Putting Identity to Ethnicity; Dark-skinned Heroes and Villains in Gaming
What makes a good character stand out? The struggle of their character as they ascend from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the leaderboards in character development? The development of what kind of character they’ll be throughout the story? While all of these factors, and plenty more, attribute to the development and construction of a character, there has always been a unique connection — a fine line — that’s crossed or maintained when ethnicity is calculated into a character’s bio.
Over the past few years there has been a resurgence in promoting dark-skinned characters through movies, television shows, and comic books (Luke Cage, Black Panther, Black Lightning, Spider-Man, etc.), however, the iconizing of dark-skinned characters has always been prevalent in one form of media or another. In this article, I will display my findings and knowledge towards the establishing growth of dark-skinned characters in video games. I believe this development will garner fruits of representation within the black diaspora and can open the doors towards representing different ethnicities and, from a linguistics point of view, can offer a form of ‘code-switching’ that can be seen from a bigger viewpoint; virtually and culturally outlined with an interactive perspective provided by video games.
- Dark-skinned characters to Black/African characters
Let’s talk about the elephant in the article: Are dark-skinned characters considered to be Black? The answer can be split down the middle, depending on how you view the character and the media it hails from. You could say that dark-skinned characters represent the black diaspora and that each character you find that happens to be darker than most is just another variety of Black/African characters. On the opposite side, you could argue that a dark-skinned character isn’t considered to be black because of their identity within the work of fiction they originate from and could be considered a mixture of different ethnicities — a melting pot — which speaks to the perspectives of different races that aren’t represented in multiple characters BUT is represented in one character. Both answers hold valid points — points that can be made and have been exemplified in various characters over the years within different video games. While some are a bit more obvious in regards to representation with a dark-skinned character, there have been subtler accounts of dark-skinned representation within gaming.
A good example of diversity between dark-skinned characters can be found in an old JRPG (Japanese Role-Playing Game) by the name of Suikoden. Suikoden was a notable game for its tactics and implications for war-based strategy, and the turn-based battle system that had players forming a party of six characters rather than the general 4 found in other RPG’s like Final Fantasy. In addition to its unique system of battle, the game gives the opportunity to incorporate 108 special characters into your army that ranges from multiple races and species that inhabit the game. Ever wanted to have flying squirrels, griffons and unicorns as a companion that helps you fight against a tyrannical empire — Suikoden 2 offers that in spades. Ever thought that beavers were capable of dishing out damage and could be a solid foundation for representing third world countries — Suikoden 5 answers that question for you. However, within every entry of Suikoden, there has always been a representation of multiple ethnicities and cultures within the games.
Starting with the game that introduced the first two dark-skinned characters within the franchise, Suikoden 2, are Hauser (Right) and Bob (Left). At first glance, Bob seems to mirror someone familiar — perhaps iconic — and you would not be wrong in assuming such a thing. Bob’s character is based, in appearance, to that of the legendary musician Bob Marley. From his dreads to the carefree nature that he holds, Bob is a subtle nod to Jamaican heritage within a European fantasy-based war game made by Japanese developers. While he isn’t the main character or a character that’s necessary to the story, the option to recruit him and know more of his history and skills is what makes the goal of finding 108 special characters in each game an intriguing objective. Once you recruit him, you learn that he isn’t actually human but is that of a Lycanthrope (Werewolves) and happens to be the last of his clan. The rune that’s embedded on his right hand, known as the Rabid Fang Rune, doesn’t initiate his lycanic transformation but actually prevents him in being able to transform. His appearance as a dark-skinned male isn’t racially attributed to anything outside of the fact that he appears to have dark skin, however, it’s the subtlety of his history and his lineage that paints a different perspective towards the character. In a description of his village and people, a darker tone is showcased and a word, or two, seems to be relatable to another incident that’s occurred within the bowels of history:
“ Once a village of lycanthropes located in the Grassland, Lycanthrope Village was destroyed by Windy in her quest to find powerful runes, leaving only one survivor, a young man named Bob who participated as a soldier in the Dunan Unification War. As a result, Lycanthropes have become extremely rare and little information is known on lycanthropes or the village they once inhabited. The Holy Kingdom of Harmonia has several lycanthropes living within their borders; however, they have been integrated into the non-human class and thus are treated little better than slaves. “
On the other hand, there’s Hauser, another dark-skinned character and one that would paint the argument that his skin and structure would be ideally linked to that of African heritage. Unlike that of Bob, Hauser has importance to the story and is a commander of his own forces before joining that of the hero’s main army. He is a soldier, a knight, and a strong C.O. (Commanding Officer) to the forces he leads. There’s no identifying his race or status, other than being human, but the closest thing he has towards the representation of the black diaspora is that of his facial structure
Hauser’s distinct features are linked to a particular art style that’s uniquely attuned to that of Black/African drawings. The structure of the cheekbones, the accentuation of the nose and, most notably, the appearance of the lips. While it’s easy to write off that Bob and Hauser’s ethnical identities are a part of the black diaspora, it’s to be noted that Bob’s appearance, from a visage approach, is ethnically different from that of Hauser’s. Granted that Bob’s appearance isn’t naturally that of a dark-skinned male, and is more of a lycanthropic wolf-man, the two distinct styles in how they were drawn plays against the idea that “all Black people look alike” and that the diaspora of Black/African people can be seen in different views; even as different species.
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2. Implication vs Confirmation
There’s a lot of trial and error when it comes to making a character, especially a character that is linked, or seems to be linked, to a race, or ethnicity, that’s had its fair share of criticisms. While it’s not impossible to make a good character that can represent the black collective, it’s entirely possible that the implication can overweigh the confirmation in the brainstorming process.
This process can be called “ Implication vs Confirmation”. As a writer and storyteller, there’s always an invisible list to which needs to be filled when creating a story that’s comprised of elements which can enhance the reader’s, or in this case ‘the player’s’, experience. A protagonist to lead the story, an antagonist that makes the events for the protagonist, or the story, more difficult, and many other options can be found on this list. The idea of creating a character that’s ethnically unbiased within a game is plausible. Most games that take place in a fantasy setting require that the characters themselves be unified under one term — Humans. The idea of race and individual ethnicities is turned on its head, subverting expectations, which creates a clearer narrative without the addition of white noise in regards to a person’s race convoluting the storyline. This is the Implication.
The second part that has to be confirmed is, well, Confirmation. Does the character’s persona appropriate or appreciate the ethnicity? Are certain colloquialisms necessary to convey identity towards a culture? Is it necessary for them to be “ too much “ of a certain cliché or stereotype in regards to their ethnicity? Every decision to these and other questions is what outlines a character — what makes the character shine as their own individual presence. If the implication of a dark-skinned character has to be showcased through certain actions and provocations, does it create the display of ethnicity that grounds their character OR could it be used to heighten their character’s story in addition to character development? Confirmation plays an important role in structuring and developing a character in regards to their personal narrative. When it comes to race and ethnicity, the outline of character can be based off a figure or even constructed to be similar towards one, however, characters shouldn’t be objectified to a list of demands that MAKE the character.
Another first in the series of dark-skinned characters comes from Barret Wallace from the Final Fantasy series. Barret stands as the first of the dark-skinned characters introduced within the series and one that can be closely identified to Black/African collectives in regards to representation within video games. While his initial introduction and artwork painted him as a virtual copy to that of Laurence Tureaud (Iconically known by the name “Mr. T”) his character within the game and throughout the game is anything but that. He’s the leader of AVALANCHE, a dutiful father, another main character next to Cloud Strife, and much more. His presence throughout the story is filled with various colloquialisms and vernacular English that’s directed towards, or from, AAVE (African American Vernacular English) which portrays his character.
The implication that was crafted for Barret was to possibly give the image of a Black/African man with strong leadership skills, a brash/ruff attitude, and a character arc that has gone through strife in more ways than one; in the past and in the present. His conflict in trying to save the planet and to save his daughter, who (SPOILERS) isn’t related to him by blood, develops his character and confirms his identity as a man fighting for what is right; under the circumstances, he endures. He isn’t identified as a Black/African male and outside of his appearance to Mr. T, he isn’t considered to be an icon for the race. He just happens to have dark skin, a hi-top fade, a beard that would make Mr. T proud, a gun-arm, and a mission; both personal and economical.
With the Final Fantasy 7 Remake, a plethora of design choices and tweaks have been made for the cast. No longer exists the old Mr. T inspired look for the leader of AVALANCHE as he has now adopted a more modern design for the hair on top of his head and on his face. Sporting a nice fade from each side, leaving a short but slicked back layover for the top, a rugged but maintained beard lineup, while outlining various elements to his visage from the initial character design; Barret has evolved. In addition to his pronounced features (outlined in the same account as Hauser’s from the previous number) Barret’s appearance shows a confirmation to the modern era of hairstyles and beard lineups, however, he also showcases how a dark-skinned character can appear within video games. While the industry has access to mocap technology, using the contour of models and other personnel to digitally craft features in real-time, Barret’s design proves that a fundamental choice in perspective from one figure can be transcended with different likenesses. He may have been rough and hard to handle in the beginning, but the development of his character visually can, and has, been improved over time.
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3. Dark-Skinned Villains; Reasons, Motivations, and Script
With every great hero comes a daunting force of conflict in the form of an antagonist or villain. While villains don’t necessarily need to be dark-skinned to impose themselves against others in a game, there have been some candidates in the last couple of decades that have showcased that their skin color isn’t entirely necessary to convey their story as a villain.
Rolling back around to the 2nd and 3rd games in the Suikoden series we’re introduced to another dark-skinned character: Lucia. As a villain, Lucia was a unique character right from her introduction in the second game. A young leader of the Karayan Clan, a clan of dark-skinned warriors whose cultural background shares an affinity to Native Americans, she fights to protect her people and collaborates with one of the leading characters in order to ensure protection for her people and the securing of new land. Her role as a villain is further enhanced by the means in which she uses to execute her desired goals. She was merciless in nearly killing the main character, showcasing many of her abilities — which are further fleshed out in the proceeding title, she has ideal strategies in regards to war and tactics, something which is further enhanced in other games due to becoming a leader at a young age after the death of her father (Another interesting point that fuels the flames of her villainy), and was willing to do anything to enact vengeance.
- In comparison to other villains within the game, Lucia’s role is rather minor. She appears near the beginning of the third act with little to no involvement in the main story. She’s propositioned land and safety for her clan, she’s given command of her own forces, made a general within the army (albeit until the end), and fights against the opposition due to personal incidents regarding her clan, family, and how it shaped her life.
- As a character, Lucia has motivations which develop her character and those motivations within Suikoden 2 is what makes her a unique villain. Furthermore, going into Suikoden 3, because of her experience from the previous game, she’s further relentless in believing that no kingdom is worth aligning alongside. The disrespect that is shown to her people, the destruction and theft of their lands, play an important part in the formula that makes Lucia a well-established villain.
Next on the list is that of another popular figure modeled after, well, a popular boxer: Balrog. Not to be confused with the mythical beast from Lord of the Rings, this Balrog comes from the highly popular fighting game series “ Street Fighter” and has been a prominent member of the cast ever since his inclusion back in Street Fighter II. Identified as an African American he’s modeled after Mike Tyson and is quick to make as much fight money as possible. Balrog’s villainy already shows through his moral compass and decisions in regards to fighting for the main villains, yet his race is never an account for his underhanded tactics and infamous moves throughout the story. His countenance is more towards the sin of greed than it is to villainy, however, given the context of working for Shadaloo, an evil organization infamously known throughout the series, Balrog’s conscious decisions do not promote the inner good of doing the right thing.
To his credit as a character, the motivations he carries is undeniably linked to his entire persona. He doesn’t feign ignorance to being better than what he shows to others, as he implies that he’s the best at what he does, and his honesty is enough to make a lie detector look stupid; cause his cold hard truth would make it seem inefficient and useless as a device. Since his appearance, he has been a strong, tough, and rash individual that has been seen as a villain. A rough nature and a smug attitude, Balrog’s street skills paints the scene for a villain pugilist with little concern for others well being; with more selfish and greedy intentions just for himself.
Ansem, preferably the ‘ Seeker of Darkness ‘, is a fundamentally intriguing villain within the Kingdom Hearts series. In explaining his origins, an account that I will not do in great length, showcases that his existence and connection within the story is, for clarification purposes, fundamentally sound and acknowledgeable to the lore that’s presented within the story. However, if you take out the complications with the lore, this version of Ansem was the first and pressing antagonist that started the Kingdom Hearts series. A shrouded figure in the darkness that did research on hearts (metaphorically and semi-physically speaking) he was the imposing figure that stood in the shadows of Sora and Riku’s adventures within the game. His acts included corrupting Riku’s heart with darkness — a poignant act that would play an important role in the character’s development within later games — and the construction of Kingdom Hearts through the obliteration of multiple worlds.
His appearance on screen is unexpected and the appearance he takes is just as foreboding as the voice that comes from it. He doesn’t pardon his actions and he only parleys for small moments with the main cast of characters. His intentions to find Kingdom Hearts and to use it for his own well being, in addition to filling all of the worlds with darkness, is a straight and simple goal for his agenda. What made his goal and presence unique was the lack of involvement he played within the game itself. The game, Kingdom Hearts, associates most of its story to Sora, Donald, and Goofy as they travel to different Disney worlds and preventing their collapse from the Heartless; which Ansem also happens to be, however, this isn’t prevalent within his appearance as it is more of an epiphany in later games. In future games, an explanation is given as to why he has dark skin and silver hair, however, before those games were even a concept, Ansem’s appearance wasn’t a hot-button topic. His attitude, the role he was given, and how it was implicated within the game is what made Ansem a great stand-alone villain within the series.
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4. Conclusion ~ Representation
As an African American, I’ve learned that representation within different forms of media is a necessity going forward. Black and African figures in today’s media have been brought into the light for the public through the use of comics, instilling a sense of understanding and acceptance to one’s race that isn’t seen as often. Video games have provided chances for African Americans to be expanded within the media, however, I’ve found that the representation for the race has been used in different contexts; whether it’s from the east or the west gaming franchises.
I avoided putting any American games in this article for a couple of reasons. One of them was because of how the interpretation of race is seen when compared to the most popular games in America vs the fantasy elements found within most JRPGs. Popular titles like the Assassins Creed series deals with the re-telling of history and the amplification of the past and presents involvement. In Assassins Creed: Black Flag’s DLC “ Freedom Cry”, the character Adewale, a former slave with an education that would soon become a pirate and eventually would become an assassin, would embark on his own journey which would lead to many historical bouts against the Templar and freeing captured slaves. I appreciated the bold storytelling, the use of history, and its importance in regards to African heritage, however, I feel that the game is only one example that places the character in an ethnically threatening situation which garners a greater change in their character. Other popular games like the Grand Theft Auto series paints a stereotypical image which, in most cases, presents a toxic representation in regards to cultural appropriation. The games are not bad — technically speaking — but the storytelling for dark-skinned characters like CJ (San Andreas) and Franklin (Los Santos) seem to always have a unique turnabout in regards to their characters.
In fantasy RPG’s, East or West, the context of the story is vitally important to each character. While there are some tropes that can be filled with throwaway characters, the development of any character should always be seen as a vital component in regards to crafting a great story. While most protagonists can be seen from a Eurocentric viewpoint, the choice to make dark-skinned characters protagonists is just as valid to other perspectives. Square-Enix’s “ Final Fantasy” series may have gotten the ball rolling with Barret, but the domino effect of different dark-skinned characters like Fran (XII) and Sazh (XIII) have also been introduced into the fold of dark-skinned representations. There identities as humans, or Viera in Fran’s case, are established as their main identity and the way that they speak are clarified to that of their characters; Fran uses her voice as a means to showcase respect and authority, as her race generally acknowledges is a valuable trait, while Sazh uses comedy and blunt statements, mixed with AAVE, due to a tragic past and coming to terms with the world he now lives within; these developments are paramount to the character’s progression.
In starting with Suikoden for this article, a game which I have personally favored since playing its second installment back in 1998, it introduced to me, a young, African-American man, that a story can involve many ethnicities and that the concern of “race” shouldn’t affect it. From the second title in the series to its fifth installment on consoles, Suikoden has proven to be a game that uses its diverse cast as a means of storytelling. The third installment showcased the Karaya Clan, previously mentioned with Lucia’s appearance from the second game, which amalgamated Native Americans and Africans as a single clan; pressing the matters of land reservation, cultural racism, and hate crimes — yet their clan isn’t the only one who experiences these events; broadening the subject to others, however, making an impactful statement that alludes throughout the entire game. Further titles would introduce new clans that would further represent Africans, Asians, East Indians, Cubans, Anglo-Americans, and many more. Topics of war would continue to be targeted and even topics of social hiearchy would be challenged in each installment; including issues that pertained to Feminism, Sexism and Gay Rights. To me, Suikoden was like the older brother to Pokémon who preferred World History rather than Zoology. While Pokémon has gone out of its way to make 819 creatures based on actual animals, splashed with some creatures that are more akin to folklore/mythology, Suikoden has created 540 characters that have represented most of the races and ethnicities on our planet.
In conclusion, this article isn’t a compilation of reasons to make more dark-skinned characters. This article is to bring awareness to how dark-skinned characters can be made and the impact it has on gaming and media. While the progression of Black/African protagonists is few and far between, the acceptance of race and its accumulation in games is slowly developing towards a positive retrospect. From Pokémon’s extending cast of different races (The trainers, not the Pokémon) in their games to the rise of more prominent characters that share in the representation of the black community, I believe that representation will be seen as a positive investment towards the identity of ethnicity in games and media going forward.
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Originally published at http://roundaboutj.blog on June 19, 2019.