In celebration of Black History Month, we take a look back at gaming’s most memorable black characters.
Midway through Black History Month in the good ol’ US of A, I thought it would be nice to celebrate in my own way, with a bit of diversity to celebrate a diverse month. Coming from a multi-cultural background myself, I’m always thrilled to see people of color taking prominent roles within my favorite mediums. With that in mind, and in no particular order, I present just a handful of some of my favorite playable black characters in video games.
Dudley – Street Fighter
Despite the fact that black characters in video games are increasingly common, they often come with the unfortunate abuse of stereotypes and cliché. While this can be overlooked if the character, as a whole, plays a larger role in their respective universe, it’s refreshing nonetheless to see a strong black man portrayed in a way entirely contradictory to typical media portrayal.
Dudley’s evolved since his initial incarnation in Street Fighter 3, from strains of haughtiness to becoming nothing short of chivalrous, a gentleman in every sense of the word. His personality makes him not only unique, but a fan favorite. He’s not only a powerful and capable fighter, but intelligent and respectful to both friend and foe, even as he’s crushing their faces into the pavement.
Sazh Katzroy – Final Fantasy 13
Speaking of stereotypes, Sazh is a character I absolutely hated when I was first introduced to him, during the initial moments of Final Fantasy 13. His most obvious traits are among the worst of tropes generally used to demean black people, from his friendship with a chick(en) to his afro and dialect, let alone the fact that he wields guns. The fact however, is that despite what lies on the surface, Sazh is a much deeper character than first impressions suggest.
He’s easily the wisest of the cast, the most level-headed and probably the most reliable when the going gets tough. He also shows an immense amount of kindness, often taking on a fatherly role for the younger members of the team. Finally, his dedication to his son is profound, the moment when his son is crystalized before him heart-wrenching and genuine. He travels literally to the ends of the world to save his family and protect his new-found friends, and ends the game as a character I remember less for his cliché and more for his compassion and inner strength.
Zasalamel – Soul Calibur
Forget for a moment that’s he’s technically a bad guy in the Soul Calibur universe, Zasalamel is just cool as hell. There’s no getting around it, Zasal is a badass. While it’s not uncommon for black characters to be villains, his portrayal isn’t typical of stereotype. Zasal is a scythe-wielding magic warrior of power so immense he has mastered the abilities of reincarnation. This power becomes his reason for existing, on many levels. While other characters sought the Soul weapons for power, Zasal seeks them as a means of ending his life, hoping its power might be strong enough to end what, over many lifetimes, has become a curse. While his actions to this end make him a villain, he’s far more the tortured soul, seeking reprieve from lifetimes of war and loss.
Augustus Cole – Gears of War
Face it, Cole is awesome. I wish I cared more that so much of his speech was stereotypical, but I don’t. There are times to be offended by stereotype; in my opinion Cole Train gets a pass. Yes, he talks like he’s from South Philly, but there’s a difference between using personality traits to demean and using them to emphasize personality. Cole is the latter. He is boisterous and fearless, the guy that shines light into the darkness by laughing in the face of the things hiding in the shadows. There’s a reason why he’s much beloved by fans of the franchise, holding his own among other equally lasting characters like Dom and Tai.
While his loud mouth is what lets him hang with the boys, Cole has also proven capable of depth, showing empathy for his teammate Dom during a particularly tragic low, and going out of his way to immortalize his fallen comrades. One of the more memorable characters in video games, black or otherwise.
Aveline de Grandpre – Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation
What’s this? Not just a black character, but a black woman? Who isn’t some drug dealer’s wife? And doesn’t have all parts of her anatomy on display? TAKING ON SLAVERY!? Holy crap, the amount of affection I had for Ubisoft when I learned about the huge leap of faith (pun intended) they were taking on this one…profound. Only word for it. I love seeing video games attempt topics some might consider taboo, or outside the realm of what is “appropriate” for video game storytelling. I think it’s necessary to defy convention if the medium intends to mature and grow, and Aveline was truly a step in the right direction.
Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation’s Aveline de Grandpre is powerful, beautiful, and capable. At her most attractive she is still a lady, well-dressed and intelligent, and at her deadliest she is the soft caress of death, leaving her victims dead on her arrival. She is a deeply conflicted character, constantly questioning her loyalties as she fights against oppression, attempting to free slaves and destroy those who would impugn on the freedom of others. My only criticism is that she was not given a bigger game to develop in, but I have high hopes that Liberation is not the last time we will see Aveline. Give this woman a movie, PLEASE.
Jacob Taylor – Mass Effect
Jacob was a surprise to me when I first played Mass Effect 2. Every character in the Mass Effect crew is messed up nearly beyond fixing, but Jacob is oddly normal. Despite his roots within Cerberus, he’s also easily the most honorable and loyal of your crew. Unfortunately, Jacob spends much of the game overshadowed by the drama from other crewmates, leaving him one of the less popular choices among fans of the game. I always felt he was underrated, though. Jacob was the loyal soldier, through and through. He excised caution and urged Shepard to work with others, rather than against them.
Despite this, Jacob’s loyalties never blinded him, eventually seeing the Illusive Man for what he was and insisting on the destruction of what could potentially prove a dangerous weapon in his former boss’ hands. It’s unfortunate he wasn’t a larger part of ME3, though his colder demeanor suggested the constant war and fighting had finally taken its toll on him. His priorities change, and he calls on Shep not to save worlds, but his chance at a family, to make up for the shame his father wrought on him by being a better father to his own child. Across a galaxy of super-powered, sometimes monstrous, creatures at war with one another, Jacob was just a regular guy trying to save it. A regular guy with biotic powers and a six pack you could grate cheese on, but just the same. That he happened to be black was precisely as it should always be: irrelevant.
It’s important to remember that storytelling has, since the dawn of man, been a means of reaching the soul when mere words, reason and logic might fail. The creation of characters that stand outside one’s comfort zone, yet prove easy to empathize with and easy to love, are components of acceptance and proponents of diversity. Here’s to hoping that as video games continue testing the storytelling boundaries of their genre, characters across a wide range of race and background grow to be as represented and accepted as the people that play them.