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Let's Face It, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines Had Problems With Racism

The announcement of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2 came as a pleasant surprise to many fans of the original game. Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines had never reached critical acclaim, instead reaching a cult classic status amongst dedicated fans: not many were expecting a sequel to this buggy, imperfect, but compelling game. Now we can look forward to a continuation of this series with updated graphics and mechanics.

But the technology isn't the only thing about V:tMB that's in need of an update. Fans were excited to hear that the original writer of the first game was returning for the sequel. As someone who played and enjoyed V:tMB very much, I was surprised to hear this sentiment— if anything, I was extremely discouraged by the news. The thing is, as enjoyable as the game was, it was riddled with... questionable writing choices, including but not limited to some really unabashed racism and misogyny. Hearing that the sequel will feature a returning writer made me extremely pessimistic for the narrative quality of the game.

Anti-Black and Anti-Latine Caricatures

I’m just gonna come out and say it— the representation of racial minorities in this game is horrendous. Yes, it does much better in terms of the actual presence of racial diversity in LA compared to other vampire stories, such as, say, Buffy. But what’s the point, if that racial presence is made up entirely of harmful stereotypes?

There’s only two named characters out of the entire cast who are Black: Skelter and Fat Larry. Skelter is a member of the Anarch movement, a faction that opposes the Camarilla for its strict and unforgiving (and in many cases, unwanted) governance over vampire society. He is, somehow, almost every negative stereotype of black men rolled into one: aggressive, less than intelligent, and superstitious. He initially threatens the player upon meeting, and is aggressive in almost all of his dialogue options. The exception is when he is asked about Caine and the origin mythology of vampires: he speaks with reverent fear, leaning into a harmful trope of Black men being blindly superstitious that’s adjacent to the perception of them as gullible cowards.

via Youtube

And Fat Larry? He’s an arms dealer with a big afro that sells illicit items out the back of his pickup truck. I don’t think I need to tell you what kinds of stereotypes that’s tapping into.

Do Black men like Skelter and Larry exist in real life? Statistically, yes, obviously. Does their portrayal encompass the entirety of Black male dispositions? Obviously not— and therein lies the problem. Skelter and Larry are not real people, but characters brought into existence by the active choices of another individual. Because of this, they’re subject to a scrutiny that a real person is not— as written characters, they represent the active choices of a writer in representing a real demographic of people. They are the only named Black characters in the game, and so bear the brunt of representing the entirety of Black men in the universe of V:tMB. When that representation is nothing but perceptions that fuel the negative (and too-often fatal) treatment of Black people, I think it’s more than fair to say that the franchise needs to seriously re-think its choices.

The same argument holds for Nines Rodriguez, the only named Latino character in the game. Yes, his character is less of a blatant caricature, but it still leans into harmful stereotypes of Latinos being tough, gun-toting thugs. Coupled with the fact that random gangsters in the city are strongly Latin-coded, the game relies on lazy stereotypes instead of presenting a nuanced and realistic depiction of L.A.’s Latine population. Not to mention, anti-Latine racism is at a horrific and deadly all-time high right now in the US— to continue to rely on stereotypes of violent and rough Latinos in today’s political climate is insensitive at best, needlessly cruel at worst. If V:tMB2 hopes to achieve any sort of cultural significance, it must re-think the stance that the original game took on Black and Latino men. (To say nothing of Black and Latina women, who make no appearance in the game.)

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Sincerely Unnecessary Orientalism

Of course, I can’t talk about V:tMB’s race issues without mentioning the Orientalist clusterfuck that is the game’s Chinatown section. That’s right, the game’s racist caricatures of Asian-Americans span an entire region of the game where the penultimate section of the game takes place.

It’s a lot to stomach at once. Almost every Asian NPC speaks with heavily accented English, responding to the player’s approaches with “No English.” There’s even a point where an NPC loudly chastises a coworker for neglecting their English studies. More major characters meant to be sympathetic are still portrayed as passive and helpless.

What troubles me in particular is the misogyny that’s present in the Orientalism. There are four named Asian female characters in the game, all of whom who speak in perfect English. Two of them are young second-generation Asian-Americans (Kiki Ho and the waitress at the Red Dragon) who are portrayed one-dimensionally as bitchy, rude, gossipy, and ungrateful. This is a perception that I, as a female-presenting Asian, suffer from almost daily (to the point that some people are often pre-emptively rude or even outright aggressive to me). That is, only after people hear me speak, of course. Apparently my English is too good for me to be the other stereotype of Asian women: passive and subservient.

This perfectly encapsulates the “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” conundrum that the Asian-American community faces. We are expected to be constantly striving for fluency in English and assimilation into Western culture, and are seen as lacking in autonomy if we fail to reach this ideal. The moment we attain that fluency, however, we are immediately branded as bratty and entitled. This is particularly harmful for Asian women— they are seen as either subservient sex workers and domestic labourers, or rude, cold, and unpleasant nuisances. They’re robbed of an active, legitimate voice, no matter what they do.

Ming-Xiao, one of the game’s principal antagonists, occupies a specific trope within this perception. She is a Dragon Lady, as described by TV tropes: a dangerous and manipulative femme fatale who is characterized by her Asianness. It’s a term used in a derogatory fashion towards Asian women who are powerful and aggressive— and, like many Dragon Ladies, Ming-Xiao doesn’t have much reason to be considered an antagonist save for the fact that she’s foreign and dangerous. In conversations with her, it’s clear that she’s an intelligent and insightful individual in her own right.

And yet, the writing overextends itself to portray her as deceptive and manipulative— the particularly aggressive dialogue choices a player can have towards her have no positive counterparts, more or less restricting the player’s disposition from neutrality to outright hostility. Even her own dialogue is needlessly condescending without presenting a reason for her being so. Every other character in the game speaks negatively of her, and every Kindred— an in-game word for vampire— rejects you should you choose to ally yourself with her and the Kuei-Jin. And yes, in the end, she betrays you if you trust her, validating everyone’s mistrust in her.

But why? Why does she lie and manipulate? Why does she amass power? Why does she sow chaos in Chinatown to consolidate her control? Why does she take an interest in controlling L.A., and why does she go after the sarcophagus? Why does she make all those arrangements and deals with Prince Lacroix?

The fact of the matter is, yes, Ming-Xiao is a villain: she does objectively bad things to her community and to the player. But unlike Prince Lacroix, she has no clear motive for doing so— she is there to be an invasive, malicious, and mysterious foreign force for seemingly no reason than that Chinatown needed an appropriately themed villain. In fact, her and the Kuei-Jins’ presence is blatantly reminiscent of Yellow Peril: a term described as a combination of “racist terror of alien cultures, sexual anxieties, and the belief that the West will be overpowered and enveloped, by the irresistible, dark, occult forces of the East”(Marchetti, 1993, p.2) that has plagued Hollywood and western media’s perception of Asians for decades. There is no denying that Ming-Xiao’s depiction is reminiscent of this prejudice, if not directly influenced by it. Sure, maybe her character is more an example of a badly written antagonist than intentional racism. But the reality is that the intentions of piece of media matter much less than the actual effect that they have— and the effect of Ming-Xiao’s role in the game is that it becomes yet another contribution to a decades-old racial prejudice against Asian-Americans.

And then there’s Yukie, whose depiction feels like road salt rubbed into a raw wound. There is absolutely nothing interesting or redeemable about how this character was written— and how the player was written to respond to her, for that matter. Upon meeting her, the player has the option to flirtatiously ask her if she’s over 18, establishing her as a youth at the same time as invoking the pedophilic fascination the west has with “adolescent-looking” Asian women as fetish objects. The player then has the option to continue patronizing her, asking her if she’s ready to handle the weapon she currently has. There’s also the fact that her battle animations are meticulously programmed to include her skirt flipping up to show her underwear in a notoriously buggy game that can’t even get regular battle animations to run smoothly. The concentrated mixture of fetishization and infantilization of Asian girls into this one character is absolutely nauseating.

And the way that she talks is… just… indescribably insulting.

Going Forward With Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2

At this point in the article, it probably seems like I’m calling for a boycott of the V:tMB series— and I haven’t even touched on the horrid treatment of mental illness and sex workers in the game. In actuality, I’m actually very excited for V:tMB2, despite all these glaring faults in the first installment. I might sound like I’m full of nothing but contempt for the series— and maybe I am, to a degree— but what good is a long-awaited sequel if not to improve upon the original?

Somehow, in spite of the awful racism and ableism and prejudice against sex workers, V:tMB, at its core, managed to tell an inexplicably compelling story. I found myself wanting to follow the story to the conclusion, to dig my fingers into the lore to find out more— there’s some spark in the world of Vampire: The Masquerade that holds so much wonderful potential. And from the trailers we’ve seen, the sequel is shaping up to be a much-needed addition to the dearth of single-player games focused on story and player choices. It even stands a good chance of being the next big thing in vampire game media.

So, what’s the reason I wrote an entire article tearing into the writing choices of a game that I, at a basic level, enjoyed very much? Because it was just so disappointing to see a game and story with so much potential get so marred by the terrible and entirely avoidable racial caricatures. The racism present in V:tMB is in no way integral to the plot that makes the game so compelling— V:tMB2 holds my sincere hope that the series can capitalize on the potential that it has to tell a rich, provocative story without resorting to the same lazy, cruel stereotypes that so many other pieces of media employ.

Because it can do so much better. Here’s hoping it will.

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