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This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.
Final Fantasy VII was always radical. After six legendary high fantasy adventures (and a whiff of steampunk), this was the game that left all the evil warlocks and empires on the shelf and replaced them with, and I quote, Shinra Electric Power Company – an unscrupulous arms manufacturer turned global energy conglomerate, filled to the brim with villainous executives hell-bent on bleeding both people and planet dry for profit. They rule the vast city of Midgar, where the wealthy live in luxury on an enormous steel plate and everyone else grovels in the sunless slums beneath it. The whole thing is powered by electricity derived from mako, a substance extracted from the “lifestream” (think oil but it’s also souls) pumped up day and night from the depths of the Planet.
Midgar is a scathing caricature of the United States, emerging from a 1990s Japan that perhaps believed itself to be different, but more likely from a progressive group of creators who saw through the smokescreens and knew all too well: we, too, live in Midgar. Over two decades later, with the twin crises of climate and inequality looming larger than ever, the long-awaited remake arrives at the perfect moment.
This first installment of the remake focuses on the most radical (and probably overall best) part of the adventure – the Midgar section. Following this chapter, the original game left the city behind and toned down its social commentary so it could go on a traditional high-fantasy road trip and kill an evil alien god like all its genre forebears. But Midgar was and is truly unique – it's a story about inequality, oppression and private military rule, about corporations turning a profit at the expense of the planet and what it takes to fight that corruption. Our heroes are the eco-terrorist cell Avalanche led by Barret Wallace, a towering Black man with a machine gun for an arm and a dream of blowing up energy infrastructure to save the planet. I was always worried that, with a mountain of investment at stake, the remake team would take this opportunity to water Final Fantasy 7 down, defuse the political gunpowder and sell harmless anime hijinks to the widest possible audience. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Instead, the FF7 remake doubles down on its system critique and turns out to be the breakout political game of 2020 so far. It's eager to make up for all the original’s glaring holes, written largely by returning members of the original team that know all too well the crucial content that they had to cut over the course of production, and have now been given a final chance to tell the full story in all its radical glory. But not only is all of the original's edge intact – the horror of rich people living literally on top of the slums, the cynicism of Shinra using their activist adversaries as marketing tools to further their own schemes and the culmination of it all as they eradicate a whole community and blame its citizens – it's frequently accentuated in new ways by the elaborated storyline, and there are even new concepts that bring its tale of relentless activism into the present climate crisis. At the same time, in other ways it remains anchored in the (in hindsight, largely failed) environmental movement of the 1990s.
Chapter 1: The making of an activist
Like in the original, we spend most of our time controlling Cloud Strife, a lone wolf mercenary doing what he thinks will be a one-time gig for Avalanche. As a classic JRPG protagonist he acts as a stand-in for the player - but in this case, that's not a compliment. Cloud exudes all the entitlement and selfishness that the Final Fantasy team has learned to expect from its audience. And I think it’s fair to say that most of us gamers have something of a Cloud in us. So often we're trained to judge ourselves by our individual accomplishments, to the point where any talk of working together just sounds like a hollow cliché. We may connect with others, but never allow ourselves to depend on them. We are too busy self-promoting to notice the larger causes at stake, or recognize that others don't have the privileges and freedoms that we do. Needless to say, Barret despises Cloud.
But since the Avalanche group now has a lot more time on their hands than in the original 5-hour runtime of the Midgar chapter, they soon start to explore a central dramatic question of the remake: can we get this guy to care? Can Cloud Strife be turned into an activist? Barret's first earnest attempt to draw Cloud into activism comes as they ride the train home from their first reactor bombing. As the Avalanche ringleader accounts for how bleak things are looking and how much of an upper hand Shinra has, our heroic mercenary dares to suggest that Barret should just walk away from his fight and not look back. Barret sighs and dismantles Cloud's white privilege in two sentences:
To Cloud's credit, this gives him pause. He looks out the window and conjures up the first of what is to be many train metaphors in Final Fantasy VII. “Like this train, I suppose. There's only one way it can go.”
Remake Barret clearly understands something about the intimate ties between climate justice and social justice. He sees not only that Shinra's pollution disproportionately harms the poor living in the slums and scrapyards - though Midgar's pollution causes monster infestations in place of cancer. He also recognizes that inequality and environmental degradation share a common root cause: the spectre of colonialism, here essentially given the form of a single monolithic corporation. Taking what they want from those who lack the means to resist is Shinra's whole business model, whether that means keeping the residents of the slums as glorified slaves, invading foreign countries to steal natural resources or indeed, sucking up the very life force that future generations depend on to survive. The mako economy hasn't just turned other lands into colonies to be pillaged and looted, it has turned their own future into one. So it should come as no surprise that in the real world, the very foundations of colonialist thought are now being rattled not by the climate movement, but by Black Lives Matter in the United States and beyond. When that colonialist mindset becomes morally unacceptable, we will all benefit.
That's why, in the game, Avalanche shifts effortlessly between fighting for environmental justice and social justice, never even stopping to distinguish which is which. One moment they blow up reactors, the next they volunteer for the neighbourhood watch to keep the human dwellings safe from monsters, because what's the point in protecting people from one form of oppression if you're just going to let them fall prey to another? This realization is ultimately what connects movements to each other, and builds coalitions strong enough to topple the incumbent corporate interests that rule our world. If Shinra is to fall, or even change, it will take a movement of movements, all fighting to overturn the same corrupt elite.
That's a lot to ask from a guy who still doesn't see himself forming up a 3-character party. Where does our lone hero fit in all this? After returning to their home base in the Sector 7 slums, the Avalanche team try to put Cloud through his paces. He grudgingly helps the undercity residents with errands and sidequests alongside his childhood friend Tifa, to make money and improve his reputation as a mercenary hero. Meanwhile, we get to see how the Avalanche members work together to improve their lot and that of their neighbours. Sector 7 is a community in perpetual crisis. There is no room for heroes. Everyone needs to do their part, and not just practically but emotionally – something Avalanche excels at. Like any good climate activist network, their culture is as regenerative as the economy they're trying to build, and it's a joy to watch them take care of each other. Before even getting off the train, veteran activist Biggs takes Cloud aside to check if he's okay after the action. He seems to remember what the rest of us have readily forgotten – that Cloud isn't a superhero, he's the newest recruit to a radical movement and may well need support. The same thoughtfulness and warmth permeates every part of the movement, including Barret himself who never misses a chance to lavish his team members with praise and proclamations of how much they mean to him. He knows that the only way to bear the heavy work left to them is to face it not just as a group, but as a family. In a refreshing break from both “Angry Activist” and “Angry Black Man” stereotypes, Barret is never afraid to let his guard down and show other emotions than his signature rage, and it's clear that most members of Avalanche have been drawn to the planetary cause out of personal admiration for their leader. He’s come a long way since his grumpy 1997 self.
As for the source of his own commitment, Barret never fully understands where it comes from in the remake. Towards the end of the original game, he will come to the realization that he actually doesn't care so much about the planet and the grand scheme of things. Few of us do, deep down. What he cares about is his daughter, Marlene. Whenever he wasn't motivated by sheer revenge, he's been fighting so she could have a future in a just and sustainable world. As an older, wiser Cloud will explain as the original game nears its climax, people will only fight hard for a cause if they have a deeply personal, emotionally-anchored reason for doing so. If no amount of logic or explanation is going to get remake Cloud to give a damn, what will?
Chapter 2: What it means to care
When Cloud tumbles into the slums of Sector 5, fate has him crashing through the roof of the very church where Aerith is growing flowers out of a hole in the floorboards, setting events in motion that will forever change them both.
Aerith is a revelation in the remake. It's not just that she's a “strong female lead” who keeps pushing back on Cloud's cavalier insistence to protect her in combat - although I do love that the flower princess gets to say “shit” in one of her first scenes. She is selfless, witty and ever curious, born with the ability to hear the voices of the planet and with intuition and listening skills bordering on the supernatural. She deftly teases and prods Cloud at every turn to get him to reveal things about himself, and she lays the puzzle so fast that within hours she seems to know him better than he knows himself, resist as he might. Aerith is regeneration given flesh, the very embodiment of what it means to live in harmony with the planet. On their adventure in her native Sector 5, Aerith gets to put Cloud through the first step on the path to changing the world: empathy.
Sector 5 constantly evokes that most evocative image of urban environmentalism – the lone flower growing out of the cracks in the concrete. Nestled amid the scrapyards and endless junk heaps of Midgar, Aerith's community is a haven for orphaned children, far from Shinra's eye and bathed in the spirit of collaboration. On his day here, Cloud seems to catch a glimpse of a different way of living. All the favors and side missions that he did for money and fame in Sector 7, Aerith does for free in Sector 5 every day. She grows flowers in her garden to decorate the orphanage, and herbs to help the local doctor. She knows everyone by name, and everyone knows her. She seems to help out not for personal gain or even because it's right: she just can't help herself. Somewhere behind Cloud's gruff exterior, the joy of helping others is taking hold.
And yet, at first I was a bit apprehensive of Aerith. Early on she tells Cloud that everyone seems to hate the slums, but she actually loves them. How could she hate a place that is filled with so many dreams, woven together into something greater? This chapter takes place as the anti-Avalanche sentiment in Midgar reaches a fever pitch, after Shinra launches a conspiracy theory that the group is funded by the rival nation of Wutai. And although Sector 5 is clearly a more harmonious community than the rest of the slums, it’s in no way immune to propaganda and its residents have few kind words to spare for the eco-terrorists. And so whether out of professionalism or self-preservation, Cloud never reveals his affiliation with Avalanche (even staying silent at an unexpected mention of Biggs). For every moment that Cloud and Aerith talk about anything but politics, the tension builds. I found myself dreading the moment Aerith finds out about the pain and fear and endless train delays that Cloud and his friends have put her people through - will she start to question the Avalanche agenda just like everyone else we meet? Could the remake even use her as the kumbaya option, an alibi for players who want to feel that there is a simple alternative to Barret's angry revolution, that if we all just join hands and meditate, the planet will heal and the problems will go away? Is Aerith the one who finally gets to say what everyone is thinking, that Avalanche is wrong about everything?
I needn't have worried. Aerith has no qualms about rising up to challenge Shinra with any means necessary, and the flower girl isn't afraid of getting her hands dirty. In fact, there isn't even a clear moment when Aerith learns of Cloud's involvement, no moment of revelation and “why didn't you say anything”, it seems she just uses her baffling people skills to intuit what's going on and effortlessly slips into the activist role she was born to play. As befits someone of her social talent, Aerith dissolves the tension as if it was never there. By the time she gets Cloud safely to Sector 7, people around her naturally assume her to be part of Avalanche, although she herself prefers a different label:
Only five minutes after arriving on Avalanche's home turf she gets to give the bravest activist speech in the game to a downtrodden Wedge, the youngest member, who is starting to grasp that they probably won't stop Shinra from crushing all of Sector 7 under a mountain of steel and concrete. Wedge asks if she can feel it too. She looks him in the eye, and lowers her voice:
The same kind of despair that Wedge is experiencing here also runs rampant in the climate movement today. It can be soul-crushingly hard to fight a battle knowing that we have already lost so much, and that so much more loss is already inevitable. We have already suffered the kind of devastating defeats that video games train us to reload an earlier save rather than accept, but unfortunately we haven’t saved the game in four billion years. The vague notion that "we're screwed" is already a tantalizing excuse to give up entirely, and Big Oil has learned exactly how to wield it to quell resistance. But as Aerith points out, the larger outcome should never guide your actions because in reality, there are no binary win/lose states. The consequences of delayed climate action all appear on a sliding scale, and things can always get worse. As most climate scientists have been busy clarifying since the media blowout surrounding the dire IPCC report on 1.5 degrees in October 2018, there is no “10 years to save the world” binary deadline, no sudden precipice, only a planet that offers less and less opportunities for current life forms to survive the more we abuse it. That is a profoundly important distinction, because it means every effort, large or small, to reduce carbon in our atmosphere creates a better future than what would otherwise have been - regardless of whether the parties of the Paris Agreement hit their arbitrary temperature goals of 1.5 or 2 degrees. Even if you believe that we have already delayed too long and civilizational collapse is now inevitable, it still matters immensely whether that happens over the course of years or decades or centuries. It's not just whether the plate drops. It's also how soon, it's how fast, it's how many people are trapped underneath. Resistance is never futile, and anyone who tells you otherwise is, knowingly or not, running Shinra's errands.
Aerith's moral argument rubs off on Wedge. It doesn't give him much hope, but it spurs him to action. He lets out a deep sigh, collects himself and then throws himself at the younger of the two Shinra guards, intimidating him into defying his commander and opening the gates, letting thousands of innocent Sector 7 residents escape certain death and quite literally defying his own fate. Because Wedge had the courage to rise out of despair, the world is now a better place.
Aerith is exactly what Avalanche needs and it's a shame that we don't get to see more of her movement-building. Although she and Barret get very little time together in the remake, their unique blend of harmony and disruption, defense and offense, hope and outrage is precisely what it will take to save this planet and I do so hope to see them working more closely together in the remake sequels.
Chapter 3: The Soul of Midgar
One thing that impressed me with the remake is how it consistently dodges the number one pitfall of climate storytelling in 2020: blaming the individual. While reducing our individual reliance on fossil fuels in the everyday is an important step towards social change, it has also been all too easy for oil majors to use that idea to transfer responsibility from themselves to their customers – indeed, the very term “personal carbon footprint” was popularized in a massive media campaign by British Petroleum in 2005. In the past couple of decades our culture, with or without oil money, has masterfully shifted the blame away from those in power by painting humanity as fundamentally selfish, a blight on the planet and deserving of the looming disasters. In a stroke of luck, Final Fantasy VII hails from a time before all that, and the remake never wavers from the refreshing belief that humans are good. It would never cross Barret's mind that there might be too many people in the world. Tifa doesn't go around asking people to use less mako. They've got their focus squarely where it's supposed to be – on changing the system.
The remake goes out of its way to portray Shinra's employees and supporters as decent people, when it would have been so easy to turn them into a parody of spoiled, energy-guzzling westerners to make the player feel better about disrupting their lives. There is a moment early in the game when Cloud witnesses an upstanding citizen tearing down Avalanche posters, mumbling to himself that their environmental agenda is all a hoax before pointing to the steel sky and launching into a line that could be (probably is) taken straight from a well-oiled US think tank: “Look at all that steelwork – are you trying to tell me that's not progress?”. But then Cloud experiences a brief fit of mako hallucinations, and who immediately notices and checks how he’s doing?
Yep, it’s this guy, who is then never seen again but FF7 still takes time to assure us that he has a heart.
As mako reactor 1 goes up in flames, I walk among the people of Midgar and listen closely to their reactions. It begins with panic at the sudden burst of violence, but quickly turns to political opinionating, fuelled by Shinra's ubiquitous corporate media. Especially because so much of the public ire is targeted at the disrupted train services, it's impossible for me not to draw the connection to the Extinction Rebellion protests that bore down on the West and particularly London in the spring of 2019. Of course, those rebels had to endure much more abusive speech for blocking roads than what Avalanche gets for blowing up buildings - FF7 employs a sanitized, generous depiction of conservative rhetoric around activism, but it serves its purpose. First off, by challenging the moral case for Avalanche's actions, the game forces Barret to make his case so much more eloquently than he ever did in the original. But more importantly, it connects Midgar to our own world. While in the original you could be forgiven for believing that Midgar was some kind of hypothetical hellscape that could never happen in reality, the remake shatters that illusion by showing us its comfortable middle class – that's you and me, those privileged with enough time and money to play video games. In a new scene we even get to visit them on the plate, living in a haunting Midgar suburban paradise with no way to see down into the dirty slums below. And we get to hear them make the same “reasonable” arguments that you or I might make about how there must be a better way to protest, and how annoying and scary it is to be disrupted from their lives, for no discernable reason that they can understand. Midgar, both on the plate and below, is a city willingly wrapped in denial.
If Final Fantasy VII has anything to tell us, it's that those who uphold this terrible order are just like us and so many of us are, right at this moment, just like them. Everyone that can afford to play this game is living on the plate, and this structure remains only so long as we allow it. “While their reactors were slowly killing the planet, we were living the good life”, says Jessie, the aspiring actress turned demolition expert who grew up sheltered on the plate, but eventually decided to see through the smokescreens and join Avalanche. Her story is an example to us all.
Most of Shinra's employees and executives are also depicted in a generous light and in much greater detail than we have seen before. They seem like nice people. They have families. They believe in human progress. Sometimes they make a good point. “We will not submit to intimidation or violence, but work together for peace and prosperity! That is how civilized people change the world“, says one Shinra middle manager, apparently reciting the “Shinra creed”. Not even when it comes to the people who actively keep the mako economy spinning is there any sense that they have brought climate change on themselves, that they deserve what's coming to them or that they are anything less than worth saving. In fact, later when security droids attack the train that Avalanche is riding, Tifa has an exchange with the very same Shinra middle manager as she shoves him to the next car:
Like the protesters in the streets, Tifa is fighting to protect the lives of everyone, including those of her detractors. And as activists sometimes see with drivers held up by street protests, that moment of human connection changes something in his eyes. The middle manager nods, and proceeds to help evacuate others.
Final Fantasy VII's refusal to depict even one of Shinra's guards and agents as morally deplorable comes off as more than a bit naïve, especially in the wake of the cesspool of police brutality revealed in the US shortly after the game's release. But it gets the point across. While the Shinra executive board mostly consists of maniacal villains, each with their own trademark evil laugh, most inhabitants of Midgar are fundamentally good and caring people. Everyone from Shinra's executives to their secret operatives to their soldiers; the rich, the poor, the bandits, even the underworld henchmen, they're just trying to live the best lives they can in a broken system that promotes psychopaths like Heidegger, Scarlet and Hojo, and it's for every one of them that Tifa is prepared to fight to the last drop. That makes her Avalanche's sole skeptic when it comes to violence - which is where Final Fantasy VII gets weird.
Chapter 4: Those Who Fight Further
Violence in RPGs is complicated. You are never really sure if you are supposed to interpret combat as actually happening or just as some kind of exalted dance intermission for the player's entertainment. Nobody in FF7 ever acknowledges the deaths of hundreds of Shinra guards at our heroes' hands, nor is it ever explained why the characters are acrobatic superheroes in one moment and fail to climb a flight of stairs in the next. So let's play along with that for now and assume that any combat outside of boss fights is just fantasy set dressing. The actual violence that Avalanche stands accused of, then, consists strictly of the damage done to humans and infrastructure in the bombing of Mako Reactor 4 at the very start of the game. Even so, Avalanche probably deals more damage (both to Shinra and to their own cause) in the first 20 minutes of Final Fantasy VII than real-world eco-terrorists have managed collectively since the '60s.
In reality, disruptive actions are probably best understood as a form of civil disobedience, the sharpest rhetorical device available to democracy. The point of blocking the construction of a coal mine isn't just to avoid or delay the impact of that single coal mine - we don't have the resources to win the climate fight that way, just like Barret will never achieve his dream of blowing up every mako reactor in Midgar, nevermind the rest of the world. The real purpose of direct action is to send a message, to draw attention to the fact that absolutely insane projects are still being allowed and they need to be urgently and systematically shut down by those in power, or those in power need to be replaced. By breaking the law, activists are making the case that the law is wrong. The whole point is to change the way society thinks. Barret seems to have entirely misunderstood this. He does mention that the destruction of mako reactor 4 was a message but he has the wrong recipient in mind, imagining it as a threat to the Shinra board, not as a moral call to action for the people of Midgar.
This is ultimately why Avalanche fails. They have close to zero support from the public. Their outreach work to expand the movement beyond their own bubble consists mostly of Barret threatening to yell at people and Tifa convincing him to instead do nothing. We never hear the word activist in the game, just eco-extremists, eco-terrorists and the less derogatory eco-warriors, although that too is only used as an insult. Avalanche doesn't have a label for themselves, and leaves it entirely to their enemies to define them. And much like the real-world eco-terrorists, they end up doing more harm than good to their cause.
As shown in the oft-quoted 2011 study Why Civil Resistance Works by Erica Chenoweth & Maria J. Stephan, historically the most important factor in changing society has been the amount of people you can get out on the streets in direct participation. According to the study, no modern movement for change has ever failed once 3.5% of the population were actively participating in protest. This is why violence in most forms isn't just morally problematic but also a strategic impediment - it turns the public away and imposes both physical, mental and moral limitations on who is able to join in. Case in point, Avalanche only manages to recruit one person under Barret's leadership and that person is best described as a superhuman sociopath.
Of course, everything looks like a nail when you're holding a hammer, and Barret has a machine gun for an arm. It's much more obvious than in the original that violence is his constant companion and go-to solution, he even goes so far as to rapid-fire on concrete walls to open up the way forward and the other characters frequently make jokes about his brutish approach to problem-solving. In the original, Barret ends up spending much of the late game repenting for his bad leadership during the Midgar chapter, which he feels led to the deaths of most of the original Avalanche members. In the remake, he could definitely do worse than pondering what his violence was meant to achieve.
Chapter 5: Shinra Knew
In many ways, FF7 is still caught up in the environmental movement as it was in the '90s. The way Barret keeps going on about Shinra's activities as a nebulous affront to nature (“can you hear the planet crying out in pain?”) rather than an existential threat to Midgar and its people, closely mirrors the way most of the climate movement was stuck at defending the polar bears in the '90s even as temperatures were being locked in and the climate fates of billions of people in the global south were being sealed.
It's only in the past couple of years that the gravity of the climate crisis has started to break through to the public, thanks in no small part to the efforts of activists like the school strike movement and Extinction Rebellion. The outrage grows as more and more of us understand that we have been deceived and lied to for decades. And so, in the present moment, the climate story is more than anything a story of bottomless corruption. And there is an obvious way the remake team could still incorporate that in their story:
Just like Exxon did the math in the '70s and proceeded to establish a whole disinformation industry to silence their own research (which then went on to manufacture doubt not just on climate science but other inconvenient truths like smoking causing cancer and more recently, the severity of COVID-19), imagine that Shinra is perfectly aware that pumping mako out of the ground will lead to death and disaster for people in other parts of the planet, as well as the future citizens of Midgar itself. They would even have accurate projections of how and when, but they are actively keeping these facts from the public, including our heroes and even Barret, who never voices more than a vague idea that mako energy may be bad for humanity.
That could be precisely why Shinra is searching for the Promised Land: they know resources are drying up and they plan to abandon the people of Midgar and start anew – just like so many of our own billionaires have been building bunkers in New Zealand and dreaming about colonizing Mars in recent years. When the consequences of their actions come to bear, they stand ready to leave the rest of us behind.
There is still a good chance for future chapters of the remake to tell that story of corruption and deception – especially when our heroes reach the indigenous community at Cosmo Canyon and get a deeper understanding of how the Lifestream actually works. In the original, this is where they met elder Bugenhagen who finally clarified that as Shinra dries up the Lifestream, the planet will eventually lose the ability to sustain life. This crucial insight originally lacked any empirical backup, beyond “old wise man says so” and some shiny planetary models – it was a conclusion based more in the religious teachings of Cosmo Canyon than anything else.
It’s not that lifting indigenous wisdom as an integral part of the solution was anything less than brilliant; why wouldn't we listen to the few people on Earth that still to this day retain a regenerative relationship with the ecosystems around them? Indigenous thinking clearly holds invaluable solutions, which is why the climate movement keeps calling for those voices to be heard. But when it comes to establishing the stakes, which is ultimately Bugenhagen's role in this story, why leave that up to religious conjecture – especially when raw data exists? Shinra knew. And in a missable aside in the original game, Cait Sith confirms that Bugenhagen was once a Shinra employee, which is exactly the type of detail the remake loves to elaborate on. And so, Bugenhagen stands in the perfect position to divulge his former employer's dirtiest secret.
Chapter 6: Understanding the Lifestream Crisis
Also typical for the '90s, Final Fantasy VII underestimated not just the scale but the urgency of the climate crisis. The remake, so far, retains that weakness; the catastrophe that will befall the planet as a result of Shinra's greed, is still abstract and distant in time and space. In the '90s, largely because of the fossil fuel industry’s relentless disinformation campaigns, most people thought that was the case. Today we know better. In the next remake installment, what our heroes should learn at Cosmo Canyon isn't just how continued mako use will end civilization – it's when. And the answer should finally hit them like a punch in the gut: it has already begun. The impacts are already here, in fact you have probably already seen them if you know what to look for. What we are fighting for now, is to stop them from escalating and spreading even further.
In the original, the village of Gongaga was destroyed by a local mako reactor explosion. Any contemporary remake will also need to acknowledge that the biggest threat of fossil fuels is global, not local, as our heroes witness villages devastated by droughts and natural disasters brought about by Midgar's mako addiction on the other side of the planet.
Final Fantasy VII has a chance to depict the decline of the planet as gradual yet tangible, visual. That way, it'll be just like Aerith told Wedge: every action matters, regardless how well it all goes. Every single barrel of mako extracted in Midgar siphons Lifestream that belonged in a crop field in Mideel. Every use of fossil fuel is an immediate act of violence on some other being; now or in the future, and whether it's human or otherwise we have no way of knowing. The sooner that system ends, the fewer will suffer and die.
This is also where the remake project still has a sliver of a chance to reckon with environmental racism. As far as we know, Final Fantasy VII is set in a world without discrimination of any kind. Barret may be Black, but he lives on a planet without an Africa; his blackness is more an aesthetic reference to the real world US than something that has any in-universe reason to carry colonialist baggage. Racism is rarely acknowledged in Japanese media, but after the global resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement there has never been a better opportunity for Final Fantasy to take the lid off the issue. The remake can at the very least pay homage the way Black communities always have and continue to bear the brunt of energy development worldwide, from the centuries of brazen theft of oil and gas from African countries to the cancer-inducing refineries built in the backyards of Black neighborhoods along Cancer Alley in Louisiana and Texas. In one of the first places the party will visit after leaving Midgar, the remake gets the perfect opportunity: the abandoned mining town of Corel - Barret’s hometown. A few years before the events of FF7, there was a mysterious malfunction with the local mako reactor here. Shinra blamed the townsfolk and proceeded to burn the town and turn it into - I’m not kidding - a giant prison. We never got a good look at Corel in its heyday, but given all I just mentioned it’s been hard to imagine it as anything but a predominantly black community. If the remake takes steps to portray it that way more explicitly, it will be the remake’s best chance by far to acknowledge not just environmental racism but mass incarceration too. How better to paint a picture of the 2020 United States? If Corel is filled with prison laborers forced to do all of Midgar’s dirty work, we can start talking about how slavery is still alive and well - it’s just one more facet of Shinra’s colonialist worldview. Race would be on the table, and it would be impossible to put it back in the bag for the duration of the remade story.
Chapter 7: The Future of Wutai
Still, the most blatant way in which Final Fantasy VII is still hopelessly out of date, is in how it portrays the mako economy as the only option. In the remake, Clouds final comment on the matter, looking out over Shinra's propaganda museum, speaks volumes: “It's true. Mako has made people's lives better”. To which Barret has no good answer, only platitudes about people being blind. He has no solutions. This too mirrors the 90's: the climate movement had always known what not to do, but really struggled picturing a viable way forward: a world without fossil fuels. And with no vision of a brighter future to aim for, the environmental movement became easy to write off as clinging to the past, trying to take the world back to the stone age. This is very visible in Final Fantasy VII, where the only real alternative to Midgar's way of life resides in the destitute reservation at Cosmo Canyon.
On a fundamental level, what Cloud says is of course true both for Midgar and our world. Fossil fuels have made a lot of people's lives better; it has arguably been the main driver of a historic drop in mortality and ensuing sevenfold increase in population over the past century. But it is also without a doubt the main driver of our future unraveling, which is why we desperately need alternatives – and unlike Midgar, we absolutely have them.
A lot has changed in 23 years. What makes the times we now live in unique is not only that we are the last generation with the opportunity to meaningfully tackle climate change – we are also the first generation with the effective means to do so. The baffling strides made by the renewable energy industry in the past decade is a huge part of the reason why it's no longer difficult to imagine a world without fossil fuels. Just between 2010 and 2020, the cost of building solar energy worldwide has more than halved while efficiency has more than doubled, renewables are already cheaper to construct than fossil fueled counterparts in most parts of the world – and the cost is still plummeting toward levels no energy technology has seen before. We are seeing many developing countries like Morocco and even India beginning to partially bypass the era of fossil fuels and go straight to the cleaner, healthier, more decentralised solutions offered by solar power.
That's not to say we can just swap oil for wind and keep up business as usual. In the developed world, weaning ourselves of our fossil addiction in time to mitigate disaster will take a multi-pronged approach involving all parts of society over the coming decade. There is no single silver bullet and we need all the help we can get, so any climate plan worth its salt needs to marry efforts to replace our fossil infrastructure with energy efficiency, changed consumption habits and efforts to draw carbon from the atmosphere using regenerative agriculture, massive tree planting and more. This comprehensive list from Project Drawdown contains just their favorite 80 solutions and we don't get to choose one – we will need all of them at once. That's precisely the kind of comprehensive societal change promised by Green New Deal-type legislation that have now been passed across the EU, in many US states and recently, in a first for Asia: South Korea.
At some point in the remake sequel, our heroes will inevitably travel to Wutai. Fans of the original will remember the optional sidequest in the resort town heavily inspired by a mix of Chinese and Japanese culture, but the remake promises big changes as Wutai is now painted as the main geopolitical rival of Midgar. The updated Wutai will be the perfect opportunity to show that another world is now possible - a sustainable society powered by wind and solar power, that has freed itself from the shackles of mako energy and will long outlast Midgar. They won't have found a single silver bullet. Tempting as it may be to power the whole country with the hydro power of their guardian deity, Leviathan, true resilience is only found in diversity - which also looks way cooler, with solar panels on the roofs of pagodas and windmills dotting the mountains. Chocobo-shaped e-bikes fill the streets, doused in the cool shade of trees and lined with public food plantations designed not just to grow nutritious food, but restore some of the lifestream depleted by the mako economy. People are healthier, happier, less self-absorbed. It's what Aerith's Sector 5 could grow into, if it ever got out from under Midgar's shadow.
Sure, today a videogame advocating for renewable energy might seem a contentious political statement in its native Japan, which is still seen as one of the last holdouts for financing thermal coal. But as we saw with South Korea, energy policy in Asia is evolving fast. Just in the past weeks, several of Japan's biggest financial institutions have signalled that coal is now forever off the table. The COVID-19 crisis is accelerating the demise of coal everywhere, and the governments in both China and Japan know all too well where the wind is inevitably blowing. And so Wutai could end up showing not just Barret and his party that there is another way forward – it may just give Japan a taste of what its own future holds.
Chapter 8: Midgar Rises
If Cloud and the gang are to make the journey through an updated adventure that accurately depicts the realities of the 2020s, they are going to learn about a lot of things that simply weren't part of the discourse in 1997. About renewable energy, the seriousness and urgency of the Lifestream crisis, Shinra's history of corruption and deception and not least the power of nonviolent civil disobedience. Imagine that they could somehow, perhaps with the aid of the surviving Avalanche members, begin to impart this knowledge on the people of Midgar. If they understand both the depth of the global injustice their corporate overlords are perpetuating, and the fact that there are actually alternatives that wouldn't even impact their lives very much (and indeed help lift the slums out of poverty), we might find our party of heroes returning to a very different Midgar by the end of the game, one much more like the world we live in in 2020. Shinra will have started to abandon the strategy of denial and turned to the next level of deceit: greenwashing. A long overdue “head of public relations” will be added to the board. Under Rufus as new president they will publicly paint themselves as a changed company; aware of the calamity mako use is causing across the world and doing their utmost to support a rapid transition to renewables, promoting “Neo Midgar” with all the solar panels, trees and white-painted steel they can muster – while in reality, behind the scenes, they do everything they can to slow that same progress and suck the last profits from the dying Earth. This is enough to fool those who prefer to remain unaware. It lulls the privileged families living on the plate back into complacency, but it will not calm the slums. Like every social justice movement from the suffragettes to the US civil rights movement, the final resistance to topple Shinra will be led by those most affected. For Midgar, that certainly means the poor, the oppressed and the vulnerable, but it also means the young, who will live on a broken planet the longest. Perhaps that will be Marlene's moment: her chance to take the spotlight, rally her generation and evolve into Midgar's own Greta Thunberg.
As I write down these fantasy solutions for upcoming installments, I get more and more confident that the remake team might actually turn some of them into reality. So far they have met pretty much my every expectation, not just as a gamer and a fan of the original, but more than anything as a climate action advocate, and exceeded those expectations more often than not. Keeping what worked and modernizing every last thing that didn't (well, except maybe those dungeon designs). Sure, if the final chapter is anything to go by, the next remake risks jumping the cosmic shark even harder than the original (I admit I fully expected the party to stumble into the Hundred Acre Wood as they walked through that portal). But on the other hand, with destiny averted and at least one Avalanche member confirmed to have survived, there is also the opportunity to finish the now-elaborated story of the Midgar chapter in a way that the original failed to do. As we live through the decade that will define the conditions for life on Earth for thousands of years, will we finally see Avalanche rising back up and embracing non-violent tactics to rally people against a modernized Shinra? At the rate of progress over the last two years, what’s radical today is likely to be mainstream even by the time the first remake sequel hits. If its developers keep their ear to the ground and dare to do this right, the remake project may have arrived at just the right time to accompany us through the 2020s as one of the defining stories of a new age.