Games

Soapbox: Indies Lead The Way But Nintendo Shows Progress Representing People Of Colour

Image: Nintendo

Before we begin, let me address one thing: media representation is important. Always has been, always will be, but many keep questioning why. Whenever this subject appears, comments like “why does it matter? Why can’t you just play the game?” appear and if you’ve ever thought this, chances are that you’ve always been well represented. In recent years, the games industry has become more inclusive and while progress remains needed, thankfully, that’s not slowing down. However, despite positive steps, those efforts continue facing intense resistance.

When Nintendo can’t outline extremely basic diversity initiatives without accusations of “pandering” or “virtue signalling”, it’s a problem. I’ve lost count of how often I’ve seen POC (people of colour) representation described as “forced” or “political”, and it’s the same for LGBTQ+ characters. To such critics, simply discussing these matters is too much. They tell us we’d be better served by remaining quiet and that highlighting these issues only deepens the divide, which would be a bizarre take if it wasn’t so completely transparent. There’s nothing political about people existing or wanting to play as themselves in video games, putting ourselves into those worlds is part of the escapism. After all, how often have we all replicated ourselves (or at least attempted to!) inside a character creator?

As a British-Caribbean man, personally, I just want to see POC characters represented. We don’t need grand explanations, elaborate story reasons and, please for the love of god, no stereotypes. Just let them be there as a normal cast member, job done. That’s not an unreasonable request. Sometimes — not all the time, necessarily, but sometimes — I’d like to play as someone who looks like me, to see characters who might have shared experiences. Many games don’t need a story, but we often get invested when they do, and that’s when it becomes more than “just a game”. Considering this current backdrop, it’s important to recognise what representation we already have, and in the past few years, Nintendo has slowly improved.

The original presentation of Mr. Game & Watch in Super Smash Bros. featured a brief appearance of Native American stereotype, which Nintendo was swift to patch out
The original presentation of Mr. Game & Watch in Super Smash Bros. featured a brief appearance of Native American stereotype, which Nintendo was swift to patch out (Image: Nintendo)

Now, I’m not going to claim Nintendo as some bastion of POC representation and I can’t ignore where it has previously gone wrong. Mr. Game & Watch using a Native American silhouette (before being swiftly removed) in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is perhaps the most recent example. Pokémon’s original Jynx design famously resembled blackface, and Skull Kid’s Japanese design originally drew similar criticism. Let’s not forget Punch-Out!! either, using stereotypes like initially naming the Russian fighter “Vodka Drunkenski”, before changing it to Soda Popinski.

Breath of the Wild gave us Lady Urbosa, a fearless but compassionate chief, taken too soon by Calamity Ganon

Granted, most listed instances here are historic and recent times have shown more positive corporate action. Alongside Nintendo President Shuntaro Furakawa’s recent affirmation in supporting diversity, last year saw Nintendo join Microsoft, Sony and other publishers in sharing their support for Black communities and BLM worldwide. Furthermore, according to a now-deleted tweet, one Nintendo employee suggested the company was double-matching donations to related causes, going beyond its standard policy of simply matching donations. Sure, as with any company or cause, you can argue it could have done more — and in some ways, I’m inclined to agree — but the fact we’re actually seeing visible action is an improvement.

Within its games, POC representation was rather light until recent years, and a notable ‘earlier’ appearance was the Gerudo tribe in the Zelda series. While Ganondorf was the Gerudo King, the franchise has brought us strong examples of Gerudo who ultimately opposed him, such as Ocarina of Time’s Naboruu, the Sage of Spirit. More recently, Breath of the Wild gave us Lady Urbosa, a fearless but compassionate chief, taken too soon by Calamity Ganon. As for Urbosa’s successor, Riju, we found an interesting character — one that ascended to her position too young, full of doubt but ultimately a capable leader.

Between those two Zelda entries, a surprising source of POC representation also came from 2010’s Metroid: Other M, and while I won’t pretend there aren’t valid criticisms surrounding Samus’ portrayal in that game, Team Ninja did a great job with Galactic Federation soldier Anthony Higgs, one of her old friends. Reuniting aboard the BOTTLE SHIP, not only does Higgs prove himself to be a fine soldier, he’s one of the few characters to show Samus genuine respect across this adventure. Undoubtedly, their friendship was one of Other M’s highlights.

not only does Higgs prove himself to be a fine soldier, he’s one of the few characters to show Samus genuine respect across this adventure

Fire Emblem is another prominent example, though until Three Houses that never extended beyond minor recruitable characters. Alongside Edelgard and Dimitri, Claude made for a genuinely intriguing leader of the Leicester Alliance, easygoing on the surface but a cunning strategist underneath. Dedue’s role cannot be understated and while he isn’t as prominent, his position as Dimitri’s loyal retainer highlighted prejudice many within the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus held towards his homeland, Duscur. Petra too, Brigid’s kind-hearted Crown Princess that’s a political hostage for the Adrestian Empire, after her state is forced into vassalage.

Particularly on Switch, Nintendo’s library has continued improving in this area. While Pokémon Sun and Moon introduced several POC characters like Trial Captains Ilima and Kiawe — not forgetting Akala Island’s Kahuna Olivia — Sword and Shield built upon that further by offering key representation with our rival Hop, Gym Leader Nessa and the Galar region’s champion, Leon. Splatoon 2 featured a new DJ with Marina alongside band partner Pearl, greeting you every time you fired up the game with match details, while ARMS’ Twintelle became a popular pick with players, joined by Misango in the wider roster.

Hop
Image: The Pokémon Company

Just having those characters within is a step closer to normalising POC appearances, but few could argue that indie developers have regularly outshone Nintendo (and most major publishers) by exploring under-represented cultures. Raji: An Ancient Epic made for a commendable adventure last year, offering a brief but intriguing premise based around Hindu mythology. Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield recently gave us a stylish action-platformer set within a futuristic Detroit, while the upcoming Aztech Forgotten Gods imagines a Mesoamerica that wasn’t colonized by European powers.

That’s not forgetting Dandara: Trials Of Fear, an action-adventure platformer that draws upon Brazilian folklore. Several months ago, I spoke with Long Hat House’s João Brant, asking what inspired the developers to choose this setting. He confirmed that once they designed gameplay, they wanted to “add a certain “Brazilianty” to our games,” hoping to show people what their country was like. Looking into Brazillian conflicts, they drew inspiration from the Quilombo dos Palmares, gradually moving from a direct historical approach into an allegory.

Realising it had to be about slavery, Brant acknowledged this was a “very difficult topic to address” that required “a lot of research to do it respectfully”, telling me he believes Brazil treats its own history with slavery poorly. Eventually, they turned towards Afro-Brazilian warrior Dandara, discussing the symbolism within those legends and contrasting it with the little information known about her life. Ultimately, they chose Dandara’s name “as a homage”, moving onto new story ideas while incorporating elements of Brazilian history. While it wasn’t intended to fully educate players, Brant informed me this approach was designed as “an invitation” for players to learn more, and there’s a fascinating history within.

By exploring these under-represented cultures, indie developers have shown us exactly what gaming can accomplish. Nintendo’s efforts haven’t reached this stage yet — and while this may be a comic book adaptation, we’ve yet to see them address it in the way Sony’s recent Miles Morales game does — but the fact is POC are finally getting greater visibility in major titles, which is fantastic.

This isn’t a matter of wanting to see ourselves as Mario, it’s about seeing developers acknowledge the fact we exist, that we aren’t just side characters or after thoughts. The act of simply existing isn’t “political” and not all examples are perfect, but the wider industry’s making the right moves. Gradually, Nintendo has followed, something I hope it’ll continue building upon.



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