If I had to name a favorite game of E3 2018 — I’m fickle and bad with favorites — I’d probably say Rage 2. I wrote yesterday that it plays like a mixtape of Bethesda’s portfolio, grafting some of the best bits from Doom, Quake, Wolfenstein and Elder Scrolls onto an open world first-person shooter. Unfortunately, Rage 2 retains the one thing I despised about its predecessor, something I worried would prevent me from really enjoying the sequel.
In 2018, the only thing I remember with any clarity about the original Rage is its tone-deaf depiction of heroes and villains. The good guys were blessed with impossibly perfect skin and preternatural good looks. The villainous foot soldiers were mutants, many with facial wounds that looked an awful lot like my own birth defect: a full cleft lip and palate.
Cleft lips and palates (among other birth defects) have a history of representing villainy, one I’ve had to navigate my entire life. But I hadn’t appreciated the anxiety it caused me until I spent a couple dozen hours shooting ghouls who looked as if they’d been traced off my baby photos — pictures of me before I had the dozen-plus surgeries that pieced my mouth and nose together into what’s culturally established to be a “normal” look.
I’d heard rumors about Rage 2 a couple months ago, that it was being made in collaboration with one of my favorite developers, Avalanche Studios. And I was disappointed, though not surprised, when the trailer revealed that the project, while being something largely new, would retain the same imagery with regard to its mutants and heroes. I was downright crushed when Bethesda revealed the Collector’s Edition statue: a bust of Ruckus the Crusher, a mutated goon with an absent upper lip and deformed nose.
As a journalist, you don’t want to make yourself part of the story. But with a little extra time left in my interview with id Software studio director Tim Willits, I asked why the cleft lip and palate imagery made the cut from Rage to Rage 2. To his credit, he didn’t spin his response. Here’s the transcript.
Chris Plante: I have one other thing. I enjoyed Rage 1, but one thing ended up turning me off to it. I was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, and one of the frustrating things about that game is that many of the enemies have that imagery — and there’s still a little of that in Rage 2. And I’m curious —
Tim Willits: So you feel that it’s a little insensitive?
Plante: Yeah. It makes me a little uncomfortable when it’s always the bad guys that have the upper lip and nose removed, effectively.
Willits: You know, I never really thought of that. I mean, you know, we try to make — you know, Kenneth Scott was our art director on Rage 1, and yeah, I mean I kind of feel bad now. Sometimes it’s hard when you — you don’t live in that world, so you’re like, ‘Oh, these guys …’ So I apologize. And you know, yeah, I’ll talk to the guys.
Plante: Sure. Are mutations normal for the heroes, too, in this version of the game?
Willits: It’s mostly the bad guys. But we do have some — the heroes in Rage 2 are not as pretty as the heroes in Rage 1. Someone did, like, “the girls of Rage” posters and stuff, so we are trying to be a little more balanced. And the Avalanche guys have been very good about being a little more sensitive. So I do think we have a better balance.
Is it a disappointment to hear that some of Rage 2’s villains will be modeled to share my birth defect? Yes, absolutely. Is it a relief to hear someone simply say sorry? More than I could have imagined, to be frank.
I can’t remember a time somebody did this in an interview: just recognized the error and apologized. It made me emotional, tapping into some psychological payload I won’t detonate in this piece. But it also felt like I suddenly could be excited about this thing I liked, some of its baggage left on the side of the road.
I recognize I have the rare opportunity to actually speak to creators in person, that there isn’t a better means for other people outside my position to have this experience. And I recognize that people of other backgrounds have for decades had to play games that treat them as targets — and that they still do. But for a moment, I felt a surge of optimism. If developers can be open, if they can make efforts to find other voices rather than wait for those voices to come to them, then everyone could feel welcome to play the hero, rather than be forced to spot themselves as the villain.
After all, this is a game set in an apocalyptic wasteland. I don’t expect the villains to be pristine beauty models. I know they’ll be grotesque, deformed and mutated. I just hope that in the future the heroes can look like me, too. Maybe that can be a new feature in Rage 3.