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20 years after its release, Final Fantasy VII’s Trumpian dystopia has arrived

Screenshot: Final Fantasy VII/Square Enix
Screenshot: Final Fantasy VII/Square Enix

This article discusses specific plot details from Final Fantasy VII.

Gold Saucer might be the tallest structure in the world of Final Fantasy VII. A gilded, phallic tower of a theme park, it’s a hub of entertainment and gambling located in the middle of a sun-blasted wasteland, a vertical Las Vegas Strip. Dio, the establishment’s proprietor, passes the time watching gladiatorial combat, and one of his most prized possessions is a bigger-than-life-size portrait of himself. The park can only be accessed by a cable car that leaves from North Corel, a miserably impoverished shanty town. In 1997, the whiplash of being delivered from one of the world’s poorest slums directly into the belly of an opulent cathedral of temporary amusements and sickening egotism was unreal. Today, as a viral photograph from Mumbai attests, poverty living in the shadow of decadence is an increasingly common reality.

Final Fantasy VII was released in Japan 20 years ago today. The game begins by tasking players with committing an act of ecoterrorism, blowing up an industrial complex that converts the lifeblood of the planet into nonrenewable energy. One of its primary concerns, then, is environmentalism, and it was a timely choice: 1997 brought one of the most severe El Niño events in recorded history; concern over a hole in the ozone layer had become mainstream; and December of that year would see the signing of the Kyoto Protocol. Since the game’s release, however, one of its secondary themes has equaled or even surpassed its environmental message in importance. Final Fantasy VII is now, above all, best read as a cautionary tale about how disastrous it would be if the line between business and government were blurred. Because 20 years later, its fears are finally beginning to manifest.

Screenshot: Final Fantasy VII/Square Enix

The world of Final Fantasy VII is dominated by the Shinra Electric Power Company, a corporation that operates as a de facto world government. The only civil servant in the game is the mayor of Midgar, a figurehead with an office in Shinra’s headquarters instead of a publicly accessible city hall. Towns without a permanent Shinra presence are effectively lawless, with no municipal governments or community police. At the start of the game, the company’s highest executive is President Shinra, a megalomaniac who regularly patronizes a slum’s brothel to indulge in fetishistic role-play while dressed up like a king. Through a combination of monopolizing the world’s energy supply, gradually privatizing government duties, and sheer brute strength, President Shinra was able to eventually turn his commercial endeavor into a governing body. Today, in the United States Of America, an equally dangerous inversion is occurring: The extant government is being transformed into a platform to benefit self-serving corporate vampires.

Donald Trump, a real estate magnate and game-show host of middling ability with no government experience, has failed upward into the position of President Of The United States. He accomplished this feat through scaremongering, boasting about the size of his penis, and most improbably of all, accusing his opponent of being compromised by corporate interests. He promised his supporters that he would “drain the swamp” by cleansing politics of unnecessary clutter, like politicians. To replace them, he looked to the private sector, a world he beholds with the closest thing to respect he’s capable of. To that end, after his election, he began stuffing his cabinet with investment bankers, professional wrestling executives, and a fast-food flack whose idea of “very American” is “beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis.” His selection for Secretary Of State was the CEO of ExxonMobil, America’s own Shinra Corporation.

Screenshot: Final Fantasy VII/Square Enix

What does Final Fantasy VII posit happens when the commercial and civil realms overlap? Put simply: desolation. In this world, national armies have been replaced by Shinra’s private military, becoming a force that exists to defend a corporation’s assets instead of a civilian population. Indeed, that same military is frequently turned against the citizens a national army would exist to protect, as when it was used to forcibly suppress the village of Corel. Shinra opted to privatize the job of Midgar’s urban development by offering the responsibility to one of its board members, and now half of that city’s population lives in garbage-riddled subterranean ghettos. When forced to choose, a corporate government always prioritizes its own economic well-being over its citizens’ livelihoods—President Shinra, in one of his final acts before his death, even slaughters an entire neighborhood to wipe out the six activists threatening his operation. Being as incompetent as he is heartless, he only manages to eliminate three.

On that note, Corel was a coal-mining village whose citizens were concerned their industry was becoming obsolete, a sentiment surely familiar to America’s rust-belt voters whose states flipped from blue to red during the election. Shinra convinced the town to allow the construction of one of their hazardous Mako reactors by promising them new prosperity and the preservation of their way of life, the same promises Trump made in order to win votes from equivalent communities. When that reactor malfunctioned, Shinra blamed the citizens of Corel and, as retribution, ordered its private military to destroy the town and massacre its people. Gold Saucer, the aforementioned amusement park, was built on the ruins. The survivors established North Corel, the derelict slum by which it’s accessed. Those sorts of promises do not get kept.

Screenshot: Final Fantasy VII/Square Enix

This should all sound too—if you’ll excuse the phrase—fantastical to ever become true, but it’s already started happening. Already, in North Dakota, a militarized state police force cracked down on private citizens to protect the business interests of an energy corporation. Already, there is talk of defunding, privatizing, or eliminating public services as vital as social security, the Corporation For Public Broadcasting and the public school system. Already the Secret Service is becoming something closer to Shinra’s similarly black-suited Turks, now that they’re also being tasked with defending a privately owned tower named for a corporate autocrat. Already, like President Shinra, a gasbag who sleazed and bullied his way into power is condoning violence against his own citizens and has signaled his willingness to forcibly quell dissent. The polygamist marriage of business, government, and violence represented by Shinra Inc., 20 years ago presented as science fiction, is starting to manifest in real life.

And indeed, what about that sleazing, gasbag bully? Donald Trump has plenty in common with all of Final Fantasy VII’s titans of industry, but his closest analogue is Rufus Shinra, who takes over the company and government after his father’s death. Rufus is a spoiled, selfish braggart who inherited everything he has but believes he earned it, deserves it, and is fit to use it. Rufus rules through fear, consolidating the people’s many anxieties into a small number of scapegoats—eco-terrorists and the villainous Sephiroth, in his case—and insisting that he alone can defeat them. Rufus loves the sound of his own voice and indulges in fawning pageantry in his own honor. Rufus also immediately uses his newly acquired position as the most powerful man in the world to pursue his agenda of personal enrichment and glorification.

Screenshot: Final Fantasy VII/Square Enix

Rufus’ first official act as president is to abandon the seat of government in Midgar and personally pursue the Promised Land, a sacred location he plans on draining of its spiritual energies for profit. Whether he delegated the actual governing of his citizens to someone else or just opted to entirely ignore those duties is not established, but what is established is his willingness to use company/government assets like the airship Highwind in service of his personal goals. For Rufus, his newfound power and influence were not awesome responsibilities, nor even sufficient by themselves to stroke his ego. They were mere stepping stones to even greater wealth and fame. So, too, does it already appear to be for Trump, whose dual role as tawdry hotelier and commander-in-chief has enabled him to potentially be showered with international money so long as he willfully ignores a cavalcade of compromising conflicts of interest. He’s also already demonstrated a similar disinterest in actually occupying the seat of government.

So how do things turn out for Final Fantasy VII’s Trump equivalent? The good news is, he’s destroyed. Rufus’ mission was partly successful—he found an exploitable location he could call the Promised Land, claiming total victory where only a partial one existed, Trump style—but it also awakened the Weapons, the planet’s monstrous self-defense force. Toward the end of the game, one such creature attacks and destroys Shinra headquarters with Rufus inside, killing him. This is a direct result of Rufus abusing the power and resources afforded to him as head of state. There was no official system in place to prevent this corrupt psychopath from ascending to power, and no sufficient action was taken to punish his violations of decency or curb his potential to commit further harm. In the end, it was his own greed that led to his ruin. Ever thus to tyrant billionaires.

Screenshot: Final Fantasy VII/Square Enix

The bad news is, the events that lead to Rufus Shinra’s ironic death also lead to the unironic deaths of everyone else in the world. Final Fantasy VII ends with Meteor, a magically summoned extinction event, descending to the planet. It’s only stopped by the appearance of the Lifestream—the mystical force Shinra has been converting into energy—and the magic spell Holy, which has the ability to cleanse the planet of anything it deems to be a threat. As the sage Bugenhagen explains, “All that is bad will disappear… perhaps, even ourselves. It is up to the planet to decide.” The game concludes, semi-ambiguously, with Holy in the middle of performing its work. Our next glimpse of the world is a post-credits scene set hundreds of years later, revealing that humanity’s achievements have been reclaimed by nature and our species is nowhere to be found.

What will be our equivalent of the three-pronged obliteration by Weapon, Meteor, and Holy? The Weapons, being indiscriminately destructive natural forces awakened by our willful ruination of our own planet, are a natural analogue for the disasters of climate change. Global warming and its accompanying ecological catastrophes are a likelier-than-ever source of our self-eradication now that a climate-change-denying president has tasked a fellow climate-change denier with running the Environmental Protection Agency and taken action to silence agencies that dare to speak the facts about it. Meteor and Holy, meanwhile, are deliberately summoned by individual actors, and both promise total annihilation despite the fact that one is ostensibly “good” and the other “evil.” That’s an easy parallel for the mutually assured destruction of nuclear weapons, a topic that hasn’t been as relevant as it is now since the Cold War. Or perhaps the particulars of the metaphor don’t really matter. Either way, we’re all fucked.

Screenshot: Final Fantasy VII/Square Enix

That’s the tragedy of egocentric corporate stooges attaining power. The operation of a business and the governance of a people are antithetical. Any institution that attempts to do both will always neglect its civil responsibilities to prioritize its personal enrichment, and on a global political scale, the potential damage is incalculable and indiscriminate. Just as Holy didn’t eliminate only those people who “deserved it,” so to will the polar ice caps melt regardless of how you voted, and so to will the atomic bomb vaporize both critic and apologist. After Rufus’ death, a well informed Midgar citizen may have indulged in a bloody-throated “I told you so!” to the Shinra supporters in their life, but afterward, they all met the same end. To Shinra’s true believers, or anyone who didn’t read the news, all that chaos must have seemed like it was happening for no reason. The horror isn’t that one’s preferred political party lost and the other guys won. It’s that this specific government will be disastrous for its enemies and friends alike.

Final Fantasy VII is set now: Near the point of no return for the environment and with self-serving, fear-mongering fat cats in government. It concludes that not only are we destined for self-created extinction, but that we deserve it. Incredible as it may sound, there is still hope. When Cloud and his friends descended into the North Crater to fight their final battle, the fate of their world was already sealed. They fought on anyway because, even in the face of Armageddon, it was still their best source of hope. Eight years later—the length of two presidential terms—Square Enix belatedly rewarded their fight with Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, a film sequel that retcons humanity’s destruction and offers the world a chance to heal, even extending redemption to Rufus Shinra. Today, we find ourselves in the same position as Cloud and his allies at the conclusion of their journey. Our only chance for survival may well be nothing less than divine intervention, but it’s still our responsibility to fight.

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