The red and the black: exploring the leather jacket in video games
Two different jacket hues. Two distinct flavours of video game protagonist.
Consider the humble leather jacket. Inaugurated as the “bomber” – the garb of maverick pilots who conquered the skies in both World Wars – it subsequently took on many forms and roles. The black motorcycle jacket became a symbol of youthful defiance in the ’50s and ’60s, thanks to memorable performances by OG rebels James Dean and Marlon Brando. But over time the “rise against authority” attitude it represented was sanded-down to the sort of generic, arguably-trite “coolness” (see also the Fonz in later seasons of ’70s/early ’80s sitcom Happy Days).
In the world of video games, leather jackets have branched off to become a completely different kind of cliché. Over the past few years I’ve formed my own pet theory about the role that leather jackets play in the characterisation of certain video game protagonists – namely that they represent a fundamental dichotomy in the way that players identify with the character they control.
The core argument goes something like this: given that the designer is asking the player to not only watch this character, but inhabit and control them for hours upon hours of game-time, you better make damn sure that the player likes them (or at least has some attachment to their struggle). As an illustration of this, two different jacket hues represent two distinct flavours of video game protagonist. Characters in black leather jackets (and sometimes other muted colours) tend to slot into a traditional “everyman” persona, drawn with the broadest possible appeal such that the imagined audience can easily identify with them. The rarer red-leather examples, by contrast, brim with personality from the second they step on-screen. While this makes them stand out from the usual crop of characters, it also means that some might find them obnoxious, or even annoying.
As any hardcore gamer knows, most big budget video games tend to feature vacantly handsome white men as protagonists, usually seasoned with stubble and a heaping of pithy quips. These characters tend to populate the black leather-side of the spectrum, which has contributed to their dominance over the past two console generations. (While it’s difficult to break down such trends to an exact science, this arguably peaked in the early 2010’s. Some recent big games have tried to diversify a bit, including the globe-trotting Assassin’s Creed series and the chunky cover-shooter Gears 5.)
The red leather side of things can trace their origins back to the mouthy, ‘-tude-heavy milieu of the mid-’90s, like Duke Nukem and Bubsy the Bobcat. While the in-your-face approach that these icons epitomised has become passé in the intervening years – mostly due to the tasteless nature of their antics – they set the stage for characters that openly lionise the power-fantasy nature of so many of these games. While early shooter fans might feel more at home controlling the nameless marine of Doom (known to fans as Doomguy), they saw the chauvinistic action-hero of Duke Nukem 3D as what they wanted to be.
Since most hit video games are about pumping bullets into your heavily-armoured foes or blowing up munitions plants with rocket-propelled-grenades, it makes sense that these main characters tend to be on the roguish side of the spectrum, even when they are otherwise very standard in their bearing (more Robin Hood than White Knight, more Han Solo than Luke Skywalker). Over time, the leather jacket – regardless of colour – has become an easy shortcut to represent those roguish tendencies at a glance, with characters like Mass Effect’s Commander Shepherd, Deus Ex’s Adam Jensen and Uncharted’s Nathan Drake all donning the garb.
Recent game Control is an excellent example of how contemporary games approach the issue of the player and the protagonist – and the unlikely role that black leather jackets play in that equation. After observing that the spunky brunette player character Jesse Faden proudly dons a black leather jacket from the game’s opening minutes, I tried out a few predictions as to her overall temperament and arc. As I spent the next few hours exploring the surrealistic halls of its fictitious government agency, which plays out a bit like The X‑Files on acid, I wasn’t at all surprised to find that many of them came to pass.
Like many game protagonists of her type, Jesse is ultimately an extremely reactive character with very little in the way of her own personality, and no meaningful connections in the world besides one family member who serves as the carrot that she’s chasing for the entire game. Similar to Mass Effect’s Shepherd, other characters relate and respond to her chiefly through her authority as the “director”, not as a person, and her gradual acceptance of her own position forms her only meaningful development. (At the end of the game, she swaps her leather jacket for a smart business suit, thus symbolising her assimilation and acceptance of her place at the zenith of the secret bureaucracy.)
“When designing characters, typically we want to show their history and their personalities at a glance, in a way that is easily readable and believable by players,” says Audrey Axt, a game designer and character artist at studio Pixelakes. “You do that by using iconographic visual language, where certain styles of clothing items act as shorthand for ‘I’m tough’, ‘I’m a rule-breaker’ or ‘I’m a geek’, and don’t need further extrapolation.”
“In popular culture,” she continues, “a leather jacket has been a universally understood staple of the classical Hollywood rebel… Wearing [one] is typically shorthand for an anti-establishment, ‘I make my own rules’ [attitude].” Accordingly, Axt understands the perception that “they’re popular in games because it’s often the case that the player character is someone who is inherently anti-establishment in the narrative, so a leather jacket is an easy icon to represent they’re a bit of an underdog in the plot. Perhaps there’s a large, evil corporation you’ve got to infiltrate, a corrupt government you have to bring down, or just a simple alien invasion. Nothing says, ‘I’ll take down the system and make some one-liners in the process’ like a leather jacket.”
In the days before the technology that powered games could produce lifelike animations and hundreds of minutes of pre-rendered cutscenes to propel the plot, designers had a quick shortcut for getting around this problem: the “silent protagonist”. If the player’s avatar is merely a mute conduit for their desires and actions – even when non-player characters are jabbering at them – they will naturally feel a connection, and a crisis is averted.
I posit that in the intervening years, the black leather jacket hero – which Jesse is a particularly successful and sophisticated example – has become the industry’s replacement for the dusty conceit of the silent protagonist. These are characters that are perhaps one or two notches above mute at best, who lack identifying features beyond an implied rebelliousness or coolness, who stand for very little, and who are motivated solely by one of the handful of inciting incidents that game writers love to rely upon – usually a fridged woman.
To paraphrase Red Letter Media, if you were asked to assign adjectives to any one of these characters without relying on their appearance, you would say something like “stern”, or “even-keeled”, and then admit defeat as you rapidly run out of ideas. To my mind, the ur-example of the black leather jacket hero is Ryo Hazuki, the famously-stiff main character of the Shenmue games, who seems to have no spark of an inner life beyond beating up wave after wave of faceless thugs in order to seek revenge on the man who killed his father.
As blank-slate everymen (or women, in some rare cases) have become standard in the industry, there are still a few characters with verve and sass, who seek to embody the player’s id rather than their superego. These red-jacketers stand in stark opposition to the late tyranny of the black-clad brethren. While these examples tend to boast more varied styles of dress than their more conservative counterparts – such as Bayonetta, who covers herself entirely in her own luscious locks – the red leather jacket has become a staple, especially in the case of Devil May Cry’s Dante, or even No More Heroes’ Travis Touchdown.
By emphasising the ludicrously fantastical nature of the typical video game world, these characters allow the player to feel like they are fully inhabiting a role, however ridiculous, rather than just acting as a soulless vector for chaos and carnage. They have a lust for violence and mayhem that borders on Verhoevenian satire, and the player is allowed to share in their joy simply by becoming them. Rather than reflecting the real-world self, the red-jacketers create a persona that players can aspire to be, as part of the fantasy of play, which is ultimately a far more honest and open approach than most games are willing to take.
To be clear: there’s absolutely a place in video game storytelling for a pared-down protagonist. Not every game is going to be a feast for the senses. But, in a world dominated by superhero media, it’s important to remember that the larger-than-life antics are at their best when they’re acted out by larger-than-life heroes, not another cardboard cutout Han Solo-ripoff. A world full of Dantes might seem like overkill to some, but if more video games would more fully-embrace their inherent goofiness, I for one think that most of us would start to have a lot more fun.