Final Fantasy 7 has a strong case to make for being the most political game in the series. Its premise, which casts you as a mercenary working for a band of terrorists, was provocative enough that at one point former USgamer Editor in Chief Jeremy Parish wondered aloud how Square Enix would address it in the remake.
In a 2018 examination of the original game's intro, in which the protagonists bomb a Shinra power planet, Jeremy wrote about the unique challenge facing the remake. "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," Jeremy wrote.
Such an approach seemed far-fetched at the time—how many big budget games have tip-toed up to the line of saying something interesting, only to rapidly retreat? Jeremy wondered if Square Enix would just avoid the question entirely.
"Questioning the nature of its heroes' actions may not be the most obvious challenge the FF7 remake faces," he wrote, "but it could prove to be the most difficult."
Nobody would have been surprised if Square Enix had opted to just gloss over these issues. And yet, somehow, against all odds, Final Fantasy 7 Remake has more to say on topics on war, poverty, and environmentalism than anyone might have rightfully expected from one of the biggest games of 2020. In that way, it turns out to be more faithful to the original game than anyone could have guessed.
Warning: This article contains major spoilers for Final Fantasy 7 Remake, including the end.
The World According to Shinra
The original Final Fantasy 7 was conceived in a world far different from the one we live in today. In Japan, the economic bubble had only recently burst, giving way to a slow, grinding recession. Squaresoft was an upstart developer, still a few years off from its disastrous turn in the movie business, its creators seasoned but nevertheless relatively young and idealistic artists.
In preparation for the transition to the PlayStation, series director Hironobu Sakaguchi and producer Yoshinori Kitase conceived of a massive tonal shift for the series. The steampunk world of Final Fantasy 6 gave way to something more akin to cyberpunk, with an all-encompassing mega-corporation called Shinra—think Google with a private army—filling in for the evil empires of games past. The heroes were cast as rebels trying to stop Shinra from sucking away the planet's life force—the sort of environmental motif that wouldn't have been out of place in a contemporary cartoon like Captain Planet. In the '90s, it must have seemed like just one more high-concept setting among many.
Still, there were plenty of interesting ideas nestled just below the surface. Jeremy pointed out in his article the rather radical, and uncomfortable, idea of having the heroes be terrorists. The original also contended with class disparity, particularly when visiting Barret's hometown of Corel—a former mining town rife with unemployment and desperation. It certainly was not what you would have expected from a PlayStation 1-era RPG; perhaps one reason among many that Final Fantasy 7 resonated so deeply.
As for me, I didn't give the setting much thought at the time; it was simply cool. Cloud was cool; Sephiroth was cool, Rufus was hot. But I'm older now, and times have obviously changed. I needn't recite the litany of disasters that have befallen the world since 1997, only to say that they color how we perceive Final Fantasy 7 in this day and age. It's impossible for me not to view the Mako Reactors through the prism of the global climate emergency, or Midgar's overflowing slums in the context of San Francisco's homeless crisis. These are issues that are much on my mind these days, at least when I'm not thinking about the global pandemic.
I don't think it's just me reading too much into it, either, despite producer Yoshinori Kitase's assertion that Final Fantasy 7 Remake is meant to be "strictly within the realm of fantasy." If anything, Final Fantasy 7 Remake clearly sets out to substantially expand the themes of the original game, and that includes the issues that could be construed as overtly political.
Case in point: the aftermath of the Mako Reactor bombing that opens the game, in which Cloud and company find a city in chaos as residents flood the streets and emergency announcements blare. It's a fairly intense sequence; one that pulls no punches in depicting how actual citizens might react to the destruction of their local power plant. At one point you hear a child wondering why they can't go back inside; in another, Cloud looks up the Mako Reactor in a pointed reprise of a famous shot from the original game, only now it's on fire.
Compare this sequence to the original game, which Jeremy correctly refers to as "antiseptic" in his article. In the original Final Fantasy 7, you see people running around in the streets somewhat chaotically, but there's otherwise little direct evidence of your actions. There's less time to dwell on consequences in general, as Final Fantasy 7 is in a hurry to tell a much larger story. Jessie's remorse over building an unexpectedly powerful bomb is a plot point that is dispensed with relatively quickly.
It's in this moment that Final Fantasy 7 Remake shows it's clearly out to make a statement. I find that determination admirable, especially in light of how conservative triple-A games tend to be (remember Far Cry 5?). It firmly puts to bed any questions about Square Enix downplaying the original's more uncomfortable moments.
Then again, it's mostly in the smaller details, not in the grand gestures, that I find Final Fantasy 7 Remake most interesting. Remember the Shinra employee who's terrified of Barret in the original game? The one who cowers as Barret struts up and down the train slamming the wall? In Final Fantasy 7 Remake, that one employee is replaced by three well-dressed "middle managers," who talk worriedly (and realistically) about Avalanche bombing the reactor, wondering if there's "anything they won't do."
When Barret confronts them, one of the middle managers replies, "We will not submit to intimidation or violence! But work together for peace and prosperity! That is how civilized people change the world!" His colleagues respond by applauding enthusiastically.
Somewhat later, when another train comes under attack by Shinra robots, Tifa begs the same middle manager to escape. He seems surprised, "But I'm Shinra. I'm the enemy." Still, he agrees to help the others.
It's a surprising moment for Final Fantasy 7 given that Shinra tends to lean toward cartoonish supervillainy more often than not. It serves to humanize Shinra just enough to make the company seem even more evil, in the process uncomfortably mirroring a good deal of the rhetoric you'll hear in the U.S. around terrorism. Heavy-handed as it is, it's also needed.
Other details are more subtle, if only slightly. Televisions, which are omnipresent in the original game, are even more prevalent in Final Fantasy 7 Remake, with Fox News-like anchors who are constantly reciting Shinra talking points about how Avalanche are agents of Wutai. One of the main sources of tension is that citizens actually seem to buy into Shinra's false claims, to Barret's endless frustration. Shinra, for its part, seems intent on drumming up hysteria so that it can launch a fresh war on false pretenses, which is a scenario that should be all too familiar to Americans.
Much of the story is set in the Midgar slums: areas where grinding poverty is constantly in evidence. Orphans wander the street; abandoned construction is everywhere, and most of the residents live in what look like metal shacks. After a falling plate destroys Sector 7, you watch firsthand as residents dig out from underneath the rubble, bringing to mind the aftermath of a pivotal scene in Parasite—another story about rampant inequality. When you go "topside," the disparity is even more evident as you see the leafy Japanese-style suburbs in which Shinra employees reside, oblivious to the suffering below.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake is rife with such moments, which is one benefit of containing the first part's story wholly within Midgar. On occasion it even manages to nibble at deeper, and exponentially more interesting issues. When another Avalanche cell shows up early in the game, for instance, Barret's group is explicitly referred to as too radical for Avalanche as a whole. It brings to mind his line about how "nothing worth fighting for was ever won without sacrifice," suggesting that while Barret himself is noble, his methods might be too extreme. It's something I wish Final Fantasy 7 Remake would explore even further, perhaps in a sidequest.
As for Shinra, it's depicted as a deeply evil organization that makes accomplices of even well-meaning employees. Take Reeve, for instance, the "good face" of Shinra. Reeve is an executive who finds many of the company's actions morally reprehensible, but nevertheless abets them by his very presence. He will eventually rebel, but in Part 1 he's still very much trying to work within the system, even as his efforts are casually brushed aside by President Shinra. He's not alone. There's one particular moment where you see Shinra employees working overtime at their desks to address the fallout from the plate drop, unaware that their own company ordered the operation hours before. They're just trying to help.
In the climax, Barret and company at last confront President Shinra, the omnipresent villain of the first part of the story; a cigar chomping executive who feels like Jeff Bezos meets Wall Street. There's even a moment where you step into Shinra's museum and learn the heroic story of President Shinra and his golden gun—the sort of modern corporate mythmaking endemic to Silicon Valley.
In the original, President Shinra is already dead when you discover him, having been cleanly dispensed with by Sephiroth. In Final Fantasy 7 Remake, he's dangling desperately from the roof of Shinra HQ, leaving Barret to save him. He scrambles back into his penthouse like a cockroach as Barret gives chase, swearing that he'll give him anything he wants. When he eventually regains control, holding Barret at gunpoint, he becomes robber baron incarnate, sneering, "I know what I want, and I take it."
It's a moment that pretty much crystallizes President Shinra's character, and Final Fantasy 7 Remake's view of Shinra in general. What's frustrating, and more than a little terrifying, is that there are plenty of people who subscribe to President Shinra's zero-sum, law of the jungle way of thinking. Our president is one of them. He even finds time to give Barret the "you need us" speech, arguing that world without Mako energy would be "stagnant, impotent"—a not-so-distant distant echo of all the arguments against efforts to stop global climate change.
Mercifully, it's at this point that President Shinra finally gets the sword through the chest. It's a moment that couldn't come sooner.
Stepping Out Into the World
The sad thing about Final Fantasy 7 Remake is that the more interesting, grounded subtleties ultimately get lost in the Kingdom Hearts-like plot that follows President Shinra getting kebabed. They play with Final Fantasy 7's storytelling in their own way, but they feel out of place.
For all the people arguing that Final Fantasy 7 Remake shouldn't follow the beats of the original story, I'd point to moments like Jessie and company heading topside, which enriches the original story's themes while remaining faithful to the source material. Final Fantasy 7 Remake's deeper, more relevant politics are evidence of what a good remake can accomplish.
What comes next in the series is anyone's guess. The original game explored the death of the small town; the end of the mining industry, and rampant militarism, the last of which was exemplified by the Junon Cannon—a weapon the size of roughly two city blocks. Will there be room for similar exploration in the next chapter? It depends on how far afield Final Fantasy 7 Remake Part 2 decides to wander.
In the meantime, Final Fantasy 7 Remake does everything one could want and more in expanding on the most overtly political elements of the original game. It's unsparing in its depiction of a society addicted to the unsustainable luxury of Mako, driven by war and wealth disparity, and presided over by a cold, self-interested mega-corporation. When I think of the current White House, I can't help thinking of the Shinra board meeting near the end of the game, where Palmer tries to grub money for his beloved space program and Heidegger just sort of laughs cruelly, because cruelty seems to be in his nature.
It's a grim world, unfortunately, and I can't say I ever thought Final Fantasy 7 Remake would go as far as it ultimately did in exploring it. It's a welcome surprise in a remake that turns out to be full of them.