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Final Fantasy VII is more relevant than ever, 25 years later

“The planet is dyin’, Cloud!”

The most memorable video game quotes tend to be iconic right out the gate. Kids wasted no time in turning Mortal Kombat’s “Finish him!” into a playground battle cry in the ’90s. Then there’s Portal’s infamous “The cake is a lie,” which launched an immediate meme that almost single-handedly changed how a lot video games handle humor. These are hall of fame one-liners that could only be born out of a “you had to be there” watercooler moment.

Barret’s frustrated wail about Gaia’s slow death in Final Fantasy VII is different. “The planet is dyin’, Cloud!” wasn’t something you’d find on a list of “best video game quotes of all time” alongside classics like “It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this!” It was one quick line in a sea of RPG text boxes — almost a punch line setup where Barret’s passionate plea falls on the deaf ears of an apathetic Cloud Strife.

Barret says that the planet is dying in Final Fantasy VII.

But the throwaway line gained new relevance in 2021. As cryptocurrency and NFTs became hot topics, those who were concerned about the environmental impact of blockchain transactions looked to Barret to plead their case.

“The planet’s dyin’, Cloud! And these crypto-fuckers are trying to get us to burn down half the rainforest for a damn JPEG?” reads a meme edit of the classic scene that’s a popular response to any company’s NFT announcement on Twitter.

The sudden resurgence of a 25-year old line speaks to the ultimate staying power of Final Fantasy VII. It’s a timeless story that only seems to become more relevant as the years go on. That’s extremely rare considering that video games weren’t exactly known for their weighty themes 25 years ago.

Saving Gaia

Final Fantasy VII is an iconic RPG that tackles environmentalist issues, capitalism, and class inequality in one breath. It’s a story that feels all-encompassing, with its finger on the pulse of seemingly every social problem. According to Final Fantasy VII Remake producer Yoshinori Kitase, that’s by design.

“One of the major themes of this title is the ‘life of the planet,’” Kitase tells Digital Trends. “The threats on our real-life planet shifted over the course of time–from pollution, to fear of atomic weapons, to the current global warming issues. Final Fantasy VII used fantasy to depict the ‘life of the planet’ as a more abstract concept, and so it can be replaced at any time with issues in the real world. Because it’s a universal theme, I think that’s why it continues to live on as a meaningful title in any generation.”

Cloud looks at the Shinra building in Final Fantasy VII.

The opening hours of the game start in Midgar, a round metropolis encased in a metal plate that stands between civilization and miles of dead desert. Midgar is divided into different quadrants that wildly vary in quality of life depending on who’s in them. Midgar’s richest citizens live in a thriving, modern city, while the poor are placed in slums that can’t receive natural sunlight due to a large metal plate hanging above them.

At the literal center of it all is Shinra. The corrupt megacorporation powers Midgar by draining Gaia’s life force, called Mako energy. Shinra is directly responsible for turning Gaia into a wasteland, and that’s not too out there a concept. In 2017, a study reported that just 100 companies were responsible for 71% of carbon emissions on Earth. Fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and BP are reportedly among the biggest offenders, making them a real-life Shinra analogy.

The game follows Cloud Strife, a mercenary who comes to Midgar to team up with an eco-terrorist organization called Avalanche. The group aims to fight back against Shinra’s misdeeds by bombing its reactors. It’s a radical act, though one born from desperation. When all hope in the individual’s ability to save the world is lost, when do extreme measures become justified?

Midgar shown from an overhead shot in Final Fantasy VII.

Final Fantasy VII isn’t afraid to ask tough questions like that, and that’s part of its long-term appeal. It imagines a world where humans have crossed the threshold and face a very real climate catastrophe. In 1997, that was science-fiction. In 2022, it might just be a matter of time. At a United Nations General Assembly meeting in 2019, speakers warned that there were only 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage from climate change.

Our own planet could look like Gaia in a decade.

Up to date

Final Fantasy VII Remake only emphasizes the original game’s themes by underlining every note three times with a sharpie. By blowing the three-hour Midgar chapter into a full 40-hour game, it more thoroughly examines the class disparity in the city. The difference between the idyllic suburban housing district where Jessie’s mom lives and the dusty slums housing Midgar’s poorest is night and day.

Buildings in Final Fantasy VII's slums.

Kitase says that Remake had to modernize to capture how different the world had become since the game’s 1997 release.

“In the past 20 years, society and environmental issues in the real world have changed greatly,” says Kitase “To reflect this, we’ve changed our portrayal of things like the excessive overuse of Mako reactors and Avalanche’s destructive actions. However, I think that the core of the story, with Cloud and Sephiroth as its pillars, will resonate with fans in the same way regardless of their generation.”

The remake’s updated visuals go a long way toward fully realizing the story’s underlying despair. Remake opens with a haunting sequence where a bird flies over a barren desert wasteland. It cuts through a barrier of thick smog and suddenly it’s weaving through Midgar’s metallic structures. At one point, the camera focuses in on a patch of dead grass on the side of the road – the only hint of natural life we see until Aerith and her flowers appear.

As strong as the original Final Fantasy VII’s storytelling is, its visuals are limited. That game’s opening sequence, for instance, doesn’t paint as detailed a picture. We get a sweeping shot of Midgar with smoke stacks billowing around the perimeter, but not the full scope of the environmental decimation. Rendering individual blades of grass wasn’t exactly something the PlayStation 1 excelled at.

Final Fantasy VII Remake - Opening Movie | PS4

Remake leaves less to the imagination. By taking a laser focus to Midgar and maxing out every detail, we really understand what Barret means when he says “the planet is dyin’”. Midgar is a dystopian metropolis where miles of metal detain its citizens and block out sunlight like a prison cell. It’s like looking into a grim future where we’re all living in Amazon City, with a giant fulfillment center looming over us.

A dance with fate

While Final Fantasy VII Remake keeps Midgar’s original story beats intact, it’s not a simple nostalgia act. It expands the original’s legacy with fresh ideas that only deepen its relevance.

“It was also very important for the original team members that returned to work on Remake that we make something very new,” says Kitase. “We didn’t want to make the same game again, just with improved graphics. For the younger members of the development team, many of whom were fans of the original game when it first released, we wanted their ideas and input.”

Cloud slashes an enemy in Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Square Enix Store

The main change Remake brings to the table is its fate-enforcing whispers (spoilers follow). At various points during the game, a squad of gray ghosts ambush the heroes and block their paths. Late in the game, we discover that the whispers are there to course correct history by keeping the story on a set path.

It’s a clever meta-narrative device that grapples with the challenge of remaking a story fans feel deeply protective over. But beyond that, it also amplifies another key part of the game’s story: The message that it’s never too late to make a difference.

Final Fantasy VII has a bleak premise, but it’s not a hopeless game. The heroes overcome impossible odds — both in the form of giant corporations and god-like RPG bosses — to restore life to the planet. Remake adds another level to that by having its characters literally overcome the concept of destiny to do so.

On Gaia, nothing is inevitable; it’s always worth fighting.

The unknown journey continues

Final Fantasy VII may be 25 years old, but its story is still evolving … and that’s unusual. Generally, an old game will get dug up for nostalgic rereleases and an inevitable remaster, but rarely do we see a PS1 game expanded upon. Square Enix has essentially turned it into a franchise unto itself apart from the main Final Fantasy series.

“This was an opportunity to reimagine Final Fantasy VII, to keep all the elements that people love from the original and to go deeper into the world and story,” says Kitase. “Expanding upon the original in order to also make it feel new and surprising for everyone, both newcomers and all those that have played the original game across the last 25 years.”

Tifa sits on a watertower in Final Fantasy VII Remake.

There’s more story to tell. With Final Fantasy VII Remake canonically destroying the need for writers to stick to the script, the most socially adaptable video game around just got more flexible. The team can modernize the story by integrating the issues that matter most to players in 2022 and beyond, whether that be climate change, political accountability, or, yes, even NFTs. It feels like the story and its themes could easily remain relevant for another 25 years … for better or worse.

Gaia ain’t dead yet. Not on Barret’s watch.

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