Representation means a lot in any entertainment medium. Though video games have arguably done a better job of creating Black protagonists than film and television, there’s still a long way to go. In a 2014 study by Ithaca College graduate student Ross Orlando, Black leads were present in only three percent of the most highly rated games between 2007 and 2012. Compare and contrast to white protagonists, who made up 67 percent of main characters.
Black leads exist not only within mainstream, big-budget games, but also in lesser-known cult classics and smaller budget indie games, too. Here are some of the best Black protagonists in gaming.
Barret Wallace (Final Fantasy VII / Final Fantasy VII Remake)
When Final Fantasy VII begins, Cloud Strife is a freelance soldier for a terrorist organization called AVALANCHE. The group only has only one goal: to destroy the Shinra Electric Power Company at all costs. AVALANCHE's leader, Barret Wallace, is a chaingun-welding loudmouth, whose fight against the tyrannical megacorporation is personal. That's because Shinra is responsible for murdering both Barret's wife and his close friend. The company also shot off Barret's right arm, and wants to drain the world's lifestream dry. Underlying themes of environmentalism and eco-terrorism are at the core of Final Fantasy VII’s main narrative. Barret's revolution against an oppressive entity makes him one of the most popular Black protagonists of any Japanese RPG to date, despite some cringe-worthy dialogue steeped in ethnic stereotypes.
CJ Johnson (Grand Theft Auto San Andreas)
Every mainline entry in Rockstar Games' controversial Grand Theft Auto series satirizes American criminality in an over-the-top manner. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, early '90s Los Angeles serves as the perfect backdrop for the franchise's first Black protagonist. CJ Johnson’s epic adventure — finding the one responsible for his mother’s murder — is filled with real-world allusions to gang culture, corrupt police departments and the failed war on drugs. The game even concludes with a massive riot in Los Santos, sparked by police brutality. Lending to CJ’s authenticity, West Coast rapper Young Maylay voiced him, while rapper-turned-screenwriter DJ Pooh (Friday, Three Strikes) co-wrote the game with Dan Houser and James Worrall.
Alyx Vance (Half-Life 2 / Half-Life: Alyx)
Alyx Vance began her digital life as Gordon Freeman’s ally against the Combine in Half-Life 2. The biracial daughter of scientist Dr. Eli Vance and Azian Vance (killed during the events of High Life), Alyx keeps Freeman out of trouble on several occasions. Her intelligence and combat abilities make her just as capable as the franchise's leading man. As such, it makes sense that the VR-only spinoff Half-Life: Alyx puts players in her shoes. Valve Software’s first game in the series since 2007, Half-Life: Alyx was a game-changer for the medium thanks to its tight controls and ambitious narrative.
Garcian Smith (Killer 7)
In the wicked cel-shaded world of Killer 7, nations around the globe destroy all of their nuclear weapons in a fireworks display of international peace. Air travel is shut down, and public Internet use is banned. When a new radical group of virus-infected suicide bombers called Heaven Smile begin committing acts of terrorism all around the world, it’s up to the Smith Syndicate a.k.a. the Killer 7 to stop them. The group of assassins are actually all physical representations of a frail, wheelchair-bound man, Harman Smith, who can transform freely into any one of them. Leading the team is Garcian Smith, who can revive slain assassins. He serves as the Killer 7's dominant personality, and becomes key to confusing-on-purpose plot.
James Heller (Prototype 2)
Prototype 2 took a bold risk by making the previous entry’s hero, Alex Mercer, a villain. Former U.S. Marine sergeant James Heller serves as the sequel’s protagonist. Mercer infects Heller with the Blacklight virus. This leads to a quest to kill the former hero, whom Heller believes has caused a new outbreak of the Blacklight virus that killed the ex-Marine's family. Heller is just as powerful and capable as Mercer, and proves his strength all the way to their final explosive confrontation.
Michael LeRoi (Shadow Man)
Based on the early '90s Valiant Comics, Shadow Man and its PlayStation 2-exclusive sequel, Shadow Man: 2econd Coming, became cult favorites for many reasons. The voodoo-influenced atmosphere set the stage for a captivating story about Michael LeRoi, who has the ability to traverse the worlds of the living and the dead, in a quest to stop the apocalypse. It doesn’t hurt that the title featured a fairly interesting open-ended design, which blended Metroidvania tropes and third-person shooter gameplay that wouldn’t feel out of place in Tomb Raider. The game has become enough of a cult classic that Nightdive Studios recently announced a re-release of the original Shadow Man on current-gen consoles.
Marlow Briggs (Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death)
On the surface, Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death is an indie homage to God of War and Devil May Cry. However, veteran voice actor Arif Kinchen brings a great deal of personality to the game's titular hero. The story revolves around Marlow attempting to enjoy a vacation with his Mayan archeologist girlfriend, who works for the shady Heng Long. Things get turned upside-down when the Marlow, a smokejumper by trade, gets turned into the “Sacred Warrior” by long-dead Mayan king Tepechalic Ix. What happens next is a story that’s over-the-top in both its design and its sense of humor.
Lincoln Clay (Mafia III)
1960s New Orleans is the inspiration for Mafia III’s open-world setting of New Bordeaux. The time period and location allowed developer Hangar 13 to explore race within the criminal underworld. Racist mob boss Sal Marcano double-crosses protagonist Lincoln Clay in Mafia III's opening section, and their rivalry leads into some explosive moments later on. These include the popular “The Privileged Die Slow“ and “There's a War Goin' On” chapters, in which you destroy a white supremacist group inspired by the Ku Klux Klan.
Lee Everett (The Walking Dead: A Telltale Game Series)
The most tragic character on the list, Season One of The Walking Dead: A Telltale Game Series revolves around Lee Everett. When we first meet this history professor, he’s on his way to prison for killing a state senator, who was having an affair with Lee's wife. Plans change when a zombie apocalypse breaks out, and Lee must now survive in a harsh new world. Along the way, he develops a deep father/daughter bond with a young girl named Clementine. Although players will ultimately decide the complexities of Lee’s moral compass and personality, his arc leads to an ending that’s pretty heartbreaking.
Franklin Clinton (Grand Theft Auto V)
Nearly ten years after Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ satirical gang fantasy, Rockstar returned to a reimagined Los Santos with three alternating protagonists. Although Michael De Santa and Trevor Philips make up the bulk of Grand Theft Auto V's narrative weight, Franklin Clinton becomes the most sympathetic of the three protagonists in his attempt to leave gang life behind. The first handful of missions even feature him legally repossessing vehicles for his boss, in typical GTA fashion. By the time the single-player campaign concludes, Franklin has become the slickest getaway driver in Los Santos.