On the Alter of the Earth: Final Fantasy VII’s Prescient Legacy

Why do we stay in the womb? Why do we beg for forgiveness? In the fateful Earth? — “The Promised Land”, Nobuo Uematsu

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

I’ve had this sitting in my drafts for a minute. I meant to publish it far closer to Final Fantasy VII: Remake’s actual release date but have instead been mulling over its details for the past few…months. It’s hard to finish these exploratory and researched writings because I feel there are so many different branches I could jump off onto, a common writing gaffe of mine anyway, and thus completing such an essay becomes suddenly far more daunting. But I still wanted to talk about it even if I’ve been forced to rethink how its organized and have by now killed plenty of my darlings (or, er, postponed their arrivals to a “part II”). Mostly because I worked quite hard on formulating some kind of thesis which I haven’t done in, oh, a while, but also because it’s fun! So bear with me here as I do a deep dive into Final Fantasy VII (which will hereto be shortened to FFVII) and it’s various canonical sequels and self-indulgently explore its themes, characters, setting, and story.

When FFVII first hit North American shelves in 1997, it was the fourth Final Fantasy game to hit western markets, despite being the seventh in the series, and the first to hit Europe. At a time when video gaming was still rather niche, FFVII managed to emerge as a completely new experience within the market. To this day FFVII remains a cornerstone for many and a critical classic cited in countless gaming journals as one of the greatest video games of all time. Twenty-three years later and Final Fantasy VII: Remake — which has gone on itself to ship more then 3.5 million copies, the most out of any PS4 exclusives so far (until Last of Us II)— arrives on a triumphant note of return.

To say FFVII has an enduring legacy is a simplification. If you were to pick up the original game as a newcomer today, either to the world of Final Fantasy or gaming in general, you would see a polygonal art piece dated enough to feel obsolete. But the story of FFVII goes beyond the original. Remake is the fifth part in the FFVII compilation, joining the ranks of Crisis Core, Advent Children, and the ill-received but not-without-fans Dirge of Cerberus. My first real introduction to FFVII was actually through 2005’s Advent Children. Which, while largely regarded as being nigh unintelligible to non-fans, impacted me enough to make me become one.

The premise of Final Fantasy VII begins simple: the planet is dying, its energy being siphoned off by the big, bad Shinra corporation. You begin your journey as an amnesiac mercenary hired to help blow up one of these energy reactors. And as the game progresses you begin to experience a slew of headaches — all tied to a mysterious voice in your head and a past you think you can but can’t quite remember. Eventually you learn there’s an ancient race of people called the Cetra who can “hear” the planet, and discover your true nemesis in a man who was combined with the cells of an extraterrestrial life form — cells which you also contain — that seeks to destroy said planet.

A little confusing? Sure. Final Fantasy as a franchise is often known for having lengthy sagas that some find unappealingly convoluted. I’ve played FFXV, FFX, FFXII, and have been playing FFXIV for a few years now so I’m far from a stranger to their brand of storytelling. But here’s something about FFVII’s strange combination of science fiction and fantasy that keeps me coming back. There’s something about the story, the characters, the world, the ideas, that even when I understood nothing of it when I first watched Advent Children all those years ago, I still picked up a controller to play through the original a decade later.

Special Movie presented with the PS4 release of the original Final Fanasy VII.

FFVII is a complicated and yet very fragile story. It is about people struggling in a collapsing world that somehow finds the time to still hold onto beauty. It’s a story about death and all the ways it tears at us. It’s about the ideals of heroism and what it means to fight — really fight — for what’s right, and what the cost of that can be. It isn’t a perfect story. But it has gravitas. Playing through the original for the first time I can see how this made such a big impact back in 1997. Because right now — months after Remake’s release — the original is still as compelling as ever.

But we’re still a long way from 1997. The legacy and imagery of FFVII has changed, subtly and significantly, over the years. We have more games to go off of, more movies, more references, more stories set in the world of Gaia. It has picked up and surely lost fans along the way. And a few years after FFVII had been formally released, during a renaissance of its interest in the early 00s, I sat down to Advent Children. More than a decade after that initial viewing, I sat down to it again. Nothing had really changed and yet my life was so very different. FFVII had been this powerful story me as a child, one that stuck with me through a lot of the times that troubled me. In the midst of my worldview today, it transformed into something more.

Remake’s arrival is nothing short of miraculous, a culmination of work and wishes from generations of fans. For many, it was like coming back home. For others, it was like exploring a whole new world, one that’s been at the forefront of Final Fantasy’s pop cultural legacy for years. Remake was set to give the world of FFVII not only a fresh coat of paint, but a deep, slow exploration of characters, settings, and story. But it moves beyond where it was, what it could be, and where it’s headed.

That is to say — Final Fantasy VII has never felt more relevant.

Fantasy Goes Sci-fi

By day, the bars down Ninsei were shuttered and featureless, the neon dead, the holograms inert, waiting, under the poisoned silver sky.— William Gibson, Neuromancer

The world of Final Fantasy VII isn’t set in a traditional fantasy world ripped from 12th century Europe, replete with wizards and giant dragons guarding castles: it’s set in a vivid cyberpunk world, where most of the citizens seem perched at the edge of its final chapter. This doesn’t necessarily juxtapose opposite other entries, which feature airships and fleets and “magitech”, but it does feel a bit far removed from the template of past Final Fantasy games. There are still dragons and treasure and ghouls, but they exist against a backdrop of urbanization and corporate control.

It’s interesting, then, that FFVII’s development came at a time when cyberpunk and its extensions were already established and popular genres within the realm of science fiction. In the anthology Mirrorshades, contributor and editor Brian K. Stirling describes cyberpunk as an “overlapping of worlds that were formally separate: the realm of high tech and the modern pop underground.” It’s described in many circles, essentially, as “high tech and low life.”

Cyberpunk is famous for its portrayals of fading egalitarianism, oppressive city skylines, retro-futuristic technology, and ecological destruction. Its origins can trace back to the late 1960s with Philip K. Dick’s acclaimed “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, and what followed was a storm of explorations into human consciousness in the emerging fields of technology, globalization, and cyberspace that spanned into the early 2000s.

Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic, Blade Runner.

The traditional aesthetics of cyberpunk — neon lights, rain-laced streets, smoke thick alleys — were cemented in the public mind with the release of Blade Runner in 1982 (also the year the Akira manga was released, and features similar conceptualizations of future society, albeit with entirely different cultural underpinnings). A dramatic thriller full of action and psychological contemplations, Blade Runner would go on to become synonymous with the apex of cyberpunk’s imprint on American — and global — cultural frameworks, tinging the movement with a noir element that calls back the old classics like The Maltese Falcon (which is fitting, especially given the conversations these stories have around authority). It would be followed by Tron, an exploration of computerization that also served as foundational imagery for early cyberspace. Indigo Gaming has an excellent breakdown of cyberpunk’s early origins that I watched for these little tidbits, for those interested in further exploring that realm.

Japan’s cyberpunk movement also had a reckoning with the melding of technology and humankind, perhaps more so than their western counterparts. According to Mark Player of Midnight Eye, early cyberpunk in Japan tended to “…focus on the venerability of the human mind and how such alteration can cause more than a physical change in appearance, but create a completely new mental state and thought processes that are beyond human.” Player cites the Tetsuo films as famous examples of this. They’re far more vulgar and rough in their presentation (another differing hallmark, he notes) but deal heavily with themes of mutilation at the hands of technology and even go so far as the fetishize it. And while FFVII keeps away from more graphic depictions of human experimentation, it is not afraid to dabble in it — specifically in regards to Cloud’s mental manipulation at the hands of Sephiroth and the countless experimentations of Hojo’s. The game explores the depths of self-identity and memories in the face of genetic manipulation, and Remake and Advent Children go further into examining Jenova’s influence on those it has come into contact with. It’s an element that feels special to FFVII itself within the Final Fantasy canon. The very presence of the alien life of Jenova presents an interesting villain in that they themselves are not physically acting, but acting instead through the “infected” of our world. This is explored in much greater detail in Advent Children and will, I have not doubt, be further expanded upon in Remake.

FFVII touches on enough elements of cyberpunk for me to think it was inspired by the art movement, even if not holding the same fears the western market did (globalization, for one thing). It marries “high tech, low life” to “high magic, low availability.” Much like FFXV, a world in which magic is not so widely available as to have wizards everywhere but rather one populated by normal people who run gas stations, FFVII sees fantasy that acutely and successfully incorporates science fictional realism.

It’s no surprise, then, that character designer and Director of Remake, Tetsuya Nomura, told Polygon in its must-read and extensive FFVII oral history: “…the first plot treatment that [Hironobu] Sakaguchi-san wrote, it took place in New York, there was an organization there that was trying to destroy the Mako Reactors and a character named Detective Joe was investigating them.”

How very noir-ish indeed.

While almost a decade of space sat between cyberpunk’s initial emergence and the early origins of FFVII, it’s easy to see how the evolution of the genre, with Akira’s animated adaptation sweeping through cinemas in 1988, might have somewhat influenced the aesthetics of the game. From Nibelheim’s dilapidated mansion to Rocket Town’s tilted, rusting, failed spacecraft — the world outside our starting city is far from the idyllic countryside of many fantasy adventure games. Small, impoverished towns litter mountainsides, the tents of North Corel hunker down outside the lift to the sprawling and fleeting riches of The Golden Saucer, Cosmo Canyon’s natural wonders are towered over by a massive telescope — but nowhere is the near-future cyberpunk-ish influence seen so keenly as within Remake. While apparent in the inarguably lovely pre-rendered backgrounds of the original game, Remake’s approach opens the world, taking the initial design choices — and their implications — and crafts them into something more.

When it came to city planning, there is a gap in wealth between the city on the upper layer and the slums underneath, and even wealth inequality within the upper city as well. We depicted the city as one beset with numerous contradictions that accompanied the extremely rapid development it underwent. — Naoki Hamaguchi, co-director of Final Fantasy VII: Remake, interview with The Verge

Midgar is a metal city full of steam-clogged alleys and green-bursting reactors, with slums and ragtag bandits, bile-spewing monsters, and all manner of abandoned, scrap-junk places. By now we already know the phosphorescence of nighttime, the dingy alley in which we first meet Aerith, the blinking signage of Seventh Heaven, the abandoned church: all of it imbued in our memories in a thousand different ways. This is where Remake’s recreation solidifies some of the more nuanced ideas in the original by fleshing the details of the world out, so locations can take on new life.

To anyone living in a city truncated by emptying industrial blocks and slick, new skyscrapers, these scenes are strikingly routine. Back-city streets are filled with paused construction zones, fallen buildings in disrepair; whole city blocks sit empty. It’s a world made familiar. FFVII’s world-building does the heavy lifting of introducing us to some of the heavy disparities between the haves and have-nots, as well as the disrepair that limits the world. The slums look markedly different than the districts of those who live on the plate. To the below, they have the beauty of a giant “pizza in the sky” to look up to and bulbs of burning artificial sun to light their daytime. While above them the burning green of the reactors add a jade glow to the plate’s evenings. Evidence of poverty and those on the cusp of it is everywhere, and when we get to explore more of the upper plate in the Remake, we see that even the rich suffer under the fog of industrialization. There’s even a cell of rebels — a hallmark of early cyberpunk — ceded from this statasquo.

It’s their fight that leads the first half of the story and has lasting repercussions for the rest— for our team and the world itself.

“There ain’t no getting off this train we’re on...”

There’s a mission you participate in within Remake that is a far departure from the original. It offers much more background on Jessie, a once aspiring (and sucessful) actress, and her parents who live up on the plate. We learn she decided to join Avalanche, our motley crew of rebels, of her own volition, if not simply because she’s an adventure-seeker at heart but because she sees firsthand how devastating the world they live in can be and how her complacency has contributed to all of it.

You roam the upper city streets with her, Biggs, and Wedge, and I couldn’t help but feel the entire time that this wasn’t so far removed from the slums — it was still an oppressive, quiet, empty night filtered through the green of the ever-present mako reactors where the threat of policing felt pressing. Nicer, certainly, but no less under siege by the rulership of Shinra. And a far cry from the pristine interiors we later explore in Shinra’s headquarters.

Jessie’s father lies bedridden when you sneak in as Cloud, a startling discovery that mutes the tone of the conversations leaking from outside the room. His status as an employee of Shinra and a victim of mako poisoning within its facilities makes it clear that even those who work under the game’s governmental corporation suffer for it. It illustrates the whole system as self-destructive, a cyclical evolution of greed and innovation that forgoes any form of thoughtfulness in light of higher profits and more power.

It’s telling that your first mission within the city of Midgar involves blowing up one of these mako reactors. This is before you’re really introduced to the entire system too, so you have a little less context for why these things are bad until Barret rather heavy-handedly explains it to you. It still seems a bit vague though, and in Remake, through the proxy of Cloud, you spend an inordinate amount of time destroying the increasingly powerful enemies within the reactor. It does a good job of visually showcasing Shinra’s inclinations towards total security, control, and political prowess. We even get an early snapshot of Heidegger and President Shinra up in their tower HQ, overseeing the destruction of the reactor. They smugly help it along, resulting in a huge explosion that rocks the plate and damages the city causing Jessie, our munitions expert, to question herself and her hand in it. We see the destruction first hand this time — the panicked people, the destruction, the closed rail stations. It even renders Cloud emotional, with him temporarily recollecting another tragedy in ashes.

Blaming the blasting agent, Jessie mulls over her mistake as the crew begins to wonder if it was worth it all. It’s a cruel example of the manipulative tactics of Shinra and immediately roots us in sympathy for this small enclave of Avalanche. They didn’t really want to hurt anyone, and yet Shinra makes it so that’s exactly what the public sees them do. Barret, the de-facto leader and most passionate player, brushes it off as a necessity, and this is something he reiterates throughout the entire game. But even he struggles beneath the facade, cracking that stoicism (that I’m beyond excited to explore in future chapters!) for a softness of understanding complications.

And by making our team a splinter cell with more “radicalized” ideals than the other more mainstream cells of Avalanche in Remake, we see how organized and yet divided this movement really is. Biggs even mentions it in an aside with Cloud early on in the game, name-dropping Wutai and how Avalanche may or may not have ties to the eastern nation, whose rejection of Shinra’s proposal to build a reactor there resulted in a long and bloody war.

That in itself is telling enough of how we’re to view Shinra’s attempted domination, even if that little old lady we see in the chapter with Jessie while we’re escaping the upper plate angrily shakes her stick at the guard and claims she’s killed tons of Wutai soldiers. The people of Midgar fought a war against a country thinly veiled as an enemy, and Avalanche’s potential alliance with them will certainly serve as a greater plot point in the coming installments.

Avalanche is a heavily contested presence in the the city of Midgar for this very reason. After the fiasco at reactor 5, people’s view of them as violent disrupters to a rather peaceable statuesque only intensify. Content to live under the thumb of Shinra in comfort, most of Midgar’s citizens seem to see overzealous rebels as the cause of their problems and not, perhaps, the ones trying to fix them. In Remake, the background dialogue itself illustrates how the people of the upper plates and the slums hold frustrations — if not outright disdain — for the group. In the upper plates it’s often their tactics, their perceived predilection towards violence, and their status as people of the slums that cradles those suspicions. In the slums it’s often fear of retaliation — why bite the hand that feeds you? Which is a line, interestingly enough, that’s one of Barret’s first questions to Cloud and has a narrative presence throughout the game itself. There are those who support Avalanche, of course, and we hear their reasoning too.

This blend of gossip is interspersed throughout your wanderings of the city, injecting an odd sense of alienation and yet kinship with the community. It gets to the point that even the oft-nameless goons of Shinra sometimes recognize Cloud with some fondness, resulting in a weird knee-jerk reaction by Cloud himself and us. Remake’s focus on Shinra‘s internal politics and the infighting and discussions of guilt and fault within all levels of the company really bring this struggle to the forefront. Upon exploring Shinra HQ you meet employees just working late nights by the coffee machine, eating in the cafeteria, lamenting about the company’s decisions on plush couches next to a wall of windows looking down at the city below. Remake complicates the narrative of Shinra to display something rather astonishingly real: people work to live and, sometimes, the exhaustion of trying to fix everything in the world takes a backseat to the more pressing concerns of family, livelihood, and keeping food on the table. Remake’s (and even Advent Children’s) complicated relationship with its secondary villains causing the environmental harm is one that feels like it matters today, because not only does it understand the collective hopelessness the people of all classes feel in the face of climate change, it captures a very particular brand of uncertainty of the future and an understanding that even “the bad guys” are still people. And while it’s imperative to note that Barret sees all of Shinra as complicit in the act of killing the planet, whether we agree with him or align more with Tifa is really up to us.

Reno and Rude, while wonderful in the original, are glorious in the Remake. They are Turks hired by Shinra for very specific jobs, but they don’t often feel inclined to do them. Although eventual allies, even if they’re a bit reluctant about it, to Cloud and his team, we see them as more friendly rivals than anything throughout most of the game. Which is odd considering they’re the ones who essentially bring down the sector 7 plate, an event I would argue is perhaps one of the most traumatic in the original and certainly the most in Remake.

But what sets FFVII apart from many other cyberpunk properties is that it doesn’t view most of the world’s misfortunes through a nihilistic lens. There are few outright villains in FFVII (outside of, really, Jenova, and by effect Sephiroth and wait, maybe Don Cornea, f that guy) that are purely evil for the sake of, well, being purely evil. There are complicated facets to all our factions, normal humans entrenched in all the world’s most insidious organizations. Participants of apathy, yes, but not without some semblance of understanding.

The losses we face during Remake’s duration also aren’t framed as fatalistic in the sense that we already know what’s coming. Like it or not, Remake’s goal is to recreate the experience of, FFVII, not copy and paste the story. Instead of knowing how everything ends up, we’re faced with knowing how everything ends up while likely immeasurably more interested in the growing cast and their fates. When Remake decides to thwart its fated ends and differ in its direction, it’s like a breath of fresh air. And against the backdrop of our own lives, where many of us are now realizing how helpless we as individuals feel, it’s an exceptionally important reminder.

“It’s about standing up and fighting for what you believe in. It’s about standing up for other people. It’s about DEMANDING a better, kinder world, and truly believing that we can get there if we care about each other as hard as we possibly can, with every drop of power in our little hearts.” — Alexandra Rowland, author of A Conspiracy of Truths

In a proliferation of grimdark stories, FFVII offers a pretty stark alternative. While its cyberpunk aesthetics point to a more reflective focus on the act of rebellion, its actual emotional underpinnings aren’t rooted in tragedy without meaning. I’d even argue that’s FFVII’s message is rather stalwartly hopepunk, the definition of which is quoted above, in that its message isn’t necessarily that nothing can be done, but rather what can be done may not necessarily benefit the current and collective “us.” That’s a story for the next installment, but it stands to reason that the work of Avalanche — the work of any organization striving for a better world — is that those fighting for it may not benefit from that struggle but it is a worthwhile fight nonetheless.

Midgar feels like a city poised at the edge of death. But inside its walls there are still those that grow flowers. To quote the roman poet Caecillius Stratius, “We plant trees not for ourselves, but for the future generations.”

I think FFVII has been telling us that for years and Remake has made it all the more apparent.

in my head or one of the Final Fantasy games, most of the time / https://ko-fi.com/raesun / https://www.twitch.tv/raesosun