Warning: This article contains some spoilers for The Quiet Man, a game you should never play.
“Are you stupid, or are you very stupid?” asks a Mexican gangster stereotype in The Quiet Man’s opening scene. As one of only a handful of unmuted lines of dialogue, it can’t help but echo through the rest of the game.
I believe we may have to invent new words to describe how stupid The Quiet Man is.
You’d be forgiven for not having heard of it until now - publisher Square Enix seems to have done everything it can to bury its launch (short of the wisest option: not releasing it at all). You may remember its bizarre trailer at this year’s E3 - as we go, try to hold the thought in your mind that as recently as June 2018, someone thought this had a place at the biggest event in gaming.
Its premise is both simple and immediately intriguing: the main character Dane is deaf, and thus almost all of the game’s audio is muted, forcing you to experience the world as he does. And, on first glance, the set-up is solid enough too, if tropey - our hero seeks revenge for the death of his mother, and must fight his way to both the culprit and the truth of what happened using his prodigious (if inexplicable) martial arts skills.
On both fronts, however, The Quiet Man bungles things utterly.
Excluding its aforementioned intro, less than five minutes long, all dialogue in the game is muted with no subtitles, while other noises - such as the crunch of your punches - have a deeply muffled quality, as if being heard underwater. The thing is, Dane is perfectly capable of holding full conversations with minimal or no sign language, seemingly reading lips with unerring accuracy. It’s just that you have to watch them in silence, uncomprehending. Even when he himself speaks, as he often does, the player is left none the wiser. If we’re not experiencing events from Dane’s perspective, then what is the purpose of this audio gimmick?
Games can be a powerful tool for empathy, and a title that shows hearing people what it’s like to live without that sense could be a very valuable thing. It could also be a chance for deaf players to feel represented in a game that both explores and actually accommodates their disability. But… no. Instead, Dane acts exactly as he would if he could hear, while we look on in confusion. This is real-world disability repurposed as a pretentious gimmick, and it quickly becomes clear that more research was invested in making sure the game’s martial arts were accurate than its portrayal of deafness.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a problem if it wasn’t stuffed with lengthy FMV dialogue scenes. Of its two hour run time, I’d estimate about an hour and a half of that is watching people’s lips move in silence. That bears repeating: The Quiet Man is a video game that consists mostly of watching unsubtitled conversations with the sound turned off.
These scenes thus fail to explain to you a plot that, I suspect, would be confusing even if you could hear it. Dane’s best friend is a crime boss, whose lounge singer girlfriend is kidnapped by a man in a bird mask. Our hero’s in love with the girl, too, because she looks identical to his mother, who was killed in an argument over a pair of shoes by a man who may or may not be the man in the bird mask. With me so far? You certainly won’t be after the fourth or fifth plot twist. Almost every character double-crosses another at least once and, bafflingly, at some stage is revealed to have been the bird man all along. When it comes to shocking reveals, The Quiet Man is in the business of quantity over quality.
Brawl for nothing
Between exposition-heavy conversations and villainous monologues that you can’t hear, your palate cleanser is brief third-person brawls, the only part of the game that actually gives you any control. Though you may wish they didn’t. These bouts are bad in a way you just don’t see in major video game releases these days, jerky slap-fights in tiny rooms where physics dares not tread. Lovingly animated fight choreography stumbles against the furniture as you down the same three men with the same three canned finishers in the same three rooms over and over and over. Meanwhile the camera swings wildly about, as if trying to escape the game entirely.
And, of course, the controls for these scant moments of gameplay are never explained. Not only does the developer forgo a tutorial, it seemingly concludes that deaf people can’t read, and thus attempts to render as much of its menu options as possible, including the screen showing the controls, with abstract pictograms. The game has achievements for performing moves I was never able to figure out how to do. Not that I needed to, when even the final boss can be stunlocked into a corner via the skillful hammering of one button.
And there’s so much more I haven’t even gotten to: its lazy racism, which casts Latinos as idiotic criminal chaff, before revealing that actually African-Americans were your real enemy all along; the lazy sexism, where the singular female cast member serves as murdered mother, fawning love interest, damsel in distress, and punching bag for the villains, all in one; the song over the end credits, where the audio finally kicks back in to bless us with lyrics like "Stargazer, Storm chaser, bought for dust, sold for gold. But will the true cost ever be known?"; the multiple moments at which you’re dropped out of one 15 minute cutscene in order to walk five steps into another; the game’s sudden and inexplicable dive into the supernatural in its final moments, seemingly a tribute to 1994 action movie The Crow; and whatever the hell this is supposed to be:
The Quiet Man is a trainwreck of biblical proportions, and comfortably the worst game of this console generation. The fact that a publisher as established and respected as Square Enix has released the video game equivalent of The Room in 2018 is frankly astonishing. I’m not sure anything could excuse this, whatever process lead to its creation. Its one saving grace is that, at £12/$14.99, it’s cheap. But that is a bit like saying “at least getting kicked in the genitals is free”.
The bow on top of all of this is that, at some point this week, the developer is due to release a patch that will allow you to play the game a second time with all of the audio added back in, for a radically different experience that serves to perfectly undermine any point The Quiet Man may have been trying to make. Will being able to hear what’s going on make this a better game, for those souls lost enough to play through this twice? I’m not sure Shakespeare himself could redeem this one. The only hope, I fear, is this patch serves as the punchline to what turns out to be an elaborate, absurdist practical joke. Perhaps all the characters will have squeaky helium voices, or it’ll turn out that they were all just discussing their favourite animes the whole time? At this point, it’s the best we can hope for.