By the time Deathloop left his first trailer to the Bethesda Showcase 2019, the presence of two black cables was really exciting.
Now it feels necessary.
When the reality of racism rose his ugly head comes back in the summer of 2020, Jason Kelley, who voiced the protagonist Colt in the game, was known for the conversation about the future of Cleveland Brown, the Virginian Black from the Seth MacFarlane animated series Guy family and The Cleveland Show. White actor Mike Henry, who created Cleveland and has known it for more than 20 years, has voluntarily resigned from the role.
“We,” said Kelley, who meant Blacks in general, “don’t ask you to do this.” He was discussing the situation with his friend J. Lee, who worked with MacFarlane for years, and actor Ahmed Best, best known for his portrayal of Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars franchise. The trio of black actors often spend time together. So when MacFarlane fired Arif Zahir for the role of Cleveland Brown, Kelley was excited.
“He’s amazing. He’s talented,” says Kelley of Zahir. “When you launch a black person into a role for a black character, we’re going to bring everything we know intrinsically into being in the culture,” Kelley told me. “We’re going to bring all that to the character.”
The casting decision was a huge step in a white-dominated entertainment industry, especially straight white men. The story of black actors in video games it is highlighted by games where instead of being put in the story of a black protagonist, one can choose to be a white or black character at best, and where whiteness is the presumed default any other time.
In games like that Deathloop, each must play as one of two main characters that are black. When Bethesda narrative director Bennett Smith was brought in Deathloop team, the new idea of having two black protagonists was the first thing I thought.
“He doesn’t see a lot of people of color in the lead roles,” Smith says. “So it was obviously pretty exciting to become a part of, and I think the final product will be a lot of fun for people.”
Deathloop smashes Groundhog Day and Looper in a first-person shooter on a mysterious island called Blackreef. In single-player mode, Colt discovers the only way to break the time cycle and escape is to assassinate the island’s leaders. Unfortunately, Colt’s primary target, Julianna, is determined to kill him before he can escape.
The trend of Arkane Games for different characters is something that society is familiar with, so it can’t be surprising that this wasn’t an intentional choice. The creative team realized that what they were doing was rare, but this was not the initial focus. They were too concerned with the core of the game: how to effectively incorporate time cycles.
But when Black Americans were shown on TV and in the national media killed by police in 2020 and subsequent protests grew around the world, the game took on a different meaning. The creative team was more sensitive about the representation of Blacks in their game. They recognized the idea of the video game industry of a charming hero being too often a white male.
Game director Dinga Bakaba discussed the cover of the game with the team and thought the main character should be Black, if the cover was to have a lot of characters with a primary character in the center. Bakaba is of African and French descent and is intimately familiar with racism, particularly in Europe where he is based Arkane.
“In the end, this game is about a black man with a gun,” Bakaba said holding a copy of one Playstation UK reviewed with Colt on the cover. And that man’s goal is to kill a black woman over and over again. It’s an idea that might spark controversy, but the studio’s fan base is here to experiment, and it goes against the idea that it can’t be done well.