In the recent weeks, we’ve been offered a few writers take on how Japanese developers may carelessly or ignorantly portray people of color in video games. I personally felt like their claims while valid to their experience were underdeveloped. I myself saw that the topics in question lacked depth and seemed lazy in execution. While I may not fully agree with their ideology, I stand in solidarity for better representation of people of color in Japanese games. I think its best to look at our past and see how far we’ve come.
I felt that a quick history lesson was in order for one of my favorite developers, SquareEnix (formerly Square and Squaresoft). The Japanese super company has helped shape and mold the gaming landscape for over several decades. They defined the Role-Playing genre with many blockbuster games like Final Fantasy 7 and Chrono Trigger. However, they have had a very problematic history with black characters whether its a complete lack of them or just a very narrow and shallow representation of them.
In 1989, just two years after the release of their first hit game Final Fantasy was released on the Famicom, Square released a Japanese exclusive RPG Square’s Tom Sawyer: an adaptation of Mark Twain‘s wildly racist novel Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The game retains all the N-words and racial slurs you can shake a moogle at. Also, the character sprite for Jim was an abomination.
In 1997, Squaresoft would release arguably their most commercially and critically successful game of all time, Final Fantasy VII. The game sold extremely well and redefined the genre. But one of the most interesting things about the game was the prominent role of Barrett Wallace, a black character that was at the forefront of the game’s narrative and plot. Barrett was strong, big, hyper masculine, muscular alpha male. He was the very definition of how black men were seen in the 90s. Black men were huge larger-than-life figures that were also angry, hostile, aggressive and loud. Barrett was the poster child for the Angry Black Man stereotype. Still, its an improvement over Jim, right?
Even though this next character wasn’t a prominent or important character, he stood out to when I played Final Fantasy VIII. Kiros, one of Laguna’s friend and partner was the complete antithesis to Barrett. Kiros was small, slender, reserve, quiet and calm. He was also quite alternative for a black character in terms of design. Even his weapon was completely against the norm of black characters in video games and media. I always found Kiros to be an awesome and underrated character.