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Over the course of Forspoken, now out on PlayStation 5 and PC, its protagonist, Frey Holland, is very angry. She's been thrust into a world even crueler than the one she used to call home, and she isn’t happy about it. Still, the morning after escaping a magical storm, her talking bracelet companion, Cuff, points out that there's something about the chaos spreading around them that seems almost...graceful.
"Destruction and corruption are forms of creation in themselves," he points out.
"Wow. You sound like a serial killer," Frey snaps.
She repeats his words on destruction and corruption in a nasally, self-important tone, and Cuff objects before mocking Frey's voice in turn.
"You're fucking stupid," she responds.
The whole exchange made me wince, because Frey’s response felt bizarrely cruel in context. This 21-year-old woman character was making me feel very, very tired, and it was only halfway into a game that took me 16 hours to complete. At that point, I didn’t know how much longer I could take it.
When Forspoken, which was developed by Luminous Productions and published by Square Enix, was announced in 2020, using the placeholder title Project Athia, the game was shrouded in mystery. It wasn't until March 2021 that it officially became Forspoken and devs revealed that the protagonist would be a Black woman named Frey Holland, voiced by Ella Balinska (2019's Charlie’s Angels movie).
This was a big deal, because fewer than 8% of video game protagonists are Black women despite 73% of Black people identifying as gamers. But rather than getting praise, the release of a trailer last year received derision from gamers who targeted the overly self-aware exposition in the voiceover. When a gameplay demo was released in December, earlier concerns still hadn't really been addressed.
After playing the game myself, I can definitively say that if you were concerned about Forspoken being a mess of cliched writing, you're unfortunately not wrong. Overall, I was struck by the fact that this game — a rare action RPG (and an M-rated one, no less) starring a Black woman — is weirdly safe. Forspoken offers just enough color, both literally and figuratively, to hint at what could've been, but it ultimately leaves you starving: for nuanced representation, for immersion, for effort.
Forspoken begins a few days before Christmas in present-day New York City, where the orphaned Frey (her last name, Holland, comes from the Holland Tunnel, where she was discovered abandoned as a baby) is being arraigned for grand larceny. It’s her third strike after a lifetime surviving on the streets, but the judge decides to go easy on her: Frey gets off with probation.
On the way home, a bunch of her criminal conspirators threaten her for getting caught and bungling their heist, but Frey escapes, so they burn her apartment down while she’s inside, leaving her homeless and literally burning up her life savings. Later, she ends up in an abandoned shop admiring a shiny talking bracelet, which transports her through a portal to a world called Athia.
There, she learns she has a rare immunity to the Break, a magical plague linked to Athia’s mentally ill matriarchs, as well as magical abilities that allow her to stand and fight those women. Now, the people of Athia are hoping she can kill the rulers, called the Tantas, and save the world from the Break once and for all. Drama ensues as she unravels the mystery behind what caused the Break, how to stop it, and how she can get back home.
Frey and the talking bracelet Cuff, voiced by Jonathan Cake, spend much of their time in Athia, even in battles, bickering. While the cutscenes like the one I mentioned above tried my patience, the banter as you walk around isn’t anywhere near as grating as the people playing the demo feared it would be — I honestly found it to be pretty typical of action games in terms of frequency and content. And luckily, you also can use the settings to control how often Cuff makes conversation. Balinska voices Frey with convincing bite and cynicism, but there’s not much else to differentiate her beyond that. The other characters don't make much of an impression: The acting is serviceable and a bit joyless.
Although a tragedy that I won’t spoil here is used as a significant source of character development for Frey early on, I was often baffled by how mean she and Cuff come off. They’re mean to each other, they’re mean to everyone else. When the Break infects a person, it sometimes causes terminal mental illness in the form of hallucinations, memory loss, and cognitive decline. One character — an ally of Frey’s, no less — suffers from such an end-stage affliction. Cuff calls him a “crazed loon” multiple times, with no pushback from our protagonist, who herself gives the character a disparaging nickname.
Frey treats the Tantas, who were benevolent rulers before the Break corrupted them, similarly. In the final third of the story, Frey’s abrasiveness does take a back seat in favor of her destined pivot to Hero, and Cuff’s judgmental attitude does receive an explanation, but it feels like too little, too late.
Because they’re literally mad with sickness, the antagonists, much like Frey, have no depth, and the mysteries of why Frey ended up in Athia and what happened to her parents feel uninspiring once they’re revealed. (I won’t spoil it, but if you’ve consumed enough Chosen One stories, I’m sure you can guess.) It doesn’t help that the post-game — which dumps you back into Forspoken’s hub city, Cipal, to tie up loose ends — has more of the same Frey–Cuff bickering, which is uncharacteristic for them at that point in the plot.
Throughout my playthrough, I was constantly waiting for some aspect of the game to make me feel fully immersed, but it never came. Considering the number of delays and the game’s bungled marketing campaign, this isn’t surprising, but still it is disappointing, in large part because it seems like a relatively easy problem for AAA game developers to improve upon, if not solve. Luminous Productions and game studios as a whole need to hire better writers, and yes, some of them should be Black. (None of the writers on this game were people of color.)
It wasn’t all bad, though: I found myself briefly admiring the flashes of narrative that didn’t feel either bland or insensitive. For example, the game centers women, including Black women, in leadership (although, yes, the magical ones do all still turn evil and get murdered). It also provides space for a Black woman to be unlikable and unwilling to sacrifice herself for others and still end up being the hero.
And Frey’s well-timed “Fuck!”s after getting beat up or seeing some kind of weird fantasy bullshit was the closest I came to laughing at the dialogue. (More importantly, she loves cats, and there are many of them to pet!) But considering that a game director characterized Balinska as having a “very hip-hoppy kind of walk” during her motion capture performance, the game’s treatment of race (to say nothing of its depiction of mental illness) does raise the question of whether any representation offered by mainstream developers will ever be more than window dressing.
It betrays the cynicism of the gaming industry that it will create a protagonist who is brown to be “reflective of our diverse audiences” (as a Square Enix spokesperson claimed during a December 2021 preview of the game) without actually doing the work of making that character fully formed and moving through the world like a POC actually would. You can be Black in the ways that mainstream media considers authentic, like walking in a “very hip-hoppy" manner, collecting sneakers, and stealing cars — all of which Frey does — but not a drop more than that. We wouldn’t want to make certain gamers uncomfortable.
To be fair, Frey is far from the worst video game protagonist I’ve encountered, of any color, and Kotaku reported that Square Enix had hired “a number of consultants from BIPOC backgrounds” to vet Frey’s characterization. Balinska also gave “passionate” feedback during her recording sessions. Frey’s weird “How do you do, fellow kids?”–style quips are eyeroll-inducing at times but could have easily faded into the background if the game had actually been, well, fun. That is, after all, what we’ve come to expect from a blockbuster. The quippy, sarcastic script doesn’t suddenly become more irritating just because the protagonist is a Black woman.
Rather, I’m annoyed by the lack of effort among game developers to innovate when it comes to the richness of their characters, especially when those characters are people of color. The interactive nature of video games means there is always a large dose of wish fulfillment involved — we want to imagine ourselves as the protagonist, doing all the cool things that our fingers and the story are commanding them to do. But if Frey Holland is wish fulfillment, it’s not wish fulfillment for Black women in general. It’s wish fulfillment for a specific type of non-Black or privileged Black person who romanticizes the struggles associated with poverty and systemic neglect without actually wanting to name either of those things.
The first thing we are allowed to know about Frey is that she’s a habitual thief, which isn’t inherently racist. Over 30% of people with felony convictions are Black; meanwhile, Black children comprise over 20% of all kids in foster care and, once adults, one-fifth of the prison population. These people need representation too. But developers of all of our media are intellectually incurious about how the trauma of systemic oppression shows up in unexpected ways while marginalized people manage to find joy despite it all. If the developers felt that the wish fulfillment of a fish-out-of-water fantasy story didn’t allow for that kind of nuance, then fine, but then why make Frey a criminal in the first place?
If our games don’t even want to acknowledge that racism is a large part of why a Black orphan would be swallowed by the system and turn to crime, Black gamers should be able to reliably jump into the driver’s seat of a Black character without being beaten over the head by depictions of Blackness-as-pathology. The fact that we can’t is proof that this representation isn’t really for our benefit.
I’ve found myself asking: What if Frey’s presumably Black father (the mother is canonically white), who is revealed to be absent for reasons the game refuses to name, had been allowed to raise her? What if she was allowed to make friends and have hobbies despite her occasional run-ins with the law? What if her (understandable) anger was expressed in other ways beyond dismissal and utterances of “fuck” — if she were allowed to become flustered, or cry, or hell, compulsively eat Skittles? Anything beyond the limited range of emotion Black women are allowed to express in media?
“We decided to model Frey after casting actress Ella Balinska, as we felt she embodied our envisioning of Frey perfectly,” a Square Enix spokesperson said at the Forspoken 2021 preview. That’s great and all, but I can’t help but wonder why they left it at using Balinska as a physical model for Frey. It seems to me that if you’d want to make your Black woman character relatable but you’re not a Black woman yourself, it’s an obvious cheat code to ask your Black voice actor what her actual life is like and incorporate elements of that.
Instead, we get someone raised on the mean streets of NYC as an orphan because it’s easy, even though there’s also a large Black population in London, where Balinska is actually from. Even though to Frey, the biggest selling points of living in New York are “Central Park” and “knish.” It gives the impression that the script was written for casting that didn't consider race, and they simply pasted a Black woman into the story.
Just months ago, Square Enix came under fire for the comments of one of Final Fantasy XVI’s producers, who said that the upcoming game's world was predominantly white because POC wouldn't have been rooted in “reality” for the setting. The news led to ripples of criticism from people of color and compelled some gamers to write off the studio entirely, including when it came to the release of Forspoken.
Meanwhile, the immense backlash against Forspoken has already been criticized as racist, and a lot of it probably is. The reality is that even when you play it safe and check all the stereotype boxes to make a Black female protagonist that non-Black people deem authentic but still relatable — biracial with a white mother, absent Black father, light skin, angry, criminal, curses like a sailor — that doesn’t mean they’re actually going to like her.
The answer isn’t for more game developers to draw the same conclusion as those working on Final Fantasy XVI and not even bother to try. The answer, as it always has been, is simply to try harder.