The world of Final Fantasy VII stands out as a remarkably bleak interpretation of the future. Released in 1997, it came long after the cold war, long before 9/11, while the economy was still booming and while environmentalism presented a concern rather than a crisis. Yet, Final Fantasy VII presents a fragmented world of displaced people.
The world in Final Fantasy VII is dying and everyone knows it. The society of Final Fantasy VII operates by converting the oversoul into energy. The people of this world discover the energy that literally composes the soul of every living thing and find a way to use it to power their cars and homes. And they don’t care. It’s common knowledge that harvesting the lifestream is dangerous but no one is interested in stopping it. Everybody, from the nameless townies to the major NPCs, are totally apathetic. In the flavour text and in the major exposition dumps, the tone is one of disillusionment. Everybody the player comes across is overwhelmed with apathy. Everyone knows that the monopolized Shinra company is harming the planet, starving people, and taking land and resources by force but nobody cares enough to do anything about it.
The global power in Final Fantasy VII, the Shinra, isn’t a kingdom or a country: it’s a weapons manufacturer turned energy company. Unlike earlier instalments in the series the tyrant controlling the world isn’t a possessed king or evil emperor. The world is run by a smug businessman and his heartless son. The player is never given much documentation about how Shinra came to power, which is where much of the frightening appeal comes from. It seems as if one day a private arms manufacturer realized it had more money than everyone else and bought up all the power in the world. What the Shinra couldn’t buy they conquered. The world is rigidly capitalized, with the few rich men living in a tower that is literally built on top of the educated, business class who live on top of the impoverished slums.
Beyond the political structure of the world, the aesthetics remind the player of a world falling apart. Machine corpses litter every corner of the inhabited world. There are rusted pipes and frayed wires splayed all over the polluted ground. Along every path are abandoned machines leaking oil and grease, streets are noisy and covered in grime. Advertisements blaze in different languages against a gray-brown background. The trains are crowded, and the cars belch smog. NPCs refer to a the opportunity that can be found in Midgar but nobody ever seems to reach it. Midgar could be ripped straight out of Blade Runner.
Contrast this with the sleek technotropolises of Final Fantasy VIII, or the magical whimsy of Final Fantasy VI’s steampunk castles, or the effervescent majesty of Final Fantasy X’s Zanarkand. In Final Fantasy VII, it’s made clear from the opening scene: you will disappear in these cities, and there will be no sign of you left. Characters throughout the game talk about the middle-class dream that Midgar promises, where there are jobs and houses for anybody. It’s appropriate that the player never sees the middle class dream, other than a few identical houses in a tightly packed neighbourhood. The player only sees the desolate slums, where people make houses out of sewage pipes, broken down vehicles and piles of garbage, and Shinra tower with its wide open, shining, mall-like design. It’s an incredible statement that hasn’t lost its impact.
Nothing has a fixed identity. The game references a long-finished war between countries, but there doesn’t seem to be any clear borders or even any national identity that separates one region from another. Each sector of Midgar is identified by its number, not their forgotten names. Even places that aren’t identified by numbers or codes are co-opted by the Shinra corporation. Cosmo Canyon was a hub of knowledge before it turned into a camp ground between cities, Wutai was a globally powerful capital before it was reduced to what its own residents call a resort town. Each location is described as once being a culturally autonomous community in the years before the game’s events. By the time Cloud and his party reach most locations they’re a parody of themselves, or they’ve forgotten themselves entirely.
Every location in the game is marked by the Shinra; everything is shoddily put together from parts of something broken. Rocket Town originated as a launch site for the first rocket into space, but when the launch failed, the staff built a town around the still prepped rocket: a monument to the engineers’ failed dreams. Similarly, after burning Corel to the ground the Shinra turn the town into a prison camp. There’s no place that keeps any of its history.
Even the main characters are figures of displacement. Barret is literally missing a piece of himself. After his arm was amputated from an injury he received from Shinra soldiers, he replaced it with a gun; he’s so committed to destroying Shinra that he transforms his body to serve that end. With Corel destroyed Barret is identified only by his cause: not a place or a personality, just a hatred for Shinra. Barret is only a step away from Dyne, who grafted a gun to his opposite arm when he received the same injury. Dyne is a foil for Barret, they have the same history just with mirrored reactions to it. Where Barret guides his hatred specifically toward the Shinra, Dyne is left empty, and destroys indiscriminately. With nothing to fill the void left by Shinra (not even a hatred for Shinra) Dyne becomes mindless destruction. The Shinra hollow out Barret, leaving only anger and hatred, chance alone gave Barret–rather than Dyne–a motivation. Barret is defined by what he’s lost and by his anger at the source of his loss; Dyne shows just how close Barret is to unguided violence.
Likewise, Cid and Red XIII are also defined by what they lack. Cid was chosen to be the first man in space, but when the launch was cancelled he lingers in Rocket Town idly hoping for the mission to resume. Red XIII is the last of his species and the member of a tribe that is rapidly losing its history. Even though Cid does eventually fly in space, and Red XIII does find more of his species, they are built up as characters that lack. Cid is crass, short-tempered and borderline abusive in his relationship to Shera; Red XIII is mopey, immature and self-absorbed.Each of them define themselves according to what they don’t have (Cid does not have his maiden space flight, Red XIII does not have other members of his species). When Cid retakes the Highwind and makes it into space, he’s punished for his short-sightedness and he proves himself to be a kind and capable leader of the ship’s crew. Likewise, when Red XIII discovers his heritage he becomes more open and mature. Cid and Red XIII are able to grow only when the aspects that the world under Shinra robbed from them are returned.
Unsurprisingly though, the largest dissociation appears in the lead character, Cloud. From the beginning, Cloud acts as the romantic idealization of the soldier of fortune: cold, self-interested and distant. Before long it’s clear he has no control of himself. He’s a self-conscious misfit that craves approval. He whines, he fails and he never lives up to the romance he promised himself. Cloud isn’t the jaded wandering sell sword he pretends he is. His literal home is destroyed and rebuilt by Shinra, with undercover agents altering the replica, making it uncanny and discomforting. Nibelheim is an appropriate extension of Cloud’s mind, which was also destroyed by Shinra and rebuilt using fragments of other victims of the tragedy. Cloud’s own personality is literally removed from his mind and replaced with something else; just like Shinra destroyed and replaced his hometown. His home, his very identity, is broken and put back together using scraps.
Like Cloud, Aeris also has no home, and her identity is also formed around not belonging. Aeris is the last of the cetra, an ancient race of pagans that could communicate with the planet. Their extinction came as people distanced themselves from the planet. Aeris is now the last of a species that can commune with a dying planet. The earth and air are polluted, yet she’s able to grow flowers. While most are only able to sense a general decay in the planet, it’s implied that Aeris foresees the game’s events moment to moment. It’s never made clear just how much Aeris knows, only that she’s aware of things that she shouldn’t be. As the last of her kind she’s defined by her loneliness, by the ages that separate her from her people. Her death leaves the rest of humankind without any reference for the planets condition. With the cetra gone, the planet and the people living on it are at last totally divided.
And of course, it would be remiss of me to exclude Sephiroth from the discussion. Sephiroth is a revered war-hero of a conflict that the player never sees (at least in the original game). Some believe that he is one of the cetra, and yet also a part of Jenova, the creature that destroyed the cetra. The only thing that can be agreed on is that Sephiroth is not “one of us.” Whether it’s President Shinra mistily recalling Sephiroth’s brilliance or Cloud regaling his allies with his near invincibility, everyone that experiences Sephiroth defines him by his otherness. Those injected with Jenova cells eventually become faceless, babbling lunatics seeking Jenova’s “reunion.” The people that are physiologically like Sephiroth have their personalities wiped, they’re driven to assimilating with Jenova. The closer people come to Sephiroth the more of themselves they lose. At the center lies Sephiroth, who was created by the Shinra to be unlike everybody else, and unlike everybody else he’s totally alone.
The Shinra, and everything they represent (unethical science, corporate monopolization, rampant globalization) suck the identity from everything they touch. Even when people recognize that there is a problem, they are so disenfranchised with the world they live in that they don’t bother to use what power they have. The Shinra don’t have to actively oppress the people of the world, they keep them in a state of constant confusion and dissociation. They have no “self” to act with. Even the heroes only see an emptiness in themselves; they don’t have any real goals or personalities, they only know what they don’t have.
Final Fantasy VII is a story about people being stripped of their identities. The people have no homes, no purpose and no sense of selfhood. Every location is pared down and even the most unique locations are marked by the Shinra’s ownership. Even the characters are displaced, their bodies and minds are pulled apart and patched back together unnaturally. It’s a story of people that don’t belong and a world that has become home to no one. It’s a game that understands globalism and the power of capital over people.