Diversity on Our Doorsteps: Titles That Changed the Image of The AAA Protagonist

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Joel.  Nathan Drake.  Master Chief.  Mario. These have been the faces of the three distinct companies that spearhead the gaming industry (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo), each one holding a special place in the hearts of gamers everywhere. And yet, although there are differences between these characters, three things ring true for them all: they are all white, they are all male, and they are all heterosexual. Diversity? It simply does not exist.

This probably isn’t that shocking. Female gamers, as well as those players from different ethnic backgrounds, have been clamoring for characters and experiences that they can relate to. They want a character that they can connect with without having to build them from scratch in titles like The Sims, Mass Effect, or the Dragon Age franchise.

Well, disgruntled gamers, do not lose hope.  The upcoming lineup of highly anticipated games features an entirely different kind of cast brimming with diversity.  Ubisoft’s Watchdogs 2 (coming November 15, 2016) features an African-American male hacking prodigy named Marcus Holloway. The hugely anticipated title from Sony, Horizon: Zero Dawn, is headed by Aloy, a redheaded female outcast with a tough exterior and some skills with a bow. From what we’ve seen of these games, Marcus isn’t solely falling into racial stereotypes and the impressive Aloy has somehow escaped the vortex of over-sexualization that has haunted so many women in gaming.

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Why are we finally seeing this change in the industry? What has convinced these big name developers that they can choose a new kind of norm? They actually aren’t taking a giant leap. Characters and stories that change what we think games should be have been around for years now, but haven’t been in the spotlight.

These companies have been testing out how certain plot points and character types would be received by helping to publish smaller, more independent games. This lower risk method, along with seeing the success of other independent games, has allowed them to find the courage to take the leaps that we’re seeing today

Gender Diversity: The Emergence of the Fierce Female

For those of us who have been clamoring for strong female characters worth more than their bodies, the last few years have been rich with content, if you know where to look. While more hype was given to this game than many, Life is Strange (published by Square Enix) had a plethora of female characters that did not fill the role of femme fatale. In fact, developer Dontnod Entertainment showed that there are just as many dimensions and differences between women as there can be between men.

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Protagonist Maxine (Max, for short) is the epitome of introverted, just hoping that she can capture life through her photography without disturbing the world around her. However, over each episode, we see a growth in Max as her confidence builds. She becomes a powerful young woman with something to give to the world, rather than remaining a quiet observer, showing an evolution that speaks to any girl who has ever felt like she can’t embrace her inner strength.

On the other hand, her childhood friend Chloe has grown up to be the resident rebel of Arcadia Bay, with wildly colored hair, a tattoo sleeve, and a penchant for drugs. She is the perfect counterpoint to mellow Max, not being afraid to speak her mind. Chloe’s tough exterior has been built up from years of a less-than-stellar home life, breaking down any perception that all girls are living with a peppy Taylor Swift album as the soundtrack to their lives.

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As the player moves through Blackwell Academy (Max’s school) and the rest of Arcadia Bay, you enter into a robust community full of diversity. Each character is well-rounded, compelling, and unique, rather than a simple filler in the world.

Even if it may not seem like a huge jump to many, investing in a story essentially about two teenage girls that aren’t there for their sex appeal was a bold move for Square Enix, and one that they desperately needed to make.

Racial Representation That Matters

When it comes to racial diversity, it cannot be denied that Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead took the world by storm. Telltale gained so much fame from this franchise that it is hard to remember that they are an independent studio.

In post-apocalyptic games, we’ve come to expect a certain kind of main character. Surprisingly enough, the two main characters weren’t gruff, white men with scruff on their faces. Instead, we’re introduced to Lee Everett, an African-American man from Georgia, and Clementine (or Clem), whose ethnicity has been argued by many to be either African American or Asian American.

The Walking Dead (like any Telltale product) is known for its conversation options and branching storylines, but no matter what options you choose, there is dialogue built in that confronts the racism that still exists in certain corners of America. When side characters began describing Lee as being “urban” and even physically assaulting him for the color of his skin, his race became a part of his overall being in the context of the story in an unexpected way.

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Although the race issue is confronted in these small ways throughout the storyline, it never feels as if the writers created Lee to be the token African American character that one might imagine, maybe coming from the inner city or being from a more broken setting.

Although his life just before the game begins is violent and gritty, he is actually a former professor. As much as this should not be the case, depictions of African American characters as being educated and living an, at the very least, normal lifestyle are rare across all media. Telltale took a leap that felt (and continues to feel) refreshing and modern, and should have come a long time ago.

Sure, these games aren’t the most obscure of titles by any means. Other games like Gone Home, Coming Out Simulator, and Long Live the Queen that feature strong LGBT and female characters and storylines without having the support of these large companies.

However, the way that the AAA companies have taken these small chances on these more independent titles is incredibly intriguing. It shows exactly how the industry has morphed in recent years. Indie games are no longer throwaway titles. Rather, they’re the titles that are having the widest effect on what is being developed and what audiences are expecting.

Would we be seeing these diverse AAA characters without the risks being taken by these huge developers and publishers? Perhaps. Would it be nearly as soon and nearly as widespread? It’s difficult to say, but I would bet that our market would look vastly different without the influence of independent titles.

Sara Winegardner is a lifelong gamer and aspiring journalist currently based in Washington, DC. Being fed a steady diet of Pokemon, Final Fantasy, and MMORPGs since she can remember, Sara will play just about anything, even if it means grinding for hours on end. Her childhood dream is to walk the E3 floor at least once.