Spoiler alert: this article contains plot information about Quantic Dream's recently unveiled tech demo, Kara.
Another year, another gaming convention, another reel of disheartening footage. After E3 2011, Kate Cox wrote a thoughtful piece exploring the problems with Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider trailer. This year, I watched Quantic Dream’s tech demo, Kara, and was struck by two things: its technical excellence, and its casual misogyny.
If you’ve watched the trailer, you’re probably still reeling from the emotional impact of seeing a digital actor move, speak and even sing so convincingly. Throw in those swelling strings, that soft piano, and it’s enough to make you think, “what uncanny valley?”
But it’s hard to ignore the abrupt change in tone that occurs when Kara realizes she’s she isn’t supposed to be sentient – particularly the dialogue of the operator. The next thing you know, she’s standing there, covering her android privates, showered by bright lights while he jubilantly proclaims “great, you’re ready for work, honey.” She’s taken aback that she’s viewed as some commodity (despite having just explained to us all about how she can clean our dishes, watch our kids, and have sex with us,) and says as much. “Of course you’re merchandise, baby,” the operator says. You can hear the off-camera gentleman’s wry half-chuckle when he tells her she’s going to make them a LOT of money. The demo has very quickly gone from being a gorgeous visual sequence reminiscent of Chris Cunningham’s famous Bjork video to something resembling a “real amateur auditions” porn clip.
And while Kara’s mondo butt shots and guttural pleas to be left alive don’t really help matters, it’s really the sudden dialogue shift that occurs at 3:10 that shoves the demo off a cliff. I was squirming with discomfort – not because an incredible piece of software tech was affecting me emotionally, but because it had taken such a turn for the bizarre. Kara’s operator becomes so unbelievable, you’d almost think this was some devilishly clever post-modern commentary on the male gaze – if you didn’t know better.
It’s not like the folks at Quantic Dream can’t handle sexual themes with some semblance of tact. Hell, I was pretty blown away at the delicate balance they struck in one of the more affecting sequences in Heavy Rain (if you’ve played the game, you know what I’m talking about.) And while that game still had its fair share of stilted dialogue, at least the writers treated the female characters with respect.
I’m not accusing David Cage or anyone else at Quantic Dream of being a sexist, woman-hating pig. I’m just disappointed they didn’t try harder. Maybe this is why I’m chafing at all the game sites going gaga over Kara. Am I supposed to just turn my brain off because I know how hard the PS3’s graphics processors are chugging? The most disappointing part about Kara isn’t simply its thoughtless misogyny – it’s that this is being universally lauded as a groundbreaking, mature piece of software. And before anybody rushes to Kara’s defense, do me a favor. Watch the video one more time and ask yourself: how does that change of tone – especially all those weird “babys” and “honeys” – accomplish the designers’ goal of emotionally affecting us? Could the dialogue have been written in such a way as to be more emotionally mature AND a little less misogynistic? If you think “cultural sensitivity” is a dirty word, I’m not going to change your mind (and I imagine you’ll let me know why in the comments.) But if you really want to see real emotional maturity in games, you could at least acknowledge Quantic Dream needs to step back and address the uncanny valley that's formed between its revolutionary tech and its careless writing.