I've never played as a black video game character who's made me feel like he was cool. Worse yet, I've never played a black video game character who made me feel like I was cool. Instead, I've groaned and rolled my eyes at a parade of experiences that continue to tell me video games just don't get black people.
The faces that look like mine that I've encountered in video games have been, at best, too inconsequential to be memorable and offensively tone-deaf at worst. What about Barrett from Final Fantasy VII or Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII, you might ask? Or Cole Train from the Gears of War games? Wait, there's Sheva from Resident Evil 5, right? No, no and no. Too many elements of caricature in each, I'd say, and they're all sidekicks. Their stories aren't the focus of the adventure players go on.
But, hey, it's a given that video games tend to present exaggerated characters. Marcus Fenix isn't like any white guy I've ever met, after all. But he doesn't have to be. For every Marcus Fenix-type grunt hero, you can also get a witty Nathan Drake, a charming Ezio or a regretful John Marston. Enough white characters exist in video games for a variability of approach. That's simply not true of black characters.
In creating Half-Life 2's Alyx Vance, Valve gave players a woman who was feisty and fragile at the same time. Alyx ranks amongst the best black game characters of all time, but she's another sidekick. C.J. from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas comes closest to this pie-in-the-sky ideal I'm dreaming of. C.J. managed to hold a core contradiction inside of himself—an intense love of family balanced against the violence of thug life—that added depth to his characterization. And while he was the lead of the game he starred in, he was still a gang member. Rockstar found interesting things to do with him but C.J. still comes into being by virtue of another overused stereotype.
Does this stuff matter in video games? Yes. The thing to remember is that beneath all the comforting platitudes about a character's color not mattering lies a sticky web of stereotypes and cheap myths that can still insult and anger people playing a game. Even if I wanted to like Sam B from Dead Island, for example, I'm still running up against the fact that he's a hot-tempered thug rapper.
Stop leaning on this stereotype. Stop creating loud black soldiers who only know how to yell. Stop putting spear-carrying primitives in games.
What I want, basically, is Black Cool. It's a kind of cool that improvises around all the random stereotypes and facile understandings of black people that have accrued over centuries and subverts them. Black Cool says "I know what you might think about me, but I'm going to flip it." Dave Chappelle's comedy is Black Cool. Donald Glover is Black Cool. Aisha Tyler is Black Cool. Marvel Comics's Black Panther character is Black Cool. Their creativity is the energy I want video games to tap into.
There's a book about it. In the anthology Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, author Rebecca Walker assembles a crop of personal essays that talk about how Black Cool manifested in their lives. One of those writers is Mat Johnson, a professor in the University of Houston's creative writing program. Johnson's like me, a lifelong comics-reading, game-loving geek who continues to bump into jarring, awful portrayals of black people in video games.
"I played Dead Island when it came out last year and there's a point when you get the Natives Camp area. I was like, ‘Oh, OK, we're going to have an African-style primitive out here,'" he told me. "The bizarre thing is that the stereotypes you encounter in the games don't even match up timewise with our current culture. That's what's so odd about it. The mainstream culture at large has moved beyond the trope of the black primitive. You can't get away with that kind of thing in a movie."
Johnson's written prose along with graphic novels and when he compares video games' racial awareness to comic and he says "comics had a much more concerted effort to change images of minorities in the work. And part of that was a market-driven concern." There's a difference of scale, too, he continues. "If comics can access another 5,000 or 10,000 in their possible audience, it has a huge impact. Whereas video games have become a mass market phenomenon that have an even bigger scope than movies. So they're not as worried about minority concerns as comics are."
The importance of seeing a face that looks like yours when stepping into a fictional universe can't be overstated. I'm a big Superman fan, but it was DC Comics' Black Lightning that piqued my interest when I was growing up. Every black superhero face I saw growing up was another signpost that said "Hey, you're welcome here. You can be larger-than-life, too." The absence of such characters doesn't make fictional constructs hostile; it makes them indifferent, which can be far worse.
"Another difference with games is that, as a medium, they're about invoking our fears so that we can overcome them," Johnson speculates. "I think that's what happens in both Resident Evil 5 and also Dead Island. They're not just invoking fear of zombies, they are invoking fear of blackness, and offering the gamer an opportunity to challenge their racial fears as well as their other fears. What you're seeing here is a subconscious action. And the reason it becomes clear because it's not in one game, it's in several different games."
Stop creating loud black soldiers who only know how to yell.
"There have been exceptions in games like Left 4 Dead," Johnson observes, "where you have an actual black nerd character in the game." "I honestly think the move away from this going to be generational, when it's so easy to produce a 3D video game that it's the equivalent of shooting a movie today with a digital camera. But, until then, when I see a game that clearly walks right into a racial dead-end, I know I'm seeing a room of developers talking out a story with not one black person, not one Latino person of power in that room. So I think the single biggest thing that many of these companies could do to make sure that they are being representative of the larger culture's ethos, would be to hire in a diverse way."
"It's not a question of [developers and publishers] pushing culture forward," Johnson said. "It's a question of them catching up to mainstream culture. Part of it, I think again, is market success. They haven't had to worry about that at this point, because they're still going to sell a ton of games if the basic gameplay is good. But being better about black characters and characters of other races would make the overall quality better, too."
In other mediums and creative pursuits, there've been the black people who pivoted the conversations, expanded the possibilities and deepened the portrayals about what black people are. In jazz, it was Charlie Parker. In literature, it was Ralph Ellison. In comics, I'd argue that it was Christopher Priest, followed by Dwayne McDuffie. For me, the work of the deceased McDuffie managed to create characters that communicated an easily approachable vein of black cool.
Video games need this kind of paradigm-shifting figure. Not an exec, mind you—sorry, Reggie—but a creative face who steers the ethos of a game. For example, you know what kind of game a Warren Spector or a Jenova Chen is going to deliver. With Spector, it's a game that'll spawn consequences from player action. With Chen, you'll get experiences that try to expand the emotional palette of the video game medium. I want someone to carry that flag for blackness, to tap into it as a well of ideas.
Blackness can be a sort of performance, a lifetime role informed by the ideas of how people see you and how you want to be seen. One thing I've heard over the years is some variation of the colorblind testimonial: "I don't see a black guy when I look at you. I just see you." Well, if you're not seeing a black guy, then you're not seeing all of me. And if you're seeing just a black guy, you're not seeing all of me in that instance either.
I'm not naïve: no one's going to buy a video game because it's less wince-worthy on matters of race or diversity. But, maybe if Black Cool found its way into video games, I wouldn't have to hear the word "nigger" during online multiplayer sessions so much. Or maybe I wouldn't have to listen to characters that sound like 18th-Century minstrels in cyberpunk games.
While I'm sick of video games stumbling around the same ol' stereotypes and being afraid of black lead characters—"they won't sell!," cries the panicked logic— I'm not going to love Starhawk or Prototype 2 more because they have black lead characters. But if Emmett Graves and James Heller tap into some kind of deeper, more surprising portrayal than Standard Gruff Black Guy #29 and feel more human as a result, I'd feel better about the creative possibilities of video games.
Any mode of creativity that wants to be called mature needs to grapple with the sociopolitical issues of its time and place, especially if it wants to hold onto future generations. If it doesn't, then said medium just remains stuck in its own adolescence. When it comes to the examining the realities of how race can be lived in the world, movies, books and TV all do it. I'm not saying video games won't or can't, but damn if it's not a long time coming. Getting black characters who don't make me grit my teeth would be a great sign that video games are growing up.
And you thought it was some giant building in Dubai. Nope. According to measurements converted from in-game models ad referenced for scale, City 17's own Citadel, constructed by the Combine, easily takes the cake.
Standing at 8430 feet tall, the Citadel easily, ahem, towers over the competition, Dubai's Burj Khalifa only managing to get 2723 feet off the ground (note: the image above is in metres).
Before anyone complains about the tense used in this post, let's assume there are people here who haven't played Half-Life 2's episodes.
German artist Daniel Ritthanondh is the man to thank for this Half-Life-inspired lamp, which will simultaneously light up your room and darken your dreams.
As big a Half-Life fan as I am, I could not own this. Wherever it went, I couldn't walk under it. Ever. That or I'd come home one day and creep up on it, shooting at it until it coughed up a human skull and giblets all over my living room floor. Which would just be too messy.
Well, if we're going to be doing more recent games for Total Recall, we'd better talk about Half-Life 2 sooner rather than later. As is true for so many people, HL2 is one of my favorite games of all time, an evergreen gem that I replay about once a year.
It's hard to put my finger on a "favorite" part, really—there are so many iconic moments that they all kind of blend together. But if I had to name one, it would be the bridge level.
You know the one I'm talking about. Near the end of "Highway 17," you'll arrive in a small villa that's located along a cliff. Up a hill is a long bridge, along which are running menacing Combine trains. To get Gordon's buggy up onto the track, you'll have to go to the other side of the bridge and unplug the combine force field that's blocking your way. And to get to the other side of the bridge… you'll have to go under it.
The wind, ripping into your ears, cutting through the air beneath this massive metal structure.
This is one of those make-or-break moments, when the designers at Valve grabbed their ambitions and carried them into the end zone so assuredly that it's still impressive, coming up on ten years later.
You enter the bridge support structure. And then you come out, and you're on a deck looking out onto the scaffolding underneath the bridge. It looks like you can jump down there… but can you? Is this safe?
The sound effects here are key. The wind, ripping into your ears, cutting through the air beneath this massive metal structure. It truly feels as though it could blow you off.
And so then, you jump. Everyone who has played this level has probably died at least once; slipping on a girder and tumbling, watching the ground come rushing up towards you. Just watching the video above gives me vertigo. I could play this level a hundred times and never tire of it—it is pure video game magic.
And once you're halfway across, things get even better. A train goes by above you, foreshadowing the coming race against the onrushing train that closes out this level. And once you've made it to the other side, cleared out the nest of combine soldiers and deactivated the force field… well then you have to make your way back. But why should you get to make your way back exactly the same way you came? Wouldn't it be much more interesting if a flying whale-helicopter attacked you and totally wrecked your shit?
This bravura section is my favorite single bit of Half-Life 2. The video of it is broken into three parts, with the middle section above. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube: Part one, part two, and part three.
Or, you know, you can just go play it again. You know you want to.
Actually, calling it an action figure does it a bit of a disservice. The term "action figure" conjures all sorts of images, mostly of very small men. This custom Strider from the Half-Life universe is not very small at all.
Not only does it look awesome, but its builder, nomadamusic, says it was almost entirely made from scratch, and even includes a few points of articulation.
Who needs large toy companies when individual artists can make their own Striders? Not nomadamusic, that's for damn sure.
Kotaku was at the New York Toy Fair this weekend in full effect, snapping photos, taking footage and just generally gawking at all the awesome new video game toys that'll be lining up for your disposable incomes in 2012.
The highlight for me? NECA's Valve gear. Including the Gordon Freeman action figure to end all Gordon Freeman action figures.
You can check out a sampling of the stuff NECA had on show in the gallery above, including Team Fortress 2 plushies, Portal guns, Left 4 Dead figures and the Freeman himself. Who is looking glorious.
If you're wondering why all their legs are missing, these are actually stills from our video footage of the event, most of which will be going live tomorrow. I just figured this stuff was too good to wait for!
The point being, This weekend over 30,000 members of a Steam group will sit down and play Half-Life 2. Calling themselves "A Call for Communication", the group says "we have decided to gain Valve's attention by delivering a basic message: Your oldest and longest running fanbase would like better communication."
That "better communication" would come in the form of any communication as to the whereabouts of Half-Life 2: Episode 3, or as it's more commonly believed to be these days, simply Half-Life 3.
Will it work? Probably not. But hey, any excuse to play through Half-Life 2 again is a good excuse!
I call this one "Miranda's Super-Hot Posterior" because, well… I also think of this sequence in the game not-so-fondly because I've seen it many a time after having to re-roll my Shepard after realizing that while he/she looked fine standing still, things got ghastly once the game got going.
Tools and tricks: free camera, timestop, no-HUD, custom FOV, JeanLuc761′s hi-res character textures, in-world HUD textures blanked, antialiasing (injected max quality FXAA 3.11 w/ texture pre-sharpening), 2160p rendering.
In a break from the two main games for the week comes one last shot from Star Trek Online, this one of the planet Vulcan. That's a big q-tip that fella's got there.
Valve have created themselves an interesting situation. Presenting themselves as bastions of consumers, remarkably accessible to gamers, regularly inviting in groups of modders – often to give them jobs – and always being present to offer a quote on how customers deserve to be treated with more dignity, they establish themselves as being our friend. And then from that position, they sure do like to muck about. And as Eurogamer's Tom "Tom Bramwell" Bramwell mentioned on Twitter this morning, it's hard not to sympathise with a growing body of Valve's customers who are asking for better communication.
If Episode 3 went horribly wrong, it would be fascinating to know.
No one has a clue what they're up to. Games are sometimes announced moments before release, or years in advance and then nothing but silence. Sometimes when they tease it's obscure, frustrating ARGs that eventually end in a new pretend hat. Other times it's a complete open door and everything revealed. They hide clues in so many places that people end up scouring everything they do for a hint, a glimpse, of something that might suggest they'll eventually return to the Half-Life universe proper. They've turned gamers into pseudo-schizophrenics, people frantically trying to find patterns in the random, believing there are hidden messages within their communications. But does anyone have a "right" to know what's going on with the Half-Life series.
Clearly not. It's absolutely Valve's prerogative if they want to never make another Half-Life game again, and concentrate only on adding new hats to TF2. And should they tell us they're doing that? No – why should they? They are a privately owned company, without shareholders to answer to, not required to reveal their plans to anyone.
Should they tell anyone what they're up to? I think it's probably about time they did.
For many years Valve have ridden a wave of remarkably good grace. Developing and releasing extraordinarily good games gets you a long way, and Valve have consistently proven themselves to be the best in the world at what they do. From the astonishing shake up of gaming that Half-Life caused, to the zenith of the FPS, still unbeaten seven years later, Half-Life 2, and then the excellent Episodes, both Left 4 Deads, the Portal games, and TF2… there is no other record like it in gaming. There's a reason Valve has the reputation it has.
But their peculiar secrecy doesn't seem to do them any obvious favours. When they revealed the existence of DOTA 2 or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, the gaming press was obviously extremely eager to give this as much coverage as possible. They're Valve games, so there's an extremely good chance they'll be very good. (Not guaranteed of course. There's always Ricochet, conspicuously absent from their Games page.) Readers want to know about them, sites want details about them, and Valve wants the coverage. It all works.
So when they go quiet, after two episodes of a promised a three part episodic series of Half-Life games, it's understandable that people get annoyed. No, no one has the right to know – it's absolutely their private business, and they may keep it as underwraps as they wish. But I'd suggest at this point, this many years into what is now appearing quite a farce, it's doing damage to their reputation.
Clearly the actions of Axel "Ago" Gembe were absolutely unjustifiable, and the leaking of Half-Life 2 scarred Valve very badly. Gembe's given motivation was his frustration about the lack of information being released about the game, and his eventual discovery that Valve weren't revealing quite how far from finished the game was. Leaking the code was a stupid and cruel act, and Simon Parkin's wonderful article about his attempts to broker peace between the two many years on shows that Valve are still hugely angry and upset about it. None of it should ever have happened, but what I find peculiar is that Valve apparently learned no lessons about the frustration they generate in their most dedicated fans.
The silence over Episode 3, or what for seemingly no reason most now think will be Half-Life 3, is infuriating. And not because we deserve to know about it, nor because Valve have any obligation to say. But unfortunately, Valve have confused us. They act in an extraordinarily open way in so many cases, with remarkable access via email, and an engagement with the community that's the envy of the gaming world. While they of course receive backlashes, and there is a contingent of Angries who will always hate them, the goodwill they receive is enormous. This, combined with their more recent engagement with complex ARGs and hiding clues everywhere, has given the impression that they want to share what's going on with us. And that confuses us.
If Episode 3 went horribly wrong, it would be fascinating to know. If they developed the game and it was complete arse, it wouldn't damage Valve's reputation for saying so. If it's been in ongoing development, constantly iterated and improved upon, perhaps even morphing into Half-Life 3, everyone would be so excited to hear. If they just ran out of ideas, or got bored of Freeman, we'd love to know why.
So no, of course Valve has no obligation, and we have no right, to know what's happening. But I'm struggling to think of a reason why it would harm them to keep us up to date. Were they a completely secretive organisation, unreachable, who only announce a new game the day it comes out, then our expectations would be somewhere else. But it is the confusion of the contradiction of Valve's surprising openness and closed secrecy that leads to the bewildered frustration of their audience.
John Walker is a writer for Rock Paper Shotgun, one of the world's best sites for PC gaming news. John is Britain's leading adventure gaming specialist. Follow him on Twitter.