Network: Take a look at the colour of money

Can computer gaming's first black hero blast his way into the hearts and wallets of young white males? By Mark Chadbourn
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The Independent Culture
Lara Croft's big guns have blown a few holes in a gaming world obsessed with the idea that players could only relate to testosterone- dripping protagonists. Now, almost three years after Tomb Raider's conception, non-PC - as in politically correct - rules of the games are about to go through the grinder.

When it is released early next year, Shadow Man will be the industry's first mass-market product to feature a black protagonist. It's a bizarre fact to consider, given the cultural liberalism of the rest of the entertainment industry, but it only serves to underline the arch-conservatism of games makers guided by the near-religious belief that the majority of young- white male computer users can't cope with anything beyond their immediate frame of reference.

For an industry with a technology base that is turbo-driven by looking to the future, the gaming world - socially and culturally - is firmly stuck in the past.

While those who work on computer games are comprised of men and women from a range of cultural and religious backgrounds, anyone browsing retailers' shelves would be forgiven for thinking the games' character creation was in the hands of some timewarped, 1950s small-town Americans.

But not only is Shadow Man shaking up the status quo, it's also expected to be a massive seller, perhaps even at Tomb Raider levels.

Created in the UK by Stockton-on-Tees-based Iguana Entertainment, Shadow Man is produced by the mighty United States company Acclaim, and will come with a suitably global marketing clout.

Like most cultural advances in commerce, however, Shadow Man isn't really about the industry doing the right thing - it's about hard cash. Games makers have suddenly woke to a fact that is common knowledge in the music and film worlds - most of their target audience want to be black.

"It seems to me that, right or not, at this moment in time, being black is somehow perceived as much `cooler' than being white," explains Guy Miller, Iguana's creative director. "So it becomes an aspirational thing, with white kids aspiring to the perceived `coolness' of certain parts of black culture. In my opinion, as long as your hero meets the traditional archetype, it doesn't matter what colour he or she is."

And there's no doubt that Shadow Man will be the coolest game ever produced.

As well as making it thoroughly dazzling to play, Iguana's team also is going to unprecedented lengths to ensure that Shadow Man is a style badge like the latest underground, white-label mix or the footwear du jour. Top-secret talks are currently being held with street-fashion labels including sunglass manufacturers, a top jeans company, shirt makers and footwear companies so that the lead character of Shadow Man, Mike LeRoi, will get an aspirational look, pitching him right at the cutting edge of popular culture.

At the same time, the team has been negotiating with various American groups for a soundtrack that will match any movie.

"We're getting rather Tarantino with the music by including several tracks from well-known artists in the game," Miller explains. "I think it is unusual to go to these lengths for a computer game, but if the games industry is going to be taken seriously as a form of mainstream entertainment, then we're going to have to go to these lengths."

Miller seems desperate to change the established view that computer games are the sole province of the spotty-teenage nerd. He's a man with a mission - and that's to have his industry rubbing shoulders with movies and music.

"To be perfectly honest, I don't give a shit about the old-school gamer, the so-called `hardcore' gamer. Shadow Man is a game for people with a life, in much the same way that most mainstream movies - or novels for that matter - are for people with lives.

"I'm not interested in making games for nerds and, yes, I believe that Shadow Man will appeal to the cooler, smarter, more stylish player, because this type of player has a bloody life outside of games."

Shadow Man is based on a cult -comic character who just happens to be dead. Immersed in the culture of New Orleans music and voodoo, he prowls the dividing line between the land of the living and "Deadside", stopping the more unsavoury characters - the serial killers and psychos - returning to wreak havoc on their old patches.

There's a significant technological leap forward to match the cultural one. All of the characters in Shadow Man will be motion-captured and will look realistic thanks to soft-skin techniques. There also will be neat tricks like real-time light sources. But the most exciting feature is Iguana UK's Vista (Virtually Integrated Scenic TerrAin) game engine. For the first time, characters in a game will be able to walk to the horizon in a breathtakingly expansive-outdoor landscape without bumping up against the false wall of the level's "room". Unusually, the game also is non- liner in structure. Most levels can be attempted in any order, although the player's choice makes the game easier or more difficult to complete.

All these things will guarantee Shadow Man is seen as a substantial advance for computer games.

If it has the expected impact it could open up a whole new market while making the games industry a serious and respected contender both creatively and financially in the entertainment business. More importantly, Shadow Man could be a serious wake-up call to the games makers that, yes, we really are living in the Nineties.