Warning you now there are spoilers below
Leslie in accounting just added a Martin Luther King Jr. quote to her email signature template which can only mean one thing: it’s Black History Month. Yes, it’s that time of year where students in elementary school will spend a solid 30 minutes learning about Rosa Parks and then enjoy a peanut butter sandwich because of George Washington Carver. At least that’s what we did at my white-ass elementary school. And if you think that’s an ignorant way to look at black history in America, you should know that at my middle school, we had a “slave run day” where members of the eighth-grade class were divided up into two groups: runaway slaves and slave catchers. On this day, the “slaves” would get 15 minutes to find a hiding spot in the school, after which the catchers would go around looking for them for 15 minutes, only able to search if they had the permission of the teacher of the classroom or office worker. The process would repeat throughout the day and at the end of school, any “slaves” not caught would be considered to have reached freedom in the North. That’s right, our lesson in the Underground Railroad was a day of hide-and-seek.
What does that have to do with black video game characters? Absolutely nothing, but it’s a little bit of ridiculousness from my past that there is no better time of sharing then right now. Because just as my school clearly got teaching black history wrong, the video game developers don’t have the best history of creating black characters. From racist-ass NES games out of Japan to the white-nonsense that was slave ship Tetris, some developers just don’t get it. But others do and that’s who we’re here to talk about today.
Just as I did with female characters for Women’s History Month and male characters for International Men’s Day, I asked my fellow Destructoid editors to sound off on their favorite black video game characters. While I’m sure those names listed below are all fine in their own standing, I’m going to go out on a limb and say whoever they write about can’t be as good as Shinobu from No More Heroes.
Suda51’s masterstroke on the Wii resonates still with its punk aesthetics, piss-in-the-wind attitude, and a cast of certified case studies. The series is a straight-up banger. I maintain Suda51 is the single best character creator coming out of Japan with this game as yet another reason in the long list of why. Every villain in No More Heroes is a brilliantly deranged but Shinobu is so broken I think I like her more than the protagonist.
Originally an opponent of Travis Touchdown, Shinobu is out for blood believing he is responsible for her father’s death. She’s heartless, as demonstrated — spoiler alert — when she kills all the witnesses to Travis’s challenge of her. You almost feel sorry for her, a teenager living a secret life as an assassin because some jackass with a laser sword killed her father so many years ago. She’s turned off her heart and cast out her soul, leaving her an empty vessel for vengeance. Yeah, she saves Travis near the end of the game, but she’s no hero otherwise the game would have been called Still One Hero.
Shinobu could have easily fallen into the trap writers use when they want to reform a former enemy. She could have started to grow, started to feel again. She could have tried to make amends for all the innocents she’s slaughtered. But that wouldn’t be punk. Instead, she grows even more insane. After killing her way across Asia, she returns to Santa Destroy completely infatuated with Travis. She transfers her crazy dedication from her father to him, trying to wrangle Travis into a sexual master/apprentice relationship that creeps even him out. And Travis is pretty much the type of person to make PornHub his homepage.
She’s cold, she’s crazy, and I absolutely love her. This assassin’s journey isn’t done yet, and while I don’t anticipate her showing up in Travis Strikes Again if No More Heroes 3 does get made, Shinobu damn well better make an appearance.
The Resident Evil series has a glut of lead characters, either controlled by A.I or a second player. For my money, Resident Evil 5’s Sheva Alomar remains one of the coolest cast members to date. An operative of the West Africa Bioterrorism Security Assesment Alliance (or BSAA), Agent Alomar is assigned to work with Chris Redfield in the city of Kijuju, ostensibly to track down felon Ricardo Irving, although matters would get fast out of hand.
Sheva is a great character, she’s resourceful, smart and a bonafide badass. Most importantly, she doesn’t exist to merely ask the male lead to explain the plot to the audience or be kidnapped with reckless abandon. Sheva is presented as skilled in both weapons and CQC, with a dedication not only to the job but also to those who rely on her skills for survival. I also thought, back in 2009, that Alomar was a technical marvel, with expressive eyes, hair and skin textures that really raised the bar for realistic looking characters at that time. Even today, almost a decade later, her model is still impressive.
Sheva Alomar is yet to make a comeback since she roundhouse kicked her way through Resident Evil 5, which would prove one of the series more… divisive entries. More’s the pity, as she has always stuck in my mind as one of the most memorable agents in the game’s storied history of zombie-fighting heroes.
I had a bit of a tough time coming up with a character to write about for this entry. It isn’t because there aren’t any good black characters, but mostly that I tend to not even look at race when thinking of a “good” character. When I started to apply race to them, I realized I have a huge propensity for Asian characters, which makes sense since a lot of the games I like are Japanese.
That being said, I was going to initially go with CJ from San Andreas, but I kind of realized he isn’t that great. Franklin from GTA V is also not good, but that is more the point (his story is about coming to terms with your awfulness and moving on). Then I remembered Watch Dogs 2 and how all of the characters were written more like humans instead of races.
Marcus may not be the most memorable or even charming guy, but the writers at Ubisoft created him like any other person, first, before even applying a race to him. There is one joke about being a black guy in Silicon Valley, but most of the dialog that comes from Marcus is something any person would say and not some Hollywood version of a thug.
I also like that Marcus is the only black character in a GTA-style game that doesn’t drop an N-bomb every other sentence (or ever, if my memory serves me correctly). Just because you make a black character doesn’t mean you get to start using that word.
I didn’t really have to think very hard about this one, having just finished Season 3 of The Walking Dead during the Christmas break. Clementine is a character you follow throughout all three seasons, as she develops from a scared and dependent little girl, abandoned in her family home after her babysitter gets munched, into a fully self-sufficient zombie slayer and a crack-shot with a pistol.
The player is with her during the hardest times in her life, such as her choice over whether to kill her de facto guardian when he succumbs to his injuries and deciding whether to abandon a frightened young girl in the group as walkers swarm into a caravan. When we catch up with Clem as a teenager in Season 3, it’s great to see how resilient she has become and you have real hope that she will survive to see a better world.
But to be honest, Season 3 Clementine also scared me a little. She would shoot people without much remorse, and was way too cold and calculating for a 13-year-old – she came across as a seriously damaged individual. But then, right on cue, Telltale swooped in and set up a story about how first love can still blossom, even during the zombie apocalypse.
By the end of Season 3, I felt like older Clem wasn’t just the hard-as-nails survivor she was made out to be in the first couple of episodes. Like the rest of the cast, she was a flawed human who had done her best to adapt to her surroundings. I would go so far as to say she is one of my favourite video game characters of all time, so of course, I was going to make damn well sure she was on this list.
Final Fantasy XIII is an absolute travesty of a game. I’ve said it before. I’ve written about it. I make no apologies in expressing how much I despise the game. That said, Sazh is legit a great character, and I’ll always be mad he got stuck in such a bad game.
In any other game, Sazh could have — and should have — been the main character. He had clear motivations for his actions, legitimate character development, some really incredible plot arcs and scenes (his suicide scene is soooooo good), and a damn fine conclusion.
I think what I like best about Sazh is his pure paternal instinct. The whole while he’s chasing down redemption for Dajh turning into a Fal’L’Ciehtth’Cie he still finds time to be a father figure (not the sexy George Michael kind) to the hapless and completely fucking irritating Vanille, helping to guide her when she gets down. For fuck’s sake, the man had a backpack full of guns and didn’t shoot her within ten minutes of being stranded with her. That speaks to his character, because man, she’d have decorated the side of a truck stop restroom if I were in his shoes.
Also, he keeps a baby chocobo in his hair. That alone means he’s better than CJ’s pick.
Occams Electric Toothbrush
This is the kind of article where you want to dig deep and reflect. Find a character and a moment that exemplifies a minority representation in video games. That’s not always all that easy to do. I won’t lie, I scratched my head a bit. In trying to find a video game character that I found was intrinsically tied to the idea of what being black meant to me. The first few names that popped up were already taken and rightly so. So I thought and my brain danced through the games and the years and it hit me: I always had a lot of respect for Dudley from Street Fighter.
Dudley is a British boxer who dresses like he’s from the 1920’s. That’s awesome, right there. Fact: everyone from that time period dresses better than we do now. Everyone. Even the folks in Dorothea Lange’s dust bowl photos are dressed better than we are. Dudley not only had style but he carried himself with a certain impeccable class. He strives to be the perfect gentleman in all things. Even in his boxing, it’s not about the glory. It’s about the art and improving oneself. Know what Dudley’s favorite thing to do is beside boxing? Garden. In his boxing gloves. The man has a beautiful sense of self that doesn’t rely on glory or personal gain. That’s the kind of man I can respect and want to emulate as I go through life.
I don’t know who the greatest black characters in games are, but I do know who the latest are. They also happen to be pretty great to boot. Frigg from Mercenary Kings Reloaded and Dandara from Dandara are both strong and dynamic, and neither fall into the same traps and tropes that many black women in games have slipped into in the past.
Barret Wallace may not seem like the deepest character on the surface, but the gun-toting leader of AVALANCHE is actually far more complex than people give him credit for.
Barret is determined to save the planet even if that means blowing up all of Midgar in the process. Barret was more than content to live a simple country life, but Shinra took all he had. Barret’s tale of revenge is one of the most compelling character arcs in one of the best RPGs ever made. Barret would also apply for dad of the year, despite letting his adopted daughter mix drinks in Tifa’s bar.
He also has a freaking gun for an arm. Still not sure how that reload mechanic works, presumably he eats bullets. As an added bonus his look in the Final Fantasy VII remake is pretty awesome.
I will admit a baby chocobo in the hair is pretty badass and, perhaps making up the fact he played second fiddle to boring old Lightning in FFXIII, Sazh is one of the first characters you meet in Dissidia Final Fantasy Opera Omnia where he’s pretty much the best.