Lately, dads have become the video game industry’s pet trope. There are a ton of games that have won a lot of awards about trying, failing, and in very few cases, succeeding at being a dad. But that trend largely excludes Black fathers (with one extremely notable exception), since the video game industry generally ignores Black people.
I conducted an experiment on Twitter: how quickly can you name a video game dad versus how quickly can you name a Black video game dad that isn’t The Walking Dead’s Lee Everett. The first tweet filled my mentions with various responses within seconds. The second tweet not so much. I did get answers I wasn’t expecting. I’d forgotten about Half Life 2’s Eli Vance and Mortal Kombat’s Jax Briggs. But, as I expected, people overwhelmingly responded with two characters: Final Fantasy’s Barret Wallace and Sazh Katzroy.
I had planned this blog to be something else. It was originally meant to be a celebration of just Sazh Katzroy—Final Fantasy’s other Black dad—before I realized that it was shocking that there was cause to make that particular distinction in the first place. That Final Fantasy—a Japanese RPG that’s been around for 30 years—has not one but two Black dads running around while we struggle to name more than a handful from other games.
There’s an obsession with beating up bad dads, sympathizing with complex dads, and lauding the best dads (in ways we don’t similarly extend to mothers, but that’s a story for another time.) But even though Barret and Sazh definitely fall into those categories, they don’t get the coverage, the discussion, the recognition, nearly as much as so many other gaming dads. In Sazh’s case, that might have to do with the company he keeps. He was introduced in Final Fantasy XIII—a game people really don’t like—and yet he is one of the reasons I find that game to be tolerable or at least not as deserving of the hate it gets.
If you were to ask me to rank the characters from the last 21 years of Final Fantasy games, Sazh Katzroy would be in the top two just ahead of FF9’s Vivi Ornitier. He is the chillest, most down-to-earth of all of Final Fantasy’s eleventy billion characters, while also being the sweetest, most devoted dad to his son Dahj. When you first meet him, while Lightning’s showing off her general badassery, you’re shown he’s the guy you really want to trust. Instead of joining in with Lightning’s carnage, he offers help to the captured civilians she’s liberating, as a chocobo chick hangs out in his luxurious if not misshapen afro. Sazh stands apart from his comrades. He’s not an overly strong tsundere murder machine like Lightning, nor does he stare at the sky and lament its falling like Hope or Vanille. He embodies the “guy just trying to do his best” attitude that’s so much more relatable than any other character in FF13 or in the series overall.
If the criteria for what determines a “good dad” is based on the amount of suffering they endure for their children, then Sazh should be at or very near the top of every list. He went off on his own to fight what he thought was an army of foreign invaders. Watched his son crystallize in his arms. After that, he contemplated suicide and then, after ultimately saving the world and restoring his son to life, Sazh endured his son’s soul shattering in to pieces sending him into a coma. Sazh is very much like Mario, but instead of a Princess, it’s his son he’s always saving.
Barret Wallace is a bit more complicated than Sazh but no less worthy of inclusion on all those “best dads” lists that usually ignore him. In Final Fantasy VII he’s the leader of AVALANCHE, a group of ecological freedom fighters determined to use any means necessary to stop the Shinra Electric Power Company from destroying the planet. I’m conflicted about Barret for a lot of reasons but the one thing I love most about him is that his violence does not preclude his tenderness as a father. The archetype for Barret’s kind of dad is that their violence or violent past taint them, making them incapable or unwilling of being gentle with their children—think Kratos or Joel. Barret doesn’t allow that. You often see him hug or play with Marlene, making no effort to shield her from his bloody occupation or the machine gun grafted to his arm.
Think about that for a second. Most dad stories in games (shit, in general) are about people who have to overcome their baggage in order to be better fathers for their children. It would have been too easy, expected even, for Barret to fall into that same trap. But Barret did the reading from day one and said the inherited trauma stops with me.
There’s also a prevailing myth of the absent Black father that states Black dads are more likely than others to abandon their children. But Final Fantasy said “nah” to that bullshit, depicting a Black man utterly devoted to a child that wasn’t even his own blood way back in 1997. And yet, for all that, he’s barely mentioned in nearly every glowing post written about “good video game dads.”
Long before gaming culture at large obsessed over dads (and daddies) Final Fantasy quietly created two revolutionary, Black fathers that broke molds. I know I’m several months early for a post about dads. But it is Black History month and I do think we need to show a bit more love to these Black fathers.