Is anyone else seriously bored with America? I wanted to make this a lengthy, well-research article, but I doubt I'll have the time, so I'll have to limit it to a smaller opinion piece.
Think of every real-world setting of a video game. What is the setting? What is the nationality of the star? If the game was developed in the west, odds are good the answer to that is "American." Even in Japanese games, set in Japan... When the game is localized, the VO is pretty much exclusively done by Americans, or Canadians that drop their regional dialect and accent to join the grey goo.
In games like Assassin's Creed 3, where the protagonist would logically have a strong native accent (I grew up with natives from the Aawmjiwnaang Reserve near Sarnia, ON; they definitely have their own accent), he's instead got a fairly plain-Jane, post-colonial American accent. Obviously, Natives don't talk like Tonto, but in a game that reveres historical accuracy, it seems like a weird omission.
I know why this is done though, unfortunately. When The Last Story came out, it was derided for having an English voice cast (or at least soundalikes). "Why are they all talking with an English accent???," the message boards asked. Well... Why the hell not? Why aren't you asking the same question of Americans voicing the characters in Persona 3? Sadly, when it comes down to it, a segment of the consumer base is physically incapable of escaping the norm.
But how does one handle non-English-speaking nationalities? The Metro games are an instance of how this becomes difficult. The English VO, which retains the Slavic accent and may be done by Ukrainian actors, sounds like it was done by American actors doing their best "Ruski" impression. For me, it feels cringe-worthy; the monotone droll of the Russian language, for me, better suits the setting and atmosphere of the games.
Once upon a time, and maybe not as much as today, the gaming media frequently complained about the whiteness of game characters... But I don't think this is an issue of race as much as it is nationality. Japanese games almost exclusively star Japanese characters (who western audiences in a post-propaganda world assume are white, since they don't have Brock eyes). American games star almost exclusively American characters - and keeping with Hollywood tradition, "American" means "white", unless they're trying to "like, say something, man", in which case black people will suffice. Of course, this unwritten rule completely ignores latinos, Asians, natives, Hawaiians, Inuit, Navajo peoples, and so forth, but OBVIOUSLY those people aren't REAL Americans, right?
One game that does this well is the new Wolfenstein. It has an African character. He's not there to be a token black guy, he's not a stereotype, and he's not whitewashed - he's just a guy fresh off the African front, fighting the same good fight as BJ and crew. He doesn't stand out as offensive, he isn't there just to "say something, man", he's just a dude caught up in a shitty world domination thing. Why does a game like Wolfenstein have to be the exception? This character's inclusion isn't forced, so why can't other games that claim to have an international cast pull a similar feat?
But let's go back to settings for a minute.
The Fallout universe claims to exist in a world devastated by nuclear war... So why is Washington considered a groundbreaking setting for the franchise? Personally, I'd love to see how Australia"s faring. Or China, given they were half of the problem in the first place. People obviously travel enough for the Brotherhood to exist in Chicago and DC, so why don't we, at very least, know what it's like in Canada or Mexico? I get that part of the Fallout equation is nostalgia Americana, but it's not like the force of that wasn't felt in its neighbours, and it's not like China didn't have its own period of silly nationalism under Mao Zhedong.
The Assassin's Creed universe really bugs me too. Yes, I understand that the Templar thing must naturally follow the Christian religion... But if this is the case, why are Africa and Latin America, two of the most Christian regions of the world, completely ignored? Hell, Eastern Europe for that matter; it's not like Poland is lacking in Catholics. Assassin's Creed is interesting in that its Arabic first character is pretty damned white, and its non-white characters (two black people) are relagated to poorly-made side projects. Sorta reminds you of the American film industry, eh? Even Connor is about as white-washed as you can make a Native character while still claiming he's a Mohawk.
Also relating to Wolfenstein, I find it funny that Americans make up a majority of the WW2 protagonists in gaming, despite the US consistently playing second fiddle to England (and her colonies) and France on the western front, and coming nowhere close to stacking up against the Soviet war machine on the eastern front. And let's not forget - India, Greece and Malta were all involved in major battles of the war, and how often do you hear about them? Granted, some indie games do address some of the war efforts of non-Americans, but these are few, and very really from the hands of AAA developers.
I think that about sums up what I wanted to say. Gaming has a massive world full of seemingly limitless cultures to explore. But instead, we are mostly faced with American voices, locales Americans will understand, and a swath of pro-American imagery and sentiment. I made this article not out of my Canadian obligation to resent all things American, but rather out of my disappointment considering all that could be. We could have a rich tapistry of culture and ideas, but instead, the biggest publishers in the industry, terrified to break the mold, recycle the same ideas and are mostly incapable of showing anything other than American culture. And often, when they do, cultures are portrayed as alien races or come across as so poorly researched and understood that they feel forced, or out of some marketing obligation.
At the end of the day, I think cultural representation in gaming, much like games on the whole, are going to be better addressed by the indie development world than by the major publishers. Off the top of my head, I can think of several high-quality games that dare to defy the standard - there's one about Inuit mythology, one that explores Swedish folklore, one that hinges it premise on the terror of the Canadian winter... Where AAA gaming, in more ways than one, fails due to its inability to take creative risks, indie developers will pick up the slack and make a fine dollar in the process.
Danke. Merci. Arigatou.