The best Black character to grace a video game is Commander Shepard of the Mass Effect series, but most notably, Mass Effect 2.
There, I said it.
I’ve had this idea of writing about my experience as a Black Commander Shepard after I read Leigh Alexander’s brief thoughts about her experience playing as a man in a Persona game. In it she danced with a great idea, something that most gamers are familiar with:
Story driven video games, at their best, make the player feel connected to the character and the world they’re playing in. But, they do so in a way that is entirely different than movies or books. A good video game puts you in the shoes of a foreign character and asks you to make decisions on their behalf, from choosing how to approach a major plot point to deciding what to look at.
So, in the case of Mass Effect 2, I had to ask myself: How would a Black Commander of a space ship handle an intergalactic crisis? I didn’t start the game off thinking that way, of course. It’s important that I say this because I’ve played many games that allowed me to change the facial features of the protagonist to make him look Black, but I never felt like I was actually playing a Black person.
But, ME2 is unique. Whether by design or by accident, or perhaps both, the themes of the story relate closely to the experiences of the modern day Black male and with ME3 releasing this week I thought this was as good a time as any to post my thoughts on playing the first Black space Commander since Avery Brooks cooled out Deep Space Nine.
As if to burn away the experience of the first Mass Effect title, ME2 opens with the destruction of Shepard and his ship. When he wakes up in a hospital bed, the player is aware that the protagonist has been rebuilt. How appropriate. After a brief escape through a complex that is under attack, the first person Shepard runs into is a Black company man name Jacob.
The game shifts into conversation mode and as I begin to converse with Jacob I notice that I’m feeling a little different. At the time I thought it was the excitement of a fantastic opening act. I realized later that I was juiced for a much cooler reason. My conversation with Jacob was the first time I played a well-directed scene between two Black characters.
Unlike, the filth-flarn-filth-like dialogue of video games like Saints Row or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, or the pedestrian conversations between Redgaurds, the dark-skinned people of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Skyrim, Jacob and Shepard are professional, competent and amicable. They speak to each other like the people I know.
Thankfully, the impression Jacob made didn’t end there. His side story dealt with the mistakes of his father, a popular theme amongst my generation — the Hip Hop generation — who are defined by the fallout of the civil rights movement and the devastation of the drugs that followed. For many of us, to grow into manhood, we have to hold our fathers accountable – whether directly or indirectly — for the mistakes that too many Black men fell victim to during that tumultuous period in American history.
The discomfort I felt while playing Jacobs story was surprising. I didn’t want his father to be flawed in the way he was. But, as a metaphor for the experience of too many thirty-something Black men, it was appropriate, and after completing the mission it formed a familiar bond with Jacob, a non-playable character that I began to look at as a brother? I though I was delusional. I was playing a video game, after all. So, after settling in back on my new ship I went to pay Jacob a visit and what was the first thing he did? He gave me a Black man’s handshake. It is important to note that brothas don’t often give white dudes the Black man handshake. Even though that would have happen no matter what ethnicity I was you have to understand that as a black man talking to another that subtle handshake meant a lot.