“Final Fantasy,” capitalism, and the environment

final fantasy 7

Early next year, Square Enix will release a new game for current generation systems in its popular "Final Fantasy" series. With this ahead, it's worthwhile to revisit the most critically acclaimed title in the franchise, "Final Fantasy VII," released in 1997 for the original PlayStation, which is often cited as one of the greatest video games of all time. Compared to the medium's typical fare, the title holds a progressive perspective on capitalism, the environment, and the relationship between the two.

"Final Fantasy VII" centers on a militant ecological group called AVALANCHE, which is trying to stop the Shinra corporation from destroying the planet in its pursuit of Mako energy. The game appears to reject the capitalist environmentalism that sees ecological crisis primarily as the result of individual choices, such as taking too-long showers or failing to turn off lights when one leaves a room. Instead, the title places blame squarely on Shinra's relentless search for wealth.

In a representative comment about the corporation, a central character says, "They're evil and destroyin' our planet just to...build their power and line their own damn pockets with gold! If we don't get rid of them, they're gonna kill this planet!"

As socialist author Chris Williams points out, capitalism is based on a constant expansion, profit, and short-term outlook, which is at odds with the public interest in environmental sustainability. Whether the game recognizes these systemic problems, or merely sees Shinra as a "bad apple" on the corporate tree, is debatable. But at the least "Final Fantasy VII" suggests a need for significant reform that goes beyond the focus on the lifestyle choices of individuals, which seems to be the current, mainstream prescription for ecological crisis.

That said, AVALANCHE, the rebel organization to which the player belongs, uses terrorist tactics shunned by conventional socialist opinion. AVALANCHE launches a secret bombing campaign against Shinra, instead of, say, rousing the residents of the capital's slums to fight the corporation on their own behalf.

Most socialists don't have a moral opposition to violence, but recognize it's generally incapable of creating large-scale, permanent change when carried out by individuals or small groups. Vladimir Lenin, with whom I have problems as a civil libertarian, sums up the socialist case against what he termed revolutionary adventurism by writing, "Only new forms of the mass movement or the awakening of new sections of the masses to independent struggle really rouses a spirit of struggle and courage in all. Single combat however...has the immediate effect of simply creating a short-lived sensation, while indirectly it even leads to apathy and passive waiting."

Unfortunately, in the real world many radical environmentalists today, whose commitment cannot be questioned, frequently exalt these tactics when employed by groups like the Earth Liberation Front. Far from the symptom of a robust movement many supporters believe individual violence to be, resorting to such desperate actions represents an inability to garner the mass support needed to create real change.

"Final Fantasy VII" also emphasizes the farcical nature of capitalist democracy. Karl Marx writes, "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs" of the rich. Similarly, in the early stages of the game, the mayor of the planet's capital confides in the player matter-of-factly, saying, "Actually, I'm mayor in name only. The city and everything in it is really run by Shinra, Inc. My only real job is watching over Shinra's documents."

Additionally, "Final Fantasy VII" encourages skepticism of corporate news that recognizes coverage reflects the class interests of ownership. For instance, at one point a TV broadcast portrays AVALANCHE in a particularly unfavorable light, quoting the president of Shinra and the mayor of the capital without including any sort of progressive rebuttal. At another point a central character questions the accuracy of a report, saying, "Shinra, Inc. owns the paper, so you can't rely on that information."

For years there have been rumors that Square Enix might remake "Final Fantasy VII." According to gaming website IGN, the developer's president has said such a turn toward the company's past would not happen until it created a title that "exceeds the quality" of the older title. Were Square Enix to pursue a remake, which would undoubtedly please many fans, let's hope they'd inject the game with an even more class-conscious sensibility than the original that truly recognizes how deeply the fights for economic democracy and environmental sustainability are intertwined.

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