There’s a balancing act taking place between the different sides of Final Fantasy VII Remake's narrative —the eco-terrorist group Avalanche’s scrappy defiance on one hand and the Shinra Electric Power Company’s bureaucratic pseudo-governance on the other. Final Fantasy VII seems at first a bit obsessed with a form of bothsidesism; attempting to show you that there is good and bad to be seen in the game's two rival factions. Avalanche is a group of eco-terrorists after all, and one of the first encounters you have with a person who is part of the Sector 7 slum is them looking upwards to the plate where the rich and powerful live above the poor and remarking on how Shinra represents progress. After all, Shinra in this case is quite literally the sun.
Except one of the sides is evil. Throughout the course of Remake we see Shinra detonate two reactors with higher yield explosives than Avalanche was ever intending to use and drop a plate on the people of the Sector 7 slum——not to mention, the company also employs Professor Hojo, a researcher with a near orgasmic love of scientific torture and vivisection. There’s no loss of life that Shinra wouldn’t find reasonable in favor of its goals. Avalanche by contrast, is presented as warm, if ill-advised, and deeply underfunded. Early in the game it takes them a day to pay Cloud a mere 2000 gil just for his services on his first mission. We don’t have peers here, fighting on the same level, and we don’t have people who are on the same moral standing.
After all, the other side is so cartoonishly evil—the president and head of Shinra and his cronies—that they have to balance out that Disney-villain evil with something a bit more nuanced. Trains filled with nervous workers, an employee in the company headquarters' elevator who has to call and reassure his mother that he’s safe. One of your team members, Tifa, constantly points out that the people who work for the company are human beings—and they are. But the effect is muted by the fact that they ultimately have no impact on the narrative at all; no matter how the average rank and file office worker of Shinra feels, the Sector 7 plate gets dropped. There aren’t really multiple sides to this narrative, at least not multiple sides that it does any good to empathize with. These nervous Shinra employees aren’t part of the main narrative; they’re not the principal antagonists or protagonists. They basically only serve to add flavor to the game and to attempt to muddle what is a very clear black and white plot. What place is there for ordinary people in a game with someone like Avalanche's idealistic hero Barret or Shinra's merciless Heidegger, both opposite sides of a very bright coin?
For a majority of the game, Avalanche’s primary explosives agent, Jessie, beats herself up over the sabotage mission that opens the game. The bombing of Reactor 1 is an Avalanche operation to destroy a mako reactor, but it goes awry, destroying not only the reactor but parts of the surrounding city. It’s the inciting action of the game and one that she views as being principally her fault. It’s the first moment we the audience see the effect that violence has on the city's residents, and it’s pretty horrible. People are moaning in the streets, the city is quite literally on fire. Avalanche exits the building and says, “This couldn’t have been us.” It’s terrible. But the thing is, as the player, we know this destruction wasn't entirely their fault. Before the initial reactor is set to explode, we see Heidegger set off the explosion himself. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that this was a part of a propaganda plot to turn the destruction of Reactor 1 into a sort of precursor to war. Avalanche is being set up.
There is an entire mission focused on Jessie’s guilt over the yield of the first Avalanche explosion. Cloud goes and assists her in getting a different blasting agent. In between flirting with him, she explains that she feels responsible for the loss of life because it was her bomb that was used. It would probably be a powerful sequence if we didn’t know that she didn’t cause the explosion, but that a moustache twirling antagonist did. As Jessie lies dramatically dying on the supports for the Sector 7 plate near the climax of the game, she brings up that this is somehow her due; they’re her bombs after all.
But they weren’t. They aren’t. The blood isn’t on her hands. The game is very hung up on showing the consequences of the actions of its characters, but is that relevant when the consequences aren’t related to their own actions? What is the point of moralizing a decision that didn’t occur? If Jessie had handed Avalanche duds for bombs they would’ve produced the same results. This unnecessary convolution cheapens the weight of her death almost as much as the Phoenix Down weighing down your pocket during this sequence.
There’s a scene late in Final Fantasy VII where you’re climbing into the belly of Shinra headquarters to rescue Aerith. Cloud and Tifa army crawl through a series of vents and you can stop and look down at the mundane lives of regular Shinra employees from above; a person wondering if their family got out of the fall of the Sector 7 plate, a team working to figure out how they will rebuild Sector 7 and what that proposal will look like when they try to put it all together. Like many scenes throughout Final Fantasy VII that feature the working class peons of Shinra, these characters function to paint a portrait of cogs in the machine, good people who are just trying to do their jobs. Tifa would weep for them.
The following scene involves the president of Shinra announcing that his company's not going to rebuild Sector 7, as we knew it wasn't going to. As the player-protagonist, we’re aware that Shinra is responsible for destroying Sector 7, not even in the normal passive way that governments allow their impoverished to slowly die from leaded water or pandemics but rather violently and suddenly by dropping an iron sky on their heads. “Casualty rate? You think I care about the casualty rate?” Heidegger says, because he’s comically evil. He’s representative of the top of the Shinra corporation, the people making the decisions.
People exist in real world systems that are fundamentally corrupt, but these people are also tied to that corruption. A police officer who does his best to uphold the law is still party to a system that is overwhelmingly biased against the lives of people of color and which promotes abuse. There were presumably still prison guards at concentration camps who went home to be good fathers. The truth about evil is that it's both banal and mundane, and these are not facts that Final Fantasy VII is ready to reckon with. The Final Fantasy VII Remake is ultimately beholden to the videogame writing of the late nineties, a time of little nuance. It’s Saturday morning cartoon era writing; Heidegger and President Shinra are moustachioed villains at the head of an evil empire ready to be brought down by our heroic rebels, who are just out there with the good of the planet in mind. Compare President Shinra literally pulling a gun on the man who saved his life moments earlier with Barret telling Cloud, just after meeting him, that he hears the planet crying out in pain. It’s hokey. It’s aggressively black and white, and it’s one of the reasons that ultimately there is little nuance to Final Fantasy VII’s narrative structure. Trying to insert real world complexity into that kind of simplicity is difficult and jarring because they are so opposed. Because real world evil is banal; a real villain doesn’t announce like Hojo that he is going to murder you in front of your friend so that your corpses can illicit an emotional response from her. They instead have photographs in their million dollar offices of coal miner hands—photos that hover over them while they try to save a couple bucks by trying to cut off health insurance benefits for those same miners who have dedicated their lives to working for them.
Amanda is an occasional writer and alternative controls designer based out of Kentucky. You can find them on Twitter at @barelyconcealed.