Final Fantasy VII begins with one of the most exciting, high-tempo prologue sequences ever to appear in any video game. It's as important, and speaks to the developers' objectives with the game ahead, every bit as much as Half-Life's introductory tram ride did.
The bombing mission and its lead-in introduces players to Cloud Strife, his newfound comrades, the city of Midgar, and the Shinra Corporation; it ends in a meet-cute between the hero and his soon-to-be love interest, Aerith Gainsborough. It's a powerful initiation into a sprawling adventure, and it sets up everything that players can expect from the following 40 hours of the journey ahead: The characters, the world, the systems, and the dazzling presentation. It remains a frequently discussed moment in video game history for good reason. It had profound impact on everyone who played it in 1997, and it holds up remarkably well even now.
Less commonly discussed, however, is the aftermath of that opening sequence. The AVALANCHE team separates in order to disappear into the crowd and evade Shinra security, and the player follows Cloud as he wanders through the carnage his actions have wrought. Although it's largely antiseptic — there's no literal carnage — the game leaves little doubt that the reactor explosion resulted in chaos, panic, and destruction beyond just the power plant that was the group's target. Admittedly, it doesn't seem too extreme in its collateral damage — after all, Aerith still has time to sell Cloud a flower — but nevertheless, that scene's a little difficult to stomach 20 years later. It's all a bit too real.
Final Fantasy VII officially launched in the U.S. on Sept. 7, 1997. Exactly four years and four days later, the U.S. suffered the deadliest ever terrorist attack ever to take place on American soil, and quite possibly the most symbolic to have ever taken place in the world. Everyone reacted to the Sept. 11 attacks in their own way. For some, the event hardened their hearts and became a wake-up call to go to battle against foreign peoples or unfamiliar ideologies. For me, it created a sense of empathy: A realization of how terrifying and deadly terrorism truly is.
Like most American people — sheltered, comfortable, and relatively wealthy compared to the rest of the world — the idea of terrorism had always existed in my mind in the abstract before Sept. 11, 2001. Terrorism was something that happened far away, to other people, mentioned on television for a few seconds before the news anchor switched gears to the other bad news of the day. But suddenly, terrorism happened on a massive scale in a place I knew; if I'd had a stronger resume at the time, it could have affected me directly — I had applied for a job with a company based in the WTC a few months before that. A decade later, I married a woman whose father lost most of his coworkers in the WTC and only avoided being killed himself because he happened to miss his train that morning.
But it's not these near-misses that stick with me when I think back on that disaster. It's the endless news coverage that unfolded over the following days: The panicked crowd reactions, the suffocating clouds of debris, the horrifying sight of people leaping from 100 stories high to meet a quick end rather than painfully burning to death. Those memories linger, and they fill me with sadness and sympathy for new victims of terrorism any time I hear of attacks in far-off places like Paris or Gaza or Jakarta, regardless of those people's nationality or beliefs. And they make it hard to find much place for the concept of terrorism as past of escapist entertainment.
In the abstract, Final Fantasy VII's premise of a rag-tag group of rebels fighting against an evil empire was little different than countless other stories that had come before it. Many other games had already used a similar narrative thread, including Final Fantasy VI (where the rebels were called Returners) and even Final Fantasy II, way back in the 8-bit days (where the protagonists didn't belong to a formal organization but nevertheless fought the power). Final Fantasy owes a tremendous debt to Star Wars, of course, wherein the Rebel Alliance waged war against the corrupt and murderous Galactic Empire... and Star Wars would never have existed without Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, which itself involves a rebellious uprising of prisoners of war. The idea of the little guy fighting against overwhelming odds — the crux of FFVII's narrative — stretches at least as far back as the Old Testament book of 1st Samuel. It makes for a more interesting and engaging premise than the big guy crushing the little guy.
Where FFVII stands apart from those other works is in its presentation. Unlike the space fantasy of Star Wars with its hyperspace combat and planet-destroying weapons, unlike even the steampunk world of FFVI with its airships and demihuman monsters, FFVII takes place in a world that works not too dissimilarly to our own. Shinra is the "evil empire," yes, but it's a corporation that functions as the hub for a sprawling metropolis. Shinra provides Midgar with electricity. The protagonists get about the city by way of a modern metro subway line, hang out in a goofy-looking playground, meet up in a dive bar, follow the developing story line by watching television news broadcasts, ascend a skyscraper, and escape from the city by way of a vintage motorcycle and pickup truck. Later, you can hang out in a beach villa, take a rocket on a low-orbit space trip, and kill time at a garish amusement park. FFVII may not be the real world, but it was as convincing and authentic as any we'd ever seen in an RPG outside of something like the Shin Megami Tensei games, which take place in Tokyo.
Which means that while AVALANCHE may be another group of ragtag rebels fighting for justice, they also "read" much more clearly as terrorists as we know them in the real world. When Cloud struts through streets full of people running in blind panic from a massive explosion, it resonates just a little too much for comfort. It doesn't help that you later discover that AVALANCHE was born in a desert-like region as a response to Shinra's exploitation of its natural resources, and to the corporation's cold-blooded treatment of the people in that area — an origin story that bears too much similarity to real-world terrorist organizations for comfort.
I don't think FFVII's emphasis on terrorism was accidental. Less than two years prior to the game's debut in Japan — which is to say, right at the outset of its development cycle — Japan suffered a devastating terrorist strike during the Aum Shinrikyo incident. In that attack, a doomsday cult unleashed sarin gas on a Tokyo subway, which caused a few fatalities and injured or temporarily blinded thousands. Given the severity of the attack and the fact that it took place in a subway station less than two miles from Squaresoft's headquarters at the time, it's hard to imagine that the Aum Shinrikyo incident wasn't at least at the back of scenario writer Kazushige Nojima's mind as he penned the game's script.
To FFVII's credit, it doesn't treat AVALANCHE's actions as trivial. Shinra immediately declares most-wanted status for the group, and its members express remorse for the collateral damage they cause. AVALANCHE member Jessie, whose task it was to design the group's bombs, seems mystified by the unexpected power of her bombs. Still, despite some shades of grey, there's never any doubt that AVALANCHE is ultimately right to stand up to Shinra: The corporation has no qualms about leeching the planet of its life in their pursuit of profits. And it doesn't take too long for Shinra's leaders to use AVALANCHE's actions as pretext for launching a false-flag operation that results in the deaths of untold numbers of Midgar citizens with the blame laid at the terrorists' feet: An indulgence of the worst and most wild-eyed kind of real-world conspiracy theory nonsense.
Still, the world — and the concept of terrorism — has changed radically in the past 20 years. While it certainly existed in 1997, its reach and severity have spread across the globe. It's no longer an abstract thing that only happens in war-torn regions covered by foreign correspondents on the evening news. It happens here, too, and not just in massive symbolic acts of murder. It happens almost daily in elementary schools and on random city streets. We always like to root for the underdog, but it's hard to find much enthusiasm for their actions when countless innocent lives are lost as collateral damage.
The original FFVII script almost — almost! — managed to engage with its protagonists' less-than-heroic actions in a meaningful way. The question now is, will the game's upcoming remake make good on that potential? Or will the nature of AVALANCHE be changed altogether? It's hard to imagine how FFVII could work without Cloud and his allies attempting to destroy Shinra from within, but it's also hard to imagine rooting for the "good guys" if the script takes a casual view of acts of rebellion that remind us of the worst headlines we see every day. There's a chance for Square Enix to say something meaningful with this game, to probe the morality of antiheroism in the fashion of premium television series like Breaking Bad or Hannibal. But will they? Questioning the nature of its heroes' actions may not be the most obvious challenge the FFVII remake faces, but it could prove to be the most difficult.
Next time: The column shifts gears 10 years forward to a more recent RPG.