Frey in the main image for the game "Forspoken."

Black Girl Gamers Issue Statement on ‘Forspoken’ Criticism, Emphasizing The Need For Inclusion At ALL Levels

From Forspoken‘s first trailer all the way up to the launch in January 2023, there has been nothing but controversy with the game. The story-driven action RPG follows a young Black woman transported into the fantastical yet hostile land of Athia. Amid the monsters and magic, she’s desperate to find her back in New York City. While Forspoken has had lots of valid criticism, like many other pieces of media, it’s difficult to express nuanced criticism without sounding like the hoards of people trashing the game just because the main character is a Black woman. Now one of the game’s consultants is speaking out two months later.

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Outside of frame-rate issues, one of the biggest critiques was the dialogue of the main character. Many accused Frey of sounding Joss Whedon-esque and Marvel-esque. These descriptors get tossed around a lot with spunky characters or as a substitute for “cringe.” However, this was not too far off from early reporting of Forspoken by journalists at publications like Kotaku and Axios. The early development and writing talent featured people with experience working on beloved games like TellTale’s The Walking Dead and Uncharted. That being said, the team was devoid of Black writers. At some point, Square Enix realized that they need a Black women’s perspective to tell this story. So, they enlisted consultants to look at Frey and the other women in the story.

Statement from Black Girl Gamers

As people finished the game, many noticed that Forspoken listed CEO of Black Girl Gamers (BGG), Jay-Ann Lopez, among many in the “special thanks” portion of the credits. From charity organizing to industry networking, and of course, games discussion and playing games, BGG connects Black women interested in gaming worldwide. Almost two months after the release of Forspoken, BGG released a statement on their involvement with the game.

We are pleased to announce that Black Girl Gamers was hired as a paid consultant on Forspoken, which included having the opportunity to play a pre-release build of the game and provide feedback on the overall experience– from the gameplay experience to the portrayal of Frey as a female protagonist of Black descent.

As with any consultation project, and due to the timing of our consultation being initiated during the latter stages of the game’s development, not all of the suggestions we shared pertaining to colorism and texturism were implemented in the final game. Due to the nature of our contract, we cannot disclose specific suggestions, however, we were pleased to see that some of our input was reflected in the final version of the game. As a trusted voice in gaming, diversity, and inclusivity, we were brought in. We had an opportunity to weigh in on the game – especially given that it is one of the first games to feature a fantasy female protagonist of Black descent. The importance was key to us and our community and this was communicated during our consultation.

With that said, our consultant really enjoyed the gameplay. It is an entertaining experience for those who love open-world, fast-paced parkour combat with fantasy magic. Forspoken centers itself on the representation of women of all different experiences, and due to that – the game has unfairly received extreme and unjust criticism about its quality. Forspoken has the potential to be a great franchise and we hope to see a continuing trend of more representation in Fantasy games. However, for the fantasy genre in general, there needs to be greater awareness and proactivity about the importance of hiring a team that consists of Black writers, developers, and consultants; additionally, paying those individuals and content creators their worth.

It is important for organizations to partner with authentic voices in the Black community when promoting all games. The services that we provide can help organizations connect with underrepresented and diverse audiences to garner genuine reactions around activations and also help to ensure that the organization is up to standard when it comes to fair and equal pay.

I’m not sure what more can be said of studios and other creative teams. BGG said it all and way more respectfully that what feels required at this point. The call to have a diverse team at every level of production, from development to marketing, is not a big ask—especially for a studio like Square Enix. Considering their controversies with Final Fantasy, one would expect them to go above and beyond in other games.

AAA games have the resources to uphold standards

It wasn’t just the writer’s team that was cause for alarm. The motion capture and voice-over director (Tom Keegan) described Frey’s mannerisms as a “very hip-hoppy kind of walk.” This is not only racist but is eerily familiar to how others in entertainment like to describe (non-threatening) Black characters—especially boys. In 2020, a Gamespot review of Marvel’s Spider-Man infamously described Miles Morales as moving with “the exaggerated swagger of a Black teen.” In another grievance against Miles, the 2022 What If..? comic run was full of other upbeat microaggressions like the phrase “By Odin’s fade.”

While the lead actress (and the person they modeled Frey after), Ella Balinska, is a Black woman, the entire responsibility for representation cannot be put on her—or any one person, for that matter. Most mid to large-size studios can and should do better than this. Half-assing this approach to representation, where you bring in people well into the development process, is not sufficient. It leaves the audience you want to reflect feeling disappointed and fuels the hate online—the kind of hate that thrives on the ability to speak in dog whistles. There are very few games where a Black woman is a lead character. I’m not talking about games where there is a diverse roster (Overwatch, etc.) or you can customize it (Baldur’s Gate 3). I’m talking about games where all aspects of the character are designed from the start. This whole debacle has been embarrassing.

(featured image: Square Enix)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.