When I was 11 years old, Rockstar North released Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. For the better part of the next few months, I’d meet my best friend, Kenny, at his house, and play the seventh installment of the GTA series for hours at a time.

(If you don’t already know, the Grand Theft Auto series is rated M, for mature by the Entertainment Software Rating Board. I don’t know how Kenny got this game, especially considering we had to play it out of eye and ear shot of his mom, but that’s a can of worms I’ll leave sealed today.)

There was nothing more exciting than taking control of Carl “CJ” Johnson and wreaking havoc over a fictionalized version of Los Angeles. But when we weren’t hitting licks in our digital gang, Kenny and I would take turns cruising around the hazy, sun-splashed city of Los Santos, while listening to the in-game radio’s 1990s soundtrack.

Rockstar made a masterpiece. GTA: San Andreas’ original release earned a 95 on Metacritic, placing it as high as the third best reviewed title in the series, and the highest rated GTA game in 2004, when it was released. And though I wouldn’t come to realize it until almost a decade later, Rockstar also crafted a game steeped in cultural accuracy, a trait that would come to define the developer for the rest of its lifespan.

Revisiting the game in 2015, and after a quick bout of nostalgia, I remembered why San Andreas, and more accurately, CJ, stuck out to me. It was the first time I took control of a black player character in a video game. Though the game played up the 90s stereotypes, pop culture and general atmosphere — towards the end of the game the city endures a retelling of the 1992 L.A. riots — playing as CJ was always a joy. I grew up 2,800 miles from Southern California, but parts of my own life resonated with the virtual gangbanger. We shared a last name and came up in a single parent household. We even had the ever-pressing mindset of “getting out” from our respective situations.

Though I spent days hiding away and playing GTA, my video gaming priorities have always been multifaceted. My interest in role-playing games, specifically series like Persona and Final Fantasy has kept my attention on a different hub for gaming ingenuity: Japan. But after bonding with CJ through our shared experiences, and after seeing black representation by Japanese developers I was left wondering: What happened to us in video games?

The PlayStation Classic is the latest in a series of retro video game re-releases. Originally the debut console for Sony in 1994, the gaming giant released a miniaturized version of it, pre-installed with 20 games, in December 2018.

I set up my console excited to dive into Revelations: Persona. It’s a game about killing zombies and mythical creatures using weaponized aspects of your personality, or personas. Prior to the PS Classic, I played plenty of Personas 3, 4 and 5, but had never had the chance to give the first game in the series a go.

Much of my enjoyment of the persona series, and what I imagine has created its cultish following, is the tightly written dialogue and character creation. A series that uses a hodgepodge of influences from religions the world over isn’t so easily scaled down into a single gaming experience. But Persona has proved to be able to accomplish this feat time and time again thanks Atlus’ keen eye for characterization. Everyone has their role, from the earliest introduced protagonist to the last party acquisition before the final dungeon.

However, one of Revelations: Persona’s main characters, Mark, stands in contrast to the series’ tight-knit character development. Known as Masao Inaba in the Japanese version of the game, the localization team redesigned his physical appearance and introduced him as “Mark” to western audiences.

If I didn’t know better, there’d be nothing inherently wrong with Mark’s inclusion in the game. Physically, Mark is portrayed respectfully enough. Mark lacks the excessively dark skin that could be mistake him for a minstrel like Dragonball’s Mr. Popo or Pokemon’s Jynx. (Admittedly, I never took offense to Popo growing up, or even now for that matter, as his heavy accent and mystical powers led me to categorize him as more of a mythical being than anything encroaching upon racism. Black Jynx however? Yeah that was just racist.)

Jynx’s original portrayal (left).

Initially, I was furious at Mark’s inclusion; there was nothing remarkable about him, save for adding a token drop of diversity to a stagnant melting pot. Mark was a symptom of equality, not equity in video games, that presupposes representation is easily remediable. There was nothing inherently black about Mark beyond his temper, noted in the script by the use of capitalization and ebonics in his dialogue, and his hastiness, which led him to infiltrate a police station for weaponry and ended in his subsequent capture. He was shoehorned into the game to fill a quota (equality), not address a need (equity).

But after tempering my reaction to this game released in 1996, I realized that Mark’s inclusion should be celebrated. It wasn’t a Japanese decision to include African American Mark in Revelations: Persona. Rather, that decision fell on the shoulders of the American Localization team. And while there are better ways to create black characters in fantasy media (which we’ll get to shortly), that Mark got as much screen time as he did (and didn’t die) deserves recognition.

Despite the time between game development and localization continuing to shrink, we’ve seen companies continue to overhaul Japanese media for Western audiences. Preparing a game for a specific audience has been met with criticism. As fans have gotten smarter — internet access has seemed to improve gamers’ international literacy to the extent that cultural references are not easily lost on them — there have been cries to streamline the localization process.

In a June 2017 Kotaku interview, Tetsuya Takahashi, CEO of the Japanese developer Monolith Soft and executive director of Xenoblade Chronicles X, commented on the role of Western localization of Japanese games. Using the example of a breast size slider that was exclusive to female created characters in the Japanese release, Takahashi said that despite fan backlash, certain things have to be changed for a western audience.

“I think what’s important is that we make sure that the end user who actually plays the game doesn’t have a bad experience,” Takahashi said. “If that change is going to help alleviate that, then I think we should definitely make it.”

The eye for making changes that Takahashi claims game designers have has been in development for years. Yoshinori Kitase and Tetsuya Nomura, game directors for Final Fantasy VII, which introduced Barrett, the series first black playable character (inspired by Mr. T), originally considered killing him off during the story. Considering that too obvious, they instead offed Aerith, a change that helped avoid race based criticism in the long run.

That change didn’t stop Western localizers from keeping Barrett entrenched in his stereotypically black portrayal. Like Persona’s Mark, Barrett is loud, tosses around slang and hyphenated words like his life depended on it, and is probably a candidate for high blood pressure given his relentless temper.

The increase in speed of localization then, which Takahashi noted is a product of back and forth discussions throughout game development rather than a final renovation after the Japanese game has neared completion, has helped to limit the amount of Mark and Barrett-like changes to Westernized release. This is great news to an extent, though the worldwide release of Final Fantasy VII’s remake will still include a distinctly Mr. T-sounding Barrett.

Though Japan’s insular culture has fostered watered down versions of many demographics — blondes haired, blue eyed foreigners tend to get the shaft as well — they’ve made amends in the accuracy of representation. Sazh Katzroy from Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t always black during development, and while his use as comic relief is often a trope relegated to characters deemed “the other” in Japanese games, Sazh leads one of the game’s most compelling story lines; a search for his son who was taken by the military for research. Sazh’s role as a pilot also increases his utility — on more than one occasion does his flight skills save the rest of the cast from certain doom.

Sazh’s character should be the standard for localization teams. The American release of FFXIII didn’t retrofit Sazh’s dialogue with ebonics nor turn him into an irrationally angry, hyper-masculine man-child. He still a rational, and easily frightened man who isn’t defined by the color of his skin. Characters like Sazh have improved race equity in Japanese video games. While I sympathized with CJ’s plight in San Andreas, I hope that I don’t always have to control a thug or ‘roid rager if I want to play as a black character.

Japanese developers have increasingly become sympathetic to international views on race and gender representation. Their outside perspective is suited to identifying potential sticking points in character creation. (Rockstar’s status as a company based in Scotland has similarly helped in the GTA games’ portrayal of the US.) Where a western localization team might dump in a black character or change female proportions to preempt discussion on representation, Japanese developers have the benefit of using a wide-angle lens to avoid low hanging stereotypes.

Representation in Japanese video games exists on a delicate balance. As native developers are embracing a more pluralistic idea of race, localizers are trying to fight the tradition of boiling down black characters into chariactures. It is still a long way to race equity, but continued conversations will help us get there.