With everything going on in the world right now, and the justifiable rage borne out of the murder of George Floyd, we thought we’d take a moment to celebrate some of the best black characters from video games in recent history.
Black representation in video games is not as strong as it should be, and when representation is found, it’s not always done in the best way. Even some of the greatest video games fall victim to harmful typecasting – such as the roided-out and overly aggressive Barrett Wallace in Final Fantasy 7, or the scantily clad Black Orchid from Killer Instinct, whose name is explicitly attributed to her dark beauty.
Every so often, though, the video game industry produces excellent black characters who display a complex level of depth without resorting to obvious and predictable tropes. Read on to find out about 5 of the best black characters in video games.
5. Nilin – Remember Me (2013)
Remember Me is a 2013 action-adventure video game with a beautiful cyberpunk aesthetic and a story that aims to tackle some profound topics, such as the recovery of identity and megacorporation monopoly.
One of the best things about the game is the strong female lead character, Nilin. At the start of the game, Nilin is about to be taken to have the last of her memories erased by the state governing surveillance company Memorize.
After some help from a group called the Errorists, Nilin manages to escape from the grasp of Memorize and begins a journey to infiltrate their headquarters at Bastille Fortress in order to destroy their central server, H3O.
Along the way, Nilin is portrayed as a down to earth and thoughtful character whose journey through life has been dotted with pain and hurt. Indeed, Nilin’s past plays a huge role in the story of Remember Me, and the way her character deals with the circumstances is testament to some great character development throughout – she is displayed as both powerful and vulnerable in a realistic way. Undoubtedly, Nilin is one of the best black female video game characters from recent years. For more info, read our Remember Me review.
4. Carl Johnson – GTA: San Andreas (2004)
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is one of the best games to have been released in the 21st century and is, arguably, the best entry into the franchise. A big part of why the game is so successful is the charismatic lead protagonist Carl Johnson, better known as CJ.
San Andreas revolutionised the gaming world = the graphics were amazing for the time, the open world was vibrant, the plotline was incredible, and the characters were engaging and believable.
CJ – who was the first African American protagonist in the GTA series – returns to San Andreas from Liberty City after his mother was killed in a drive-by shooting. He soon realises that his former gang, the Grove Street family, has been in serious decline due to its involvement in drugs and rival gang wars.
Along with his brother, Sweet, CJ embarks on a journey to reclaim the prestige of the Grove Street family. The journey involves a number of twists and turns and along the way you get to know CJ on an intimate level. You quickly realise that he is loyal, charming, and has a good heart, all traits that solidify him as one of the greatest ever black video game characters.
3. Lincoln Clay – Mafia 3
Mafia 3 is one such case where you could say the story was far better than the gameplay. Granted, the gameplay was okay, but the plotline is one of the best in recent gaming history, and certainly the most engaging instalment of the Mafia series.
Part of the reason why the story was so gripping is its playable character, Lincoln Clay. Lincoln was a multidimensional character with an interesting back story. Having just returned from the Vietnam war, Lincoln was both battle-hardened and vulnerable. He is thrust straight back into turmoil when his family is brutally murdered in front of him by the mob boss Sal Marcano in one of the most iconic scenes of the game. From that moment, Lincoln pledges to take down the Marcano mob family.
Lincoln is a likeable character but is also evidently ruthless. There are times when he displays sociopathic tendencies and gets creative with his killings. You never know what you’re going to get with Lincoln, but this unpredictability is what makes him such an engaging character. He is heavily flawed, but his motives are clear, and you can’t help but root for him throughout the course of the game.
For those who enjoy video games with a well-constructed and emotive plotline, you should try Mafia 3.
2. Alyx Vance – Half-Life 2
Alyx was first introduced to the Half-Life series in the second game of the franchise as a resistance fighter against the alien Combine empire. Alyx, who is of Afro-Asian descent, featured in all of the DLCs for Half-Life 2 and is also the protagonist of the VR game Half-Life: Alyx, released in 2020.
In contrast to the regular portrayal of female characters in first-person shooters, Alyx is not sexualised at all. Rather, she is portrayed as a more-than-capable companion to the game’s protagonist (Gordon Freeman) with a cheery persona.
As the game progresses, players grow to rely on Alyx’s hacking and problem-solving skills to advance through the missions. Her quirky humor serves to lighten the apocalyptic mood, too.
Indeed, it would not be possible to complete the game without Alyx’s input and, for that reason, Valve placed a particular focus on the character’s likeability during the game’s development. In many ways, players may even relate to Alyx more than Gordon – she’s the one you see at all times, and her emotions are a representation of how the player reacts.
Nothing feels overplayed with Alyx Vance. She has the perfect balance of utility and likeability and is a good example of how you can grow to care deeply for a companion NPC. Alyx is certainly one of the best black video game characters of all time.
1. Lee Everett – The Walking Dead Telltale Series
Lee Everett is a great example of how to implement black representation in video games. The main narrative doesn’t rely on racial stereotypes and, indeed, the fact that Lee is black is rarely even considered in Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Episode One, and a focus is instead placed on his warm and caring nature.
The relationship that Lee forms with Clementine is what makes the first instalment of the series such a compelling game. Within the first few scenes, Lee’s likeable persona draws in the player as much as it does the characters around him. Lee is quickly elevated to become the unofficial leader of the group, and the choices that he makes largely influence the fate of those around him.
A great feature of the game is, in fact, its reliance on the decisions that you make. You can choose to shape the character in a way that few titles have afforded to black characters in video games. Ultimately, the tough decisions that you are faced with help to shape Clementine as a person, and leads to one of the most intriguing character arcs in video game history.
The Walking Dead: Episode One is a lesson on how to make video games with a non-white protagonist seem effortless, and it should be viewed as a guiding light for developers seeking to create strong black characters in video games of the future.
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