Yesterday a new teaser for the Final Fantasy VII remake dropped, and players got to see and hear more of the characters as they will appear in the new game. For the most part, the reaction is positive. In the case of Barret Wallace, the reaction has been mixed.
I’ve never played Final Fantasy VII, and because of that, I’m interested in the remake. When it came out, the PlayStation was my older brother’s console, and I wasn’t allowed to touch it, as he (rightfully) feared I’d break it or mess up his saves. Eventually I was old enough to be trusted not to destroy a console, but by then, the game was much harder to find. By the time I was in high school, I had already heard many stories from my friends about how this game had such a strong emotional impact on them. I didn’t learn that Barret was a pretty egregious stereotype of blackness until long after I had internalised the idea that my video game fandom was incomplete if I hadn’t played Final Fantasy VII.
Barret is a stereotype of a gruff black man in the English translation of the original game. In Kotaku video producer Tim Rogers’s analysis of the translation, he points out how the English translation, which he says was done by a single person in two weeks, inserted that characterisation after the fact. Barret’s characterisation in this version involves an exaggerated black dialect, and his re-translated dialogue now also emphasises Americanised ideals about masculinity. In what Tim describes as “the most important text box in Japanese role-playing game English translation history,” the game mis-translates Barret’s expression of empathy to a depressed Cloud. Instead of telling Cloud that everyone gets depressed, like he does in the Japanese text, Barret says that people only get depressed if they don’t know “what’s going on.” The fact that that line is preceded with the line, “Yo, jes’ think about it… How many people in the world do ya think really understand themselves?” further reinforces Barret as some kind of hyper-masculine cartoon. Not a fully realised person, but a Mr T facsimile full of weak bon mots. This depiction plays into racist assumptions people make about black men: not seeing them as full people, but as hulking masses of muscle that sometimes provide folksy wisdom.
In the trailer for the Final Fantasy VII, the voice acting for Barret really leans into that Mr T characterisation. It’s something that some fans had hoped would change in the process of remaking the game, and they’re frustrated that it didn’t.
Kotaku video producer Paul Tamayo put it succinctly in a tweet:
Why'd they give my dude Barret the wild Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder voice in that FF VII trailer though? pic.twitter.com/O7p10WEeMr
— Paul Tamayo (@polimayo) May 9, 2019
I asked Paul how he’d try to modernise the character, and he told me it’s something he thinks about all the time. “Especially as someone who watches anime on occasion—and whenever a black character comes on screen with the wild problematic features and just overall behaviours—I often wonder about how the Japanese portray black characters in general. In Barret’s case, I feel like just not having to resort to this like slick-talkin’, smooth ‘accent’ that could have probably been handled much better on the writer’s side and the performer’s side too,” he said. “Thinking about it a little more though, I honestly think they could have gone without that direction altogether... It just makes me wonder how many black producers/writers/directors are involved (if at all) when these characters are made or how they could have been ‘modernised’ responsibly in the right hands.”
Many fans were indeed hoping for a modernisation of Barret with this remake. Barret’s voice actor, Beau Billingslea, is a wonderful actor, most famous for having played Jet in the English dub of Cowboy Bebop. In the trailer for the FFVII remake, though, he sounds like he’s about to start speaking in tongues in church. Yes lawd!
This was my reaction everytime I heard Barret talk in the new ff7 trailer pic.twitter.com/MTuelcvbnF
— ChuChuMcGoo (@chuchumcgoo) May 9, 2019
In the reactions that I’ve seen, fans don’t want to censor or remove Barret from the game; they were just hoping to see a better portrayal of his character this time around. Many are frustrated, annoyed, are laughing at the character rather than with him or saying they just wish the creative team had made a different call. There are very few viral tweets about this topic, but the sentiment is there, quietly. One fan tweeted the trailer with the comment, “I wish they would Dead the Mr T voice.” Another said that the trailer looked great, but the voice made them uncomfortable. The most aggressive criticism I saw came from Brandon Dixon, the creator of the upcoming tabletop RPG Swordsfall, which is set in an afrofuturist nation. “Can a game, for fucking once, just make the black guy NORMAL. Why is he a walking MTV cliche of what people THINK black men are like?” he wrote on Twitter. “Do [they] ever talk to PoC? At all?”
Dixon’s frustration is on the surface in his tweet, but the plea at its core is simple and understandable. Black people want to see themselves in games—not as a stereotype that other people think they are, but as they actually are. As people.
We all know that Beau Billingslea is capable of handling this character. He has a career’s worth of roles proving that he is an empathetic performer. There is still so much unknown about this remake. Many things about this game, including the voice acting, could still change. If they do insist on keeping this iteration of Billingslea’s performance, though, I hope they let me summon the Holy Ghost in battle. Hallelu.