When I think about gaming and the role I play in that process, one fact gradually becomes clear — I don’t have a strong need to identify with the character I control. Sure, the actions that I perform should be in line with my general principles. If I had to perform in-game actions that I find abhorrent in real life, some cognitive dissonance is sure to occur. But I’m not too fussy about the background and the makeup of my character, as long as it’s well developed and not a complete jackass. Though the majority of my playthroughs have inevitably been with white men, I’ve also played men and women of various ethnic backgrounds, and rarely found immersion a problem.
That being said, I can understand why there’s a push for more diversity in lead characters. Modelling your heroes exclusively according to idealised versions of your target demographic may be sound business sense, but it doesn’t do any favours where developing your art form is concerned.
There’s the risk, or rather the eventuality, of the same stories being regurgitated ad nauseam. There’s only so much you can wring out of one broad character archetype, after all. What’s more unfortunate is when games that take the risk are overlooked, thus feeding into the game industry line that cookie cutter characters are the way to go. One of these gems is Urban Chaos, a 1999 action game from Mucky Foot Productions. Well, I say action, but sandbox game would probably be a closer fit, considering it has an open environment, and all the vehicles in the level can be commandeered. In fact, it even predates GTA3, which is generally considered the granddaddy of all sandboxes.
The game’s protagonist is Darci Stern, one of the few African-American female lead characters in the history of gaming. In stark contrast to Claude Speed, GTA3’s mute protagonist, Darci is a tough talking rookie cop on the Union City Police Department, who signs up to clean the streets but finds herself having to deal with otherworldly threats soon enough. It’s funny how GTA is known for its ‘work your way up the crime ladder’ routine, and this one has you on the other side – makes you wonder whether GTA could have existed as a cop game instead of a criminal one. You wouldn’t even need to change the name, really.
Admittedly, Urban Chaos cannot match GTA3 for world size or freedom. The tradeoff is that it tries to make the setting more intimate — Union City feels much more small town than the impersonal Liberty City. There are still several nooks and crannies to explore and as missions go by, you find the city opening up bit by bit. Hand-to-hand combat is also much beefier, and in general, melee mojo seems a more viable strategy, especially considering how as a cop, non-lethal approaches are generally expected.
Though if you read some of the news articles these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. It’s brought down a bit by a terrible camera system, which is especially frustrating when manoeuvring vehicles in tight quarters. Granted, GTA doesn’t exactly cover itself in glory where the camera is concerned, but it’s sort of saved by having mouse support to apply corrections on the fly.
I’ve got to say, despite the crime and the underlying horror tone to the entire area, Union City still feels like a great place. At least, judging by the way Darci is treated by her colleagues. She doesn’t get the slightest discrimination for her gender, her race, or even for being a rookie. In fact, her colleagues start trusting her with tricky assignments and even ask for personal favours when they’re not up to their task.
It’s such a meritocracy that it’s almost a caricature. Still, Mucky Foot deserve serious props for giving us a character who represents a very overlooked demographic in games (and real life), and letting her free to kick all sorts of behinds. It’s a shame that they weren’t able to expand on her story, seeing that the studio was closed after only three games. In fact, publishers Eidos did them a bit of a disservice by using the Urban Chaos name in a 2006 game by Rocksteady, effectively sweeping Darci and co under the rug. Let’s see that she gets her rightful place in the gaming pantheon, people.