Melanin March 2021: A Look at Black Character Design in Video Games

Nagoriyuki, the newcoming vampire samurai character of Guilty Gear: Strive

It’s March again! Much of the world is beginning to mark its calendars for the one-year anniversary of our new lives since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s Year One AC (After Covid)! Millions of people all across the face of the earth were instructed by health officials to remain indoors as often as possible to avoid contracting the virus and putting the health of themselves and their peers at risk. Suddenly cut off from the myriad sources of entertainment provided by the world outside one’s door, many people turned to video games as an approach to appeasing themselves in place of leaving home. With record-shattering droves of new players investing their time and money into gaming, the video game industry is currently enjoying an abundance of love from consumers. Despite this, the industry still moves excruciatingly slowly when it comes to representing the vast demographic variety of the people who purchase their products. For this year’s Melanin March, we’re taking a look at some of the countless ways in which video games have been consistently disrespecting their Black player base. Today, I’m choosing chaos.

Now, I could probably speak for literally hours on the general subject of representation in video games and how it could be better, but for the sake of your time, my time, and the algorithm, I’m going to try to keep this paper’s focus on the representation of Black characters, because I am, in fact, a Black person who would like to see better representation of Black characters. I’m also going to try to speak mainly about games that I have personally played, again for the sake of time but also because I want to be decently familiar with the subjects I’m talking about, so this sentence will be the only mention of the abysmal treatment Black characters receive in The Last of Us. I also feel slightly inclined to mention that while I’m about to critique the representation of Black people in video games, I’m not ignoring the obvious, but painfully limited progress that has been made over the history of character design in games. However, considering that so many Black characters who appear throughout the medium are limited to stereotypes, in addition to the fact that many of the flawed motifs that appear in Black video game characters' designs appear all-too-commonly to this day, I feel that content like this paper needs to keep being made so that future products are that much better than the results we have had to deal with in the past up to now.

Last week, I posted to Instagram with heart-eyed emojis expressing my excitement that at least three of the 14 characters available to try out in the Guilty Gear Strive open beta were unambiguously Black: Nagoriyuki, Giovanna, and Ramlethal Valentine (or so I believed at the time). My friend replied that my choice of emoji felt like a cry for help, and I laughed because she was right. While reading up on the Guilty Gear characters to write this, I realized that I was mistaken. Nagoriyuki, the noble Nigerian vampire samurai (samurai vampire?), is the only character in the starting roster who could be called unambiguously Black. He’s described as Nigerian, and he has kinky, textured hair in the form of huge, gorgeous locks on his head. The baby blue eyes underneath his scary mask are a result of his vampirism and character design decisions more than his heritage. Nagoriyuki is a lot of what I like to see in the design of a Black character; his concept is unique and strays away from harmful stereotypes. Really, not much to ask for. The Guilty Gear Wiki states that Giovanna is a Brazilian special operations officer working to protect the President of the United States. Without diving too far into Brazilian identity politics, to say that Giovanna is unambiguously Black based only on her Brazilian nationality would be at least a little bit ignorant. As for the ever-present Ramlethal; well, her origins are anything but unambiguous. Her “Mother” is the “information organism” known as the Universal Will, and both Ramlethal and the Universal Will come from the alternate world known as the Backyard, a realm said to house all of the information that makes up the real world. If you ask me if Ram is Black, I’m going to say yes, but to say that the developers of Guilty Gear had the intention of depicting an explicitly Black character when designing Ramlethal is probably dishonest. So, of the Guilty Gear Strive open beta’s playable cast of 14 characters, there is one univocally Black character available for testing to players. Yeah. A cry for help.

The limits of diverse representation in video games aren’t anything new to me; Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the fighting game *cough* that I have personally invested the most time into, and with the roster reaching a whopping 80 total playable characters with the addition of Pyra and Mythra from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 this month, the twinge of annoyance I felt when scanning Smash Bros. already sizable starting roster only grew to bother me more and more as downloadable content allowed characters from fans’ wildest dreams to brawl with Mario and company. The battle-ready Terry Bogard of the King of Fighters franchise, the sinister Sephiroth of Final Fantasy fame, the bombastic bird-and-bear buddies Banjo and Kazooie from Banjo-Kazooie. Although 11 characters will have been added to Smash Bros. post-launch come March, none of these characters are Black. There are two remaining characters that have yet to be revealed in this DLC package, but despite Nintendo managing to catch fans by surprise with nearly every new character announcement, I have no reason to believe that one or both of these two characters would be Black either. In fact, if I had to take a guess at what the character might look like, I would bet that if they are human beings, they’ll be blonde with blue eyes, and that assumption is wholly based on the precedent set by the existing cast. The game has alternate colors for the characters of Inkling, Dark Pit, and Villager that feature dark skin, but of these characters, one can be considered human, and the Blackness of those Villager alternate colors is anything but unambiguous given the, uh, complex history of dark skin and Blackness in Animal Crossing. But that’s another paper.

On one hand, the characters in the Super Smash Bros. series have traditionally been seen as playable franchise representatives for Nintendo’s intellectual properties at first, and as more of gaming’s most iconic trademarks began to join the fray, the characters who were present became achievements in and of themselves; to be invited to Smash Bros. was to gain access to the potential of untold recognition. This is evident in the rise in sales a character’s original games see as a result of being announced for Smash Bros. With this in mind, the lack of playable Black characters in Super Smash Bros. is indicative at large of a problem that persists in the wider video game industry, and at the very least is evidence of an issue of representation at Nintendo. There are no Black people in Super Smash Bros. because, in the eyes of the developers, there are no Black video game characters with the cultural impact to justify the effort and cost of including them in the game. And that is upsetting to me and my homies. The homies and I would very much enjoy being able to look at a field of 80 playable characters without longing for one, just a single character who looks a little bit like me without having to create one myself using the clunky Mii Fighter characters.

While we’re hovering around the topic of character creation, I’d like to mention the situation that resulted in the creation of this paper to begin with. While watching a live stream, I had been convinced to try out the free trial of Final Fantasy XIV Online. I’d been looking for a new game to spend time on before the release of Monster Hunter: Rise, and the free trial seemed like a perfect way to waste my time until March 26. I’m especially a fan of games that allow me to create a character for reasons that may seem obvious at this point, and screenshots I had seen on Twitter of gorgeous Black player characters further sparked my interest in the game. While working through the character creator, I abruptly encountered the bane of many Black player’s experiences in the majority of games that allow character customization; the hair options. I recognize that we have made some kinds of progress; I remember getting into character creation in games only a few years before today and not even having a skin tone option that remotely resembled my own if an option for dark skin was available at all. (Looking at you, Animal Crossing: New Leaf.) These days, it’s more often than not that I am unable to find any hair options that resemble Black hair at all, never mind hair that looks like mine specifically. Final Fantasy XIV Online has an afro and a pompadour with a curly texture available as Black hairstyles for the Hyur player character, and that’s about it. I remember being excited for what I thought at the time was an incredibly inclusive character generator in Monster Hunter World, only to be disappointed by the limited options for hair textured like mine is. I remember thinking at the time that the fact that there were any choices for Black hair at all was nice, and taking to Twitter to post about how I wish there were more options. In the Monster Hunter World: Iceborne expansion, more Black hairstyles were included, but by that time I was more jaded than excited. A similar situation occurred again while playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the first time around this time last year: for the first time in a main series release in the Animal Crossing franchise, you could choose your skin tone before starting the game. Imagine that! It only took until 2020 for the developers to realize that Black people exist! Or, more accurately, it took that long for developers to decide that Black players are a base worth providing to. Again, a few kinky hair options were available, but they were in the glaring minority, even after an update to the game added a few more inclusive hairstyles.

Once more, I was interested in the additions but lamenting the time it took to implement them. Why are Black people always an afterthought in these situations? I know the answer to the question is “Because game companies exist primarily to make money and continuing to cater to the main target audience is profitable, just like the controversy surrounding character designs creates clicks that generate that much more profit,” but this answer is unsatisfying and unacceptable. Words like “immersion” and “escapism” get thrown around often in today’s video game culture. When I play a video game, I value the game’s ability to suck me into its world to the point that the stresses I come across in my real life can fade to the back of my mind, if only for a moment. Nothing shatters those layers of immersion more quickly than the stark reminder that the worlds of the games that I play regard Black people as ruthlessly as the physical world that we inhabit.