Being Black in real life isn’t super easy. Sure you always have company whenever you go shopping, even if you started alone. You’re more likely to have a living will or healthcare proxy (at least you should). Because Black folks are dropping dead like it’s Jim Crow again.
South Park’s new game recently introduced a slider that was labeled “Difficulty” and changed the character’s race. The darker you are the “harder” the difficulty. It’s funny because it’s true.
At least Fractured But Whole lets you be a person of color if you really want to. Or if you just really want to see a person of color as a hero in a video game.
When I heard about this I thought it was a lighthearted way to bring attention to a serious issue. People can look deeper if they choose to. Or just laugh at the fact of the matter and move along. There are many tropes (and realities) associated with Blackness. For instance, Black Dude Dies First to The Token Minority and The Whitest Black Guy.
People of Color are still caricatures and props used to round out the real characters. This is why well-rounded white guys have a Black Best Friend.
After getting used to seeing these tropes, I got excited for a split-second when I started playing Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead. Then I realized the main character, a Black man named Lee, was in the back of a police car on his way to jail. Heavy Sigh.
Fortunately, this is just a piece of the backstory after a while. Throughout the game, the player has the choice to divulge information around this or lie about it. Being a Black man in the south adds a dimension to the simple questions other characters ask like, “Where were you when this all happened?”
Character customization often lets the player choose to look like a Person of Color. Unfortunately, it almost never has any effect on the character being played. My Commander Shepard in Mass Effect might look like me, but no one will look at her the way people look at me. No one will ask if they can touch her hair. She won’t be complimented for speaking so well. They won’t side-eye her possessions and wonder how she acquired them.
At least with Lee, we actually have to think about what the character looks like to the NPCs rather than just what he looks like to the player.
Reviewing the few other Black playable characters in video games is… interesting:
In The Walking Dead game series, Clementine starts as Lee’s mission then, in season two, is promoted to the playable protagonist. She comes from a happy home (with a sweet treehouse) and makes informed, compassionate choices as she grows up in a zombie apocalypse.
Resident Evil 5 offers African operative, Sheva Alomar, as a playable character– if you’re playing as Player 2 and someone is already playing the real main character (Chris Redfield).
Street Fight character Balrog is an African-American boxer… that’s basically it.
Jax is a fictional character from the Mortal Kombat franchise. Major Jackson “Jax” Briggs was the first African-American character in the Mortal Kombat series and an archetypal American hero. He’s an Angry Black Man or a Scary Black Man. Basically, Jax is big and Black and that’s enough to go toe-to-toe with an ice wizard, assassins, and a wraith.
Staring in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreasis Carl “CJ” Johnson the ex-gang member turned well-intentioned (though badly behaved) gang campaign manager.
Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 is representing women of color who are Black and Asian! She’s a triple representative. She is a well-rounded, intelligent and fierce character. Her character is not built on race-based stereotypes or tropes.
Blizzard gifted the gaming world with the controversial Lúcio Correia dos Santos who’s character is basically, Sports and Music and Hype-manning– The personification of a Soul Brotha. He’s a black latino from Brazil (we only know this based on this costumes and backstory).
Akande Ogundimu aka Doomfist III is a Nigerian cyborg. He started life as the son and heir to a wealthy tech family. However, things and stuff happened and he used his new cybernetic arm to fule his mercenary career.
Note: the character designers for Jade (Beyond Good & Evil) have denied her Blackness, or any ethnicity because she’s from another planet like Ratchet (Ratchet & Clank).
Not a long list. Not a lot of diversity on the short list. On the bright side, the more well-rounded Black characters have come in more recent years instead of dropping off over time.
Maybe things like the tongue-in-cheek difficulty slider on Fractured But Whole will inspire players and creators to think about the people they do and don’t see in their video games. Maybe a few years from now the list will be longer and the tropes associated with Black characters will be more positive.