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 Bennett, 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,” Bennett 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, Bennett was excited.
“He’s amazing. He’s talented,” Bennett 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,” Bennett 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 Dinka 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.