What was the first video game to grant a woman of color top-billing? Here’s a few quick ones off top: Jade in Beyond Good & Evil (2003), Aveline de Grandpré in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation (2012), and the mostly-forgotten Urban Chaos (1999), starring D’arci Stern. On a related note: two of those three protagonists were voiced by white women. Try and guess which ones! The answer is at the bottom of this post.
Today we’re going to round up some recent excellent indies starring women of color that you should check out. Video game studios are now more diverse than ever, but there is still an enormous amount of work to do. As for representation on the interactive screen, women of color continue to be absent despite repeated conversations on the matter. A great piece published on NYMGpost last year by writer Alisha Karabinus includes the eye-opening detail that:
“…the first State of Decay, with its DLC, represents between 11%-15% of all playable female Black characters in games… ever.”
Consider this list a sign of good things to come, especially by independent studios. So, let’s take a look at a few great games starring a few great characters.
In 2018, two-man Brazilian studio Long Hat House released Dandara, a gorgeous platformer featuring a few meaningful genre twists. The game takes place in The Salt, a complex world filled with gratify-defying surfaces, tunnels, traps, and enemies.
Although players don’t have direct granular control over the main character’s movement, Dandara can bound between ledges throughout each area. Sometimes she’s just a blur, bouncing around, fighting enemies, dodging projectiles, and solving puzzles. When she pauses for a moment, the character is also just beautiful to behold. You can easily spot her mighty, gracefully animated afro standing out in cut scenes and the game itself.
There’s a robust story you’ll want to complete in full, and a bonus for people who game on their phones. Somehow, the game really shines when played on a smartphone. A regular controller works just fine, but the unique controls make even more sense on a touchscreen.
The wildly-successful indie Slime Rancher jumped back into people’s minds earlier this year as a free offering on the Epic Games Store, but it originally released back in 2017. The game stars resourceful turquoise-haired rancher Beatrix LeBeau. At a glance, Slime Rancher seems like a cartoonish FPS, but it’s a combination of resource-gathering, farming, and exploration. Slime Rancher is a kind of 3D Harvest Moon-inspired game with adorably diverse slime creatures to hoover up in your Vacpack and design habitats for. Caring for the slimes results in plorts (which are, essentially…poop), which can then be sold in a price-varying intergalactic marketplace.
Slime Rancher is delightful to play, largely non-violent, and deliriously colorful. As an FPS, players usually aren’t treated to a direct view of Beatrix, but she’s very much present within the longer-form and slowly-unfurling narrative. It’s something of a shame that there aren’t more awesome cosplays of the character at cons (*hint* *hint*), as her iconic baggy culottes and perfect hairstyle seem to be begging for more photo ops.
You can find Slime Rancher for purchase on Steam or the Epic Games Store, as well as on PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
Even The Ocean
This sensitive and progressive science fiction puzzle-platformer debuted back in 2016, brought to you by the two-person development team responsible for Anodyne and its ever-ambitious sequel. Even The Ocean revolves around a light/dark energy system which factors into most every puzzle and interaction.
The actual gameplay itself is absorbing, if somewhat easy. It’s the storytelling which will keep drawing you back in. The main character Aliph is an engineer busying herself with tasks to keep the city’s systems in order. Her involvement in the other character’s lives reveal a variety of unique themes, including friendship, recovery, social change, emotional support, and ecological survival. Even the rhythm of Aliph’s journaling about the day’s events every night brings players closer and closer to the narrative. Its diminutive sprites are warmly reminiscent of the classic series Megaman, but don’t let their simplicity fool you. Diverse characters in Even The Ocean are dignified and vibrant people you’ll want to learn about and protect.
To be fair, many visual novels might fit the bill for this list. Their first-person nature often lends the main character an anonymous quality, which players can then fill in with their own personality. Despite that, Hanako Games’ Black Closet deserves special inclusion here, as the main character Elsa is conspicuously a Black woman, a detail that is notably rarer.
Beyond that, Black Closet adds a few intriguing twists to a more straight-forward VN game. Overall, Black Closet splits gameplay between relationship-building and investigation/management. As new president of the student council at St. Claudine’s Academy, you’re tasked with solving problems around the school. To do so, you interact with various members of the council, who then question and spy on their fellow students. You must also figure out which of them to romance and…which one may eventually betray you.
Impressively, specific cases to solve and would-be betrayals change up every time you start the game. Effectively, this means that you can play it over and over with different cases to solve every time. It’s a really impressive concept that challenges player choice; are you attempting to romance the student council spy? Are you so distracted by your presidential duties that your council members’ loyalty is decreasing? What is Thaïs’ favorite kind of tea? It’s all quite complicated and unpredictable, but should be catnip for fans of VN games.
The most recent entry on our list, Mutazione, just came out on September 19 of this year. Players take on the role of Kai, a young woman traveling to the titular island to care for her ailing grandfather. This isn’t just any island, though: following a nuclear event, all of the inhabitants became transformed into a variety of different mutated species. All the same, they retain their humanity while living in a sectioned-off part of the world.
Dialogue choices and exploration are the name of the game here. Kai’s insights and alternately snarky/insecure responses speak volumes about her own cautious hesitation at exploring the roots of her family. It’s the kind of setting that sparks those vital memories of childhood, where you approach a distant family member and they begin to tell you stories you have forgotten. It can be queasy, sometimes uncomfortable, but usually valuable all the same. Mutazione hits a lot of those marks, all of which become amplified by the more supernatural notes of the story.
It also helps that the game is beautiful to watch. The sense of color and scale bring the island to life, and it’s a pleasure to explore. For those unfamiliar with adventure games, be aware that much of the gameplay is based in conversation.
[*Black actress Johnnie Fiori voiced Urban Chaos‘s D’arci Stern. Sadly, it seems that her subsequent video games work was minimal 🙁 ]