Published April 30, 2013
Gaming is a more welcoming hobby than it's ever been. Compared to the pasty, bearded programmers of the 1980s, the pasty, awkward nerds of the 1990s or the pasty, shrieking teenagers of the 2000s, gamer culture is finally learning to embrace people from all races, genders and lifestyles. Why, then, are most video-game protagonists still 30-year-old white men with brown hair?
While mainstream game protagonists haven't changed much over the last decade or two, the downloadable game market has given rise to a number of non-white protagonists. These characters can help present a unique perspective on their cultures and give minority players representation in their favorite games.
One of this year’s unexpected gems was a clever little game called "Guacamelee" from Toronto-based Drinkbox Studios. This 2D side-scroller focused on Juan Aguacate, a simple agave farmer who becomes a luchador, a flamboyant Mexican wrestler who is as much a pop-culture icon to Mexicans as are cowboys to Americans. In addition to a modest price tag, polished gameplay, striking visuals and a catchy soundtrack, "Guacamelee" distinguishes itself by being both a celebration and a parody of Mexican culture.
Augusto Quijano, a concept artist and animator at Drinkbox Studios, emigrated from Mexico to Canada seven years ago. The staff at Drinkbox knew it wanted to make a side-scrolling action game, but it was Quijano who proposed the Mexican theme, inspired by El día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday that celebrates the dead with joyous skeletons and garish colors.
"Thinking back on all the things I loved and all the things I found were peculiar, being away from Mexico, I wanted to have [the game] come from a genuine place," Quijano told us. "We like having fun, so the fun stuff just comes out naturally … That's the stuff we celebrate."
Juan himself is not the deepest protagonist: He doesn't say a word, and becomes a luchador to take on an evil mustachioed skeleton, a sultry sorceress with a quick temper, a bipedal jaguar and a fire demon obsessed with his next shot of tequila. Still, these stereotypes are over-the-top and, according to Quijano, intended for fun rather than any kind of commentary. The overall effect feels jubilant rather than derogatory, and the development team's love for Latin American culture shines through.
"From the beginning, the setting was going to be in Mexico, so I never thought about [the protagonist] in ethnic terms," said Quijano. "I just thought, 'The game is in Mexico; people here are going to be Mexican.'" Nevertheless, Quijano believes that Juan has a number of positive traits that make him an identifiable hero, especially for Latino audiences. See also: 5 Hit Games Made on a Shoestring]
"I thought it was more interesting to have an agave farmer than a guy who, from the beginning, has a [luchador] mask," said Quijano. "His courage, by trying to stand up to [the villain] Calaca at the beginning, is what earned him the right to wear the mask. He's the only guy who showed up in the whole town. That made him special, and to me, that's more relatable."
Juan and "Guacamelee" charm audiences through their humor and colorful representations of Mexican culture, but "The Walking Dead" (based on the comics of the same name, although not directly related to the TV show) from Telltale Games takes a more down-to-earth approach. Protagonist Lee Everett is a black man from Macon, Georgia, and doesn't fit neatly into any common black stereotypes. [See video: Reskinned: Video Games Embrace Non-White Protagonists | Video]
Lee is a history professor at the University of Georgia — or at least he was until he committed a horrific crime. Though a convicted felon, Lee is anything but a hardened criminal. Being both a brilliant scholar and a dangerous hothead makes Lee at least an interesting two-dimensional character; the player's decisions make him into a three-dimensional one.
Player choice is a key component of "The Walking Dead." Lee and a small band of survivors must navigate the state of Georgia, which has been ravaged by the zombie apocalypse, to find safe haven on the coast. Along the way, you'll decide where to go, how to acquire supplies and, ultimately, who lives and dies. Moreover, your actions will determine the kind of person Lee becomes: a compassionate father figure or a ruthless survivor. [See also: 10 Great Games You're Missing]
If Lee were black and no one commented on it, his race would be irrelevant, but Telltale strikes a very subtle balance between leaving it alone and drawing attention to it. Atlanta may be the New South, but old tensions don't disappear overnight.
One survivor, Kenneth, is a down-home Florida boy with a Scandinavian wife. Even though he and Lee can become fast friends, he still wonders whether Lee knows how to pick a lock because he's "urban," and promptly apologizes for the remark. As the game progresses, Lee becomes the primary caretaker for Clementine, a young mixed-race girl. The relationship between the two is all the more powerful because they share a racial connection.
Lee is a contradiction — a natural friend, reluctant leader, smart historian, ill-tempered brute, white-collar worker and born survivor. He is not a great black character — he is a great character who happens to be black. In other words, Lee is a well-written protagonist who appeals to any thoughtful player.
Juan and Lee are two strong steps forward for the game industry, but there's still a long way to go. In addition to straight male minorities, what about stronger female and LGBT characters? Within the next few years, the game store shelf could become a very colorful place.