The first Black character I remember videogames introducing me to was Final Fantasy VII’s Barret Wallace. Built like a freight truck with a Gatling gun attached to his right arm, Barret was the first game character that I had a personal connection with. Later came Carl “CJ” Johnson, the protagonist of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I felt a similar attachment with CJ, a member of the Grove Street Families, one of the top gangs in Los Santos. Then there was Augustus Cole of the Gears of War series, a former thrashball player with the suitable nickname of “Cole Train.” The same ardent bond I had with Barret and CJ was palpable with Cole as well. As a Black gamer, these characters made me think I had a sort of identification, some kind of representation in games. However, the feeling of camaraderie metamorphosed into disenchantment: I realized how their lives didn’t reflect my own, and there’s no solidarity other than the color of our skin. I enthusiastically welcome the idea of gaining a perspective that doesn’t reflect my own, but growing up Black and seeing the characters constructed for me in games left me both despondent and dejected as I couldn’t relate to them, to their struggles, to their stories.
There’s a commonality with all of these characters beyond their race: they all fit some sort of present, unconscious, skewed Black stereotype. These characters either are built like football players, are part of a gang, or have baby-mama-drama. Although Marcus Holloway, Watch Dogs 2’s protagonist, falls into a similar mold, he dismantles the status quo of what—and who—a Black character should be.
Marcus Holloway was born in San Francisco, Calif.—the birthplace of the tech revolution, as many pundits like to purport—but soon thereafter relocated to Oakland, the largest city in the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area, because of gentrification. Growing up Black in the crime-ridden Oakland, Marcus decided to enroll in a community program to stay away from the enveloping street life; this is where his nascent affinity and fondness for computers began. A few years later, unfortunately, Marcus was wrongfully profiled and accused of a high-tech burglary solely based on digital evidence, and as such, this sparked an anger within him to thwart all implementation of the Central Operating System (ctOS) 2.0, the upgraded city-wide operating system that devolved to nothing more than widespread surveillance a la Orwell’s Big Brother.
Although Marcus’ backstory follows a similar path of Black characters in games’ past, his design is starkly different: he’s a scrawny little hipster douche like his White counterparts. Perhaps a product of the amalgam of being born in the Bay Area and gentrification, Marcus’ look is distinctly aberrant from typical game design for Black characters: he doesn’t have muscles on top of muscles; he isn’t over six-feet-tall; he doesn’t play sports (at least from what the game informs us, he doesn’t.) In fact, he is the opposite: He’s a computer hacker, which, if we’re being frank, is largely thought of as being non-ethnically diverse.
Most protagonists in videogames are typically White, and although other ethnicities do make appearances, they are normally regulated to side characters that fit a predisposed stereotype of their ethnicity. Ubisoft shows us that Black doesn’t equate to “thug,” “aggressor,” “gangbanger,” or any of the other banal, bromidic, and frankly antiquated adjectives and stereotypes; Ubisoft intrepidly capsizes the norm of Black characters by offering an overtly enthusiastic, smartly dressed, and compelling character in Marcus Holloway.
Marcus’ enthusiasm is infectious. Throughout the game’s 20 or so hours, Ubisoft establishes Marcus as a much more affable and light-hearted counterweight to the empty trench coat at the center of the first game, Aiden Pearce. Even in moments of vexation, where Marcus feels somber and indignant, he still manages to “look on the bright side” and maintain his blatant optimism. This is a testament to Ubisoft’s commitment to delivering a Black character that isn’t aggressive and sullen solely because he’s Black, which is how media so often depicts Black people. When he’s angry that anger is palpable and convincing because Ubisoft leads us to believe he is more than the color of his skin: He’s a genuine human with emotions that are lucid, relatable, and coherent. It’s possible to root for him because he’s someone worth rooting for; he isn’t a cardboard cutout.
Marcus wears a very Millennial outfit: a black snapback; large, black-rimmed glasses; a black sweater layered underneath a blue bomber jacket; black, destroyed skinny jeans; orange high top shoes a la Vans’ sk8-hi; and a black messenger bag. The most telling of his attire, however, are his skinny jeans. Most clothing options for Black characters are hardly fitting. Grand Theft Auto V’s Franklin Clinton is a prime example of the uncustomizable-customizable Black character. Being open-world, you’re able to change his clothes whenever you so choose. Whenever Franklin is dressed uncharacteristically and a cutscene happens, he’s promptly redressed in what he’s designed to wear. I’m most likely projecting myself onto an already established character, but videogames are just that: a projection of oneself — warts and all, to quote Bojack Horseman — onto the character and the game world. This elicited a sort of union between Marcus and I; seeing a Black character that was designed to dress closer to myself instilled a fervent solidarity in me as Marcus more accurately represented the Black community than previous Black characters.
Marcus is ebullient — perhaps overwhelmingly so, sure, but he’s also not one-dimensional. He’s dynamic, capable of a breadth of emotions that span the spectrum from happy to sad and everything in between. The indoctrinated cliché of the always-angry Black individual is at odds with the demonstrably eclectic Black population. Ubisoft is aware of this and demonstrates that Black characters are just as capable of being fully fleshed out emotionally as their White counterparts. This awareness and commitment to representational variety is necessary for the continuous depiction of multifaceted Black characters in videogames, and it’s something required for all players to see that stereotypes are not the norm in this seemingly maturing medium.
We need more characters like Marcus Holloway. While not perfect, Ubisoft clearly sets the current standard in games for constructing dynamic, complex Black protagonists that challenge the medium’s preconceptions of Blacks, as well as more acutely representing the Black population. We are a proud people fully capable of a full range of emotions, and Ubisoft evidently understands and is willing to attempt to recreate in a way that is convincing. Here’s to Marcus Holloway.