that (let alone a female) who wasn't trying to do a half assed Chris Tucker impersonation.

      I think if you're Australian, even a black Australian, you might listen to that and think that's really how black people from America sound. You and your friends may even immitate that kind of crap, but at the end of the day, that's what it is - crap.

      Frankly as an American living down under here (and as a Detroit homeboy), I'm incredibly fucking offended by that video clip. The reporter nailed it right on the head, it's so close to an Amos 'n Andy, shuck 'n jive, minstrel show type stereotype that I think most Americans, even the incredibly insensitive and ignorant ones, would be highly uncomfortable seeing that.

      I can very easily forgive Aussies for not giving a damn about this because lets face it, Australians have their own racist stereotypes about black people (particularly Aboriginals) that have more meaning to them.

      But that being said, I don't buy for one second the entire claim of ignornace shit. I've lived down here for too long to fall for it. Most Aussies know exactly what stereotypes that people are talking about, even if they didn't originate here and I've seen plenty of bogans use them correctly without making a mistake over the years to not believe that they don't get it.

      Having something not matter to you, is not the same as pretending it doesn't mean anything at all (or you don't understand it).

    "The game rarely (maybe never?) felt like it was easing into Asian stereotypes"

    Have you heard ANY of the dialogue in china? Some of the most horrid "Asian" sounding voice acting I've ever heard. It's as if they god a whole head of white guys off the street and asked them to impersonate their local Chinese restaurant owner.

      Have you played the original deus ex? Those chinese voices were vastly worse (still all the voiced in the original were crap so I suppose its unfair to pick on one)

        Let's not forget "I SPEEL MY DRINK!".

        Seriously though, although it was bad in DX, he still has a point. It's not, you know, disgustingly offensive or anything, and it's good that they did keep some of it in Mandarin, but yeah, some of them were so stereotypically heavily accented that I feel like someone should have been yelling "SHAMEFUR DISHPRAY" (from Shogun 2).

        Maybe Americans are just more sensitive to the African-American thing, and the social divide.

      Have you done your research at all? They hired asian voice actors for the china segment for authenticity.

        I think those asian probably left asia so long ago that their accent became unhearable. Similar to most "asian" in hollywood films.

    This is ridiculous! complaining about how someone speaks saying its racist. some people need to get lives and stop dwelling on pointless shit

    and this article ladies and gentlemen is why we cant have nice things..

    why do people have to blow things out of proportion? its a game character, who i thought added a level of realism to the game, she brought the whole game down to an earthy level by being natural.

    Its not racist its realistic.

      I would agree. If anything, the author seems to be needlessly fuelling the flame of racial hate. I don't see why anyone should really care about this in HR. It's not an openly racist game.

        Though it IS about classism. So that's something.

    Its sad and funny but i finished this game got all the achievements and yet i never talked to this girl lmao damnnnn

    People need to take a teaspoon of cement and harden the f--- up.

    "racial stereotypes"... Stereotypes appear for a reason and it is because it has a bunch of features that are common within an ethnic, and/or socio-ecconomic and/or carreer group. I didn't even really think of Letitia as black I just saw her as street scum...

      This! so much this!

      I thought "I'll talk to that bum over there, see what she is up too..." and soon after I wondered if i could look through bins ;p

      I guess I'm sexist though, because i notice she was a woman lol

    I wonder if the same "issue" would be present if they replaced her with a stereotypical red neck and if they would complain about it.

      exactly my thoughts. what if it was a white trash redneck with a texan accent. would there be an issue?

      getting so sick of people having a cry about every little thing they deem racist. when did we all become so soft and touchy?

      unless something is blatantly offensive there should be no need for alarm.

    I didn't find the character particularly a racist caricature as much as just plain jarring in context of the setting. Ce la vie.

    Its not racist, its just bad voice acting that doesnt fit the character, a minor detail in a great game

    Shaft must be the most rascist film in history according to this article.

    So, it's not _actually_ about a racist NPC, but a racist portrayal of an NPC?

    Maybe in the future racism becomes abolished and now people act like themselves without second guessing whether it's coming off as a bad racial example?

    Evan Narcisse honestly thinks the worst part of DX:HR ISN'T the awful boss fights? Well, I guess there are critics, caught up with inventing meta racist issues, and then there are gamers who actually give a toot about the game itself. Kind of telling that it took a random "tweet" to give him the impetus to write the article.

    For the record, I WILL say that he wants to censor creativity, he wants everything to be politically correct, and that it’s just a video game; what’s the big deal? It's not wrong to give that reaction. Far from it. That response in just a kneejerk reaction to Narcisse's article, just like - you guessed it - Narcisse's kneejerk reaction to a poorly written and voiced character.

    So I completely missed this character in my first play through. But watching this now, all I can think is that Letitia is actually some crazy street lady who talks in this way because she's just totally mentally unhinged, not because that's how "black people" talk. Detective Alexander seemed to talk more or less like everyone else and she was black.

    wow the author is just a racist in denial.

    I thought it was exaggerated because it was a part of her persona.. a little marketing hook she developed to help get some attention and make transactions memorable. Like how Outback Steakhouse uses ridiculous fake Aussie accents in their ads. Letitia is in fact a cunning businesswoman with a penchant for street living and a nostalgia for good-old-fashioned racial stereotypes in an age where people care more about whether you're auged than what color you are.

    And not a single fuck was given that day...

    Do you honestly think that any of this controversy would have come up if a character was like this in a move rather than a video game?

    I don't think Eidos has anything to apologize for, all they've tried to do is portray a character, not enforce a racist stereotype.

    I wonder if the author has actually been to Detroit? That place is the absolute worst city in the OECD. It is a blot on the USA that things have got so bad there, White, Black or Hispanic it doesn't matter. I doubt it gets any better by the time this game takes place, if anything it would be worse. If she was wearing some messed up clothes this would probably go under the bridge, I consider it the wrong Character model, not voice. Also 'racist' is a VERY strong word, it gets thrown around these days so people can wax intellectual and make themselves sound partially cosmopolitan.

    Is racist the new godwins law or whatever it is? When you call someone something and automaticly win the argument.

    But to me it seems like another one of those flame bait arguments to generate views. The whole thing is illogical and unless the author regularly comments on the steriotypes portrayed in Movies, TV and Book I think hes just baiting for more views.

    Seriously people, stop saying racist.
    This is less a case of the subtle racism of lowered expectations and more a case of voice-over that they either forgot about, or ran out of time to redo. VO is often done in-house as a placeholder for the sake of testing, then professionally replaced further down the development track. This strikes me as one piece of it that was left in place due to absent-mindedness, or time pressures.

    Indeed. Throwing the word "racist" around so casually really just lessens the evil of ACTUAL racism.

    The simple fact is that there are SOME black people in Detroit who speak that way. Since speech patterns and culture tend to linger for a long time, it is reasonable to expect that at least one black person in Detroit could plausibly be speaking that way in 15/16 years time.

    Also, it should be stated quite clearly that a SINGLE African-American person in a game where there are multiple characters of African-American origin is NOT reasonably interpreted as a representation of ALL African-American persons.

    Also, Faridah Malik isn't a representation of ALL Americans of Middle-Eastern descent. David Sarif isn't a representation of ALL Americans of Mediterranean descent (his facial features are Mediterranean).

    I mean, what's next? Someone attacks the game for using Italian Renaissance style as "Cultural Appropriation" by "Nordic Supremacists" bent on "denying persons of Italian descent a right to their own narratives" or something?

    Was that NPC's accent and dialogue cringe-worthy? Yes. But is it really racist? Can it reasonably be seen as a representation of a single group of people as a whole? No.

    Now, if every black person in DXHR was a fried-chicken-loving watermelon-chomping crack-addicted rapper that used "motherfucker" in place of a comma, then you would INDEED have a case of racism! But a SINGLE black person that acts in a somewhat stereotypical manner, in a game with multiple black characters, some of whom act somewhat stereotypically and some of whom don't, is not racism.

    If there is a character that is arguably a racist stereotype, its Zhao Yun Ru, who embodies every single "evil Asian Dragon Lady" (she's even CALLED "the Dragon Queen" in the game) cliche there is. However, not only is she not the only Asian character in the game (indeed there are many Asian characters of both sexes that are both good and evil!), she's quite clearly a nod to the conventions of the genre (Cyberpunk/Futuristic Noir). This kind of character is common in many works in Cyberpunk and old Film Noir (although in Cyberpunk this character was typically Japanese rather than Chinese). So even Zhao Yun Ru, in context, cannot be called racist.

    Oh, and if anyone wants to point out that the augmented street gangs in DXHR have a lot of black people, please also note that these gangs typically have multi-ethnic compositions (yes, white people too!). Indeed this isn't exactly realistic considering in real life, gangs tend to be less racially diverse in their composition, but hey, maybe people are more tolerant on average in 2027.

    Perhaps those concerned have a point here (I'm white and middle class. What the hell do I know?), but I think I was more offended by the Australian accents in the original Deus Ex.

    I agree with the popular opinion. It's based on reality, and she isn't the only black character. Just a case of PC gone crazy, yet again.

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