The Final Fantasy series is the flagship RPG franchise of the global gaming landscape, and while everybody has their favorite it’s hard to argue that any of the entries are as important as 1997’s Final Fantasy VII. With the possible exception of the original’s company-saving success, the arrival of the series’ seventh installment made the biggest and most lasting impact in the gaming world. VI‘s story and characters are still held tight in the hearts of many fans, IV and IX have the sentimental votes of others, while others still point to the landmark gaming achievements of V and XII—the latter of which was the only entry in the series to garner a perfect score from the notoriously harsh grading Japanese publication, Famitsu. Still, for most fans it’s arguably Final Fantasy VII‘s box art image of Cloud Strife staring down a looming black and white background that comes to mind first when thinking of the revered series from an overall standpoint. The game broadened the scope of what could be accomplished in an RPG, with characters and events that continue to be discussed today, over fifteen years later. By this point almost everything to be unearthed has already been discussed, but something that merits further examination is the deep environmental stance the game takes—a dominant theme in the title’s plot that appears throughout and, most profoundly, at the game’s epic conclusion.
At the outset, Final Fantasy VII puts you in the boots of cold mercenary Cloud Strife, immediately dropping you into action on a mission for a rebel group of eco-terrorists called AVALANCHE. Thrust into this role, the central conflict at first appears to be between AVALANCHE and the mega-conglomerate Shinra, Inc., an immensely powerful corporation that harvests the planet’s Lifestream—literally a stream of green life-force beneath the planet’s surface, essentially the blood of Gaia—for energy and financial gain. The planet is slowly dying because of the effects of Shinra’s exploitation but the corporation continues, malevolently and without regard for the consequences of their actions. Cloud’s participation is at first simply as a sword-for-hire, but soon more is revealed about his history and his overall role in the grand scheme of things. Shinra’s tremendous wealth and power gained from their monopoly of the Mako energy harvested from the Lifestream has made them the dominant political and military force on the planet, and their private army SOLDIER is the oppositional force versus AVALANCHE for the first half of the game.
The ideological strife here mirrors an obvious—and also often ignored—issue in the real world. Fossil fuel consumption, global warming, and ongoing pollution are problems that have gone on relatively unchecked since the Industrial Revolution and have continued to increase in severity as technology and a growing population demand more use of coal and gasoline. Furthermore, Shinra, Inc. is representative of a belief already shared by conspiracy theorists the world over—that the heavy hitters in the fossil fuel industry are the ones calling all the shots from behind the scenes, and that it’s the money from oil that makes the world go round (or sparks wars) rather than anything else.
SOLDIER, of course, is the difference here that separates Shinra from any real world corporation such as ExxonMobil. Final Fantasy VII raises an interesting theoretical, though: what if, in the near future, a company like ExxonMobil discovered a more powerful and altogether world-changing resource like the Lifestream, and were the only ones with the technology to effectively harvest it? What would stop them from almost immediately becoming a world superpower? It would require some brutally ambitious leadership, but could a private army raised with that kind of unending financial reservoir challenge or render obsolete the dominant governments in place?
The answer is probably no. Final Fantasy VII‘s cyber-punk setting is heavier on mysticism than our world but doesn’t quite compare in terms of sheer numbers or brute technological force. Still, statements are being made, here. Gaia is dying, the people are loosely aware of it, and pretty much no one is doing anything about it. In many ways, the same thing is happening on Earth.
The plot later deepens and a force even more powerful than Shinra comes to the fore. A mysterious and thought-dead warrior Sephiroth—since regarded as the most memorable villain of the entire series—emerges and eventually proves to be a threat on an even greater scale than Shinra, SOLDIER, and all the other enemy forces combined. The game’s storyline is densely layered and to explain it all would require more space than available here, but to understand this final point—and specifically, Sephiroth’s plot—the concept of Materia must be explained.
Materia are magic orbs—essentially crystallized Mako energy. Many exist naturally on Gaia, though Shinra has also found ways to mass produce many forms of common materia. As such, many of these orbs are widely available throughout the game and are, from a gameplay perspective, very important to your party’s success. Some materia are rare, some are one of a kind, but two exist in legend as having uniquely incredible power: The Black Materia and the White Materia.
To put complex plot devices in barebones terms, The Black Materia summons a spell called Meteor that can destroy the planet and The White Materia gets its strength directly from the full power of Planet and casts Holy, a spell for supreme planetary protection. Sephiroth, already a super-powered being with godlike abilities, plans to summon Meteor at the north pole and—while Gaia’s Lifestream storms to the resulting crater to try to heal the wound—absorb all the Planet’s energy himself.
Sephiroth succeeds in using the Black Materia, but is then defeated by Cloud and his party who in turn cast Holy to counter the impending doom of Meteor. The resulting clash in the stratosphere between the two almighty forces is the meat of the game’s conclusion, the results of which are up for debate. Holy does not disintegrate Meteor outright; instead parts of the giant meteor break through and tremendous destruction still rains down on the surface of the Planet. For example, Midgar—the world’s largest urban metropolis—is entirely destroyed.
Holy, by ancient definition, exists with the sole purpose of protecting Gaia from its greatest and most powerful threats. The most interesting analysis of the ending with regards to the overall point of this essay is that Holy allowed parts of Meteor to reach the Planet. The most powerful threat was us and our greedy, Lifestream-draining ways. The Planet struck back against us, destroying cities like Midgar and forcing us to rebuild without the power of its Mako Reactors—hopefully, this time, the right way.
Similar ideas permeate films like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. While Final Fantasy VII is certainly a more critically-acclaimed effort, the shared theme is a profound one. We live on a beautiful, lush world and are doing very little to prevent its decay at our own hands. Maybe one day Earth will strike back at us—there’s no way of telling if our planet has some sort of cosmic sentience beyond our ability to perceive or understand and perhaps one day it will just say, “Alright, enough is enough.”
What does all this say about us? Why, both in real life and in this game, does mankind do nothing but harm this amazing world for our own selfish, myopic purposes? Maybe that’s human nature—maybe that’s what we do. Despite all the good-natured and kind-hearted people out there, maybe humans—as a race—are just here to fuck shit up.