What do we Speak about when we Speak about Forspoken?

Forspoken's Fray Holland stares at the camera

Forspoken is not my game of the year, I'd be shocked if it's anyone's. The maligned open-world RPG took its licks at the beginning of the year, and honestly from long before that, as 10-second clips were dissected out of context. I'm not going to talk about the dialogue discourse beyond I think the dialogue is okay. Forspoken is destined to be reassessed in 3-5 years and diagnosed as "not that bad." It's really not that bad. We do have to talk about race though.

There are no black women on the writing team. This alone is unfortunately humdrum in the AAA games space. These games are predominantly staffed by white people, and writer's rooms are no exceptions. Forspoken is admittedly unusual as a Japanese-developed game penned by an all-white writing team. Perhaps an attempt at crafting a hit in the Western market, I can only speculate. So the criticism of the writer's room makeup hitting the point where it was not just black women griping about their absence was novel and welcomed. A perfect storm of a game being very middling and starring a black woman protagonist.

In 2015 Jef Rouner for The Houston Press wrote that at the time there were around only around 14 playable black women in gaming history. "Only 14 black women have ever been put in the hands of a player, and only two of them before the year 2000. That is just sad."

Diamond Lobby performed an analysis on AAA games released between 2017 and 2021. They examined the 10 highest sellers of each year along with every major release from the biggest publishers including, but not limited to, Activision, EA, Nintendo, Ubisoft, and more. Diamond Lobby found that only 8.3% of games had a female character of Asian, Black, or other ethnic origin. Only 5.3% of the games examined had a non-white protagonist. This number shrinks considerably if you restrict the analysis to only black women.

Forspoken's Fray Holland studies a tomb in the under the sunlight of a nearby window.

2023 exists as an outlier year, you can readily point to two black women protagonists in AAA single-player games. Forspoken's Frey Holland and Alan Wake II's Saga Anderson. Two is a comparatively large amount to none. Saga is spared the same widespread dissection because the game is good. Alan Wake II is not my game of the year, but it's a lot of other people's. There's still racism (I don't want to link to it). Now it doesn't fucking help that members of the writing team were so visible in the lead-up to the game and voice-over and motion capture director providing the choice quote describing lead actress Ella Balinska's "very hip-hoppy kind of walk." Alan Wake II features dual protagonists and it's no sweat finding comments that shout about how much they don't care about race as long as their boy Alan is playable.

Saga Anderson half obscured in darkness

At this point, I'm going to broaden the scope to talk about black men and also explore outside of the AAA space.

Frey occupies another trend in the depiction of black protagonists, the proximity to criminality. Now, this is complicated. As explained before, the sample size is small. The number of black protagonists in AAA games is paltry. And being in opposition to the law, and having the power to not only exist but thrive in that state, can be cathartic. But there's no avoiding that many of the prominent black protagonists are introduced as criminals and this takes on a sinister read when you consider the all-white writing staff that makes up many of these games. We meet CJ, the protagonist of GTA San Andreas, on his first day out of prison. We're introduced to Lee Everett, the protagonist of Telltale's The Walking Dead Season One, in the back of a police car.

"Viewed aggregately, every (mis)representation—from Fight for NY’s pointed dangerousness to CJ’s criminality and Everett’s ambiguous scene, from street to screen, within gaming culture and outside of it—serve as visual microaggressions. Popular gaming culture argues that these are seemingly minor infractions of representation, that no offense is intended in creating these visualities. However, they are powerful purveyors of the structural violence perpetrated on black bodies and the simultaneous relegation of black people to the margins of culture: stereotypes fueling microagressions, microaggressions fueling stereotypes, a sinister synergy doing its part to mask the baseless authority of the white supremacist, capitalist order of exploitation." From Kishonna L. Gray's Intersectional Tech: Black Users in Digital Gaming.

Within the first hour, Frey falls out with a gang, is an arson victim, and might as well be squatting in the New York City juvenile courts. When this is the only depiction in AAA games, questions naturally cloud the representation. 'Why is Frey black?' 'Did the writers think this would lend authenticity to a redemptive criminal story?'

Forspoken's Fray Holland speaks to a small black girl

Harper Jay puts it best in their guest column for Giant Bomb, 'Visibility is not Enough.' "Representation is powerful. Having these characters matters. It acknowledges our existence. However, visibility is ultimately of middling worth when marginalized people are not included in the formation of their icons. It allows for the creation of inauthentic characters, the perpetuation of stereotypes, the preservation of insularities, and the continuation of professional and hobbyist cultural failings. Things are left incomplete; works are left imperfect by grand magnitudes. And this imperfection has a cost."

The common pushback here is, "Should white creators only create white characters?" This is a false binary. White creators are welcome to create black characters but should understand that their perspective is an outsider one. Absent prominent black developers on the team, early consultation is important. The nuances of black life (and the sub-cultures), nuances that will not be readily apparent because the people most versed in it won't talk about it, is what establishes authenticity. When something is normal, you take it for granted and it fades into the background. It's only when it's out of place that it comes into focus.

CJ and Everett are beloved by many black gamers. The former is the protagonist of a game that spotlights black life. It might be through the lens of crime, and a poor cover of the 90s and the early 2000s black gangster films, but the novelty of seeing a majority black neighbourhood and hearing black voices still resonates. Everett is one of my favourite gaming protagonists. While introduced in the back of a police car, he's quickly established as a man who is trying to do his best, he's kind and flawed. Thrust into the impossible position of caregiver during a zombie apocalypse, held accountable by his ward, Clementine, and by the suspicious and critical eyes of the other members of his group. He's the reverse of Joel's Last of Us.'

I'm still susceptible to visibility. Modern AAA games are explicit about their characters. Gone are the impressionist of sharp-edged polygons, where you could squint at Lara Croft and go 'that's a brown woman...maybe.' Instead, pale skin is depicted with the kind of detail that borders on uncanny. You can see the light go through the skin and count the green veins beneath the surface. These characters are sculpted from scratch. Breathe into clay or marl to be more fitting. Made in his image. There's no colour-blind casting in games. You won't ever get a political subversion and borderline zombie narrative reclamation like in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead or an interesting mess to untangle like the BIPOC US founding fathers in Lin Manuel's Hamilton. No every white protagonist is a choice, or maybe they're not and that's what makes it worse.

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