Lee’s not “urban”: or how to write black characters the right way

2 Jun

Warning: This post contains SPOILERS. Read at your own risk. 

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I said in my post on The Walking Dead last week that I wanted to take a week to focus on Lee and Clementine. I know, I know — what a novel idea!

Everyone who plays and enjoys this game has something to say about Lee, and there might be more articles written about Clementine than about the rest of the game. But there’s a good reason for it: Telltale did a bang-up job of creating two main characters that people genuinely care for. I have heard very, very few negative opinions about either character.

The most amazing part of this is that both characters are black.

Now, this isn’t amazing because they’re black (stay with me for a second), but because the games industry — and so many other mainstream entertainment industries like the movie and TV industry — seem intent on believing that most audiences (read: white, middle-class America) won’t care about a main character that doesn’t look or act exactly like them (read: the only money we actually care about is white, middle-class people money. No one else has money, right?).

We have only to look at the main characters of AAA games to see what publishers think will sell. Guys, I’m seeing lots of white, male, crew-cut, scruffy, and muscular soldiers/space marines/superpowered antiheroes, etc. When we do get black characters, they’re almost always flat (admittedly, most game characters are flat), at least borderline offensive (Please stop bringing up Barret from Final Fantasy 7 as an example of a black character. I want to leave that cringe-worthy memory behind me.), or minor to the game narrative.

It’s easy to find examples of how difficult it is for many game developer’s to break away from this mold. There’s the relatively recent example of the Remember Me developer’s struggle to get his female main character-led game published. Penny Arcade has a fantastic, comprehensive piece from last year about the paucity of female main characters and the lack of marketing for those games which do exist.

So why am I talking about gender right now? After all, my main focus in this post is supposed to be more about race.

Sadly (very sadly), there is a real lack of mainstream discussion of race and racism in games. By this I mean that most large gaming and gaming news sites simply don’t discuss race in the same way or as frequently as they discuss gender. Like I said in my introductory post I don’t think staying up to date on and writing about social justice is necessarily a news journalists job, so I’m not trying to target anyone here. But it does mean that it is much easier to find articles about the lack of female main characters than about the almost complete lack of any non-white main characters (or even narrative-significant and well done characters).

In this context, the risks that Telltale took withThe Walking Dead are somewhat stunning. They didn’t do anything enormous — their main character is simply not white – but in most of the entertainment industry that’s seen as a big risk. I think they believed in the intelligence and empathetic potential of their audience enough to create a game that’s a much truer reflection of reality, especially demographically, than most games are. And the “risk” paid off.

Lee Everett

The Walking Dead is not some treatise on racism and race in America. Instead, it is the story of one man’s attempt to weather the apocalypse while figuring out how to be a supportive father to a young, orphaned girl. In my view, this approach is so much better than an outright reflection on race. We have a well-developed, sympathetic, and complex character whose race is mostly incidental.

Yes, race does occasionally come up — but the game is set in Georgia, which is still a place where racial tensions can still be particularly, well, tense. Heck, Georgia is in America where racial tensions are still tense.

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It is, however, also the zombie apocalypse, so Lee doesn’t have to come up against many established societal structures. We do encounter characters like Larry, who is pretty blatantly racist (I’ve always wondered: does Larry really know about Lee’s past or is he assuming Lee is a criminal based on racial prejudice? [As far as I can remember without looking up the script, he never gives details about Lee’s crime.] is the reason that he remembered the news story about Lee because it confirmed his racist beliefs?), and Kenny has his fair share of racist assumptions (“urban”).

Race is commented on, but it doesn’t affect the story in any great way. After all, Larry and, as much as I like the guy, Kenny are both jerks to everybody. Some of Lee’s interactions and experiences are informed by race, but the game is never about race.

When thinking about this, it’s essential to keep in mind that everybody’s experience is affected by their race. A white person’s interactions with others are just as affected by their race as anyone elses’, but the effects of race on a white person are more likely to be positive and therefore less noticed. (There are so many reasons that white people notice their race less often, that I can’t possibly go into it here. If you’re interested, there is a plethora of information available from a simple Google search. Looking up white privilege is a good place to start.) Really, Lee’s experiences aren’t any more or less affected by his race than a white character’s experiences.

Telltale doesn’t take Lee’s blackness as the point of his existence as a character. Instead they treat it as another aspect of his life; it affects him just as much as being a man or a university professor. All are things that need to be taken into account while writing, but they aren’t single issues that rule his entire life.

One of the smaller things that I appreciated was the reversal of the white main character/black sidekick dynamic in Lee and Kenny. Kenny may not be the most loyal of friends depending on how you play the game, but he comes back around in the end. At the very least, he and Lee have a complicated and fraught relationship that most people have strong feelings about. Another success in favor of Telltale’s writing skills.

Lee & Clementine

Before I say anything else, it’s just straight up nice to see a relationship between an older single man and a young girl that none of the characters question too much or make creepy comments about. Lee and Clementine care about each other, and, overall, everyone accepts that. My own hypothesis is that Telltale might not have wanted to bring up thoughts of pedophilia in their audience’s minds while simultaneously asking the audience to invest heavily in the relationship. I don’t really care what the reason is, because it’s straight up absurd how often people jump to pedophilia — whether they are “joking” or not — when a man and a girl have any sort of caring relationship or friendship.

Another thing I would like to mention are the constant prompts of “Clementine will remember that” while speaking to her.

First of all, thank you for the punch to the gut at the end there, Telltale. You stress me out worrying about what I’m teaching Clementine throughout the whole game and then the last time I get to give her any advice and it says she’ll remember it and I know she really will for the rest of her life because it’s the last time she’ll get to talk to Lee and ugh why are you doing this to me.

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I need to hug this out.

Ahem. Anyway.

The repetition of this line is where it’s power lies, and not only in the setup for the last scene of the game. Although you can turn the prompts off, I played with them on, and they served as a constant reminder that I was dealing with characters that would remember and react to my actions. In turn, this adds pressure to the player.

If Clementine genuinely remembers whether you say shit instead of manure in Episode One and this comes back in a later episode of the game, then Lee (aka you) have to be careful with your actions. It’s certainly possible to play the game as a jerk (to an extent), but Clementine makes that choice less likely. Because she’s such a likable character, most players have seemed to want to take on a nurturing role towards her. Clementine’s presence during many scenes has certainly prompted me to try to do the moral thing instead of simply the “correct” or easiest gameplay choice. After all, I don’t want Clementine to see me kill that guy! She’s only seven — I want to protect her from violence as much as I can. And I don’t want her to think badly of me. After all, not only will “Clementine remember that,” she’ll definitely bring it up later.

In my opinion, this subtle push toward morally correct behavior slightly mitigates the potentially racially charged aspects of Lee’s past. Because of his many tender, nuggets-of-wisdom moments with Clementine we see much more of his professor/teacher side than his murderer one, and his professor self is also the part of himself that is less racially stereotypical. I’ll admit that I was a little worried when the game — finally, I had thought, a game with a black protagonist — started with Lee in the backseat of a cop car. But by the end of the game, I think they were able to pull that plot point off without the game ever descending into harmful stereotype — an impressive feat.

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Guys, I was seriously really worried.

The Future

So where does the sequel go from here?

I personally believe that the two people seen on the hillside during the post credits scene are Christa and Omid. I just… have trouble with the other possibilities. What would be the point of stranding Clementine out in the middle of nowhere with only two walkers to keep her company? It’s possible that they’re two new characters that’ll appear in the second game, but if they’re not then I think they have to be Christa and Omid.

I know I warned about spoilers before, but I’m serious this time. If you are reading this having not played the game EVEN IF YOU THINK YOU WILL NEVER PLAY IT BECAUSE YOU SHOULD then don’t watch this. This is the very, very last scene in the game.

Going off of what I believe to be the most probably ending, this means that all three characters at the end are people of color. I won’t go into this much now since I harped on enough about it in my post last week, but, as far as I know, this is unprecedented in video games and rare in all other forms of Western media.

And — I would be beyond psyched if this happened — it’s very possible that Clementine will be the main character of the sequel. Pragmatically, it makes sense. Telltale doesn’t have to do any extra work to get us invested in Clementine, so they can leap right into the action.

I’m particularly hoping for this because:

  1. It would be really wonderful to have a black female main character. We already have very few well-done female characters as it is, and even fewer characters of color.
  2. It would lessen some of Clementine’s “damsel in distressiness” from the first game. Clementine’s relative degree of helplessness (relative to the adult characters) is certainly justified in-game. She’s a young, scared child who can’t be expected to run around guns a-blazing. But it also fits into a wider trend of men saving helpless women and young girls. (I do like that Lee is not related to her, however. Often the impetus for the male protagonist’s quest is a kidnapped/killed/sick daughter [Think of any number of action movies, Taken being the most obvious], and I like seeing this mixed up at least a little.) Also, because of the nature of the first person narrative, Clementine’s growth as a character is inextricably tied up in Lee’s growth. If Clementine is the main character next time around — and I’m thinking this would be after a time skip — then not only will she be taking care of herself, but she’ll become an even more developed, individualized character.

So what do you think? Is that really Christa and Omid on that hill? What are your predictions for the next game?

Further reading:

This short, sweet report on Telltale’s 2013 GDC talk about Lee’s race and it’s effect on the game. If you’re interested in the developer’s intentions, I highly recommend giving it a read.

4 Responses to “Lee’s not “urban”: or how to write black characters the right way”

  1. Bellatrix September 30, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    I hope it’s Christa and Omid on the hill. I would like to play as Omid, he’s awesome! It want to date a guy like him… Anyway, yeah… The cop car thing worried me too. I’m a white female who has a father with Kenny’s personality, and I was seriously hoping that this wasn’t one of those retarded games that my dad would be like “See (insert racist stuff)” too… Especially since my BFF is just like Clem.

    I hope to god that season 2 comes out soon. I heard rumors it’s supposed to come out on the 13th of October, but I dunno. :)

    • howmanyprincesses September 30, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

      Oh man, I would be so psyched if season 2 came out that soon. I bought the 400 Days DLC, but I actually haven’t played it yet. Maybe I’ll do that today!

      If I can’t play as Clementine, I would totally play as Omid. Agreed — he’s awesome.

      I’m still a little puzzled about why Telltale went with making Lee a criminal. It didn’t have a huge effect on the storyline other than to make Lee sort of mysterious. And I guess to create a redemption story for him. The problem with that, though, is that he was never a bad kind of guy. Even his crime was a crime of passion, which, I think, we tend to forgive more when consuming fiction. I don’t know…. It sort of worked for me, and it also sort of didn’t.

  2. Lola Guin December 21, 2013 at 5:04 am #

    Interesting article. I just wanted to add one thing for now. I disagree that Larry is a racist. There’s virtually no evidence to support this. He says to Lee, at the end of episode 1, that he knows who he is. He calls him by his FULL name, something no one in the group (apart from Carley, who told no one) knows at this point. Larry is from the area. It was a pretty big case in Georgia. He killed a state senator. THAT is his gripe with Lee. He didn’t assume anything. Larry is just an a-hole. He was an a-hole to Kenny and Duck as well. He just really had it out for Lee because he KNOWS that Lee was convicted of murder very recently. If you’re going to call someone a racist you need proof. I agree with much of what you said about Lee and Clem being really well-written characters and how their race is incidental (which is how it should be if we’re judging people by the content of their characters and not skin color or culture). Good article, I just felt you’re wrong about Larry. Trust me, I can’t stand Larry, but I don’t feel that we had evidence enough to accuse him of being racist.

    • howmanyprincesses December 21, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

      I definitely think it’s a debatable point, but I still don’t fully agree with you. I think you might be operating from the point of view that being branded as a racist is a HUGE deal. (I’m not trying to say you definitely feel that way, but it seems like it from your comment.) As in, if you’re regarded as racist, people are basically saying you’re are an irredeemably disgusting person and that you completely, at all times hate members of other races. That’s not the definition I’m working with. Larry knows that Lee is a murderer, and that has an enormous effect on Larry’s treatment of him. However, I believe that treatment is also effected by Larry’s racist assumptions. This isn’t something I can outright prove — which is how it often is in real life. It comes more from questions I asked during my playthrough: “If Lee were white, would Larry be as suspicious of him?”; “”Are stereotypes of black men as being more violent combining with the actual fact of Lee being a murderer to make Larry hate him so much?” I haven’t played the game in a while, but I recall Larry calling Lee “boy” several times. That is, very subtly, racist. It’s the type of racism that can easily be played off, but has a history that shouldn’t be ignored. I also accused Larry of being racist (mostly to see what he’d do), and when I discussed it with him later he said something like “what’re you going to do about it?” I’m not saying that Larry is totally unjustified in not trusting Lee or that he’s not a general asshole, but I do feel like his behavior has some race-based motivations. Again, this is not some huge accusation. Heck, Kenny says racist things as well! He can be a jerk, but, like Larry, he’s a devoted father (in a different way) and isn’t some sort of monster. I’m also not going to sit here and insist that you think Larry is a racist now. These things are complicated in real life (which is why I love the way Telltale wrote the game) and don’t boil down to easy answers. I guess what I’m mostly saying is that I got a certain vibe from Larry that I read in combination with American history and the history of the American south. I think it’s entirely possible that, for certain players and perhaps for Lee, Larry would seem to be racist, but that he’s more of a guy who doesn’t share much or feel the need to defend himself. He could also not be all that racist but still be effected by racist feelings. In real life, that’s very common.

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