February is Black History Month, a celebration of Black people and their contributions to America and the world beyond. As a Black person, this month to me is always bittersweet. I love the fact that its a time where my people are celebrated and lauded but its also a month that can ring hollow and obligatory. So I didn’t want to talk about great Black game creators or Black esports athletes here. No, right now I want to talk about rage. A deep-rooted, visceral anger that I have for the creative choices of game developers. The same rage that burns within my chest when the hair choices on my created character are giant afro, cornrows or bald, and that’s it. It’s Black History Month 2020 and Square Enix still never fixed Barrett Wallace, so I am pissed.
Stop Giving Companies A Pass
What I mean by “fixing” Barrett is in what world should any Final Fantasy character still sound like a racial pantomime? Barrett, one of the central characters to Final Fantasy VII, was a cringe factory…in 1997. He was a foul-mouthed, eco-terrorist that had loads of depth which you could have easily missed because most of it was hidden under a “Mr. T” like demeanor. He was frequently played for laughs until his more serious personal arc in Corel. You jokingly had to go on a date with him if you didn’t woo Aerith or Tifa enough, and so on. So with the advent of FFVII’s remake I couldn’t help but hope Square Enix would, I don’t know, have him sound like a bad ass eco-terrorist. But nah. Instead in early trailers of the game, Barrett sounds more like a southern preacher than action hero. And I can’t help but be enraged.
What makes cases like Barrett so infuriating is people knew that his writing was problematic over 20 years ago. Square Enix had the opportunity to rewrite him and make him the hero he is capable of being. And as illustrated in a wonderful piece from Kotaku’s Gita Jackson gamers of color hoped the Japanese game maker would do better this time around too. And to make matters EVEN MORE crazy is this wasn’t how he sounded in the Japanese version of the game.
Here in a cool video from Kotaku, Tim Rodgers, translates some of the opening scenes of the game. He clearly shows how in the Japanese script he is much more militaristic, almost secret agent like. This makes sense for a character that’s looking to overthrow an evil corporation. This means that the English translation of the character was “Urban-d” up a bit which makes Barrett sound like he’s on the Chitlin’ Circuit of property destruction. The new version of the character isn’t much better.
A Long And Tired Trend
Barrett is just one of the many examples of a lack of understanding from game developers about Black culture and experience. While I can forgive a 20 year old game for this mistake, its hard to forgive the second time around. Its even more evident when that character is the only one of color in the game. In the time between VII’s original release and now, we have made great strides in having awesome Black characters in games. Fighting games have led the charge in racial and gender representation but not without their own issues of hyper-sexualization and stereotyping. But as we look at narrative-driven games, Black people as protagonists or, even more rare, antagonists are still lacking.
Part of why GTA series is so well received is the complexities (and absurdities) of their characters. Characters of color look, feel and sound like the POC’s of their respective eras and they have nuance. CJ in San Andreas often lamented the thugnificent chaos he created, a departure from the bellicose sociopathy of Tommy Vercetti in GTA Vice City. CJ’s arch-enemy, Officer Tenpenny, was the idea of “Lawful Evil” made manifest. A corrupt Black cop that saw no issues with killing his fellow officers and framing the community he was sworn to protect. Both Black characters, both complex, and neither feeling like embarrassing cliches.
I contrast this with other popular game franchises. I look at series’ where black characters are maniacal meat-heads (Gears of War) or cannon fodder (Resident Evil) and I facepalm at how creatively vacant games can be with Black characters. Its frustrating that in 2020 I can count on my hand how many Black characters I would consider “good”. Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of bearded white men I’d consider game heroes.
There’s Still Time
Its a new decade and with that should come new trends. I love seeing more and more black people being involved with the gaming industry. Because with that we get better interpretations of our stories. Lucian and Senna in League of Legends are two very good examples of clearly black characters, voiced by black people that fall into no tropes of “blackness”. The two of them are their own characters. And while I would love to see more accurate representations of Black reality, there’s no reason we can’t do what we want with Black people in Fantasy worlds. Let’s NOT bring with us the baggage of our very flawed, bigoted real world and create universes where race really is just an afterthought. I began to see that in the Netflix adaptation of “The Witcher” where Black people were evil sorceresses, royal guards and elves…and no one said a thing. It was refreshing to not have dark skinned people be from some far flung, exotic, mystery world. No, there were just…there. And always have been. A trope that I hope reaches video games sooner rather than later.