Ever since 2015, when publisher Square Enix announced to rapturous applause that they were working on a remake for Final Fantasy 7, anticipation for it among fans of Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs) has remained at fever pitch. Considered by many as one of the greatest games ever made and which helped popularise Japanese games in the west, expectations were high for Square’s return to this treasured property. For those like myself who missed the original PlayStation One release in ’97, this remake was also an opportunity to experience this seminal work in gaming history for ourselves.
Right off the bat, I just want to say that the way Square Enix has gone about developing this remake is pretty bold. For better or worse, SE has not been content simply to decant old wine into a new bottle. Final Fantasy 7 (remake) is exactly that. Not just a re-master to improve graphical fidelity as is so popular with publishers looking to dust off classic properties. Or as in the case of Blizzard’s recent and disastrous foray into remastering games… somehow managing to make a game much worse through their attempts to ‘improve’ it. No this is a remake in every sense of the word.
A retelling and, from the looks of things, a complete reimagining of the entire story.
But if you thought the developers would use the opportunity to tone down the weirdness, don’t worry. It’s still got pretty much all the eccentricity of the original. You’ve still got the genetically engineered mutant talking hyena-dog companion, the unconvincing cross-dressing that somehow fools your enemies, eclectic fashion choices, and characters who tend to laugh or giggle to themselves for no reason during a conversation.
Also, you fight a house. No not a house full of people. Just the house… it’s an evil house.
(We won in the end, but it was a near thing to be honest | Square Enix)
But while that kind of weirdness is, more often than not, par for the course when it comes to Final Fantasy and JRPGs in general, that’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of depth to go along with it. The Final Fantasy series has never shied away from exploring the nature of human existence. At times it does tend to come across as a bit obvious and ham-fisted, but that may simply be a factor of the games receiving less than stellar translations back in the day.
(At least I’m assuming that’s what led to this gem | Square Enix)
That being said, unsubtle or not, most of the themes and social narrative on display in Final Fantasy 7’s remake are worth taking a closer look at since they are still as relevant today as they were 24 years ago and most of the game’s core audience is likely to be playing it for the first time.
Note: There are major spoilers ahead for both the original and the remake of Final Fantasy 7, so if that’s important to you, here’s your last chance to exit.
1. The Gaia hypothesis and spiritual environmentalism
One of the main focuses of the story of Final Fantasy 7, in both the original and the remake, is the conflict between energy concern turned mega-corporation Shinra (or Shin-Ra if you prefer it) and the eco-terrorist group Avalanche. The focus of this conflict is Shinra’s harnessing of a naturally occurring meta-physical energy referred to as ‘Lifestream’ which it processes into Mako, a fuel source that it uses to generate power for the city of Midgar and presumably other cities as well.
Unfortunately, it appears that Shinra’s assertions that this energy source is limitless are vastly overstated. Groups such as Avalanche believe that all life is derived from Lifestream energy and accuse the corporation of ‘draining the lifeblood of the planet’. They fear that continued Mako usage threatens to exhaust this source of energy, making the planet incapable of sustaining life any longer.
The theory being referenced here is called the Gaia hypothesis which started as part of new wave spiritualism back in the 1960s and ‘70s which draws influences from a variety of beliefs but focuses on ideas popular in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Those who espouse this theory believe that all life on Earth is intrinsically connected by a type of metaphysical bond, pieces of a shared soul or consciousness that re-merges with the planet’s ‘soul’ when anything or anyone dies.
And just in case the connection was not clear through gameplay, the planet that Final Fantasy 7 takes place on has come to be referred to as Gaia (although I believe it was originally just called Planet and the new name was retconned in over the years).
Even one of the primary antagonists of the game — Heidegger, Shinra’s chief of security whose forces dog you throughout most of your time in the game — is a nod to the conservationism message of Final Fantasy 7. That’s because Chief Heidegger is a reference to the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose ideas (among a few others that were and are controversial) included the belief that all the resources of the world must be considered untapped reserves which should be exploited as soon as it is convenient and beneficial to do so.
Being a stand-in for Big Oil and with a goal to drain the planet of its ability to sustain life of any kind in order to make a profit, the Shinra Corporation and (most of) its leadership appear to be true believers in Heidegger’s teachings — intent on using technology to improve and maintain civilisation even if it comes at a cost of literally everything else.
(The late industrial aesthetic of the world design is a great nod to the rampant resource exploitation of the era | Square Enix)
As an interesting but honestly predictable aside, he’s also believed to have been a Nazi sympathiser, because his other views simply on their own weren’t repugnant enough already I guess. This may have even been hinted at in-game as well given his namesake’s affinity for military greatcoats and a proclivity for overwhelming force and ‘final solutions’.
(Martin Heidegger and his in-game counterpart… both deeply unpopular and justifiably so | Square Enix and Wikimedia Commons)
Naturally, with the advancement of ‘civilisation’ and the rise of mega-corporations, we come to the next major theme that we encounter in the game…
2. Class struggle
Another strong theme on display in Final Fantasy 7 is the disparity between the rich and the poor in the city of Midgar. In this corporate-built and corporate-controlled city, the company is the law, with the president of the corporation ruling more like a king than a corporate executive.
Separated into two levels by a massive artificial platform that would make any fan of cyberpunk dystopias blush, the wealthy and privileged of the city can literally look down on the poor from on high. Those down on the surface live in relative squalor, with those living under the ‘steel sky’ deprived of the natural light and fresh air that even the penniless used to be able to enjoy reliably. At least they never have to invest in umbrellas. You could call it looking on the bright side, but that seems needlessly cruel.
(Midgar’s upper city as viewed from above…and from below in the lower city slums | Square Enix)
The corporation works extensively to maintain its public image, through a monopoly on the media and active misinformation campaigns intended to turn public opinion against groups like Avalanche. This extends to the point of intentionally sabotaging support plates of the upper city and flattening huge areas of the undercity shanty town below to literally crush any opposition to their plans.
It’s not entirely clear whether the populace of the poor districts of the city actually believe the propaganda or simply feel the need to put on a show to avoid reprisals. But it seems that Shinra’s efforts to maintain their stranglehold of control may have finally gone too far, with even some members of the company beginning to work against the company from within.
(Who would have thought that the most moral among them would be the guy with the mullet? | Square Enix)
We may not see the fruits of it since we are likely to be leaving Midgar behind for the following instalments of the remake, but it appears that Avalanche and other armed resistance groups could be about to become much more popular very soon and Midgar itself may be in for a reckoning as the truth of the company’s actions become more widely known.
Truths such as the extremely illegal and immoral genetic research that they’ve got going on in their secret labs — just as an example, and assuming the attempted genocide of the poor wasn’t enough. (It usually is, but just in case.)
3. Fear of genetic engineering
Now I’m not sure if this is a theme, a coincidence or a look at the collective psyche of video game creators in Japan, but cloning — particularly human cloning and its downsides — is a suspiciously prevalent theme across many top tier Japanese games.
This includes Metal Gear Solid which had so many clones of clones that it honestly became hard to follow. Effectively anyone in that game bearing the nickname that includes the word ‘Snake’ is a clone, along with a whole carousel of ‘genetically enhanced’ foes with a variety of superhuman or supernatural abilities.
Or Resident Evil, which features a genetically engineered virus that causes a zombie outbreak as well as the development of this… interesting and nigh-unkillable nightmare, the Nemesis.
(…….S.T.A.R.S.! | Capcom)
And finally, we come to Final Fantasy. Well at least in 7, turns out the hero is an amnesiac clone of the villain. This is day-time soap opera writing at its finest, but what if I told you that the villain was also a clone? Of an ancient and powerful race that inhabited the planet before the age of man? No? That makes it worse?
Yes, you’re right, it does make it worse. I don’t know why so many people are cloned from others or why there isn’t a more reasonable way for villains to fulfil the role of being the hero’s dark reflection etc. It doesn’t help either that the ethically bankrupt brain behind all the genetic shenanigans over at Shinra is exactly the kind of Josef Mengele stand-in you would expect to find in charge of such an endeavour.
Lack of originality aside, ultimately, it’s a narrative contrivance that is likely to meant to enforce the ideals of self-determination. Nothing is preordained and a person’s morality is determined by conviction and experience as well as by instinct and the potential for good or evil resides within all of us.
At least that’s my interpretation of it, which works out pretty well since it brings us quite neatly to the final point on our list.
4. The rejection of destiny and Predestination Theory
One major new addition to the game, and which fans of the game will either consider its most interesting or most terrible aspect, depending on who you ask, are what the game refers to as whispers. These mysterious wraith-like creatures are introduced early in the game and are completely unique to the remake for reasons that become completely clear only in the game’s final act.
(It’s not because they want to suck out your soul | Square Enix)
Apparently, these Dementor look-a-likes are — as the talking dog-thing Red Thirteen describes them — “the arbiters of faith”, existing to ensure that events unfold as they were destined to. I’m not sure how a talking dog held in captivity is so well informed on these creatures, but no one else questions him in-game and he doesn’t seem like an unreliable narrator, so I guess that must be what they are.
(Red Thirteen. An exceptionally reliable source of information | Square Enix)
In-game these whispers seem almost like metaphysical enforcers, representing the theory of predestination, originally proposed by 16th century theologian and scholar John Calvin (who later became the head of a theocratic government in Geneva). Calvin proposed that every decision or choice you could ever make has already been laid out and its outcome fixed as a part of a divine master plan.
Throughout the events of the game, these whispers appear at important moments, seemingly hindering the player at first, but later providing assistance when things start going badly for us such as catching Aerith when she falls off a ledge or literally bringing a dead Barret back to life with apparent ease, seemingly because he was not destined to die at that time.
But it would appear that neither the writers nor the cast of the game are interested in abiding by events as they have happened before. You as the player turn on the whispers and defeat their leaders, seemingly freeing yourself and potentially everyone else from a pre-destined outcome. In fact, even key characters like your ally Aerith and former mentor Zack (both of whom died in the original Final Fantasy) appear to survive; at least, they survive past the points when they were expected to die.
With the defeat of the Harbinger, the apparent leader of the whispers, there is no guarantee that any of the events from the original game will play out the way they were intended. In the game Aerith and Sephiroth, possibly by virtue of their connection to the ancients, appear to be aware that their actions are changing the course of destiny although it’s going to be a few years until we find out how this will influence them or the actions they take.
But if we go beyond the narrative and get meta for a moment, this freedom more importantly also applies to the developers of the remake. Tetsuya Nomura who headed up development on Final Fantasy 7 (remake) appears to have found a way to give himself a great deal of creative license in a type of project that usually offers little freedom.
This sense that the future is no longer set in stone is reinforced by the final message that the game leaves us with: ‘The Unknown Journey will continue’. With that usage of capitalisation, I get the feeling that may be the name of the next instalment in this sub-series. The big question is, now that future is changed, will we live to regret it?
The road not taken
On the face of it, this is exactly the kind of stunt that I would love. Not being a fan of frame-for-frame remakes, I think it’s great to see a developer willing to take a risk like this. That being said, the last time Tetsuya Nomura introduced multiple timelines and alternate dimensions, it didn’t exactly work out. Kingdom Hearts 3, which Nomura was also involved in, featured both of those ideas and while I’ve not played it myself, the consensus among both fans and critics is that it was a largely incoherent mess, narratively.
(No joke, that’s one of the incarnations of Donald Duck in Kingdom Hearts 3 | Square Enix)
I also can’t say I’m much of a fan of the ‘hobbit-isation’ of Final Fantasy 7’s remake, where what was once a single story has been stretched out into (at least) three full-size games. But playing the first instalment, it is at least clear that this is no get-rich-quick scheme from a publisher desperate for an easy, low-effort hit. The part of the story that we do experience has been significantly expanded, in what I feel was a relatively meaningful way, with previously minor characters being given the chance to stay in the limelight at least a little bit longer.
Final Fantasy 7 (Remake) promised to take us on an unknown journey. Hopefully, it will be one worthy of all its hyped up to be.