Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Need for a New Lead – Part 2

Last month I wrote an article about the need for more female leads represented in video games. This medium is dominated by the generic male lead, and unlike TV shows and movies, I believed the risk to take a chance is significantly less in the video game industry. I believe this reduced risk stems from the fact that the gamer is more receptive to change; how else are you going to advance in a game if the main character doesn’t go through a changing journey. So with this in mind, I’m going to focus on the minority main leads, and what we can learn from what’s already come.
Chell, the lead from the excellent Portal series is not only a strong female lead, but a minority too. Not much is known about her ethnicity, but the actress, Alesia Toyoko Glidewell, who served as her face/body is of Brazilian and Japanese decent, still I wouldn’t want to make any assumptions. Chell is cut from the same cloth as Gordon Freeman; silent yet bold, smart and brave (thanks to the gamer), and up against insurmountable odds. In the grander schemes of things her plight is small (she is fighting for her freedom and not to save the planet), but her journey is remarkably fun and unique. It is from this smaller sense of scale that we get to see her tenacity and partake in her ingenuity. 
Altair Ibn-La’Ahad, from the Assassin’s Creed series, originates from Syria. It is in the assassin’s order that Altair learnt his core values. He is honest (constantly trying to do right by his comrades), brave (going up against the Templars to save those he loves), smart (deciphering ancient artifacts), and strong. He didn’t have an easy life (he’s an assassin), but he was willing to look at his mistakes, and learn from them, as well as learning from the mistakes of others. It was because of this self reflection that he was able to become a strong and wise leader. When the assassin’s order had lost its way through betrayal, he returned to take it back and restore the integrity that was lost. He might not have been as fun as Ezio, but he was a corner stone, not just in his time, but for those to come. 
Carl Johnson (CJ) from Grand Theft Auto is an African American. Like all other GTA games, you don’t play as a nice guy. You’re not the squeaky clean guy trying to clean up the streets, but unlike other GTA leads, CJ was not a heartless bastard. He was loyal to his family, friends and his gang, and genuinely showed remorse when he has to kill members of his gang. Further, he showed remorse when killing others, even going as far as to try to give some second chances. Sure he killed opposing gang members, and those that tried to kill him, but he is remarkably resourceful, as seen when taking back his turf. He was young and naive (some mistakenly believed him to be unintelligent), but he took people on at face value. He was an interesting, multidimensional lead.
Then we have James Heller, another African American, from the Prototype series (the poor man’s Infamous). He was about as interesting as Alex Mercer, which is to say he wasn’t. He was bland, and failed to captivate. His story was unoriginal, his motivation generic, and his world was uninteresting. He, like everything else in the game, was just there. With this line of thought, Garcia Hotspur from Shadows of the Damned, of Mexican descent, jumps to mind. The way Garcia was portrayed put a spotlight on how Japanese developers seem to deal with race (remember the RE5 controversy). Sure Garcia loved his girlfriend, but he is overly violent (bordering on psychopathic), and has difficulty reading English and… that’s all I seem to remember about him. Why would he have to read English novels in the City of the Damned is beyond me; couldn’t they be in Spanish? It didn’t add to the story, and only hurt Garcia’s image.
These are a few of the minority leads in a field that is already limited. Some of these characters are genuinely interesting, adding motivation to play the game in addition to the game play. Others fall flat. When a character is done well, you begin to care for them, and want to see their trials and tribulations. When a character is poor, they get in the way, constantly hindering every experience the gamer has. This is true for any medium, regardless of race or sex. Thankfully, there is still more to come. Wei Shen from Sleeping Dogs and Ratonhnhake:ton (Connor) from Assassin’s Creed III are both upcoming minority leads. I have no doubt that Ubisoft will be able to weave a fun story with an engaging lead for ACIII, and I look forward to what Square Enix does with Sleeping Dogs. But this industry needs more variety. Who knows, if video games lead the way, maybe other industries will follow suit. Until that day, all I say is more characters like Chell and CJ, and a lot less of the James Heller and Garcia Hotspur will help this industry move forward.

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