Final Fantasy VII has always been political. The original incorporated themes of environmentalism, classicism, and capitalistic greed into its fantasy adventure story. The Shinra power company embodies all of these, literally sucking the living planet dry for its own gains. Midgar is literally divided; the rich and company workers on top and the poor out of sight (even from the sun) on the bottom. Also, the protagonists are literally eco terrorists.
Final Fantasy VII Remake, with its more narrow focus on Midgar, takes the opportunity to dig into things a little deeper. You get a more ground level view of the citizens of Midgar’s slums and the impact yours and Shinra’s actions have on them. While Midgar is very technologically advanced, the slums do not benefit from it. Instead they live in the rubble and abandoned projects meant for the topside citizens. According to Shinra, Mako energy (harvested from the earth) is the necessary evil. People supposedly need this energy to survive even if it comes at a cost to the planet. Avalanche pushes back against this, fighting Shinra to stop Mako harvesting and the power imbalance in their city. This ideology is inherent in the original text, but the Remakes additions in Chapter 16 crystallize the original game’s message.
Spoiler warning for chapter 16
Starting chapter 16, you’ve infiltrated Shinra HQ to rescue a captured Aerith. At this point we’ve seen just how evil Shinra can be. Their characterization is not subtle. They willingly dropped a plate to crush the Sector 7 slums literally destroying a town and countless lives. We watch as they twist public perception through their news station, publicly blaming Avalanche and their foreign rival Wutai for the plate. The game also takes the time to focus on the Shinra execs; they know the costs and the damage they’re doing and pursue it anyway. There are no shades of gray.
Aerith is held on one of the top levels of Shinra HQ. You get the choice to take either the stairs or the elevator. Players of the original might know that the common strategy is to take the stairs; the Remake however rewards elevator riders with an important additional cutscene. As you ride it up, the protagonists cross paths with multiple common Shinra workers. These are ordinary office workers, staying late to finish up one project or another, not evil soldiers. Tifa expresses some of her hesitancy about the mission; these are ordinary people, who are dissimilar to the mustache twirling villains of the exec board. Barret responds very cogently; that these people are compromised and complicit with the actions of the company.
A good man who serves a great evil is not without sin. He must recognize and accept his complicity. He must open his eyes to the truth – that his corporate masters are profiting from the planet’s pain
I’ve seen this scene being talked about a lot and for good reason. Barret’s response perfectly encapsulates one of the original’s themes; rampant capitalism affects everyone. These ordinary workers are in fact aiding Shinra’s actions whether directly or indirectly. Someone had to write the code for the plate to drop; whether they knew that’s what it was used for is irrelevant. The individuals balancing the books and making sales keep the money flowing to fund their campaigns. The news station believes they are reporting news, but they are reinforcing Shinra’s ideology to the masses. Many I assume believe they are keeping the city together; Shinra is the infrastructure of Midgar after all. But the fact that at best Shinra is making people suffer beneath the plate, they are complicit in reinforcing the current system. You can make direct ties to real-world events; I doubt the person that created the heat map system Amazon is using though they would use it to monitor unionization efforts.
You then work your way through Shinra’s interactive museum detailing the company’s and planet’s history. The game cleverly uses this opportunity as part lore dump and part thematic exploration. The planet’s original inhabitants were people known as the Ancients, a society that was able to live harmoniously and communicate directly with the planet. The Ancients, Shinra explains, were the first to use Mako energy. Shinra is the next evolution, using Mako like the Ancients to better lives and lead Midgar to the “promised land.”
Since we’ve seen just how far Shinra will go to further their goals, we know that this message is false. They have only made a small fraction of lives more comfortable leaving the slums to fend for themselves and be sacrificed. They also forcibly extract Mako, bending the planet’s energy to their will. This scene is rightly intended to provoke anger both in the protagonists and the player. “Look at how this awful company messages their greed;” the cutscenes even look like a BP oil commercial. Large corporations and rich citizens throughout our globe are harming the planet every day, whether that’s through electronics manufacturing or through oil fracking empires. These pursuits aren’t meant to make the world better but rather to make them richer and people more comfortable (at least those of us that can afford it). It’s a good reminder in this time of quarantine and talks of reduced carbon emissions. The halt of corporate manufacturing and infrastructure are what’s causing the greatest environmental, not people not driving to work.
It’s so funny that people still talk about how games aren’t political; all of the themes that Remake expands upon were present in the original game that was released in 1997. There’s a lot more in the game than good vs evil and it’s themes are more present than ever. It seems that the themes of capitalistic greed and environmentalism are unfortunately evergreen.