Top Ten Most Popular Playable Black Characters in Video Games, Part 1

Written by Fabian Wood

October 1, 2021

With the recent release of Deathloop, a AAA first-person shooter that – as of writing – sits at an 89 on Metacritic, it’s fair to say that this next generation videogame by Bethesda is a success. I was more invested than most gamers, mainly because it starred not one, but two African-American protagonists, in a single-player, storied action game, in an ocean of old and new IPs dominated by males and females of Caucasian or Asian descent, and the occasional anthropomorphic mascot.

I’d previously touched on the utter dearth of videogames that allowed players to be Black characters, or even based on African mythology or folklore. Mainly relegated to “options” in the vast videogame landscape, the chances of you playing a game where a Black man or woman was the only choice (*outside of your celebrity/athlete tie-in game) were few and far between over the past four decades. I recommend you check out my article “Where’s My Black Shepherd?” for a refresher. 

The commercial success of Deathloop bodes well for future prospects of more videogames either starring Black characters and more hopefully, being based on African mythology; similar to the myriads based on Japanese and European folklore, mythology, and/or religions. There is no denying that that is a long and arduous journey, but one that needs to be made. I, therefore, felt it prudent to dig deep…and I mean deep, for some of the most influential or famous Black videogame characters. As with my previous article, the caveat is that the characters on this list have to be playable in-game and not be real-world individuals (like Shaq and Michael Jackson) or those born in other media (like Spawn or Miles Morales from comics). While most of these candidates ride the coattails of their respective franchise’s success and popularity, I feel these characters are also noteworthy in their own right and stand on their own.

So here is a look at the 10 most popular Black videogame characters, that you can play.

Adam and Cherry Hunter from Street of Rage 4.

10. Adam Hunter & The Hunter Family

Original Game: Streets of Rage (1991) *Adam / Streets of Rage 2 (1992) *Eddie / Streets of Rage 4 (2020) *Cherry

Already touched on in my article “Hunter’s Legacy”, Adam Hunter was one of the original trios of playable ex-cops who took to the crime-riddled streets…with rage in the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive exclusive beat’em up classic trilogy Streets of Rage. Beat’em ups or “side-scrollers” were a popular genre in the 80s and early 90s, alongside the fighting game boom. Streets of Rage is considered one of the most memorable beat’em ups of all time, together with Capcom’s “Final Fight” and those produced by Konami under licensed IP.

Adam Hunter may not have been the first Black optional character in a side-scroller, but he is by far the most iconic; with his trademark yellow shirt and black long pants and affiliation with the nostalgic franchise. Back in the day, this was one of the few instances where an African-American in video games was not a negative stereotype or generic cannon fodder of the game’s “heroes” to beat up repeatedly. While he did not really appear in the two following sequels, he still remained part of the background plot. Adam was replaced by his younger rollerblading brother Eddie “Skate” Hunter (*“Sammy” in Japan) in the following two sequels. Eddie would keep his brother’s color scheme though.

It would take another twenty-six years before the world would see Streets of Rage return, and thanks to Dotemu, we got the fourth installment into the franchise, which received critical acclaim and praise for its updated graphics, soundtrack, and gameplay. It also maintained the spirit and feel of the original trilogy, paying homage with its unlockable classic characters and nods to older games.

Streets of Rage 4 (2020) would see the introduction of Adam’s electric-guitar-wielding daughter Cherry Hunter (who also kept the mustard-yellow and black motif), as well as another African-American character with Jax-esque buff bionic arms named Floyd Iraia, an amalgamation of two previous characters, the pro-wrestler Max “Thunder” Hatchet and cyborg Dr. Zan. Adam himself would make his triumphant return to the series as a revamped unlockable character alongside his refurbished compatriots. Through gameplay, you could also unlock the “classic” 16-bit sprite version of Adam from the original game, as well as Eddie from the old sequels. That brings the total number of African-American options in the full roster to five!

At the end of the day, when it comes to Black representation and recognition in the beat’em up genre, Adam and the Hunter family are at the undisputed forefront.

Marcus Holloway from Watch Dogs 2.

9. Marcus Holloway

Game: Watch Dogs 2 (2016)

The Watch Dogs series is an open-world “sandbox” game set in a conspiracy-laden alternate reality, where players can take on the story at their own pace, and goof around with the game’s physics and NPCs (non-playable characters), while indulging in digital consumerism. They can approach confrontations and scenarios through brute force or cleverness, open violence or stealth. However, given the premise of the game, there is a lot of emphasis on using your “god-like” hacking prowess to resolve problems, neutralize threats and solve puzzles. In-between these free-roaming romps, players would complete story missions and optional side-missions, progressing the campaign towards its designated conclusion.

Sandwiched between the “too serious for its own good” Watch Dogs (2014) and the overly ambitious Watch Dogs Legion (2020); Watch Dogs 2 is the surprising medium of both extremes. One of the criticisms of the original game was its bland, stereotypical gritty, and overly serious protagonist Aiden Pearce. Developer Ubisoft sought to rectify that in the sequel by having a witty millennial be the new protagonist. Players take on the role of nascent hacktivist and parkour professional Marcus Holloway (voiced by Ruffin Prentiss). A next-generation surveillance and security conglomerate Blume is on the verge of reenacting 1984 upon the populous. Marcus is quickly recruited into the hacktivist/cyber-guerrilla organization DedSec (which is based on the real-world group “Anonymous”) to stop Blume and expose its nefarious and rights-infringing tactics to the public the best way millennials know-how.

The many course corrections made in Watch Dogs 2 over the original, particularly its tonal shift to a bit more humor, earned the sequel much praise. While the original was the best-selling new IP at the time, the sequel managed to match the success of its predecessor. Sadly though, the third installment in this budding franchise took a far more drastic approach. Scrapping a designated protagonist (or group thereof), Legion went for a more fluid, Sims-like approach to the gameplay and story. Players could now randomly recruit/play as NPCs in the information-overload game world. This very nebulous, laissez-faire design choice would negatively affect Legion’s reception and was the least successful in the trilogy. 

If you’re a fan of open-world games and want to take a swing into Watch Dogs, you can’t go wrong from a narrative and technical standpoint with Watch Dogs 2.

Lee Everett and Clementine in The Walking Dead: Season One.

8. Lee Everett / Clementine

Original Game: The Walking Dead: Season One (2012) *Clementine is playable in Season Two (2013)

Before you read any further I implore you to check out my article on this very game “My Seven-Year Experience with an Enthralling Parent Simulator”. Not that that is over…

At the peak of The Walking Dead’s multi-media fervor, Telltale Games created an episodic choose-your-own-adventure videogame based in that universe. The Walking Dead series from Telltale Games was critically acclaimed for its narration/story-telling and at the time unconventional gameplay. The series gleaned many accolades, earning many “Game of the Year” awards and nominations in 2012, including “Best Performance by a Human Male/Female” and “Best Character Design”. The series quickly became so popular that not only did it spawn four seasons (2012-2018), but when the doors were unceremoniously and abruptly closed on the developer prior to the release of the final episode; fervent fan clamoring led to it being formally concluded under Skybound Entertainment.

Now while the Walking Dead franchise originated from comics, the characters in the Telltale Games are wholly original, so they qualify. The protagonist of season one is Lee Everett, a history professor turned convict who finds himself the de facto leader of a group of survivors at the cusp of the zomb…er…walker apocalypse. Lee is the humble everyman, morally spurred to take care of Clementine. Becoming a surrogate father to the recently orphaned 11-year old girl, their bond quickly grows and strengthens over the episodes. At the end of Season One, regardless of your choices, Lee must pass the torch over to Clementine.

The final season returns to a much wiser and older Clementine, who comes to lead a group of misfit youngsters against a human threat with ties to her past. As with Lee and Clem in the original, Clem finds herself the surrogate mother to a boy named “AJ” (*whom you can also play as at key points here). Your choices not only influence your relationship with the other kids, and even their fates, but also what kind of person AJ develops into by the time the credits roll. Clementine started off as the overly naïve and vulnerable girl who needs Lee’s protection and guidance. But by the conclusion of the games, she grows into a mature, self-confident, and resourceful character.

The series is a long emotional rollercoaster, full of endearing, complex, and diverse characters that you get invested in; making tough choices all the more difficult, and the losses all the more heartbreaking. The memorableness of the series as a whole as well as its main protagonists Lee and Clem owe credit to the phenomenal quality of writing in both story and dialog, as well as the stellar talent of the series’ numerous voice actors. Lee is voiced by Dave Fennoy and Clementine by Melissa Hutchison. 

My personal seven-year time with this game and these two exemplary African-American characters will last me a lifetime.

Julianna Blake and Colt Vahn in Deathloop.

7. Colt Vahn & Julianna Blake

Original Game: Deathloop (2021)

It may very well be hyperbole to say that Deathloop is the Black Panther of video games. But when you look at the failed attempts of single-player games in the past that starred only Black characters (Crysis 2 [2011], Starhawk [2012], Prototype 2 [2012], Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation [2012] and Remember Me [2013]) Deathloop’s unequivocal success is the exception to this norm. And while Deathloop will be overshadowed by some other game in this genre in the (near) future, there is no denying that compared to its fellow contemporaries, it stands out as a Black beacon of hope for future games with Black protagonists. Besides, I would be remised if I didn’t include this game and its characters when I opened this top ten mentioning it at the onset. Just to recap, Deathloop is a first-person shooter developed by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks. It is a timed exclusive on the Playstation 5 (and PC).

The ornery Colt Vahn (voice by Jason E Kelley) is the game’s central protagonist. Your goal is to escape the mysterious island of “Blackreef” that is inexplicably stuck in a one-day time loop. As the name would imply, trapped in this nightmarish groundhog’s day scenario, you must explore, experiment, kill and inevitably die…over and over and over again. Similar to games like “Dishonored”, you’re given “otherworldly” powers alongside traditional firearms. Go in guns blazing or take a stealthier approach, there is a multitude of ways to approach every situation as you slowly unravel the conundrum of Blackreef.

Making your daunting task more Sisyphean is the vindictive antagonist Julianna Blake (voiced by Ozioma Akagha). While she appears during the game (think Big Daddy or Big Sister from BioShock) and often banters/taunts with you, she is traditionally controlled by an A.I. However, and the reason she is listed here as well, another player can “hijack” your game and assume the identity of Julianna. This allows for a nice random PvP element of the game. Fortunately enough, Julianna isn’t as overpowered as Cole, and the balance of gameplay is still skewed in Cole’s favor when this event presents itself.

Augustus Cole in Gears of War.

6. Augustus Cole  

Original Game: Gears of War (2006) *playable in Gears of War 3 (2011)

Epic Games’ gritty third-person shooter starring comically beefy soldiers with chainsaw-guns fighting against subterranean reptilian hominids called “the Locust Horde” heralded the epoch of the “cover-based shooter” sub-genre. An ongoing best-seller Xbox exclusive franchise, Gears of War’s popularity saw it spill over to comics, board games, novels, and other merchandise.

And it is here that we’re introduced to Augustus “Cole Train” Cole (or “Gus”). A mainstay supporting character in every game in the series, Cole has a likable, gung-ho personality and combat charisma, which garnered positive reception from players and affection from fans. One of the franchise’s most recognizable and beloved characters, this was in no small part bolstered by his continued support of and comradery with the player in each game. While his involvement was not necessarily always integral to the varying plots across the games, his inclusion was always welcomed and expected by fans of the series. Augustus was named after the game’s lead designer Phil Cole and is voiced by Lester Speight.

Cole squeezes onto this list because players briefly took control of the character in set “Acts” during the Gears of War 3 single-player campaign, as well as his appearances in the series’ multiplayer modes as well as the spin-off games Gears Tactics, Gears Judgement, and Gears Pop!. While he may come off as a generic army grunt at first glance, The Cole Train has enough character and nuance to stand out and alongside the other stars of the series.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics, or videogames. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and videogamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.

Article Topics: video games

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