Occupy Midgar

Final Fantasy 7 by Square (Sony, 1997)
Black Materia: Final Fantasy 7 by Random and Lost Perception (RandomBeats, 2011)

Over the last month I’ve become convinced that Final Fantasy 7 (FF7) is truly the video game for 2011.

In this classic from SquareEnix (nee Square) you have a group of young people (AVALANCHE) battling a massive corporation, which controls the government and military. This company (SHINRA) is  relegating much the population to criminalized slums along with destroying the economy and, especially, the environment. SHINRA – sort of Johnson & Johnson meets Halliburton – has in many ways spelled out its own, and The Planet’s, coming the apocalypse through its own overreach and excess.  Instead, dooming itself through over-leveraged mortgage derivatives – ala Lehman Brothers – SHINRA’s self-inflicted end comes at the hand of a biologically engineered monstrosity – Sephiroth.

When Occupying Midgar, the giant octopus of corporate greed becomes quite literal.

What bought my ticket on this FF7 nostalgia-train was stumbling across (via Kotaku) a hip-hop tribute (!) to Final Fantasy 7 by Random. Random’s album, Black Materia, is quite good, if a bit top heavy (the second half of the album lacks the emotion or attachment to the source material of the first half). The most impressive track, perhaps, is “Tifa,” which manages to make the powerfully convoluted Cloud/Tifa story into a touching tale of childhood romance.

Black Materia reminded me just how great of a game FF7is  and just how well it has aged over the last fourteen years.

Oh sure, the feeble, super-deformed first attempt at 3D graphics has aged horribly (especially, in context of Square’s other PS1 generation Final Fantasy games), but basic game systems (particularly if one carefully forgets about the snowboarding) are extremely sound. In its straightforward old-fashionedness the “materia systems” seems revolutionary in 2011. Think of the awfulness of the combat and customization of Final Fantasy 13, with its attempt to merge the game play of a real-time MMO with classic turned based JRPGs which ends up only having the frustrations (and none of the virtues) of both paradigms.

What stands out to me most thinking about this game, here at the end of 2011, is the well-characterized nature of Final Fantasy 7’s female protagonists. While Tifa’s out-of-proportion costume and character design seems to argue against this assertion (remember 1997 was the awful days of the original Tomb Raider), if we look a bit below the surface things become more complex and interesting. Both Tifa and (especially) Aeris are fully developed characters with their own story-lines developed beyond simply as foils for Cloud Strife.

No video game moment – much less character death – matches in video game history the scene of Aeris’s death at the hands of Sephiroth. That scene is a huge cultural touchstone for gamers of a certain age (i.e. can remember the 1990s) and remains the most mentioned aspect of this game in any retrospective look at FF7‘s impact. The very centrality of this moment, of Aeris’s brutal murder at the hands of a male villain, makes her an obvious example of the trope known as “Women in Refrigerators.”

There is a lot truth to an association of the Aeris’s famous death with this trope. As Gail Simone classicly puts it, the very femaleness of women characters in popular fiction “inevitably” leads to such characters “being killed, maimed or depowered.” Yet, what makes Aeris stand out from the pack of the countless super heroines and love interests thrown under the bus by innumerable male writer  is that her death is not about making the storyline of a male character more interesting. Aeris’s death is not about Cloud’s story but an fitting end to her own story within Final Fantasy 7‘s plot.

While, of course Aeris’s death does complicate Cloud’s story and make it more interesting but, her death is not primarily about that. Rather, that scene is an out growth of Aeris’s character (her ancestry, her desire to protect the planet, etc.) and a culmination of her story, not his. I am not seeking to argue that the representations of gender in Final Fantasy 7 is perfect –  for the game is a JRPG from 1997. But for being what it is (again, a JRPG from 1997) the representations of female characters within the game and its plot are remarkably progressive.

Final Fantasy 7 has a lot to offer us in our age of rising inequality, corporate greed, enviromental destruction, political unrest, and global weirding. The themes of the game, perhaps, have more to say to us in the lean year of 2011 than they did in the boom times of 1997. As we approach this seminal game’s fifteenth anniversary we should, perhaps, consider putting our dusty CDs of Final Fantasy 7 back in our PlayStations. Not just because of be the game’s classic status but because the story of Cloud, Aeris, Sephiroth, and Tifa has something to say to us today.