Alright, I’m about to be showing you all my super geeky side, but trust me, this is an article you’ll want to read because it isn’t something people typically think about, especially Sociology scholars: The Portrayal of Diversity in Video Games. While I can go on and on about different aspects of diversity, such as gender, socioeconomic status, disability, religion, etc., I want to hone in specifically on Black Men in the video game series Final Fantasy.
I’m about to lose you. Please don’t get lost – I’m going to give you a bit of background information first and then get to the meat of it all. Final Fantasy is what is called a “Role Playing Game (RPG),” which focuses heavily on personal character development through random encounters and story-based fights AND has a huge narrative pull to it. It is not your traditional “Save the Princess, Crash Bandicoot,” type game – it’s more of a story/movie wrapped into a game. If you like reading texts with substance (no shade at Fifty Grey, wait. Total shade, pun intended) or you like well developed movies, then you’ll probably like RPGs. This is, by no mean, a plug for you to start playing RPGs (Well, maybe just a little bit).
The Final Fantasy franchise began in 1987 with the release of Final Fantasy on the Nintendo system. With it’s popularity sparking in Japan, the series was then brought over to the United States. The earliest memory most people have of Final Fantasy is Final Fantasy VII (The stories are not interconnected, each installment has its own set of characters and story lines that follow FF conventions), which was released in September of 1997 for the Playstation system. It’s important that we remember 1997 – it gives us a feel of the time era. For more Final Fantasy history, I would recommend you watch this video. You don’t have to, seeing as I’ll be giving you information pertinent to the content of the article, but you may want to watch it if you’re curious to know more.
Barret Wallace from Final Fantasy VII
So, let’s start with Barret from Final Fantasy VII , who is, to my knowledge, the first Black man to appear in the series. His description is as follows:
“In his original appearance, Barret is a heavy-set, muscular dark-skinned man with a dirty brown vest, green pants and large brown boots. His right arm was mangled in the loss of his hometown, and has been replaced with his weapon, the gun-arm, which lets him interchange various weapon attachments to it. Barret has several bands of metal around his waist and his remaining arm, and a tattoo of a skull surrounded by flames that form the image of wings on his left shoulder. His hair is cut similar to a hi-top fade and he has a thick beard and a dog-tag around his neck. He has three scars on his right cheek. This appearance has humorously been compared to actor Mr. T, a comparison also somewhat shown through Barret’s character” (“Barret Wallace”) . The fact that the Wiki page had links for “Hi-Top Fade” is hilarious. But let’s take a look further into this description that I find problematic.
“Compared to Mr. T” is the most alarming of this description – As Mr. T is known for his brute, lack of intelligence, and egotistical way of being. Barret’s character in FFVII acts very similar. When Barret gets angry, he spews such horrible profanities that they are not even acceptable to the human eye:
The other issue in Barret’s portrayal of anger is that it becomes uncontrollable – he starts cussing substantially and then starts shooting from his arm uncontrollably and, often times, without purpose. Barret now falls into the archetype of a stereotypical black man. He uses intimidation to get what he wants and will resort to violence if he needs to. Now, Barret is a BAD ASS character and is a great member in your party, but he’s portrayed as a gangster. I’m pretty sure members of the SHINRA corporation refer to him as such in the earlier Midgar section of the game.
But the other thing that one needs to consider is the time period. This game was developed during ’95-’96, and released in ’97. Socially, the world is not as accepting of non-archetypal portrayals of different cultures. Additionally, the Japanese don’t get very much interaction with Black men, so they go with what they know: Mr. T.
However, one of the aspects of Barret’s character development that I LOVE is his reliability and his loyalty – he is the best leader for the AVALANCHE underground group. Also, he is represented in the game as a GREAT father. His daughter, Marlene, is mentioned, seen, and saved quite a bit. For example, Barret got into it with Cloud, the game’s protagonist, over Cloud’s pay, saying something along the lines of “I can’t give you that much money, it’s for Marlene’s schooling.” Barret realizes the value of education and is wanting his daughter to be the best she can be. With a dad who is working hard for her, why wouldn’t she be?
Here are two portrayals of Barret, one in the original game, and the other in the Spinoff Film: FFVII Advent Children. Notice his dialect in the original game.
This idea is fatherhood is important – it connects us with the next and only other Black protagonist, Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII.
Sazh Katsroy from Final Fantasy XIII
I really liked Sazh as a character in Final Fantasy XIII – I didn’t get the sense that he was “othered” as much as Barret was, but also consider the fact that FFXIII came out in 2010. Sazh seems to be more of a loner, with his overall objective being to see his son again. Listen, I am LIVING for this portrayal of caring parenting from Black men. All I need now is for them to come out with a video game version of DJ Khaled and his son Ahsad – literally, the cutest Father/Son relationship to this date.
The FFWiki describes Sazh: “Despite being physically the eldest of the Final Fantasy XIII playable party, Sazh has a youthful, carefree, and lively personality. Sazh is a goodhearted man whose relationship with his son, Dajh, serves as his drive. His selflessness is shown when he considers sacrificing himself to keep Dajh from becoming a Cie’th, a monster a l’Cie who fails his Focus becomes. He is silly at times, mostly when he is in near-death situations, but Sazh has a strong will of justice and is always willing to help his teammates. Through his friendship with Vanille, Sazh is revealed to be forgiving, and through his quest to rescue Dajh, generally (but not always) hopeful.
In contrast to the rest of the party, Sazh is more level-headed and mature, often serving as the voice of reason and interjects his opinion when someone is on the verge of letting their emotions get the best of them. He thinks of the rest of the party as “the kids”, though seems to respect Lightning and Fang.” (“Sazh Katsroy”).
One of the problematic issues is the developer’s choice of weapon for Sazh: a Gun. I would love to see a Black man wielding a sword or taking on a mage role.
I do like that he is almost a foil to Barret, being considered to be “level-headed and mature, often serving as the voice of reason.” Through this, he is seen to be as dependable as Barret AND really well-respect. Plus, his relation with his son is ADORABLE. Please watch:
I’ve played and completed FFVII various times, but I have only completed FFXIII once – I can’t give much more insight into Sazh and his character aside from what I’ve given you. However, it seems that the Japanese are working on their perceptions of people of color, and progress is really what’s important.
For fun sake, let’s look at Barrett in battle and look at Sazh in battle.
Some would argue that people like Barret more as a representation for Black men than Sazh, as Barret’s dialect seems to be “more in line” with vernacular that is present, even today. This can go either way – all I have done is given you one side of the argument. If it makes you feel better, Barret was almost always in my party and I rarely used Sazh.
If you’re interested in Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy XIII, you can purchase them on the Playstation Network on your Playstation 3. (FFVII you can buy on PS4, as well. FFXIII is also available for XBox 360). You can get them both at relatively low prices and you’ll get a dope ass story from both.