Celebrating Blackness in Gaming’s Past, Present, and Future
During times like this, it's especially important to highlight and celebrate black heroes, casts, and developers themselves in video games.
With what’s been happening in the past and especially in light of current events, it’s important to reflect on the video games that have centered or been inclusive of black characters, as well as games led by black developers. Representation has been an ongoing conversation in video games (and other forms of media), and the desire for new stories told from the perspectives of diverse voices and backgrounds has only continued to grow.
In recent years, more games have been releasing that highlight black characters or have been created by black developers. A large chunk of those games are created by independent developers, who have far more creative freedom to craft the kinds of characters they would like to see in games. Even rarer are games led and published by black developers, with many of these narratives still being told by white creators.
But compared with the amount of white protagonists (and all or mostly white casts) that we often see in video games, there’s still so much work to be done. As we’ve been seeing in the past week, plenty of black creatives have been given the long-due spotlight to showcase their talents as opportunities from companies are finally opening up. I truly hope this will lead seeing more blackness reflected in both the games that we play and their internal development talent.
That said, there have been notable black characters and stories told through video games that are worth highlighting. Below, here are some of the most prominent games of the past several years that either star a black character, have a significant (as in mostly) black cast, or were made by black developers.
Many fans were enraptured by the first season of The Walking Dead, which introduced two lead black characters: Lee Everett and Clementine. Their relationship and overall story arc–backed by some seriously powerful writing–gave birth to one of the greatest narratives in gaming I have ever witnessed. After Lee’s death, seeing Clementine grow far too fast as she fights for survival while reconciling her perceived role in her father figure’s death is moving and harrowing. Most of all, Telltale’s The Walking Dead creates a sense of constant urgency and dread that completely sucks in the player and doesn’t let go until the very end.
Set in 1968 New Orleans, Mafia III follows the exploits of Lincoln Clay, a war veteran who aims to build a new criminal organization while seeking revenge on the Italian mob. The game holds an extremely uncompromising gaze at systematic racism while allowing for the black protagonist to empower himself and take back power from those who would strive to oppress him. The characters are compelling, and the setting and story of Mafia III offers a rare gaming experience that interweaves the experience of actual blackness in its narrative.
Chromatose is an upcoming indie title by a black lead developer going by the moniker Akabaka. A visual novel and JRPG blend influenced by Persona 3, it follows the protagonist as he awakens in a strange nightmare after a fall that should have ended his life. Amnesiac strangers are also trapped in this world for their own unique reasons. The haunting visuals filled with strong color contrast convey a tale filled with danger at every turn. Between a captivating and diverse cast, excellent monster designs, and a fast-paced battle system, Chromatose seems to be shaping up to be a gem of an indie game.
Watch Dogs 2 takes place in a fictionalized version of the San Francisco Bay Area and stars Marcus Holloway, a hacker who works with the hacking group DedSec to take down the city’s advanced surveillance system known as ctOS. Having the black hacker Marcus taking the lead role in this game adds a unique perspective on the plot that deals with fighting back in a system designed to strip away power and silence its citizens. Seeing him fight tirelessly and slowly gain traction against the city government is incredibly empowering and strengthens the overall narrative even more.
For fans of the excellent Ace Attorney series comes an indie game with a similar approach to storytelling, over-the-top characters, and investigative gameplay. Murder By Numbers takes place in 1996 Los Angeles and stars Honor Mizrahi, an actress on a hit TV detective show. Unfortunately, her boss winds up dead just moments after he fires her and she finds herself forced to investigate his murder in order to secure her own innocence. Putting aside the harsh reality of black women being kicked out of their own careers, the game does well in emulating the fun and often ridiculous style of Ace Attorney while establishing its own charm. Much of that charm is attributed to Honor herself, who’s plucky, determined, and resourceful, as well as her interactions with her robot sidekick SCOUT. Murder By Numbers is a fun and lighthearted foray complimented by Picross-style puzzles that’s worth checking out.
Seemingly (but officially unconfirmed) in response to the Overwatch controversy surrounding its lack of playable black women, the free-to-play Battle Royale game launched with two black women characters: Anita Williams and Ajay Che. Not only that, but these two were and still are front and center in the marketing of Apex Legends, which is very notable. While the game is light on lore (as games in this genre tend to be), both of them have very separate upbringings, personalities, and combat proficiencies. From what we know of them, they have well-fleshed-out motivations for why they fight. And I really love the touch that Ajay is a healer, an archetype you don’t tend to see associated with black women characters.
This indie title is a true rarity in that the entire party is black and stars a black woman protagonist. She Dreams Elsewhere is a surrealist adventure RPG where you traverse protagonist Thalia’s dreamscape along with her friends. She must come to grips with and confront her mental health conditions, and escape from a never-ending coma. One part Undertale, one part Persona, it’s a game made beautiful through its retro simplicity and haunting soundtrack that combines black music such as R&B, funk, and jazz. Not only do we have that level of diversity and culture, but the characters themselves–especially Thalia–are fleshed out and fully-developed. When pitted against the well-designed monsters using abilities grounded in reality, She Dreams Elsewhere truly ups the surrealism surrounding its setting and atmosphere.
EQQO is a unique title, in terms of both its passive storytelling and gameplay, as well as the fact that it’s inspired by Ethiopian mythology. This game is the tale of a mother as she weaves a great story of her son born blind yet full of life and love. The puzzle-based exploration and gameplay is presented as a mythological legend slowly unfolding as the mother, playing as the narrator, tells it. Gorgeous orchestrated music complements the visuals in a harmony that gives even more depth to the narrative. Seeing this level of care and detail with a mythology that is rarely represented in gaming gives me hope that the future will bring more games like this one being created and given proper attention.
It’s exceedingly rare to find a triple A title’s universe created by a black person, and yet the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 is just that exception. Mike Pondsmith is best known for his work for the publisher R. Talsorian Games, where he developed a majority of the company’s roleplaying game lines. His most recent project is the collaboration between himself and CD Projekt Red, Cyberpunk 2077, which takes place in his own Cyberpunk RPG universe. Pondsmith’s involvement in the video game’s development mostly focuses on the game world aspect and mechanics as well as his general input, such as shooting a bulletproof backpack to test just how a bullet would react with it; for implementing in the game properly, of course.
The triumphant return of the wildly popular 2D side scrolling beat-em-up franchise, Streets of Rage 4 stars a cast almost entirely of black/POC fighters including newcomer Cherry Hunter. Wood Oak City falls under the control of a new crime syndicate led by Mr. X’s children, the Y Twins, who are planning on brainwashing the city with the use of hypnotic music. The plot, while simple, is a great excuse to beat up some mooks and the character designs, animation, and music are phenomenal. Also that’s not to mention that Cherry, Floyd Iraia, and Cherry’s father Adam Hunter are featured very prominently on the cover and the general advertising. It’s great to see a beat-em-up starring so many cool black characters.
A love letter to classic fast-paced 2D platformers (think Sonic the Hedgehog), Earthnight uses the genre to tell a tale of a bleak dragon apocalypse where humans have been exiled to space, forced to live in orbit above the planet. Protagonists Sydney and Stanley team up one day and decide to skydive back to Earth, taking out as many dragons as they can along the way. The 2D animations are breathtaking; everything from the ripples in their clothing, to the fluidity of their general movements, to the colorful and insane monsters that can take up nearly the entire screen are stunning. It’s clear there was a lot of love and effort put into this game. I also need to mention how much I love Sydney’s design and the way she’s front and center in the trailers. How can you beat a game that lets you fight dragons because a little girl and a dude had enough?
Broken Age released back in 2014 and 2015 as two separate acts by Double Fine and starred protagonists Vella Tartine and Shay Volta (played by Masasa Moyo and Elijah Wood, respectively). While initially their narratives are completely separate from each other, as the story unfolds you realize how intertwined they really are. What makes the storytelling so satisfying is that because the protagonists are kept separate for so long, their individual character arcs can develop in a satisfying way without interfering in the overall story. Vella, the young black girl, in particular had a very strong and compelling story worth experiencing. In Broken Age, seeing her deal with traumatic events as she fought back against a seemingly unavoidable force of destruction made for an excellent real-life comparison to black struggle.
Here are some honorable mentions of other games featuring black/POC characters that, though they didn’t make my list, are worth checking out:
- Assassin’s Creed Origins
- Half-Life: Alyx
- Treachery in Beatdown City
- Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
- Dishonored: Death of the Outsider
- Beyond Good and Evil
- Remember Me
If you’re looking for more black indie talent, check out this Twitter thread as well as this one. For a huge directory of black game developers and their projects, check out the Black Game Developers website and consider supporting them.
And finally if you’re a Black, Asian, and/or Ethnic minority, Code Coven is offering scholarships for their Intro to Game Making Course, which will be open until June 10, 2020.
Are there any games or developers you know of that deserve a mention? Feel free to sound off in the comments!