With a new year comes new ideas, new adventures, and, in this case, a monthly feature here at The Pop Break focused on ranking the best of the best in gaming. Check back each month to see new rankings of gaming’s best games, characters, and moments through a variety of topics – starting with gaming’s greatest black protagonists.
There’s an image that sometimes floats across social media that’s basically a big collage of gaming’s most notable protagonists. Usually, it features the likes of Nathan Drake (Uncharted), Solid Snake (Metal Gear Solid), Chris Redfield (Resident Evil), John Marston (Red Dead Redemption), and/or Frank Woods (Call of Duty). Although they come from different games, there’s one aspect that binds them together that also fleshes out a major issue in gaming – they’re all white male protagonists. It’s become incredibly noticeable how gaming is overcrowded with white male protagonists leading to a gaming community voicing for more diverse stories and characters. With this in mind and it being Black History Month, it’s a great time to look at leads that break this trend and highlight the top five definitive black protagonists in gaming.
Now, it’s important to clarify that this list is only looking at black characters that are the definitive leads of their games. Games that feature customization options for players to create their own character or where multiple characters are considered to the main character, like Grand Theft Auto V, aren’t considered since they’re just kind of a loophole and don’t offer the same kind of impact as a definitive lead. For this list, what defines definitive is that these characters are the main lead of at least one entry in their respective franchises. They don’t necessarily have to be the lead of every entry in the series that they’re a part of, most of them aren’t, just one game – spin-off, sequel, what have you.
5. Aveline de Grandpre – Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation
The Assassin’s Creed series has boasted a diverse line-up of protagonists as it’s taken players to different settings and times throughout history, but with Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, the series had two historic firsts with its protagonist. African French assassin Aveline de Grandpre (voiced by Amber Goldfarb) gave the series its first female and black protagonist as it took players to the French Louisiana era of the late 1700s to take out Templars and liberate slaves. While it is unfortunate that Aveline is voiced by a white actress and that the game received mixed reviews upon release, Aveline was the most well-received aspect of Liberation primarily because of the impact of her representation.
With the Assassin’s Creed series always being based within historical context, Aveline’s story creates a unique perspective within this time and setting and makes for a personal tale of liberation. Like her predecessors and successors, Aveline is a deadly assassin with excellent traversal skills to get through the thick Louisiana swamps and wield, even dual-wield, a wide array of weapons including the iconic hidden blade. However, she’s equally a master of disguise with how she can assume different personas to sneak into dangerous areas making her a true jack of all trades. She also has a unifying voice and mindset that makes the story of liberation so interesting at times and so unique. All of this is what makes Aveline truly stand out amongst the other assassins in the series. Believe it or not, Ubisoft even partnered with winemaker Lot 18 to create a French white blend fitting for Aveline’s persona for their series of Assassin’s Creed wines. Now, how many gaming protagonists do you know that have their own one-of-a-kind delicious wine to match their one-of-a-kind impact?
4. Lincoln Clay – Mafia III
Oddly enough, there isn’t a whole lot different from Aveline De Grandpre and the next protagonist on this list – Mafia III Lincoln Clay (voiced by Alex Hernandez). Both have their stories take place within New Orleans, although Clay’s story takes place in a fictionalized version of the city called New Bordeaux, and they both fight against oppressors that have taken their family away. While Aveline fights for honor though, Lincoln is all about revenge as he seeks to tear down the mafia empire that killed the only family he has left. With the game’s narrative being structured as a documentary on Lincoln turning New Bordeaux upside down to destroy the local mafia, the game gives Lincoln this incredible presence. Hernandez’s top-tier performance elevates the dominating stature of Lincoln Clay and brings out the anger and frustration that he inflicts on anyone that stands in his way. His actions define the phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold,” but they don’t fully define him.
Even through all of the brutality Lincoln deals in his path to revenge, he never becomes overly villainous and actually ends up being a unifier in the world of organized crime. To take down the Italian mafia led by the devious Sal Marcano (voiced by Jay Acovone), Lincoln looks to other crime organizations for some help. He enlists the help of the Irish Mob, Haitian/Dixie Mafia, and a small group led by Mafia II protagonist and exiled Sicilian mafioso Vito Scaletta (voiced by Rick Pasqualone) to take Marcano out and create a new order in the world of organized crime. There’s something oddly reminiscent of civil rights activist Fred Hampton when thinking about Lincoln’s efforts to unify other organizations against one common enemy. Most importantly though, Hernandez’s performance and the excellent storytelling never make you forget who Lincoln is trying to avenge and what he’s lost making him the perfect centerpiece to a thrilling and complex story of revenge.
3. Miles Morales – Spider-Man: Miles Morales
From New Orleans to New York City, it’s now time to look at the most recent definitive black lead on this list with rising web-slinger Miles Morales. While he’s appeared in a couple different Marvel games over the past couple of years, Miles recently made his debut as the lead of Insomniac’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. The game immerses players into an original Miles Morales (voiced by Nadji Jeter) story that sees him coming into his own as the protector of NYC while Peter Parker (voiced by Yuri Lowenthal) is away. Miles is attempting to break out of the recognition of being “the other Spider-Man” while dealing with new threats that connect to his personal life. It’s an origin story for him as a hero that brought out all of the reasons why Miles is so special.
The relationships he has with his mother since his father’s death and his tech savy best friend Ganke (voiced by Griffin Puatu) are really what drive him, and you instantly connect with the youthful attitude he brings to the Spider-Man persona. With him being on his own, you get a greater sense of what being Spider-Man not only means to him, but the people of NYC. The story really builds him as a true “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” with how he’s much more community oriented in his crime solving and him becoming a more prominent figure within his new Harlem community. At the center of all this is Jeter delivering an excellent performance that was thankfully nominated for a Game Award that year. He brings out the youthful energy and charm that Miles has as well as genuinely heartfelt moments of heroism that make Miles so impactful as Spider-Man. There’s already plenty of proof that Miles is the future of Spider-Man, but Insomniac putting him in the spotlight of their latest game took him to new heights.
- Carl “CJ” Johnson – Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Look, I’m sure plenty of Grand Theft Auto V fans were fathoming how I could possibly not include Franklin (voiced by Shawn Fonteno) when looking at the caveats and guidelines for these top five. Franklin is awesome, don’t get me wrong, but I think it would be worse if I somehow didn’t include Carl “CJ” Johnson (voiced by Young Maylay) from San Andreas. CJ was a major diversion for the typical anti-hero protagonists and whatever Trevor (voiced by Steven Ogg) is used to seeing with GTA as his story was much more personal. His story of returning to Los Santos for his mother’s funeral after she’s killed in a drive-by shooting and becoming tangled up in re-establishing his family’s street gang, the Grove Street Families, is certainly more noble than other protagonists in the franchise.
His deep connection with his family and willingness to keep their street legacy alive certainly makes you care about him – especially when it comes to the betrayal and blackmail he endures. Aside from eliminating the rival Ballas and Vagos gangs, CJ also comes into conflict with the city’s corrupt police unit C.R.A.S.H. led by officer Frank Tenpenny (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson). All of this makes CJ’s return to Los Santos incredibly complex and his rise to keeping his family safe and defeating the corruption around him incredibly easy to connect to and care about. All of the betrayals that happen and the damage that’s done genuinely sting and it makes CJ maintain his own sense of right as well as tying up loose ends totally satisfying. There’re elements to CJ’s criminal life and activities that fit him into the GTA anti-hero, but it’s his care for his family and ability to change things that makes him stand out amongst the rest. After all, there’s a reason that CJ is generally considered one of the most memorable protagonists in gaming history.
1. Clementine – Telltale’s The Walking Dead
There’s no one who’s journey has been as gut-wrenching, heartfelt, and impactful like Clementine’s (voiced by Melissa Hutchinson) journey throughout Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Although she started as just a young girl being protected by season one protagonist Lee Everett (voiced by Dave Fennoy), who’s equally deserving to be on this list, Clementine really came into her own as the definitive lead of the Telltale Walking Dead series. As each season passed, we really got to see Clementine grow up and become more of a capable badass surviving against the zombie filled world within Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead universe.
Clementine not only embodies all the lessons and teachings about humanity and survival that Lee taught her but finds her own independence in this post-apocalyptic world. As she matures and loses those closest to her, Clementine’s outlook becomes much more hardened and mature and acts as this imperfect moral compass for players to act through. Even better is that change never makes Clementine tough to like because you’ve seen everything she’s gone through and understand the pain and loss she’s endured. It’s even great how she takes on Lee’s role as a mentor to AJ (voiced by Tayla Parx) and instills the lessons of survival and independence in him.
When the devastating news hit that Telltale would unfortunately be closing their doors midway through production of the final season, Clementine’s story was left unfinished and it was unknown if it would ever be complete. Eventually, Skybound Entertainment, the series’ publisher, came to complete the series shortly after simply so that Telltale’s legacy could be celebrated, and that Clementine’s story could be complete. Now, if that doesn’t signify the impact and importance of Clementine, I don’t know what does.