When Deathloop dropped its first trailer at the 2019 Bethesda Showcase, the presence of two Black leads was really exciting.
Now it feels necessary.
When the reality of racism reared its ugly head yet again in the summer of 2020, Jason Kelley, who voices the protagonist Colt in the game, was aware of the conversation about the future of Cleveland Brown, the Black Virginian from Seth MacFarlane's animated series Family Guy and The Cleveland Show. White actor Mike Henry, who created Cleveland and voiced him for more than 20 years, voluntarily stepped down from the role.
"We,” Kelley said, meaning Black people generally, “are not asking you to do this." He was discussing the situation with his friend J. Lee, who's 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 frequently hang out together. So when MacFarlane cast Arif Zahir for the role of Cleveland Brown, Kelley was excited.
"He's amazing. He's talented," Kelley says of Zahir. "When you cast a Black person in a role for a Black character, we get to bring everything we inherently know about being in the culture," Kelley told me. "We get to bring all that to the character."
The casting decision was a huge step in an entertainment industry dominated by white people, particularly straight white men. The history of Black actors in video games is highlighted by games where instead of being thrust into the story of a Black protagonist, you get to choose to be a white or Black character at best, and where whiteness is the assumed default any other time.
In games like Deathloop, everyone will have to play as one of two main characters who are Black. When Bethesda narrative director Bennett Smith was brought to the Deathloop team, the novel idea of having two Black protagonists was the first thing he thought of.
"You don't see a lot of people of color in lead roles," Smith says. "So that was obviously pretty exciting to get to be a part of, and I think the end product is going to be a lot of fun for people."
Deathloop smashes Groundhog Day and Looper into a first-person shooter on a mysterious island called Blackreef. In single-player mode, Colt discovers the only way to break the time loop and escape is to assassinate the island's leaders. Unfortunately, Colt's primary target, Julianna, is determined to kill him before he can escape.
Arkane Games' penchant for diverse characters is something the company is known for, so it may not be surprising this wasn't an intentional choice. The creative team realized what they were doing was rare, but that wasn't the initial focus. They were too concerned with the crux of the game: how to effectively incorporate time loops.
But when Black Americans were shown on TV and in national media being killed by police in 2020 and the subsequent protests grew around the world, the game took on a different significance. The creative team were more sensitive about Black representation in their game. They recognized the video game industry's idea of a dashing hero is too often a white male.
Game director Dinga Bakaba was discussing the game's cover with the team and thought the main character should be Black, if the cover was going to have a lot of characters with one primary character in the center. Bakaba is of African and French descent and is intimately familiar with racism, particularly in Europe where Arkane is based.
"In the end, this game is about a Black man with a gun," Bakaba said while holding a copy of a Playstation UK magazine 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 provoke controversy, but the studio's fan base is here for the experiment, and pushes back against the idea that it can’t be done well.
"It’s nice to have that kind of fan base," Bakaba said. "They tend to defend our creative choices. Due to my own background, it’s sometimes excruciating to see those things still discussed in 2021. Couldn’t we be past that? Again, I know it’s the reality."
Bakaba said Julianna was initially racially ambiguous and wasn't a main character, but instead simply one of Colt's eight targets. Then other elements were added, such as envisioning the character with naturally curly hair. The characters' personality traits were based on deeper conversations about the connection between the two main characters.
"The last piece of the project, beyond the time loop and this new world, was the relationship between Colt and Julianna," Bakaba said. This is how Julianna started to stand out and become Colt's main antagonist.
The majority of gamers want diverse characters. Ozioma Akagha, who voices Julianna, found herself bombarded by messages and support from fans who were excited to see a Black female lead in a major game franchise, especially after she voiced the lead in Half Life: Alyx.
Diverse games, Akagha says, are “putting Black people in stories and people of color in stories that they've never seen themselves in before, but they've known that were inside of them." She continues, "It's putting a face and body and voice to something that people of color have always known, which is that there are a multitude of stories inside of them."
Bakaba envisions a world where casting racially diverse characters is no longer "exceptional" but natural. He brought up the movie Man on Fire, starring Denzel Washington, as a comparison. If the actor had been replaced with someone who was of a different race, there'd be no discernible change in the character development or plot. Arkane created a game where the characters just happened to be Black.
Of course, the release of Deathloop won't magically change the systemic racism that people of color suffer under around the world. In the United States, a single act can't hope to undo the damage inflicted upon Blacks by racism and white supremacy.
But Akagha understands gamers are wowed by the little things non-POC gamers take for granted. She delights in playing a character and seeing brown hands instead of white hands, which is considered the "default." Bakaba agreed, and says the elements of inclusive game creation involve having people with different minds, visions, and experiences coming together.