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“Where’s my Black Shepherd?”

A brief look at Nubian representation in video games

Mass Effect. Image credit BioWare/ EA.

With the recent release of the crowdfunded beat’em up Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn on all major gaming platforms, itself a complete and satirical remake of the infamously terrible (ranked one of the worst video games of all time) Shaq Fu released decades ago in 1994 starring then-NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neil, it brought to my attention the significant lack of Nubian protagonists and African influence in video games. Since the dawn of the 21st century, barriers to entry for people of other races, sex and lifestyles have become virtually nonexistent in other entertainment media, in which we are exponentially inundated with movies, TV shows, radio programs, novels, music, sports and comic books starring and/or produced by people of a wide gamut of color, ethnicity and sexual orientation in the mainstream. But while this lauded inclusive progress should indeed be something of praise, when you look at video games today, that antiquated neglect seems to linger specifically when it comes to lead Nubian characters and African representation in this wildly popular, multi-billion-dollar electronic entertainment industry.

While there are numerous Nubian non-playable characters (NPCs), role-playing game (RPG) party members and optional playable characters, and even video games with intricate character creation systems in a plethora of titles and franchises today, I’m specifically speaking of single-player, story-driven video games where your only option is to play a Black character, or where the plot is based on or is influenced by African culture, mythology or history. This isn’t to say that including character creation is bad, as it affords players a level of independence in their avatar/identity never imagined in decades past; or that there should not be stock options in terms of selectable characters, which by their very nature breed variety and sometimes complexity to the gameplay. No, my argument is that when there is no choice given, why am I forced to always play as a Caucasian/Asian character, when there is little to no justification for this restriction.

In terms of female representation, 2017 alone gave us Horizon: Zero Dawn, Nier: Automata and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice being standout hits, and smaller titles like A Hat in Time, Life is Strange: Before the Storm (which has a lesbian lead), and Gravity Rush 2 being smaller, but remarkable examples. Upcoming titles include the long-awaited sequel to Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed action-adventure survival zombie dystopia Last of Us II, starring openly lesbian Ellie; and the third entry in Square Enix’s rebooted action-adventure Tomb Raider franchise Shadow of the Tomb Raider once again sees players in the role of gung-ho ancient grave robber Lara Croft. But one is hard-pressed to come up with an example of a videogame within two years, past, present or future, of a Nubian character as the main star.

Now Black representation in the early days of videogames was not in the best of light. From 1987’s hulking staple mini-boss Abobo in the classic beat’em up Double Dragon, Mike Tyson in the titular Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, and pioneering fighting game Street Fighter’s original boxer Mike, African-American characters were (rare) enemy architypes. Capcom’s popular 1989 beat’em up Final Fight didn’t help much either in Nubian representation, with the first stage’s boss being the lazy Jamaican thug Damnd (“Thrasher” in US version) and the corrupt cop Edi E in stage three. And as ethnically and racially diverse the wildly successful Street Fighter franchise has become over the past thirty years (arguably the most diverse videogame series in history), nothing was more racially insensitive than the opening sequence of the original Street Fighter II (1992) that sported a blonde Caucasian man KOing a African-American fighter in a single punch just before the title screen appears. Playable Nubian characters would make sporadic appearances, predominantly in the fighting game genre (too many to list here), but nowhere else save for a scant few exceptions during the 80s and 90s.

In the 21st century however, Nubian characters had some noteworthy appearances. Players could adopt the identity of African female Sheva Alomar in Capcom’s 2009 critically acclaimed co-op third-person action zombie shooter Resident Evil 5. Conversely, Naughty Dog’s fourth and final action-adventure game in the Uncharted franchise Uncharted: Lost Legacy (2017) also sees you teaming up with a Nubian female cohort and former antagonist Nadine Ross, but she was inexcusably withheld as an NPC.

The majority of titles that exclusively had a solo protagonist of African descent were released in 2012. Telltale’s critically acclaimed The Walking Dead episodic dialog-based choose-your-adventure series starred remorseful convict Lee Everett who becomes the surrogate father to the recently orphaned Clementine, as they traverse a world newly overrun by zomb…walkers. The 2013 sequel and the recently announced series finale both star Clementine, herself being a strong African-American female protagonist. Developer heavyweight Ubisoft’s action-adventure Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation starred African-French heroine Aveline de Grandpre in eighteenth-century French/Spanish-occupied Louisiana.

While a game befitting of its franchise that explored an unrelated epoch in the convoluted main timeline of the games, it suffered from only being released on the Playstation Vita, which severely limited its exposure. By the time a home console came two years later, the novelty of Liberation had already been overshadowed by newer entries. Stereotypical revenge-driven James Heller of Radical Entertainment’s open-world antihero action game Prototype 2 was unceremoniously overshadowed by Sucker Punch’s more successful Caucasian alternative InFamous 2, even though it came out a year later. Lastly, Sony’s StarHawk, a spiritual successor to WarHawk (2007), a sci-fi Western real-time strategy (RTS) starred cliché gunslinger Emmett Graves trying to maintain peace on the planet Dust, was a serviceable game with innovative tactical build-battle mechanics, and competent multiplayer components with air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, sadly too never saw a sequel.

French developer Dontnot Entertainment admirably tried their hand with Remember Me (2013) – a cyberpunk action-adventure starring female memory savant Nilin in a world inspired by Blade Runner and Total Recall. Despite its setting and innovative memory-jacking mechanic, it fell prey to lukewarm reviews and underperformance in sales. The same year the final entry into Crytek’s famous first-person shooter (FPS) franchise Crysis 3 dropped with its one-dimensional character “Prophet” murder his way through the alien-occupied warzone of 2047 New York in a self-aware “Predator” nanite bodysuit.

We would not see another influx of Nubian characters in the main role until 2015, where we had the indie/kickstarter point-and-click adventure title Broken Age by Double Fine Production; although the character of Vella Tartine would have to share the spotlight with Shay Volta and his tale. Broken Age perfectly married child-like wonder in its presentation with mature themes in its story, earning it very positive reviews; but its genre was too niche for mainstream attention. Another crowdfunded kickstarter project that same year, Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan, by Cameroonian developer Kiro’o Games which is exclusive on Steam (PC) became available. Based on actual African mythology, the story follows Enzo Kori-Odan, prince of Zama, and his quest to regain his throne. It is a colorful and detailed sci-fi action role-playing game. Of course it would be no surprise if you were only now hearing about this obscure title here. Lastly, there was Ubisoft’s 2016 polarizing, open-world hacking-oriented adventure game Watch Dogs 2, a decision that – ironically – resulted from criticisms of the drab original. It starred hacktivist and millennial Marcus Holloway who, armed with his superhuman tech skills and parkour prowess, liberated the mesmerized masses of San Francisco from their Big Brother overlords. Despite the overall positive feedback from critics, the ‘disappointing’ sales discouraged a third entry into this new franchise.

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