February is Black History Month, and to celebrate GamerTell is looking back at gaming’s most memorable black characters. These heroes are a part of our pop culture fabric, and there is growing ethnic diversity among them. Now we look at Barret Wallace, one of the reasons Final Fantasy VII is still a fan favorite.
He has the distinction of being the first black character in the long running RPG series. Barret is a reluctant fighter who just wants to be a father to adopted daughter Marlene. But he knows if he doesn’t fight the Shinra Electric Power Company, he’ll be leaving his daughter a dead world.
When Final Fantasy VII first introduces Barret, he’s caring for his sick wife. That’s the reason he agrees to help Shinra build a Mako Reactor near his hometown. Deep down he knows this is probably a bad idea, but he’s more concerned with helping his wife than saving the planet. If you haven’t played the game, the Shinra Power Company is evil incarnate. Mako is Planet Gaia’s lifesource, and Shinra has no qualms about taking it or killing people to do so. Shinra destroys Barret’s entire hometown because it believes they helped the eco-terrorist group Avalanche. When Barret and his friend Dyne return, it shoots them too. Barret is left with one hand and Marlene, Dyne’s daughter to care for.
Most people that had lost their wife, hometown and a hand would leave the fight to someone else. No one would blame them for doing it, either. Now he fully realizes how dangerous Shinra is and becomes the leader of the resistance to stop them. He has a lot of rage, and it’s easy to see why. Shinra took everything from him, and won’t be completely satisfied until they take the planet.
Barret’s dialog and violent nature led critics to compare him to Mr. T’s character on The A-Team and well, virtually everything else he’s ever been in. Japanese game designers haven’t always done the best job with black characters, but that’s true of American designers as well. The American designers don’t have the excuse of limited exposure to the culture that Japanese ones do. Developer Square took the criticism to heart though. In his later appearances in movies and novellas, the character undergoes a significant redesign.
Dialogue issues aside, Barret Wallace is among the most complex characters in gaming. We see that he was a good husband, a faithful friend and loves his adopted daughter as if she were his own flesh. Those distinctions alone would make him one of the best black characters in a world all too often filled with stereotypes. That’s before he straps on a damn Gun Arm and takes the fight to Shinra.
As his struggle begins, Barret is fighting primarily out of anger. But he matures and realizes the stakes at hand, and the tough decisions to be made. Barret eventually surrenders his role as leader of Avalanche to Tifa Lockhart, and then to Cid Highwind. Sometimes, the best quality a leader can have is realizing they shouldn’t be the leader anymore.