Last week, E3 once again provided a platform for game developers big and small to preview and tease their latest offerings to the masses. As expected, there was more than a generous handful of returning fan favorites in the form of popular franchise sequels, reboots, and playable mechanics.
Similarly, many “new” properties featured familiar enough devices and thematic endeavors to keep seasoned veterans from straying too far from their comfort zones, things like post-apocalyptic settings, faceless, first person anti-heroes, and open worlds.
That said, the convention wasn’t without its attempts at branching into lesser-explored territories, namely the realms of diversified representation.
For many, video games are an escape or an outlet, one where you can slide into any number of characters or fantasies well beyond the realm of the real. Oftentimes, a good gameplay concept or storyline provides a decent enough pull toward digitized adventure; but in times of increasingly cinematic endeavors, the importance of the characters of these stories has grown exponentially. It may be enough for an MMORPG or FPS to offer player creation in any gender or color that you please, but in something narrative-driven it gets trickier — particularly when the heroes of some of the industry’s most popular properties have been disappointingly homogeneous.
Regardless of any number or reasons (or lack thereof), many game protagonists suffer from being a few backstory details and outfit choices short of being the exact same white male ad-nauseum. As the visibility of gamers from all walks of life has increased, indie and big league development teams have started working to expand the scope of their playable avatars, though the process seems to be gradual at best.
At 2017’s E3 presentation, out of a whopping 225 titles debuted or further revealed, less than 20 games featured a lead character that was something other than white and male by specific developer design, rather than an option of player customization. Of those characters, only about half were individuals of color (six female and two male), and only one was identifiable as a member of the LGBTQ community, a feature that was eventually found to be an optional avenue to explore. More than that, of this small sampling, only three titles were representative of blockbuster franchises that top dog companies like Ubisoft depend on for big earnings.
E3 2017 Scorecard
A Hat in Time (Female Lead)
A Plague Tale: Innocence (Female Lead)
Assassins Creed: Origins (Non-white Male Lead)
Battle Chef Brigade (Female Lead)
Dandara (Non-white Female Lead)
Danganropa v3: Killing Harmony (Female Leads)
Detroit: Become Human (Non-white Female and Male Leads)
Dishonored 2: Death of the Outsider (Non-white Female Lead)
Hidden Agenda (Female & Non-white Female Lead)
Kaidro: The Awakening (Female Lead)
Knights and Bikes (Female & Non-white Female Lead)
Life Is Strange Before the Storm (Female Lead, optional LGBTQ story)
Metroid Prime 4/Metroid Sammus Returns (Female Lead)
Shantaw: Half Genie Hero (Female Lead)
Star Child (Female Lead)
Sundered (Non-white Female Lead)
Tacoma (Non-white Female Lead)
Uncharted: the Lost Legacy (Non-white Female Leads)
This year, presenters managed to simultaneously keep things status quo and broaden the scope of inclusion in their latest projects, showing off fewer games with diverse characters, but opting for a touch more variety. Once again, out of nearly 200 reveals and teases, only 18 could boast a lead that could be in any way dubbed diverse. To their credit, the sample sizes were a tad more spread out this time around, with eleven lead characters of color, five male and six female characters respectively. LGBTQ protagonists were up to a grand total of two (three if you count interchangeable characters individually), with Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II bringing Ellie back to the forefront and the newest Assassin’s Creed introducing a new lineup of mercenaries, though once again at least one of those varied sexual identities may be optional given the franchise.
E3 2018 Scorecard
A Plague Tale Innocence (again; Female Lead)
After Party (Non-white Female Co-Lead)
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (Non-white Female & Male Leads)
Beyond Good and Evil 2 (Non-white Female Lead)
Control (Female Lead)
Gears 5 (Non-white Female Lead)
Ghost of Tsushima (Non-white Male Lead)
The Last of Us Part II (Female, LGBTQ Lead)
Overkill’s the Walking Dead (Non-white Male & Female Leads)
Raji: An Ancient Epic (Non-white Female Lead)
Resident Evil 2 Remake (Female Co-Lead)
Sable (Female Lead)
Sakuna of Rice and Ruin (Female Lead)
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (Non-white Male Lead)
Shadow of the Tomb Raider (Female Lead)
Wolfenstein: Youngblood (Female Leads)
Yakuza Kiwami 2 (Non-white Male Lead)
Yakuza 0 (Non-white Male Lead)
So where does this latest information leave gaming’s state of diversity? From my perspective? Woefully, about the same. In spite of powerful moments of representation, like the The Last of Us Part 2 trailer, or exciting chances to have a story purposefully driven by women and characters of color, what was offered up was unquestionably a series of breadcrumbs, rather than a meal. Obviously, every game cannot be or provide everything, but I would argue that desiring a larger scale evolution of character content is asking for very little, especially of a medium where literally anything can happen. The concept of inclusion shouldn’t be the least bit daunting when, through gaming, I’ve been a time-traveling teenage girl and a god of war all in the span of one week. To cries of ‘why must everything be [black; brown; female; gay]?’ I would say because nothing typically is; for every Ellie, Bayek, and Lara, there are hundreds of Joels, Agent 47s and Nathans that get more time and attention, and if 2018’s E3 is anything to go by, that’s a trend that isn’t slowing.
With developers and fandoms alike pushing back against any members of the gaming community who may take issue with the changing face of playable characters, the time certainly seems right for forward movement, but so far the pace is a crawling ebb and flow that ultimately leaves much to be desired. As always, some is good, but more would be much, much better.