I’m pretty tired of fantasy racism. At this point, portraying racism in video games through the proxies of elves forced into squalid ghettos, stateless space alien nomads, and disenfranchised robots feels a cop out. So I was surprised that I enjoyed Backbone so much, a noir adventure set in Vancouver, populated by anthropomorphic animals who live in a strict racial hierarchy. The game acutely channels what it feels like to be a person of color in a racist society as a lifelong balancing act, but its brief length left me wanting for more.
The game’s hero, private detective Howard Lotor, is a raccoon and thus at the very bottom rung of Vancouver’s societal ladder. In other games with fantasy racism like Mass Effect and most Dragon Age playthroughs, you are an observer or sometimes even a perpetuator of racism. For Howard, it’s an inescapable reality that also forms the core of the overarching plot.
The story begins with Howard taking on what seems to be a routine case of adultery. His client, Odette Green, suspects that her husband Jeremy has been cheating on her. When Howard tracks Jeremy down to a local jazz club called The Bite, he unravels a massive conspiracy that goes all the way to the top and forces him into a reluctant partnership with Renee Wilson, an investigative journalist.