A Troubling Radio Silence

Kirk Mckeand, the Deputy Editor at VG247, tweeted about the unfortunately ironic release of Human Head Studios experimental game The Quiet Man, published by Square Enix. His witty summary illustrated the initial reaction of the gaming community to this Square Enix and Human Head title in a solitary Tweet:

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When I had first watched the jarring trailer for this title during E3 2018, which was a grab bag of a deaf protagonist, live-action footage, and a lackluster combat scene, I had (along with other gamers) understandably mixed feelings. While I wanted to be hopeful that the project would amount to at least a game portraying a nuanced protagonist with a disability, my gut feeling told me the game and its reception wouldn’t be the greatest. I’ve written previously on why the gaming community doesn’t take too kindly to games like The Order 1886 that make “cinematic” elements part of the core of their design strategy, and The Quiet Man has a lot of the hallmarks of games like Ready At Dawn’s critically panned entry. Short length, too much focus on non-interactive segments, and funneling players through linear level environments...The Quiet Man is a textbook example of what not to do to achieve immersive, narrative-driven gameplay. And what’s worse, this independent AAA title was attempting something no game I can think of to date has tried to do: represent a deaf protagonist in a progressive way that forces the player to experience some of what their world is like.

I’m not going to berate The Quiet Man for what it does wrong; there’s more than enough reviews and criticism out there to serve that purpose. What I want to do with this impression is highlight why this game’s failings did a disservice to its goal of portraying a deaf protagonist. I would also like to put forth a theory regarding why the very beginning of this game seemed promising. I have more of an interest in why The Quiet Man failed than adding to a growing list of the many ways it didn’t work.

When you begin the game, you are told that for the vast majority of the game you won’t be given subtitles for dialogue sequences (although the game quizzically throws away this concept once you’ve completed one playthrough). Since you are playing Dane, the deaf protagonist in question, the game wants you to fully experience what it’s like living with his disability in a world engineered towards the hearing. During the first scene introducing Dane as he receives intel from a street vendor, the vendor is the only “heard” dialogue you get other than the two gang members you encounter shortly afterward in an alleyway as he warns Dane, subtitled as “The savages are out tonight, kid. Be careful.” While the subtitles weren’t the greatest for those players who themselves might be hard of hearing (another baffling design choice), the way that the vendor speaks to Dane is important to note.


The vendor looks straight at Dane so that he can lip-read, which is a detail that often is left out when portraying deaf characters in media. And since this sequence is a live-action one, it’s easier to perceive how Dane could lip-read the vendor’s words and facial expressions. Another similar scene happens shortly afterward when Dane has a meeting with Taye, who he knows from childhood. Taye uses a mix of direct speaking and what seems to be a short-form of ASL to interpret his mission for Dane. A behind-the-scenes video from Square Enix states that they did engage sign language consultant Danny Gong during the production of the game. That such a consultant was brought onboard surprised me, as bigger studios like Square Enix don’t often show this kind of attention to detail when portraying characters with disabilities. The audio design and soundtrack were also meant to enhance the player’s sense of perceiving the world from Dane’s perspective, with most of the sound effects being reduced to muted vibrations and character’s speaking having a sort of resonance that Dane identifies them with (although this last bit wasn’t very successful).

Unfortunately, most of the efforts previously mentioned are misused after the first sequence of the game, as it appears that the team behind The Quiet Man may have run out of a budget. The gameplay sequences are very reminiscent of early Tekken games and Square Enix’s nearly forgotten 2000 beat ‘em up game The Bouncer, with stiff motion-captured fighting, and poorly rendered in-game graphics that derail the possibility of honing players ability to lip-read. This game would’ve benefited from having perhaps a uniquely designed dialogue wheel, one where player choices were made up of different ASL responses Dane could make. I was often struck with the thought throughout my playthrough that this felt more like a beta-demo of a game from the early 2000s, and how this would’ve felt somewhat impressive if it was a project attempted back then.

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I feel it’s a shame that The Quiet Man ended up the way it did because there was a kernel of something that could’ve bloomed into a beautiful example of how to approach a nuanced portrayal of a deaf character in a video game narrative. Now more than ever we need more video games that portray a diverse set of protagonists, and like Beyond Eyes (which had similar issues of brevity and overly minimal game design) it’s disappointing when projects like these don’t succeed. With all the negative criticism that games like these receive, I can only hope that  profit-driven mainstream studios don’t give up altogether on producing games featuring protagonists like Dane or Rae. Indie and AAA developers like Ninja Theory have had some success with projects like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, however, so I’m not entirely put out by The Quiet Man’s reception. Although it does worry me when negative criticism of a game refuses to at least acknowledge what few things were achieved by a game project, or unpack why a game’s production failed.

We do need to acknowledge how games fail, otherwise, how do we know (both as players and developers) how to surpass the growing pains of narrative design? But I also think there’s merit in recognizing what a game did right, or even almost right. We need to know what steps to take in the future, or how to avoid going down the wrong paths. For all The Quiet Man’s shortcomings, it’s clear that something went awry during production, and I want to know if that had anything to do with a lack of support from Square. Of course, there is the matter of Human Head Studios troubled recent history in game development as well. Human Head has gone from being known as the studio that put out 2006’s acclaimed Prey, to having its sequel canceled by Bethesda due to quality and direction issues. Since there’s such a striking difference between what was pitched in the behind-the-scenes footage and the actual game that was shipped, I get the impression that the team behind this game bit off more than they could chew.

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Between foregoing traditional in-game cutscenes for live-action footage, bringing onboard experts like Joe Kelly of Man of Action Studios, Imogen Heap, Danny Gong, and even Hollywood stuntman Tatsuro Koike, the resulting production values of The Quiet Man leave one in stunned confusion. I find myself left wondering what exactly went wrong with this project beyond the obvious mistakes, mistakes that were so egregious that I want to know more about the production story. Was this simply too ambitious of a project? Was it doomed from the start? Or did Square put too much pressure on the team and lose faith halfway through the project? The company previously published and saw considerable success with indie projects like Life is Strange (which is still producing direct and spiritual sequels) and Children of the Zodiarcs. Then again, there are some recent moves by Square that suggest the company on the whole is struggling to find solid footing at the end of 2018. With the recent announcement that Hajime Tabata has left Square in the middle of developing yet more DLC for FFXV, resulting in a $33-million loss in profit, it does make me wonder. Was The Quiet Man just a misfire, or was it an experimental project that suffered from other factors? Square has also recently dropped its cult favourite franchise Hitman, and seen disappointing sales from Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Not to mention there’s the whole Kingdom Hearts III (allegedly being released in January 2019) and FFVII Remake development hell debacle to contend with too.

Seeing as the game has drawn the ire or prompted dismissals from most if not all of the gaming community, I have a feeling these factors will remain unknown. But we should note that in an Entertainment Weekly interview with producer Kensei Fujinaga, posted a month before the game’s release, that this concept is one that had been built up over a decade. One must remember that a decade of resources and support at Square Enix has also produced titles like FFXV and its polished DLC content. While there were considerable design flaws with FFXV, such as scrapped/unfinished level designs, and animation glitches, the game was still completed (though that was arguably due to Tabata’s efforts). My final impression of The Quiet Man is that it feels unfinished, and I feel that it’s an unfortunate example of Square Enix’s current troubles with game development.