The Shinra Corporation (listen)
Enormous corporations of the “fuck-you-we’re-rich” persuasion are the scariest thing in the world to me. Can you really blame me? Take a look at the world around you. Since corporations are– legally speaking– people, it’s probably fair to say that no matter who you are, the corporations and mega-conglomerates and the sociopathic money-hoarders who head them have wronged you more than any real human being ever did.
Long before I had the world-weariness and general awareness of the “big picture” that I do today, I played Final Fantasy VII, and it probably planted the seed of this great fear of mine. There is (or was, at the time) something novel about a mega-corporation being the antagonistic force you’re rebelling against in a Final Fantasy game. Where Final Fantasy VI had roughly the same role fulfilled by the Gestahlian Empire, a vague analogue to the ruthless government dictatorships of the past (Nazi Germany, the USSR, etc.), Final Fantasy VII opted to situate its irredeemably-evil, oppressive ruling faction in terms and circumstances that were more 2027 than they were 1942. This isn’t the threat of yesterday, it’s the threat of tomorrow, the game seems to say.
Although the people who make up the Shinra Corporation are a fair deal more outlandish than any real-life magnates (I’m pretty sure Rupert Murdoch has never personally dueled anyone besieging his corporate headquarters on the roof of said building with a double-barrel shotgun), the core idea is just as applicable in real life as it is in the game. Bad people get to do irredeemably bad things because they are rich.
There are a lot of compelling things about Sephiroth as a villain from a narrative standpoint: his introduction feels like a scene straight out of a horror film, and he is routinely the game’s most-ill omen. He appears, and invariably bad things are about to happen. With many villains, you can’t wait to beat their stupid face in. With Sephiroth, you spend most of the game wondering how anybody could even hope to beat his face in. Despite all this, the Shinra Corporation manages to be more compelling– perhaps because of their relative realism. Sephiroth could never happen in real life. But Shinra? Well, I’m not holding my breath for Mako Reactors to start existing, but there’s a kind of horrific realness to their evil.
The sheer immensity of Shinra makes them more rounded as an antagonistic force as well. As mentioned before, the Turks are a welcome source of comic relief and rivalry of the “they’re almost as cool as we are!” variety. Often, rank-and-file Shinra soldiers are treated more like a peculiar joke than a realistic threat, and it’s often hard to believe this is the world’s most powerful military force when it’s manned by such incompetent goons. Shinra’s incomprehensible size (afforded by their wealth) makes smaller moments like these possible, while still maintaining their position as the worst thing to ever happen to Gaia. Isn’t that more significantly more frightening than a guy with a big sword and a magic meteor?
Who Am I? (listen)
It’s right there, staring you in the face when you first come face-to-face with Sephiroth. He asks, “who are you?” Who are you, Cloud? Not who you say you are.
The “hero with amnesia” trope is a common one in JRPGs, but Final Fantasy VII manages to make it interesting with a couple of twists. What happens if nobody (not even the hero himself) realizes he has amnesia? What if his memories are a makeshift patchwork of his own lived experiences, his unrealized desires, and the identity of a dead friend? Usually, amnesia is employed as a narrative device to keep a hero’s destined greatness a secret, but in Final Fantasy VII, the secret it’s keeping is just how much of a total nobody our hero really is.
Whenever this track is playing, Cloud is showing a new side of his fractured self– but the revelation is never flattering. With each successive instance, he gets torn down a peg again and again. Our great everyman becomes a mediocre everyman, our mediocre everyman becomes a useless everyman. So weak is his will that the villain is able to routinely control his mind and body, causing all sorts of problems for all of his friends.
You eventually learn who Cloud really is, and everything’s back to normal. The lengthy period of uncertainty as to our hero’s reliability, and even identity, makes for some damn compelling amnesia, though.
Those Chosen by the Planet (listen)
As mentioned above, despite the cliche, Sephiroth remains a compelling villain. The cliche, as it exists, is that Sephiroth is “cool,” or “bad ass.” People who think this either have poor memories of the game, or questionable taste. Sephiroth isn’t cool– he’s terrifying. A memorable pastiche of horror/slasher villain archetypes, part Jason Voorhees and part Pinhead, irregularly and noisily inserting himself into an already-established plot about a bunch of eco-terrorists rebelling against a monolithic corporation. Yet, he’s too mysterious to ignore. An enigma that Cloud feels compelled to solve. Wherever he appears, bad things happen.
You chase the black-caped man all over the world only to realize he hasn’t moved an inch this entire time. The Sephiroth you’ve been chasing is nothing more than a projection. The Sephiroth who killed Aeris isn’t even real. He was an illusion, yet her death was not. He was killed five years ago, and yet he lives. He passes through walls and floors and ceilings. He is a ghost. Final Fantasy VII is the most high-concept ghost story ever written.
Cid’s Theme (listen)
Final Fantasy, as a series, is about staples. The worlds, characters, and plots are always different, but a few staples remain. Chocobos, Tonberries, Biggs and Wedge, the Prelude theme, Airships. The list goes on, but none of the series’ staples are as significant as the man, the myth, the legend: Cid.
Cid debuted in Final Fantasy II, and has returned in every numbered installment since. I should say his name has returned– he is always a different character with different experiences, skill sets, character design, importance to the narrative, musical themes. Final Fantasy VII has the immense honor of having the series’ most memorable and most likable Cid. He’s the last (non-optional) character to join your party: a crude, crass, chain-smoking mechanic with a heart of gold.
When you first meet Cid, he barks at his partner (a nice woman named Shera) to get their guests some tea (“What are you, blind?! We got guests!! GET SOME TEA! SHIT!”). Cloud attempts to turn down the offer, we’re fine, really– “SHUT UP! Sit your ass down in that chair and drink your GOD DAMN TEA!”
As it turns out, Cid is in a perpetually-sour mood because he was supposed to be the first man in space. It was his only dream. After a failed rocket launch, Shinra decided to cut funding for the space program, so now Cid spends his days living in the shadow of his rocket (and the broken dreams contained within), shouting extreme obscenities, working on planes, smoking like a chimney and generally being the coolest unrepentant-bastard on the face of the planet.
He’s a big dreamer who had his big dreams robbed from him. Can you blame him? For all he cares, he has absolutely nothing left to live for. Your party visits to inquire about borrowing a plane, and he ends up joining your crew. If Shinra’s gonna cut his funding, he’s gonna cut their lives. Circumstances have necessitated that your journey has gotten increasingly vast in scope and complexity. Everything seems so much bigger than blowing up a couple Mako Reactors, seems so much bigger than your adventuring party of six (Cid makes seven– convenient, huh?). Cid serves as a golden opportunity to refocus everyone on the mission at hand. We’re talking about a man who single-handedly engineered a fucking space rocket through sheer determination and was ready to launch it. If you’ve got him on your side, how could you possibly fail?
Underneath the Rotting Pizza (listen)
Midgar is a tumor on the planet’s surface, and it’s malignant as heck. It’s one of the most compelling city environments in all of video games, all metal and concrete. Grafitti and billboards everywhere. Everything is dirty, there’s no natural light. An enormous metal plate, at one point referred to as a “pizza,” is suspended over the city, dividing it into two halves: those beneath the pizza, and those atop the pizza. It’s a simple but effective way of illustrating the class divide that exists within Midgar: if you’re rich, enjoy your sunlight. If you’re poor, well– who cares? I imagine it’s the sort of thing that seemed frighteningly plausible to a Japanese audience, given that country’s population density problem. You’re effectively doubling the area a city can inhabit, just build another city on top of it!
In practice, in the world of Final Fantasy VII, it just seems excessively classist. You might believe, in the early hours of FFVII, that the entire world is like this. Once you leave Midgar, you see all the wide-open space that still remains. The city’s boundaries seem artificially-imposed, like they just wanted an excuse to build a second layer and get away from all those dirty poor people. It’s not like they needed the sunlight anyway, right?
The whole city manages to feel simultaneously like an obvious metaphor and also an all-too-real place. It’s an impressive achievement.
That closes out the second installment of this list. Click here for tracks #10 through #6!