In honor of Black History Month, we celebrate some of the best black characters in video games.

Change is positive.

It feels like slowly, but surely over the past few years, publishers have finally started to realize the value of trying to inject their properties with new perspectives based around diverse characters, casts, and crews. A few developers like Long Hat House with Dandara, Arkane Studios with Dishonored, and Respawn Entertainment with this month’s Apex Legends have specifically included prominent black characters, and proven that it’s not hard to do.

Seeing blackness in-game is finally becoming normal, which is a stark contrast from when I was a kid and only able to make my Animal Crossing villager look like me by having him tan every day. It was a Jersey Shore nightmare cycle. Now kids get to bop their friends in Smash Ultimate as dark-skinned villagers who sport fly haircuts and don’t over-tan. We’re getting somewhere.

As a celebration of Black History Month, here at IGN we’ve decided to highlight a few of our favourite black characters in games. We have some protagonists, supporting characters, and NPCs on this list. Read on to see how they all bring something special to their respective series.

Elena from the Street Fighter series

In a series so based on throwing hands, Elena stands out because she never needs to throw them. She’s the only character that utilizes the unique Afro-Brazilian dance-fighting style of Capoeira to clobber her opponents, and it’s so cool. Her style is built around exclusively using kicks, acrobatics, and healing. Capoeiristas need to have a true devotion to rhythm in order to connect all of their multi-leveled leg and spin movements together, and at the top level, it becomes a graceful kinetic performance of skill. It makes learning her moveset feel like a game in itself. She’s one of the more fun characters to play as and watch in a tournament because of the way she flies around the screen with fluidity and finesse that other characters don’t offer.

Elena is a princess from a tribe in Kenya, who loves friends, music, and fighting. She debuted in Street Fighter III: New Generation back in 1997 as the first playable black woman in the series, and, at the time, one of the only black women in video games at all. She’s also appeared in Ultra Street Fighter IV and Street Fighter X Tekken. If you’re ever looking for a solid main in an older Street Fighter game, Elena’s your girl. She might not have the most clout in the Street Fighter world, but don’t sleep on her because she will backflip, bait a heal, and send a flying foot to your enemy’s face with lightning speed and a smile.

Sergeant Avery Johnson from the Halo series

Sergeant Johnson is the ultimate hype man, and the king of inspirational speeches. With a few words, he can get anyone pumped up to blast some aliens and save planet Earth. He speaks with the cadence of an uncle turned action hero star — puns and bad jokes galore. One of his best quips was during Halo 2 when he said, “When I joined the corps we didn’t have any fancy-schmancy tanks, we had sticks. Two sticks, and a rock for the whole platoon. And we had to share the rock.”

What a leader.

Johnson is funny, but he’s also a Halo staple, and characters usually rely on him to keep morale up. His banter helped form Halo’s voice and offset Master Chief’s rough, lone wolf energy. Later in the series, he shows that he’s more than just token comic relief — his raw tenacity and go-getter attitude serves as a beacon for humanity. Johnson is one of the few recurring human characters in Halo that perseveres through the threats of the Covenant through to the Flood. In Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo: 2, Halo 3, and Halo 3: ODST, he always kept his head up and the puns on deck.

Grace Walker from Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

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The first time you meet Grace, she has a gun pointed at famed Nazi-killer Billy J. Blazkowicz’s face and asks, “Just who the f*ck are you, white boy?” After throwing a fake grenade at him to gauge his reaction and having a brief, deep talk, she cuts him some slack and the two start to get along. They talk about their similar frustrations with the Nazi and KKK inhabited world they’re living in, and Walker’s perspective as a black American women is a fresh one for Wolfenstein. (We’ve seen a black man’s story with Bombate from Namibia, but even though both of their struggles are racially charged, their experiences are quite different.) She’s one of New York’s few survivors of an atom bomb attack, and her monologue describing the atrocities she saw that day really hits hard.

Grace is a black woman from Mississippi who’s an amalgamation of black liberation activists and revolutionaries. She joins Billy’s team as a top dog who hands out missions and speaks without a filter (which does eventually come back to bite her). Her character is integral to the ending of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, too.

Carl “CJ” Johnson from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

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Rockstar has always been a controversial company known for creating games full of absurdity and bravado. Fans keep coming back to the GTA series’ parodic social commentary that’s layered in between the snappy, sardonic dialogue and hyper violence. Though GTA often exaggerates real-world social issues for comedic value, it’s a series that gives the player no choice but to acknowledge those issues. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,  Carl “CJ” Johnson is at the center of it all in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which deals with themes of police corruption and drugs the 80s-90s. 

The replication of common black vernacular, setting, and plot made San Andreas feel like one of the first fully dedicated interactive looks into black culture.

CJ is one of the most mild-mannered protagonists of the Grand Theft Auto series, but he and his crew are full of black personalities that carry the game. Writer DJ Pooh (known from the Friday series) did a strong job of crafting crazy and intuitive dialogue — the replication of common black vernacular, setting, and plot made San Andreas feel like one of the first fully dedicated interactive looks into black culture. The genuine banter between CJ and his crew had me dying laughing at some points, and while the antics they get up to are often over-the-top, San Andreas still delivers thoughtful criticisms around our society packaged in comedy and action.

Clementine from The Walking Dead series

Clementine is like everyone’s video game daughter. It feels like it was just yesterday we cut her hair and taught her how to shoot a zombie, but in reality, it’s been a whole seven years since The Walking Dead Season 1 dropped and we got to see a truly charming dynamic between her and Lee in the midst of a burgeoning zombie apocalypse. In that narrative and the events that followed, she faced traumatic situations that forced her to change from a polite, naive child into a realist bent on survival.

The Walking Dead falls into the popular gaming category of “middle-aged dad protagonist caring for a child,” but Clementine’s growth breaks free of that trope. She’s a young black girl who became the fan favorite star of an entire series, which is a powerful feat to achieve in an industry full of characters who don’t look like her. Clementine brings authenticity to the games and the fact that your decisions directly affect her situation makes that character-player connection even more personal. She isn’t a people pleaser like Lee — she’s her own person tasked with making choices that leave her with constant emotional turmoil. She’s still learning how to maneuver the world with her accomplice AJ, and their bond is shaping up to be something enticingly different than the one she had with Lee. 

[Clementine] is a young black girl who became the fan favorite star of an entire series, which is a powerful feat to achieve in an industry full of characters who don’t look like her.

Clementine is a captivating character because she’s black and she isn’t an exaggeration. She isn’t crazy about violence and she’s not that funny. Most portrayals of black characters in games have at least one of those two qualities. They’re also usually borderline uncomfortable caricatures that I’m forced to accept or else people hit me with a “At least there’s a black person in this one! Be happy :^)” It’s rare that you get to see a black protagonist get the chance to be so vulnerable and real in a game, we definitely need more of that.

These are more notable characters from big studios, but do remember to support the indie developers making content like this happen. Otherwise we’re all going to be playing the same old games with white characters and marginally better graphics until the end of time, which would be pretty lame.

Lists are subjective, and these are my choices, but we hope you share some of your favourite black characters and tell us why you enjoy them!

Funké Joseph is a Freelance Writer for IGN who wants Birdo in Smash Ultimate. Please make it happen and also follow him on Twitter.

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