For this issue, we've collected a handful of our favourite pieces from the past concerned with our relationship to the natural environment. The following article discusses plot points from throughout Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is a reminder that the big issues haven’t changed much over the last quarter century. We’re still stuck with unchecked capitalist hubris, stark inequality, environmental degradation. It’s just that most of us had a more detached view of it back in the nineties, and now it’s right in our faces, in high definition.
These themes have stood the test of time because time itself has looped in an endless, decaying present. It’s been over 30 years since cultural theorist Fredric Jameson wrote that “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism.” And in the decades since, these words have only been proven more true. Capitalism moves us ever closer to catastrophe. We still struggle to grasp what might replace it.
Jameson’s point wasn’t that late capitalism cannot end, but that its overwhelming reach and complexity render us unable to even conceive another system worth fighting for. The neoliberal mantra that "there is no alternative" is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that even minor changes to our social organisation feel impossible. As Jameson continues, “Perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.” To change we first need to imagine that we can, but even our wildest cultural fantasies often fall short, fixated on post-apocalyptic visions, or escapism into those infrequent past events when change really happened.
Still, Final Fantasy VII always had a little strength of imagination. In some ways it was backward looking, even in 1997: AVALANCHE’s bombing missions in the polluted mega-city Midgar romanticised a bygone age of urban guerrilla tactics, tragically out of step with the future-tech surveillance regime they aimed to overthrow. Yet it also maintained a sense of idealism and relevance. It was a story of the exploited underdog fighting back against an embodiment of capitalist greed to save the environment and build a better society. For once, more than merely creating a fantasy, it really touched on that final fantasy that was supposed to be beyond our late capitalist imaginations.
Remake has a similar effect, and shows that the series has often lacked this strength of imagination in the last 23 years. It contrasts especially hard against 2016's Final Fantasy XV, whose tale of royal lineage and prophecies to be fulfilled exuded a conservative desire to maintain the status quo—a story so bereft of conviction that its vagueness and incoherence somehow felt wholly appropriate. In the wake of that legacy, Remake’s return to the more inspiring fantasy of resistance from below, aimed at the disruption of a mega-corporation, is instantly more appealing.
In fact, these themes don’t seem merely relevant these days, but urgent. Back in 1997 we knew about the environmental crisis and demanded that governments do something about it. Now, strongman authoritarian leaders openly seek to accelerate the extraction of fossil fuels for the glory of national economic growth. As social theorist Wendy Brown has pointed out, neoliberalism has increasingly intersected with nihilism in recent years, creating a “humanity without a project other than revenge, without restraint by conscience, faith, or value and without belief in either human or divine purposes.” Next to reality, the psychotic division heads of Final Fantasy VII’s Shinra corp. seem almost restrained.
These days we’re at the edge of a precipice. '90s truisms about light-touch politics and sensible economic management ring hollow, conditions worsen, and the idea that there’s no alternative seems dangerously naïve. As the deterioration of the earth and nature come closer, the notion that things not only should but perhaps could be better has more weight in 2020 than it did in 1997, even if solutions remain hazy. Remake’s version of the final fantasy thus carries with it a sense of provocation. If the original game was a highly contemporary work with hints of nostalgia for a lost political past, Remake is an explicit nostalgia piece that nonetheless feels forward looking.
A lot of what makes Remake politically radical is that it stays the same. It deserves some credit simply for retaining much of the original's plot line. In 1997, wrapping an environmentalist campaign in the guise of armed resistance felt bold but too fanciful to be controversial (although admittedly that’s a very western view—Japan at the time was in the middle of its so-called "Lost Decade" of economic crisis, which would put a very different spin on the narrative direction). Today, with the alt-right's presence in gaming culture and the discourse around terrorism since 9/11, it’s a bigger statement, and Remake confidently leans into these ideas.
It still skirts around the concept of capitalism itself, as an individual corporation stands in here for an entire abstract economic and political system. But, to the game's credit, Shinra manages to function pretty much as the entire system in Final Fantasy VII's fiction—it owns and runs everything, functioning in Midgar as a de facto state authority. It’s also unambiguously a bad thing. As in many sci-fi representations of inequality, society is actively segregated by class, with those at the bottom building lives from scrap that dribbles down from above. And, like capitalism, Shinra has no social contract with the people, only interests to pursue, from extracting Mako energy to conducting ethically repugnant experiments on live human subjects.
Anti-corporate sentiment in culture isn’t rare, and in recent years even popular fiction such as The Hunger Games has endorsed fantasies of armed resistance. But Remake still stands out somewhat in this respect, especially with is its implied stance on terrorism. Real-world definitions of terrorism vary, but most share three key factors: terrorism involves (1) violent criminal acts that are (2) politically or ideologically motivated, and (3) aimed at coercion or intimidation. It’s arguable that terrorism should specifically involve threat to civilian lives. But even if Cloud and co. try to avoid hurting anyone who isn’t part of Shinra’s private army, they still spread fear among sections of the general public, which is terroristic by most measures. And Remake seems largely okay with that.
It does still underline the immaturity and recklessness of your squad’s actions, especially as they walk straight into Shinra’s false flag operation trap (apparently nobody in AVALANCHE has considered that Shinra might have security cameras). The script also allows the characters some room to equivocate on the righteousness of their methods, with Tifa in particular conflicted about the bombing missions, even if she realises it’s one of the only ways to potentially damage Shinra. But most of the liberal platitudes about working together for peace and prosperity are placed in the mouth of cowardly Shinra employees, and the terrorists are inarguably the heroes of the piece.
The point here isn’t that Remake justifies terrorism. The tactics pursued by the gang are, after all, ultimately outmoded and desperate, and play into enemy hands. Rather, by presenting this perspective on terrorism, it rejects a dominant strand of thinking, showing that another, against-the-grain way of acting is possible. More than that, it implies this shift is necessary, when no other choices remain, and emphasises the commitment that’s required if meaningful change is ever going to occur.
In this sense, Barret, the leader of the main characters' AVALANCHE cell, functions as the game’s political voice. In many ways, he’s a relic of the past too, from his Mr-T-stereotype-angry-black-man appearance to his reliance on firearms, explosive devices, and earnest lecturing. He’s also an extremist, as apparently his AVALANCHE cell has been kicked out from the larger movement for going too far, and they hardly seem to be pacifists themselves. But then his old-fashioned mentality is an important antidote in the game to the cynicism (Cloud) and uncertainty (Tifa) of youth, and Remake often lets Barret have the last word.
Late in the game when the group infiltrate Shinra’s HQ, Tifa remarks how it feels strange to remember that normal people work for Shinra, too. Barret has a pearl of wisdom at the ready: “A good man who serves a great evil is not without sin. He must recognise and accept his complicity.” He turns to Tifa: “I know you know this.” “I do,” she replies. Deep down, we all do. Barret may not be the greatest strategist or speechmaker, but he’s usually right. He’s the driving force for change, who grasps the situation and the urgency required to change it.
Most of all, he’s the one with the strength of imagination to combat the idea that there’s no alternative. This is summed up in his assurance that “Some lost causes are worth fighting for.” Though it may seem a paradox, it’s precisely the idea required to break free from a weakened imagination. In reality, all big progressive change was once a lost cause, right up to the point that it became feasible because people fought for it. Barret knows this and even if he can’t achieve his goals now, and must abandon his daughter, he insists on making an attempt. It’s because he’s able to imagine the possibility of a different future that it might eventually emerge.
There’s a big problem for Remake’s message though, which is that it’s a remake. For all the value these themes have in the present, this is a game steeped in nostalgia by its very nature. As an experience, it’s designed to hook us back onto the past, to coddle us in the security of the familiar rather than prompt us to desire the new. How can it slavishly repeat a story already told, while pointing to the potential of an alternative future?
This is why Remake’s ending matters. We already knew that this game would only replicate the first part of the original, so it’s no surprise to see before the credits roll that “The unknown journey will continue.” Except, that is, for the word "unknown," set up by a final twist that diverts from the major plot points of old to open up the possibility of things happening differently going forward. The narrative mechanisms of this twist are overblown and nonsensical, but their implications are significant. Until this point, we were following a path laid out years before, enjoying the comfort of safely re-enacting our roles as revolutionaries. Now we can no longer rely on the past.
Remake presents us here with what philosopher Slavoj Žižek (in turn referencing psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan) calls an "Act." An Act in this sense is something that can’t be accounted for in existing norms of meaning and in the acceptable behaviours that dominate society. It appears to come from nowhere and make no sense, but then changes the limits of what it deemed possible. In simple terms, in a choice between A and B, it would be an Act to insist on C, the alternative that isn’t supposed to be there. In taking this step, it’s impossible to know exactly what comes next, but when existing conditions are no longer tolerable, it’s a risk that must be accepted.
In Final Fantasy VII’s original script, Barret was already an "actor." If unprivileged Midgar citizens are supposed to either eke out an existence in the slums or get a job with Shinra, he chooses the hidden third option which rejects the choice itself, by violently striking back against the company. He doesn’t know what the result of this choice will be, but he has to make it, and in doing so he reconfigures the general notion of what’s possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Barret is willing to do anything, no matter how taboo or morally abhorrent. Whatever risk he takes with the future, his Act isn’t nihilistic, but tied to certain beliefs and aims.
In Remake, the final narrative Act is needed to wrest Barret’s Act from the regressive pull of nostalgia. For Barret, both then and now, it’s crucial to commit to a path of change, and as he comments at numerous points, “there ain’t no stopping this train we’re on.” But there’s nothing revolutionary about this train if we already know the destination and are just going along for the ride. The path of revolution is created along the way by those involved, for good or ill, through their decisions.
Critical theorist Walter Benjamin once noted that revolutionary change doesn’t happen in the normal course of human "progress." Rather, “revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency brake.” In Remake’s terms, sitting on the same train we took in 1997 would be a failure to imagine, to think how things might be different. It has to slam on the emergency brake. Ultimately even Barret would have to agree here, despite the fact that he’s only saved from an early death in this game by the intervening powers of fate. His cause is one that risks sacrifice, or it means nothing.
Of course Remake is itself a corporate product, brought to us by one of gaming’s major publishers. The episodic structure and plot alterations may largely just be a means of extracting more money from loyal fans. But this ending works allegorically to signify a stronger imagination, and in that sense all that matters right now is the Act of recreating the unknown over the familiar. It symbolises the point of political possibility when we decide to pursue an alternative with no guarantees. It hints that the breakdown of the existing (capitalist) reality is at least conceivable. So where do we go next?
Jon Bailes is a social theorist and freelance games critic, originally from the UK. He’s the author of Ideology and the Virtual City: Video Games, Power Fantasies and Neoliberalism (Zero, 2019), and Consciousness and the Neoliberal Subject (Routledge, 2020). He co-runs stateofnatureblog.com and can be found on Twitter @jonbailes3.