Amid the recent whitewashing controversies that are miring mainstream TV and film releases Iron Fist and Ghost in the Shell, it's refreshing to see upcoming AAA video game Prey led by two Asian protagonists.
I don't want to beat a dead horse in this article by regurgitating the criticisms of Iron Fist and Ghost in the Shell, so here are some links if you need a refresher:
- Scarlett Johansson's Casting In 'Ghost In The Shell' Sparks Whitewashing Controversy
- Scarlett Johansson Finally Responds To That Whole 'Ghost In The Shell' Whitewashing Thing
- 'Iron Fist's Lewis Tan Asks Why There Aren't More Asian Superheroes #whitewashedOUT
- Marvel's Iron Fist Cultural Appropriation Casting Crisis Drives Finn Jones Off Twitter — What's Going On?
Enter 'Prey' And Its Protagonist(s), Morgan Yu
In #Prey, the player controls protagonist Morgan Yu, a half-Chinese and half-German super scientist aboard the Talos I spaceship. As Morgan explores the ship and fights off an aggressive and mysterious alien species, she (or he, as the male and female player options are interchangeable and "Morgan" is an intentionally gender neutral name) must tap into whatever technology and dark powers she can in order to survive.
It is disappointing and tiresome how little we see lead characters branch from the standard white default, especially in games. And let's not ignore that's what what the problem is: white is the default. After a quarter decade of seeing myself represented by most mainstream protagonists, it's almost boring whenever I see yet another straight white guy leading yet another TV show or AAA video game. And if even white dudes are asking for more diversity, you better bet the tides are shifting.
While Western adaptations of Ghost in the Shell were never likely to stray from having white leads, the internet backlash has been significant. Fans are now often quick to bile when opportunities for progressive diversification are steamrolled in favor of high profile white actors with name recognition.
Additionally, with the death gasp of 2016 being an across the board, bipartisan plea for people to excise themselves from their echo chambers, many people are also simply frustrated to see mainstream media struggling to satisfy that cultural desire for new perspectives. This is why Prey's surprisingly understated diversity is refreshing.
Developer Arkane Has Already Been Working on the Industry's Gender Issue
Prey is being developed by Arkane Studios, the same developer that last year put out the critically acclaimed Dishonored 2, another game with an interchangeable male and female protagonist option. Further, Dishonored 2 kept every female character fully clothed and even managed to include an able amputee and a queer character. The world managed to still be ok.
In an interview with Venture Beat, Prey's lead designer Ricardo Bare commented on Arkane's commitment to better representation in video games.
“[Making the character Asian] makes as much sense as having any other kind of character. It doesn’t make more or less sense. We just thought it was interesting ... We do, as a team, value diversity and representation in games. It’s not like — we’re not perfect. But we try to be conscious of that. It’s easy to slip into your default, you know what I mean? ‘The stuff I’m used to I don’t even think about. That’s what I put in the game.'"
It's worth highlighting three things here. First, this is one of the very few public quotes from Arkane about the decision. It's clear that #Arkane is wisely taking their decision as a matter of course instead of marking their diversity as a paraded badge of honor. They aren't commoditizing diversity. Thank God.
Second, it is also inspiring to hear that Arkane acknowledging commitment to diversity but also voicing that they are conscious of imperfect representation. This is not a developer trying to be the sole savior of the diversity problem in the games industry — instead, Bare highlights that the more important thing is to challenge the default norm.
"It’s useful to pause and go, ‘Wait a minute. I don’t need to do the default here. I can try to do something more interesting.’”
Third, video games are given a unique chance to buck the trend because they do not rely heavily on established Hollywood faces. Where Ghost in the Shell may have picked Scarlett Johansson to lead for the weight-puling name, video games rarely ever rely on big-name star power to begin with. They aren't picking a little-known Asian actress over one of the most recognizable actresses on the planet; game developers are instead changing features on a high-polygon model. Plus, not many voice actors have widespread name recognition — not nearly enough to make or break a game's commercial success.
Prey is by no means the end of the problematic representation in gaming. Far from it. But this is another positive, progressive step in the right direction. Hopefully mainstream TV and film execs can take the hint that the world isn't imploding even though an Asian woman is leading a AAA franchise.
Prey is out on PC, PS4, and Xbox One on May 5.