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Enlarge /. Barret was a complex character in Final Fantasy VII. Then you hear him speak in the remake …
In April, Final Fantasy VII Remake (FF7R) and Trials of Mana were released, two over 20 year old role-playing games that were re-created for modern times. These new releases have been well received by critics and gamers alike and have presented these titles to a new generation of potential fans.
Despite all of the changes that have been introduced in the past few decades, both remakes unfortunately still contain some of the same themes that were in their original inspirations. In particular, these games still do a bad job by portraying people with color over Barret in Final Fantasy and Kevin in Trials of Mana.
In Final Fantasy VII Remake, Barret Wallace is a lot: he's a good parent, a vigilante, a commanding officer, a robust party member, and a hero. It is shown that he is an interesting and lovable person in many ways. Through him we learn how committed Avalanche is to stop Shinra. He is the first character to fully accept that their eco-terrorism has serious consequences, such as harm to the innocent. Barret also reminds players of the hypocrisy of working for a bad company.
Then you hear him speak.
For many black gaming fans, Barret's vocal performance in FF7R undermines all the work on his character development and makes him a frustrating stereotype of a black man who is the focus of one of the biggest game releases of the year.
Barret's exaggerated language and mannerisms are out of place and uncomfortable. And he's the only character in the game that's presented this way. For example, at the start of the game he gives a speech about the pain of the planet, in which he feels like trying to speak to a choir, a trope that Norris Howard noticed. Or in the middle of a fight, Barret often shouts his dialogue. Barret also often serves as an uncomfortable comic relief for the party, reflecting a story of type casting that often leaves such roles to black people.
A notable example is in Chapter 7 when Barrett, Tifa and Cloud go to Mako Reactor 5. During the mission, Barrett provides colorful comments to help reduce stress. But his comment ultimately leads to mostly failed attempts at humor. He also sings and even jokingly asks his comrades if they want to dance on the way. This cheerful, clown-like barret becomes the standard throughout the rest of the game, an extremely problematic situation for a complex character.
Enlarge /. Did someone say "Comic Relief"?
Barret's presentation follows a long and persistent history of black stereotyping in the media. It is as if it had been torn from the Blaxploitation era and fell into 2020. This type of black character was common in the 1970s, when black actors often had to joke about themselves in order to have a chance to be seen on the big screen. Decades later there is no reason to return to this era, neither in games nor in any other medium.
Defenders could also go back to the 1970s to find an analogue for Barrett. His performance was only inspired by Mr. T of the A team. Aside from the physical appearance, there is little reason to believe that the Japanese creators of the game Barret acted as Mr. T Stand-In. As Kotaku's Tim Rogers points out in his in-depth analysis of the game's localization, the original Japanese version of Barret reads more like Solid Snake by Metal Gear Solid. The strange transformation of the character into a "big, scary black man" seems to be mainly due to the original localization from 1997 to English. It is worrying that this perception has continued until 2020.
Non-black fans can also claim that Barret's voice acting is just and reasonably "passionate". Such assumptions have their own problems, which are likely to be caused by the consumption of stereotypical black signs that have been carried by the media for centuries. Typography and token roles are so deeply rooted in our art that many assume that this is the correct representation for a black character.
However, the remake tries to make it better for colored people. The Midgar world is occupied by other black and brown people who live their daily lives. Compared to these other representations in the same game, Barrett's exaggerated performance is so staggering that it's absurd.
This is quite an achievement because we live in a world with so many groundbreaking, non-stereotypical works by black creators. We have films like Black Panther, The Last Blackman in San Francisco and books like A Blade So Black. This work has been praised for portraying black people as people rather than caricatures. Other entertainment media continue to leave gaming far behind in their work for marginalized groups. They serve as a blueprint that remains largely unnoticed when playing.
This is probably a result of the game industry statistics not being representative of the world we live in. According to the IGDA, blacks only make up two percent of the workers in the gaming industry. These statistics probably explain in the long run how Barret's cartoon survived the development process with no obvious problems, leaving a blatant stereotype in one of the most famous games of the year.
As long as game development remains largely homogeneous, both conscious and unconscious racial prejudices will likely continue to prevail in our games. Despite the widespread demand for a more diverse group of developers in the room, better representation in development teams is a constant struggle.
Kevin the Beastman
/. Beastmen like Kevin are the only colored people you'll see in Trials of Mana.
In Trials of Mana, Kevin, Prince of Beastmen, is the only hero of color. This is not a problem in and of itself. However, the representation of his kingdom Ferolia, one of the most important antagonistic forces in the world, is problematic. Beastmen are almost all brown-skinned and are the only colored people you will see until almost the end of the game.
In Trials of Mana, the people with the darkest skin tones are literally the scariest and beastiest. This continues an established tradition in which darker skin within fiction is associated with evil. I don't want to mention that the main opponent of Square Enix's Kingdom Hearts game series is also the only brown character in the series.
In honor of Trials of Mana, the game gives a background story on the antagonism of the beastmen. The king's desire to subjugate "normal" people stems from the oppression that beast men have suffered in the past as oppressed people. Beastmen's actions, however, go far beyond revenge, and the group proves to be no better than its former oppressors. The prince soon came into conflict with his people (and especially his father, the king).
A remake is an opportunity to review and update all aspects of the game accordingly. However, Kevin is literally the only beastman who disagrees with the king's actions. We also don't see any other peaceful or heroic people with brown skin who simply exist.
When I played the original title, these representations of the breed were cumbersome. It is disturbing to see that the remake remains unchanged.
Some may say that it is unfair to expect Japanese developers to target black media portraits that target an American audience. But to use that as an excuse would be an unfair and crude generalization. The Japanese are generally very aware of the damage this type of presentation does and are working to correct it. We can look at the Pokemon games for two examples. The first would be with the Pokemon Jynx, whose skin color has been changed from black to purple across all media to fix the closeness to Blackface. Gamefreak has also redesigned sports director Lenora to avoid the mom stereotype.
Other games developed in Japan have also shown the ability to highlight non-stereotypical color characters. Last year's Pokémon Sword and Shield contained a good number of relevant and rounded characters and sports leaders who are black and brown. And in Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding, Die Hardman, played by Tommie Earl Jenkins, was arguably one of the best achievements in the game. These prominent and positive portrayals may seem small, but they show how the industry can do better.
A double-edged sword
Despite these examples, gamers with color still have too few options when it comes to playing games with thoughtful characters who happen to look like this. This makes it a minority, and game fans are something of a double-edged sword. When time and disposable income are limited, we often have to set aside or ignore some of these feelings about problematic characters in order to play games at all.
This in no way means that we should tolerate bad attempts or simply be grateful. How Final Fantasy VII and Trials of Mana treat their color characters couldn't be excused 20 years ago, let alone now. It's not about diversity and inclusion; It's just a real reflection of the real world we live in.
The entertainment industry needs more underrepresented creators, not just because representation is important. These creators ensure that characters who look like themselves are treated with the humanity and grace that we see in ourselves, the same humanity and grace that society as a whole often does not recognize.