Evan Narcisse, Black Panther author and narrative design consultant with a resume that boasts hits like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and the War for Wakanda DLC for Marvel’s Avengers, continues to navigate the complex role race plays in the work he’s brought onboard to do, especially when dealing with Black characters.
“I do think there’s an aspect of some of these outreach instances where people just assume that there’s a kind of homogenized, monolithic Black experience that I’m in touch with instinctually and can call on in a moment’s notice,” Narcisse says. We talked about Du Bois’ work and the ways the phenomenon of double consciousness acted as a precursor to what we currently think of as intersectionality. We also talked about tokenism in the video game industry and how frequently Black creators, actors, developers, and the like are sought after to highlight a particular Black experience that ends up being treated with little variety.
“We know that one of the things that makes video games unique is the ability to embody a character [and] control their actions, resulting in a feedback loop of self-identification that is really strong,” Narcisse says over Zoom. He strives to follow one of his most important rules of character creation: Treat your character like a real person. Allowing diverse characters in the digital space to thrive, with depth and dimension, is one of the ways Narcisse grapples with identity, race, and belonging in video game narratives.
This understanding allows us to present Black characters as more than soldiers, thugs, or barely humanized weapons for the player to wield with impunity. Such representation allows players to empathize with fully realized characters in ways that potentially ask them to address their own implicit racial biases. Ozioma Akagha, whose voice acting chops span multiple iconic roles, like Shuri in Marvel’s What I …? series and Alyx Vance from Half-Life: Alyx, explains the importance of being able to see herself in a given role.
“When I see roles like Julianna [Blake] in Deathloop and Hana [Cole] in Gears of War 5, I’m like—look at this! We exist in this fantasy world. So I get excited about that, and I go for that.” While the number of women in video games has steadily climbed over the past several years, the appearance of Black women in protagonist roles is still rare. “The world kind of tells Black people what being Black is, but I like how in the roles I’ve been blessed to have … it’s a person going through a human experience in a human world, and that’s what being Black is,” she says.
Akagha isn’t the only voice actor who appreciates the flexibility video games allow for the growth of Black characters. Noveen Crumbie, who starred as Nicole Olivia Wheaton in My Loft and Solari Sentinel in Legends of Runeterra, and who plays fan favorite Layla Ellison in Arkane Studios Austin’s upcoming vampire shooter Redfall, says her close relationship with her voiceover agent helps get her to the right roles. They “email me specific roles they think I’ll be right for,” Crumbie says in a Zoom call. “Lately I have been seeing auditions where it’ll state in specifications ‘seeking primarily Black people for this role,’ which is really good to see. Now these clients out there are actually paying attention and seeking the right people for these roles.”