Examining Final Fantasy’s long history with a lack of diversity and reliance on racist tropes.
We visit one of the most iconic series of all times in Final Fantasy and examine one of its deepest and most problematic flaws; its depiction (or the lack thereof) of people of color. In a time of reflection and rejection of the racist makeup of many sects of society, we ask some really uncomfortable questions about one the foundational pieces of modern gaming.
Before we start a conversation about a topic as deep, heavy and real as this one is, it is important that there is nothing but transparency and respect between the reader and the author.
I am a white man who grew up in the rural mid-west, having never lived in an actual large city save for the few months that I attended college in Springfield, Missouri. I do not know, nor do I pretend to know what it is like to be a person of color or minority in today’s society, and for that reason want to tread somewhat carefully when tackling a topic with the severity and real world implications such as this one.
Final Fantasy is one of the biggest and most iconic names in all of gaming, both modern and retro. Through the 90’s and early 2000’s, the Final Fantasy series set the bar not only for the JRPG genre but for gaming as a whole. Many games in the series, specifically Final Fantasy 6, 7, and 9, are legitimate and convincing examples of video games as art.
This series has seen plenty of financial success, selling an estimated cumulative 154.5 million game units since numbers first started being measure in 1994. The most recent release in the series, Final Fantasy 7 Remake, has sold an estimated 4.5 million units, despite only being available on one console.
Underneath all of that critical and financial success, however, there lies a long-standing problem that has gross and dangerous implications. A problem that has plagued society for hundreds of years, negatively affect the lives and quality of lives of some of the most marginalized people on our planet. A problem that often operates as a disease, hereditary in nature and often only curable through financial means.
That disease is called racism, and the Final Fantasy series, and really Square Enix as a whole, has been operating in it since their inception. For such a serious and legitimate accusation as this, there needs to be evidence; hard evidence and facts, for which there is plenty.
Over the course of the 13 non-MMO, mainline games, there are 113 playable characters (“playable characters” is used to describe characters that the player can control during battle). Of those 113 characters, there are only 3 black characters, making up a mere 2.6% of the group. This is despite the fact that 19% of the people on Earth are black. There is not a Final Fantasy game in the series with less than three white guys, including Final Fantasy 15, a game that only has 4 characters.
For a game series that claims to “explore new worlds” and has taken quite a bit from the cultures that people of color’s ancestors built, the worlds they create seem to be disproportionately white. Final Fantasy 12 takes place in a setting with heavy middle eastern inspirations, and despite that, the party does not have a single person of color in the main cast.
Furthermore, looking into the three black characters in the Final Fantasy series, the evidence and problems continue to mount.
Final Fantasy‘s first black character came in 1997 (ten years after the series first title hit North American shelves) with Final Fantasy 7‘s Barret a character that drew immediate criticism for his obvious ties to the 90’s icon, Mr. T. His use of slang and exaggerated tones clearly demonstrate how little research and effort the writers put into his character, instead choosing to rely on racist stereotypes and tropes coupled with bigoted misunderstandings (or ignorance).
The next playable black character was Final Fantasy 8‘s Kiros, a side character with little character and even less time on screen. Although the player spends such little time with him, the racial stereotypes are still clear, especially surrounding his appearance. Tall and slim build, cornrows, gold teardrop earrings; his character model is clearly based on the look of popular rappers and black comedians of the time.
It would be ten years between Kiros and the Final Fantasy series next title with a black character. During this time, three mainline titles would be released, as well as quite a few spin off titles, most of which were based in the world of Final Fantasy 7. Square Enix’s lack of diversifying their characters would only continue during this stretch, and in the case of the Final Fantasy 7 spinoffs, would often lack any mention or inclusion of the little bit of representation that people of color had found in the series. Barret’s absence in Final Fantasy 7: Dirge of Cerberus as well as Final Fantasy 7: Crisis Core would only serve to deepen the problem, and when Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children only featured Barret for 11 seconds, it was clear that this was a much bigger issue.
The third and most recent black character in the series may be the best representation in the series, although that may not be saying much. Final Fantasy 13‘s Sazh does struggle against a few racial stereotypes (the afro, the jazz theme, and obvious Dolemite inspiration), but overall Sazh feels bigger than those stereotypes, unlike the prior black characters. The problem is that Sazh does not receive significant character development or equal treatment in the game compared to similar side characters. This includes Fang, a late-game addition to the team that still manages to be a significant character with huge story implications.
(Note from the author: Final Fantasy 13 is unquestionably one of the most inclusive and diverse games in the series, with proper representation for women, minorities, and LGBTQ characters. Is the game a good video game? It’s half of a good game, but it does have some of the best representation in gaming as a whole)
Even in the series most recent outing, Final Fantasy 7 Remake, the only black character (Barret) is under-developed and kept off-screen for large parts of the story in favor of boring and less motivated white characters like Cloud, Cloud, and Cloud. Scenes that would be far more impactful and emotional with Barret to experience them instead focus on Aerith or Cloud, (imagine the train graveyard, which features the spirits of children and the tragedy of children being raised in poverty, under the thumb of a oppressive government, with dangerous insurrection extremist around almost every corner.
Now put Barret in that scene, having to mentally wrestle with the idea of how his actions and morally grey choices would effect her, and whether it would be better to topple the government, potentially depriving her of any quality of life, or to stop fighting and use what he could to make life perfect for his baby girl. It’s much more impactful and not completely time waste nonsense like the current scenario),
By making more diverse and inclusive characters, Square Enix and the Final Fantasy series give themselves more unique stories to tell that appeal to a larger audience. This also would help make the worlds they create more convincing and more immersive then the exclusively white worlds they create currently. It also should go without saying that character diversity helps people of color and minorities that play their game connect better with the worlds they are experiencing.
The problem is that Square Enix and the directors and executives making the games in the Final Fantasy series also severely lack diversity, and thus lack context and clear eyes to self examine. Throughout Square Enix’s history, they have exclusively hired Japanese or white people for their executive and creative positions, making a room that lacks the proper context to encapsulate the experiences and lives of people of color in their titles.
This is not an instance of calling for diversity for diversity’s sake, but calling for diversity as a way to overcome and move past a racist and bigoted culture. Even by hiring more people of color, the higher-ups in the company get context and experience which hopefully would pressure and inspire them to create characters that better represent minority communities and cultures. This is especially important if they want to continue and borrow from minority culture for their games. Hopefully, this would lead to future titles where minorities or people of color could even serve as executives or directors and offer even more diverse and nuanced experiences in the series.