Final Fantasy 7 is an important game to me. It’s the first game I played on the Sony Playstation my late Grandmother got me for Christmas, and it’s really the first video game that showed me just how powerful games could become. Not just in storytelling, because honestly at 12 years old a lot of the story of Final Fantasy 7 just went over my head, but in the presentation, and most importantly the characters. I think I can count on one hand how many black characters I’ve played in games that didn’t involve a character creator.
Before Barret, the only person who looked like me in a video game was Axel from Streets of Rage 2. You really can’t get much characterization from a 2-D beat ‘em up, but Axel just felt like the token “cool” black kid that you throw in a game to give it “street appeal”. He was also the most fun character to play due to his unique moveset which incorporated rollerblading in to punching bad guys in the face. But then came Final Fantasy 7, and with it, Barret Wallace.
It’s easy to dismiss Barret as nothing more than a swirling torrent of black stereotypes. He’s loud, swears a lot, he’s abrasive, he looks like Mr. T on steroids, at first glance Barret is nothing short of cringe-worthy. In fact, when we first meet Barret he’s hired Cloud to partake in eco terrorism. Not the cute “tee hee we’re putting graffiti on a wall” but actual “we’re going to bomb this reactor and kill everyone inside”. Worse still, after a successful mission, he’s unrepentant about the apparent loss of life and seems ready to start the next bombing. Barret is not a good guy. Sure, he rationalizes that he has to bomb these reactors to save the planet, but he’s still committing mass murder for his ideal like any typical JRPG villain. So why am I so drawn to this character? Why has Barret Wallace left such a lasting impact on me?
Barret comes from a coal town. A small town, nothing to do but grow up and hit the mines. Really, you can see a lot of parallels to any small poor American town. You go to high school, get a degree, work the factories. That’s the American dream, that’s what they told us. Corel was no different than a Detroit or West Virginia town. So of course when a big corporation comes to town with promises of a new way of life, a more modern way of life, Barret leaped at the chance to bring his small coal town of Corel into the modern era. One man disagreed, one man stood in the way of progress; Dyne. Dyne was another young man from Corel, who just couldn’t trust the shady conglomerate promising wealth and prosperity with their new energy reactor.
It’s hard not to sympathize with Barret here; a man who only wanted what he felt was best for his poor town. Shinra builds the reactor, and after it explodes, they decide to kill everyone in the village because of course you murder everyone after your product fails. Barret loses his wife and best friend that day, but I think he lost a little more than that. He lost parts of himself in the fires that burned Corel to the ground. He would have completely lost himself, if not for finding Dyne’s daughter, Marlene, alive in the ruins.
Barret lost everything, and only wanted to make Shinra pay. He’s not that different from Dyne, who wants to make everyone pay. The two have their climactic showdown and it’s clear that while Barret Wallace is a murderer and a hypocrite, there’s something more to him. Sure, Marlene is little more than a morality pet, but it’s because of Marlene that he holds on to some shred of his humanity. He laments during the battle with Dyne that his bloodstained hands aren’t fit to carry Marlene, but he has to continue fighting for the good of the planet. That’s a rare moment of honesty coming from a JRPG character in 1999.
There’s a human element to Barret that makes him one of the more interesting characters in Final Fantasy 7. Barret Wallace becomes so much more than just the leader of a terror cell over the course of this journey; he becomes the heart of the team, their motivation. He’s called out on his actions numerous times, but never apologizes for them. He acknowledges that they’re wrong but resigns himself to the necessity of their evil. To write Barret off as just an angry black man robs him of his humanity, and it cheats you out of experiencing one of the more interesting characters in Final Fantasy lore.