This post contains spoilers for Heavy Rain. Although Heavy Rain is set in a nameless American city, David Cage has been forthright about Philadelphia's strong influence on game. When members of the development team visited the city, it inspired the dark, gritty world players would ultimately explore:
"What we discovered in Philadelphia was beyond anything we could imagine. We saw despair. We saw violence. We saw fear. We saw poverty, in a way that no one in Europe could imagine takes place in the U.S."
While most games have a subtextual American slant, it is rare to find a game that so earnestly addresses the country's failings. Trying to say something meaningful about a society is difficult, and even games like Grand Theft Auto tend to sneak their messages in subtly via satire.
While Heavy Rain stands out as a game that explores the ugly side of American life, it does so without making much of a comment on the elements of that society. Specifically, Heavy Rain says almost nothing on the subject of race explicitly, even though it is one of the most important factors in shaping the country.
Although race is never addressed directly, the game does engage with the concept. Unfortunately, as the game glosses over racial issues, it also partakes in a long tradition of creating stereotypical portrayals of non-white characters.
1. The Non-Character
The lack of a non-white playable character ultimately made as much of an impact on me as any one of the characters themselves. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, black people account for approximately 43.5% of Philadelphia's population. White people account for approximately 42.5%, and Latino people account for approximately 11%. Without making any kind of idealistic judgment, I think it is fair to say that it is at least strange that every single major character in the game is white (including many of the NPCs).
To take inspiration from a city and then strip it of a large portion of its identity strikes me as artistically disingenuous. To model the game so closely on Philadelphia in regards to its geographic layout, climate, and social problems while at the same time scrubbing it of the people who inhabit the space turns real human pain into an abstract tool through which to elicit generic sympathy from the audience.
2. Set Piece Characters
When non-white characters do crop up, they often take the form of the speechless black children that inhabit the early playground scene. While it is nice to see some diversity, they have little impact in the story besides setting the mood. They represent naivete and innocence in the face of their terrible surroundings. These children are suspiciously parent-less (unless all the other white folks in the park are adopted parents). They carry their hardships gleefully and without complaint while Ethan and his son seem to be the only ones aware of life's cruelty.
Similarly, there are a surprising number of black police officers in the police station where Jayden works. None of them seem to be participating in the case, and most are confined to menial-looking routines. They exist to fill in the scene while Jayden and Blake spearhead the entire investigation as a two-man squad.
3. Mad Jack
Mad Jack is the first non-white adult the player meets who offers any direct impact to the story. Based on his potential to affect the story, the amount of dialogue he has, and the extent to which the player can interact with him, he is the story's leading non-white character.
Unfortunately, he turns out to be a burly, murderous, ex-con whose only role is to aid the killer and try to kill Jayden. He conforms to the long-standing cultural trope of the menacing black thug and voices the game's only racial epithet: "cracker."
4. Paco Mendes
While Paco's skin tone makes him appear ethnically ambiguous, his name and accent identify him as the game's sole Latino character. Like Mad Jack, he is quickly cast as one of the game's villains and his role consists of threatening one of the protagonists.
Paco exhibits and is defined by extreme machismo: In the nightclub, he lustfully summons women for his entertainment and dismisses them after he gets bored. After Madison flirts with him, he decides he is entitled to her body and makes her strip at gunpoint. In doing so, he simultaneously evokes undercurrents of the dangerous, sexually-obsessed Other and reenacts historical fears based on miscegenation and the defiling of white women.
Ultimately these traits become his own undoing, as Madison shows that his lustfulness is also his weakness. His defeat is a metaphorical castration precipitated by the threat of a physical one.
5. The Gravedigger
In the scene when Shelby and Lauren search the graveyard looking for clues to who might be the origami killer, they encounter a variant of "the magical negro."
While the gravedigger has no explicit magical powers, he still conforms to the trope of the folksy black person who happily and inexplicably offers advice that aids the white protagonist. Lauren and Shelby find themselves wondering what the connection might be between the dead boy and the origami killer. Luckily for them, the old gravedigger saunters up to share "Alls ah know" about the fate of the "poor youngin'."
Somehow, this grave digger knows the exact details of the boy's death and that he was adopted. After imparting this wisdom he dismisses himself: "well, better be gettin' home," having moved the plot along and served his sole purpose.
To make a game explicitly about life in the U.S. is to wade into the complex racial dynamics that define the culture. While none of the choices in the game seem malicious, they do speak to a either a lack of understanding about the forces that shape U.S. society.
With Heavy Rain, David Cage "wanted it to tell something about, maybe our societies in general, maybe about the US especially." Without fully exploring the contours race makes on a culture, Heavy Rain makes only the bland, obvious statements about social ills: urban blight is a problem, serial killers are bad, it's sad when children die.
Republished with permission from Experience Points.
Scott Juster is the co-creator of Experience Points, a website dedicated to the serious, but not humorless, analysis of video games and culture. He and his fellow co-creator, Jorge Albor, strive to find a happy medium between the academic, real, and virtual worlds by producing written features and a weekly podcast.