In recognition of some of the diverse narratives in gaming, we present this list of complex black characters that have graced our television screens and PC monitors. After lengthy discussions on the topic, we decided to highlight characters played by and modeled after black talent. In this way, we hope to recognize the staff members who work behind the scenes in conjunction with the characters presented here.
Games motivate. More importantly, they have the power to mirror an ever-changing fanbase. Here are several black characters that have inspired us.
Lenny – Red Dead Redemption II
One of the youngest members of the Van der Linde gang, Lenny was born to former slaves in 1880. His father and uncle were both educated men who taught him to read and write. When two drunken men killed Lenny’s father, he gunned them down in a fit of rage. After three years of constantly running from the law, he joins the Van der Linde gang and earns the trust of his companions.
Red Dead Redemption II‘s Lenny is compelling because he is a vocal reminder of the heightened racial tensions that plagued the wild frontier. In camp, he provides first-hand accounts of violence against his family. The “Preaching Forgiveness As He Went” mission is particularly striking, as Lenny educates Arthur about the experiences of being black in a hateful America; “…but most of [racism is] a glance, or a word, and after that, a visit in the night.”
Grace – Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus & Wolfenstein: Youngblood
I dare you to name a revolutionary more courageous and committed to her cause than Grace Walker. She’s no stranger to pain, having suffered severe burn wounds from an atomic bombing and experiencing the loss of a life partner. Even so, Grace joins the American Resistance in her daughter’s name and to protect her people.
She might be a little rough around the edges to newbies like B.J. and team members that she can’t trust, but who wouldn’t be when fighting for freedom? Give the gutsy heroine a machine gun, and she’ll get the job done alongside some of Wolfenstein‘s most badass protagonists. Grace joins this list as a testament to black strength and resilience in the face of systemic racism.
Lee/Clementine – Telltale’s The Walking Dead
A former history professor at the University of Georgia, Lee begins his apocalyptic journey, downcast, in the backseat of a cop car – not an ideal start for a black character in modern-day America. Lee discovers his saving grace: Clementine. Through their strong bond, Lee finds absolution while Clementine transforms into a leader and pseudo-parent of equal measure.
Lee comes across racism in his fight for survival, but his self-agency is never limited by it. He rises above his foes, shielding Clem from the horrors of the apocalypse and making the ultimate sacrifice. Years later, Clem evokes those same commendable qualities – making the hard, important decisions when no one else will and saving more than a few lives along the way. Lee and Clem are proof that we’re in dire need of more riveting black leads in blockbuster franchises.
Alyx – Half-Life 2 & Half-Life: Alyx
The Combine didn’t take long to assert its interdimensional dominance over human society. Alyx and her father, Eli, escape the ensuing struggle, but they do not flee unscathed. Eventually, the two find respite in a nearby wasteland. Many years pass, and Alyx joins the Resistance to retake the planet.
Alyx becomes a key figure in the war effort against The Combine and assists leading-man Gordon Freeman in Half-Life 2 as he explores the regions of Black Mesa. In her own standalone game, Alyx showcases her proficiency at hacking and combat, which, thankfully, frees her from the troubling but oft-repeated restrictions of the “damsel-in-distress” or “scantily clad-warrior” tropes. Simply put, Alyx is a shining example of black femininity.
Captain Anderson – Mass Effect
One of the Alliance’s most well-respected soldiers, Captain Anderson is a veteran of The First Contact War: a series of battles that occurred after humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life. Despite his personal hardships and betrayal at the hands of Mass Effect‘s antagonist Saren, he remains Shepard’s most loyal supporter. With his constant guidance and active assistance, you handily defeat the universe’s most daring threat.
Anderson’s myriad decorations and commendations include captaining the iconic Normandy cruiser, graduating from the legendary N7 branch of the Alliance, and being instated as the first human Council member. These various occupational successes are nothing short of exemplary. Human ethnicity is not explored in Mass Effect, although it does deal with xenophobia (*ahem* Ashley). Nevertheless, Anderson has been included here because of the high, prestigious standards he sets for the soldiers around him, including Shepard.
Barrett – Final Fantasy VII Remake
Thank goodness for Final Fantasy VII Remake. Barrett is one of gaming’s most prominent black characters. Still, his stereotypical physique and othering diction in the original FFVII were painful to see.
Even now, Barrett straddles the line between “passionate environmental activist” and “loud, angry black man.” However, his dialogue outside of battle and tense cinematics often reveal levels of depth that he lacked in the ’90s. I mean, who could ever forget his riveting speech about complicity in the Shinra elevator cutscene? Barrett is not only a doting parent (much like our following entry) but a charismatic icon for Sector 7 citizens and the game’s colorful troupe of heroes.
Jax – Mortal Kombat
The military leader of the Outer World Investigation Agency (O.I.C.) has been a staple in the Mortal Kombat series since its second entry in 1993. Equipped with his iconic stainless-steel arms, he was initially introduced to the series during his siege against Kano’s Black Dragon crime syndicate. In other games, he ventures to the Outworld in search of his close friend Sonya Blade. In modern iterations, he has started a family with his wife, Vera.
Aesthetically, Jax suffers from a stereotypical “big, angry black man” musculature. This abnormal physique is evocative of early and modern visualizations of video game blackness, such as Barret Wallace (see above) and Albert King. However, Jax’s inclusion on this list is connected solely to his characterization. While most black fighters (like Balrog and Bruce Irvin) are shackled by their shady pasts and antagonistic tendencies, Jax stands atop the heap as a captivating leader, loyal friend, and protective father.
Billie Lurk – Dishonored 2 & Death of the Outsider
Lurk’s existence is mired in tragedy. Born to abuse and impoverishment, her first haven was her lover Deirdre. After aggravating two unfeeling noblemen, Deirdre is struck and killed. Watching the murder elapse, Billie sheds blood and becomes a wanted fugitive. In time, she learns to discover purpose in the death of others.
Billie’s dual identity of being black and queer is important. While these aspects of her character aren’t deeply explored, both combine to form a graceful representation that otherwise wouldn’t have existed in Death of the Outsider. Following in the footsteps of Arkane Studios’ Emily Kaldwin, Billie’s ferocity and self-sufficiency establish her as an unconventionally rigid protagonist. She is a hardened veteran assassin worthy of standing alongside gaming’s most hardcore leads.
Lúcio/Baptiste – Overwatch
Born into poverty amid the crammed favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Lúcio fell in love with sports and music. The latter became an obsession and the basis for a successful career. A war orphan, Baptiste enlists in the Haitian military and serves for years as a distinguished combat medic. Now an unaffiliated commando and Talon deserter, Baptiste evades pursuers at every turn while assisting people in need.
Lucio and Baptiste are freedom fighters responsible for thwarting the plans of the evil Vishkar Corporation and Talon, respectively. More importantly, they both have personal connections to the disenfranchised and are black characters in rare positions of power that consistently give back to their communities.
Bangalore/Lifeline/Seer – Apex Legends
Bangalore, Lifeline, and Seer have some of the most eccentric, hardcore personalities in Apex Legends. From heavy-duty artillery and life-saving care packages to heartbeat sensors and microdrone trackers, you’re better off staying on their good sides.
Like her military family, Bangalore is dedicated, honorable, and confident (which some of her fellow legends wrongfully confuse with arrogance!). Lifeline is a drums-loving, laid-back medic famed for keeping her squad alive no matter the odds. And Seer, the most mysterious of the trio, is something of a cursed deity that rose through the Arena ranks and inspired the downtrodden outcasts of the cosmos. All three are symbols of Afrofuturistic excellence.
Miles Morales – Marvel’s Spider-Man & Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
An undying Spider-Man fan, Miles’s world comes crashing down after his father is killed in a bombing orchestrated by Mister Negative. At the suggestion of Peter and Aunt May, Miles decides to work at a homeless shelter; that work helps ease his sorrow. When he’s bitten by a toxic spider from Oscorp, he develops powers and capabilities similar to Peter’s.
The newest web-slinger to don the Spidey suit is none other than a charismatic Afro-Latino from Brooklyn! Miles’ sudden move to Harlem in Insomniac Games’ second Spider-Man title motivates him to step out from beneath Peter’s shadow and become a hero to the folks in his immediate community. Whether he’s donning the red and blue spandex or not, Miles continues to be one of the most inspiring/influential black heroes to grace our television screens.
Lincoln Clay – Mafia III
Lincoln returns from the Vietnam War to his New Orleans-inspired home of New Bordeaux. The Robinsons, his foster family, heads the Black Mob, and he decides to take up the family business. Soon thereafter, calamity strikes and Lincoln is alone in a world hell-bent on seeing him, and those that look like him, subjugated.
Mafia III‘s use of prejudice as a storytelling device illuminates the sins of America’s past. These obstacles make Lincoln’s revitalization powerful. Despite being a crime boss antihero (and another victim of the “big, angry black man” trope – see Barret), his story provides complex discourse on racism and its destructive power. Lincoln Clay earns his place among the other members of this list because he is a historical symbol of racial tensions in the 1960s Jim Crow-era South.
Cere – Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Cere’s done it all, and her illustrious Force-enhanced pedigree speaks for itself. An unconventional Knight with progressive ideologies about the Jedi’s restrictive traditions and an accomplished Seeker, Cere overcame her past failures and crippling depression by mentoring Cal Kestis. Sadly, as a tragic hero, Cere’s redemptive arc came at the cost of her previous apprentice.
Cere’s strength not only lies in her prowess as a warrior but as a teacher too. Despite the bittersweet closing of Respawn’s Star Wars adventure, the future of the Jedi Order is bright because it rests in the hands of a powerful black woman.
Colt Vahn/Julianna Blake – Deathloop
Friendly foes Colt and Julianna are forever locked in a battle against time and one another. Their hilarious banter and bloody encounters flavor an already complex world and questline. Additionally, with narrative twists and turns around every corner, watching the two gunners unpack their relationship while dodging death keeps the tension deliciously high.
Colt and Julianna’s blackness might not be a focal point of Deathloop’s story, but from a visual design perspective, the choice remains significant, nonetheless. It’s not often that we get two black playable characters, so hopefully, their existence foreshadows a point in time when blackness is normalized in big-budget games.
CJ – Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
As the self-made kingpin of the Grove Street Families (loosely based on the Bloods and Crips), CJ triumphs over the socioeconomic systems that oppress him and develops into a hometown hero by the end of his odyssey.
CJ assisted in defining a new era of narratives for a diversifying audience. Despite being a memorable black lead in a monumental title, his actions, in combating external pressures, reflect troubling stereotypes: he chooses to embrace the gang violence in his community and benefits from it. We’re grateful for CJ’s contribution to blackness in gaming, but he and some of his GTA predecessors (yes, even Franklin) symbolize an Afrocentric archetype that must be renounced.
With more video games contributing to the discussion of contemporary issues, players from myriad backgrounds have the potential to see themselves in the titles they purchase. In this way, games become more immersive while also advocating for inclusivity. Positive representations help to shape higher expectations for ourselves and those around us regardless of diverging backgrounds.
For another foray into ethnic portrayals, check this out. And in celebration of Pride inclusivity, read Hunter Wolfe’s fantastic opinion piece on wanting to see more in-game LGBTQ events.