When this month's topic was initially announced, I went quickly through an informal list of characters in the games I have played, trying to recall one that particularly struck a chord with me; or, failing that, a semi-obscure character from a game I rented once that I could BS about for a few paragraphs. Due to laziness, I didn't try very hard, and all that came to mind were Mario, Link, Sonic, and the other usual suspects that I was certain would receive ample coverage. Fine choices, all of them, but I wasn't going to rouse myself from my de facto hiatus on substantial blog posts unless I felt I had something moderately interesting to present.
And then, last week, inspiration
found me. I happened upon GamesRadar's "Top 7 Lazy Character Clichés" article, part of their tongue-in-cheek, post-E3 "7/10 Week" focusing on mediocrity in video games and the industry that surrounds them. Along with each of the clichés, they presented an antidote character, one who embodies some of the attributes of the other characters but fails to be a cookie-cutter counterpart. Number Five on the list was "The Stereotypical Black Guy," and to their own embarassed admission the best antidote they could come up with was Carl Johnson from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
. I laughed at this, but they had a few good reasons, and the choice served to highlight what is perhaps an even greater plight of one-dimensionality than that of the half-naked woman
I couldn't help thinking, however, that they must not have thought long enough if CJ was the most believable black male video game character they could scrape up, for within a few seconds I recalled a much better example. Those of you wondering when I would get around to starting this article can start reading now.
Michael Edwards, as narrator Edward Roivas informs us in the penultimate chapter of Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
for the Gamecube, is a Canadian industrial firefighter. He's in Kuwait at the end of the Gulf War, helping to put out the huge oil well fires set by the Iraqi soldiers as they make their retreat from the country. Suddenly one of the explosives being used to cap the wells goes off early, taking the lives of a few of Michael's colleagues and plunging him and the bodies into the ancient ruins just below the surface. Stunned, Michael laments the loss of the people he knew, but his time for bereavement is short-lived, as a ghost appears to hand him an ancient relic and task him with its delivery to a house in Rhode Island. He soon also learns that he must destroy these ruins and the evil that flows from within them, which he manages by planting magically enchanted C-4 explosives [Side note: I love the phrase magically enchanted explosives
] at a weak point in the underground structure. He then runs like hell as the timer counts down, and escapes the ruins before the explosion. Some time later in a cutscene, he hurriedly hands over the relic to Edward Roivas under cover of darkness, fearful that the evil he fought in the ruins is about to catch up with him, and takes off after completing this important task. This is all the game tells us of Michael Edwards.
Truth be told, there isn't a lot presented to characterize Michael in the relatively short time the player has control of him in Eternal Darkness
, even compared to some of the other playercharacters. We can, however, determine a few things. For one, he's Canadian. Outside of Bear Hugger from Super Punch-Out!!
on the SNES, I can't recall very many Canadian characters in games, and even fewer black Canadians. I'm not sure I even realized there were black Canadians before I played Eternal Darkness
, as my perception of Canada growing up was shaped by The Kids In The Hall, Dudley Do-Right, and the Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen episode of Ren & Stimpy
. While his nationality is a minor detail with very little effect on the game, it's one that stuck with me when I played. From the moment he's introduced, Michael avoids cliché by being black and yet not hailing from the streets of Los Angeles or New York, or somewhere in the southern United States.
Michael's other major character detail is that he's a firefighter. What does this say about him? First, that he carries a kickass molybdenum axe that's a lot of fun to use in the liberation of heads from walking corpses. Beyond that, what qualities are commonly attributed to firefighters? Bravery, certainly. Dedication to the job. Taking this further, consider the context in which the player meets Michael. He's an industrial firefighter, a civilian, and presumably a volunteer, thousands of miles from home in a war-torn area, doing a dangerous job necessary for reconstruction. A firefighter exists to help others and has compassion for other people. For Michael this comes to the forefront when his colleagues die in the accident. As he comes out of the shock of the explosion, he mentions them by name, and while the moment is cut short by the sudden appearance of the ghost of Roberto Bianchi, he's visibly and audibly upset by the loss of people he knew. Even in the short introduction to the chapter the player can readily infer that Michael possesses several admirable qualities and values.
As you'll recall, I chose to write about Michael as an antidote to the stereotypical black man cliché character in games. While he has muscles and wears a sleeveless shirt, these are attributable to his role as a firefighter, and he avoids or outright contradicts the other characterisitics of the trash-talking tough guy spotlighted in the GamesRadar piece. Not only that, he (easily) avoids other common black character clichés, such as the afro-wearing wisecracker
, or the smooth-talking pimp
Paradoxically, Michael is a remarkable character precisely because he isn't all that remarkable, in a sense. He's a positive human being rather than a cartoon character, which, damningly, is enough to distinguish him from almost any other black video game character I know.