Game characters – and leading game characters in particular – are so often built as a vessel for players to fill out that they end up, paradoxically, lacking much character at all. Watch Dogs
2’s Marcus Holloway was a very different kind of lead, a character that displayed a consistently sympathetic flicker between brash confidence and nervousness, a passionately held personal philosophy, and a general friendliness missing from so many scripted protagonists.
As with most AAA open worlds, that character could become veiled by gunfire and absurdity when you actually began to control him, but the Marcus Holloway of Watch Dogs 2’s cutscenes felt notably like a person, not just a collection of voice lines designed to string missions together. Ruffin Prentiss was the actor giving Marcus that life, and while I was sad to learn during a recent conversation that he likely won’t return to the Watch Dogs universe anytime soon, we had a lot to discuss about how much a well-written video game character – and a Black character in particular – could mean to their actor and a community at large.
When I ask the inevitable question about whether he’d been contacted to bring Marcus back to life for Watch Dogs Legion, Prentiss is quick to tell me no – but that he’d still love to. You’d think an actor auditioning amid a pandemic might be a little upset about that, but Prentiss’ reaction is almost nostalgic – his time bringing Marcus to life was clearly hugely important to him, and we spend the rest of our time together breaking down why. I expected the answer to revolve mostly around the bizarre nature of being a piece of a huge video game production and the acting challenge that presents – but the real answer is far more meaningful.
“I don’t think I knew the magnitude of what a Black player-character could mean, especially in terms of video gaming,” Prentiss enthuses. “You grow up playing games and the majority of Black representation in games is athletes or fighters. You’ve got the guy with the afro in Ready 2 Rumble, or you’re playing professional basketball players or football players. And then of course, there was the transition, where Grand Theft Auto came out, games got grittier, and the world expanded, and you saw Black representation. I’m not going to say it was stereotypical – with someone like CJ from GTA: San Andreas, it humanized that experience of having to be in that area or in those conditions. And as the player, you get to sympathize and empathize with those conditions – how do you get out and how do you find success?
“But Marcus is different because we don’t get to see Black characters who are doing something out of the norm for what pop culture says Black people are cool for. So to see him be a hacker, I had people reach out that work in Silicon Valley. I had people reach out that were studying coding and programming and say it was so cool to see someone who looks like them, and has a similar interest, be represented in video games.”
Prentiss says the impact of the character and his performance has become particularly clear in recent weeks. After the announcement that the original Watch Dogs lead, Aiden Pearce, would be appearing in post-launch DLC for Legion, many naturally assumed Marcus would be back, too – and they made sure to tell Prentiss. He tells me that he’s been receiving messages ever since, hopefully asking if Marcus might make a return the new game. Even after it was announced that WD2 side character Wrench would be the one appearing, seemingly killing off that idea, the messages kept coming. Prentiss puts that reaction down to the sheer surprise factor of putting someone like Marcus – both in his personality and his ethnicity – in a starring role to begin with.
“I have to give Ubisoft credit for this because there were drastically different tones between Watch Dogs and Watch Dogs 2,” he explains, pointing out how Aiden’s characterisation was a recognisable revenge-driven vigilante, while Marcus came from a very different place. “I think by choosing to have a Black protagonist, and then having a crew [around him] that was just down to fight for what was right […] Ubisoft pushed the limits.”
That crew became key to how Prentiss sees Marcus – it wasn’t just what Marcus said, but how he said it, and to who, that made him feel like a real person. The start of the game sees Marcus become part of DedSec. He’s easygoing, cracks jokes, and talks passionately about the group’s goals with all of them. “But you have one character, Horatio,” Prentiss says, “who is the other Black guy in DedSec. They relate in a different way, and Ubisoft wasn’t afraid to show those colloquialisms, or code-switching.”
Prentiss points to a scene where Marcus and Horatio head to Nudle, the game’s legally acceptable stand-in for Google, and begin changing their speech patterns to fit in with a predominantly white crowd. “Having to code-switch in the workplace so you feel comfortable, instead of being able to completely be yourself – that is a real thing that Black people, or people from any culture, do to assimilate, just to feel comfortable in the space and make their coworkers feel comfortable.”
Code-switching is something I’ve never seen in a video game before Watch Dogs 2, and for it to be portrayed so honestly is still markedly unusual. Prentiss adds (modestly downplaying his own work bringing the character to life) that much of what made Marcus feel like a well-rounded character was already on the page before he added his own input. “For Ubisoft to explore that […] and just even have that in the script, and for me to have a chance to work on stuff like that was really impressive. Yeah, it felt groundbreaking when we were doing it and we gave everything we had.”
Looking back at Watch Dogs 2, and looking at what’s followed, it still feels groundbreaking in how it presents a story about a Black man’s experiences without falling into cliche. On the one hand, Watch Dogs Legion does seem to have a similarly positive goal in how it’s showing off London’s hugely multicultural background with the play-as-anyone system. Playing the game for just a few hours shows off a wealth of accents, ethnicities and procedurally generated backstories to play with, turning London’s real-life diversity into a meaningful part of Legion’s gameplay. But the very fact that those characters are generated – that their stories are text-based lists, and that their voices are picked from a somewhat randomized palette – means they simply can’t match the tailored humanity of Marcus. Wouldn’t it be nice to see him stroll into London somewhere too?
Acdramon’s Marcus Holloway Cosplay
Prentiss can imagine it without hesitation. “I think Marcus could live in any world,” the actor says. “One thing that I loved about him was how he tries to blend in and maneuver in any way he can. There’s the Jimmy Siska scene where he’s pretending to be a member of New Dawn and he’s doing the interview, but that’s Marcus toning it down. I could absolutely see Marcus in London doing a really awful British accent.”
I could see it too – and that’s largely because I have such a good idea of who Marcus is; how he chooses to act in a given situation and the kind of man he is. He’s a character in the truest sense of the word – not just a playable avatar. For now, a reappearance doesn’t seem to be the future for Marcus, but Prentiss would be open to new ideas for the character:
“I would love to reprise the role,” he tells me. “It’s one of my favorite things that I’ve ever done.” Speaking about whether he thinks it’s likely, he points to Aiden’s reappearance in Legion’s future London: “Hey, anything is possible.”
I’d say that anything is possible not just for Marcus and Prentiss, but because of them. Put it this way: I’m a white, British man who got a better sense of life for someone who isn’t either of those things, thanks to that character. I love that I played a game, and came away with something beyond just having had a good time. It’s a reminder that what we should be aiming for now – particularly after Watch Dogs 2’s thoughtful, relatable leading man – is to make these kinds of roles, and characters, not just possible, but probable.
Joe Skrebels is IGN’s Executive Editor of News. Follow him on Twitter. Have a tip for us? Want to discuss a possible story? Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.