Enlarge / Barret was a complex character in Final Fantasy VII. Then you hear him speak in the remake…

April saw the release of both Final Fantasy VII Remake (FF7R) and Trials of Mana, two 20-plus-year-old roleplaying games recreated for modern times. These re-imaginings have received solid receptions from both critics and players and introduced these titles to a new generation of potential fans.

But despite all the changes introduced in the intervening decades, both remakes unfortunately still include some of the same issues present in their original inspirations. Specifically, these games still do a poor job portraying people of color, via Barret in Final Fantasy and Kevin in Trials of Mana.

Blaxpoitation Barret

In the Final Fantasy VII Remake, Barret Wallace is many things: he is a good parent, a vigilante, a commanding officer, a robust party member, and a hero. He is shown to be an interesting and endearing person in a number of different ways. Through him we learn of how dedicated Avalanche is to stopping Shinra. He’s the first character to fully accept that their eco-terrorism has serious consequences, such as harm to innocents. Barret also reminds players of the hypocrisy in working for an evil corporation.

Then you hear him speak.

For many black gaming fans, Barret’s vocal performance in FF7R undermines all the work on his character development, turning him into a frustrating stereotype of a black man that’s front and center in one of the biggest game releases of the year.

Barret’s exaggerated speech and mannerisms are out of place and uncomfortable. And he’s the only character in the game to be presented in this fashion. Near the beginning of the game, for instance, he gives a speech about the planet’s pain where he emotes as if he’s trying to speak to a choir, a trope noted by Norris Howard. Or in the middle of battle, Barret will often yell his dialogue. Barret also serves as the party’s comic relief uncomfortably often, reflecting a history of type casting that often leaves such roles to black people.

A noticeable example is during chapter 7 as Barrett, Tifa, and Cloud head to Mako reactor 5. Along the mission, Barrett provides colorful commentary as a means to relieve stress. But his commentary eventually descends into mostly failed attempts at humor. He also sings and even jokingly asks his comrades if they want to dance along the way. This jovial, clownish Barret becomes the default throughout the rest of the game, a highly problematic situation for what had been a complex character.

Did someone say "comic relief"?
Enlarge / Did someone say “comic relief”?

Barret’s presentation follows a long and continuing history of black stereotyping in media. It is as if he was plucked from the Blaxploitation era and dropped into 2020. That kind of black character was commonplace in the 1970s, when black actors often had to make jokes of themselves to even have a chance to be seen on screen. Decades later, there’s no reason to go back to that era, in games or any medium.

Defenders may also go back to the ‘70s to find an analogue for Barrett, saying his performance merely takes inspiration from The A Team’s Mr. T. Physical appearance aside, there’s little reason to think the game’s Japanese creators intended for Barret to be a Mr. T stand-in. As Kotaku’s Tim Rogers points out in his deep-dive analysis of the game’s localization, the original Japanese version of Barret reads more like Metal Gear Solid’s Solid Snake. The character’s strange transformation into “big scary Black man” seems to be mainly a result of the original 1997 localization to English. It’s  concerning that this perception was carried on into 2020.

Non-black fans may also claim that Barret’s voice acting is merely and appropriately “passionate.” Such assumptions carry their own problems, likely spurred by consumption of stereotypical black characters carried through media for centuries. Typecasting and token roles are so ingrained into our art, many assume that this is proper portrayal for a black character.

The remake, however, does try to do better for people of color. The world of Midgar is occupied by other black and brown people living their everyday lives. Compared to these other portrayals in the same game, Barrett’s over-the-top performance is so jarring it’s absurd.

This is quite the feat because we live in a world with so many landmark non-stereotypical works by black creators. We have films such as Black Panther, The Last Blackman in San Francisco, and books like A Blade So Black. These works have been lauded for showcasing black people as people and not caricatures. Other entertainment media continue to leave gaming far behind in their work for marginalized groups. They serve as a blueprint that largely goes unnoticed in gaming.

This is likely a consequence of the game industry’s statistics not being representative of the world we live in. According to the IGDA, black people account for just two percent of the workers in the game industry. That statistic likely goes a long way to explaining how Barret’s caricature made it through the development process without apparent issue, leaving a glaring stereotype in one of the most high-profile games of the year.

As long as game development remains largely homogenous, racial biases both conscious and unconscious will likely remain prevalent in our games. But despite widespread calls for a more diverse set of creators in the space, getting better representation on development teams is a constant uphill battle.

Kevin of the Beastmen

Beastmen like Kevin are the only humans of color you'll see in <em>Trials of Mana</em>.
Enlarge / Beastmen like Kevin are the only humans of color you’ll see in Trials of Mana.

In Trials of Mana, Kevin, prince of Beastmen, is the only hero of color. This in and of itself is not a problem. What is problematic, though, is the portrayal of his kingdom of Ferolia, one of the major antagonistic forces within the world. Beastmen are nearly all brown-skinned and represent the only humans of color you’ll see until nearly the end of the game.

In Trials of Mana, the people with the darkest skin tones are literally the most scary and beast-like. This continues a well-established tradition where darker skin is associated with evil within fiction. I would be remiss to not mention that the major antagonist of Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts games series is also the only brown character in the series.

To Trials of Mana’s credit, the game does give some backstory to the Beastmen’s antagonism. The king’s desire to subjugate “normal” humans extends from the oppression the Beastmen suffered as a downtrodden people in the past. The Beastmen’s actions evolve well past revenge, though, and the group proves to be no better than their former oppressors. The prince soon finds himself at odds with his people (and, more specifically, his father, the king).

A remake is an opportunity to revisit all aspects of the game and update them accordingly. Yet, Kevin is literally the only Beastman that disagrees with the King’s actions. Nor do we see other peaceful or heroic brown skin people simply existing.

As I played the original title, these depictions of race were awkward. To see it left unchanged in the remake is disconcerting.

Some might say it’s unfair to expect Japanese developers to be attuned to media portrayals of black people as they pertain to an American audience. But to use that as an excuse would be an unfair and gross generalization. Japanese people are generally very aware of the harm done by these kinds of portrayals and work to correct them. We can look at the Pokemon games for two examples. The first would be with the Pokemon Jynx, whose skin color was changed from black to purple across all media to address its proximity to blackface. Gamefreak also redesigned gym leader Lenora to avoid the mammy stereotype.

Other Japanese-developed games have also shown an ability to highlight non-stereotypical characters of color. Last year’s Pokémon Sword and Shield featured a good number of relevant and well-rounded characters and gym leaders that are black and brown. And in Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, Die Hardman, portrayed by Tommie Earl Jenkins, arguably delivered one of the best performances in the game. These prominent and positive portrayals may seem small, but they highlight how the industry can do better.

A double-edged sword

Despite these examples, players of color still face too few options when it comes to playing games with well-considered characters that happen to look like them. This makes being a minority and games fan is something of a double-edged sword. When time and disposable income are limited, we often must set aside or ignore some of these feelings about problematic characters to play games at all.

By no means does this mean we should tolerate poor attempts or just be grateful. How Final Fantasy VII and Trials of Mana treat their characters of color wasn’t excusable 20 years ago, let alone now. It is not a matter of diversity and inclusion; it is simply being a real reflection of the real world we live in.

Entertainment industries need more underrepresented creators not just because representation matters. These creators ensure that characters that look like themselves would be treated with the humanity and grace we see in ourselves, the same humanity and grace that society at large often fails to acknowledge.

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