When I wrote about Final Fantasy V being the secret environmentalism Final Fantasy, I knew the elephant in the room with that claim would be Final Fantasy VII. After all, VII is the one where you start out as the member of an eco-terrorist group, and your primary villains for most of the game are an evil corporation unsustainably monetizing the lifeblood of the planet to power their machines. How can you that NOT be the environmentalism Final Fantasy? Well, just as V’s themes of responsibility, environmental collapse and hope within nihilism are supported by the game’s characters, world and mechanics, VII’s characters, world and mechanics quickly leave the “materia as peak oil” window dressing behind to focus on a different theme. Final Fantasy VII is the existential identity crisis Final Fantasy.
Despite their shared label, there’s actually quite a diverse range of differing doctrines by existential philosophers. One shared idea is that the central virtue of the movement is “authenticity.” An idividual suffers pain because of the disconnect between authenticity and their desires. People want the world to make sense, and so the reality of an absurd world without inherent meaning fills them with dread. Peoples’ actions and experiences are what define them, and the disconnect between what they do and what they think or feel also causes them this painful dread. People want to see themsleves as heroes, and so the fact that other people may see them as something else threatens their very sense of self. In existentialism, it is up to every individual to give meaning to life, rather than the concrete morality or value prescriped by society, religion, or other organizations. However, it is also up to every individual to deal with what it means to be such a powerful individual in a world shared by everyone else with the same power. In a western world trying to find meaning after the horrors of WWII, existentialism proved quite popular, and went on to influence disciplines far beyond philosophy, and 90s video games were no exception.
Japanese rpgs of the Playstation era would go to the existentialism well quite a lot, both to directly borrow from its philosophers or take indirect influence from its descendants. Square’s own Chrono Cross built its narrative around the main character becoming trapped in a Satre-esque nightmare of being regarded as their moral opposite, Persona used its Jungian archetypes to facilitate teenage drama about identity, and countless Tactics games took inspiration from the anti-war and anti-colonial writers of or following the movement. I don’t think its unfair to say that Final Fantasy VII’s explosive success, both economically and critically, helped solidify this trend among its predecessors.
Existence preceeds essence. Identity is defined by the reality of what an individual does and how the world responds, not just what the individual feels defines them. Now, anyone familiar with FF7 is probably already thinking “yep, I know where this is going, Cloud.” After all, the identity Cloud presents for over half the game is challenged and eventually revealed to be false. His cool aloofness and badassery merely a projection, a false identity he doesn’t even remember creating anymore. In the end, it is revealed that he was a simple dork who, after suffering a traumatic experience, began internalizing and copying the mannerisms of the cool, fallen friend who had earlier saved his life. By the end of the game, his fractured mind and memories are restored and he accepts both his true self and the potential within that version of him to become the person he really wants to be. But Cloud is far from the only character in Final Fantasy VII projecting a false mask. Once you look deeper, every character carries this kind of existential crisis that defines them.
Barrett uses a mask of anger and rage to hide his own guilt and self-hatred. Red XIII tries to project maturity to mask the fact that he’s actually the youngest member of the group. Cait Sith is literally a rebel sympathizer pretending to be a Shinra spy pretending to be a robot cat-and-yeti. Cid projects the appearance of being another, even angrier version of Barrett not to mask guilt or issues of self-esteem, but how consumingly empty his misanthropy is. Even the optional characters have created their own comforting false selves. Yuffie appears to be the carefree, money-and-materia-happy thief, but this is to mask her frustration as a victim of Shinra’s colonialism. Her home country of Wutai lost a war and was reduced to little more than a vassal state fit only for vacationing foreigners who want to experience something “exotic.” Why does she really want the party’s power? Why to make Wutai strong and independent again! But admitting that means admitting Wutai is defeated and weak, and worse requires the help of these outsiders and their power, which is something Yuffie is not capable of doing when the party first meets her. So the only-watching-out-for-herself silly teen thief persona is created to justify to herself what she needs to do. Her actions are still working towards the goal she desires, but not in an authentic way, and it is not until she confronts and honestly engages both her new allies and her familial ties in Wutai that she is able to truly become a member of the party and obtain her most powerful ability.
Vincent, left immortal and sometimes-monstrous by Shinra science, tells the party he shut himself away as a penance for failing to prevent the events that led to the creation of the big villain Sephiroth. He takes on the role of the sorrowful, tragic hero, who failed to prevent his love from being stolen by the wicked scientist Hojo and fooled into becoming the mother of the world’s greatest monster. But anyone looking at the whole backstory (at least pre-sequels, which is going to become a common caveat) would note that Vincent was never really in a position to prevent anything. At best, he was a Shinra grunt with delusions of being closer to the real power players of the plot, merely adjacent to the backstory rather than active in it. He IS optional, after all. His guilt is not really over how he failed to stop Hojo, but over how he never actually COULD have stopped Hojo. But what kind of tragic hero redemption would THAT make for? Better people think his self-pity and inaction is due to something “worth” feeling guilty over, than admit he didn’t actually matter all that much back then (and that Lucretia didn’t love him, of course).
The most interesting cases aside from Cloud are found in Tifa and Aeris, arguably full co-protagonists with Cloud. Tifa grew up with the real Cloud, and is who first recruited him to Avalanche. She knows all too well that the version of events he shares with everyone is bullshit, and worse that he’s far too confident about every ridiculously wrong thing he says. Aside from the equally untrustworthy Sephiroth, she’s the only character alive who can counter Cloud’s narrative of past events with the truth. Yet despite all this, she remains silent, never challenges things and confides this in no one. The player can see that its weighing on her, and yet up until it becomes impossible to do otherwise, she keeps her accurate memories to herself. Why?
Tifa’s projection is one of support and normalcy. For various reasons, she simply does not trust herself, and so she copes by positioning herself to boost others. She’s the mother-slash-sister of the group, the calm collected voice of reason to everyone else’s anger and weird hang-ups. This serves her well for awhile, until her long-lost friend (and potentially more?) Cloud shows up, shortly followed by Sephiroth, the guy who murdered her hometown and set most of her psychological issues in motion. So Tifa, who deals with her existential issues by making herself a supporting character in other people’s stories, starts to run into the problem of Cloud’s version of the past not making any sense. Tifa distrusts herself so much, and her comforting identity is so wrapped up in supporting Cloud, that she essentially gaslights herself. Unlike the others who project a comforting but inauthentic fantasy to mask their existential fear, Tifa’s dread comes from her inability to trust in her own authenticity. Tifa knows who she is, but either doesn’t trust that to be good enough, or doesn’t trust the world to accept it. Eiter way, she’d rather maintain the illusion that the person she’s supporting, and thus validating her own existence through, is capable and in control than risk shattering it by acknowledging her real, objective memories. Notably, Cloud’s psyche is only saved by Tifa stepping forward to take ownership of reality, and in her own capability.
Aeris is unique in that she isn’t really projecting any kind of false self, but rather has everyone, including most of the players, projecting on to her. Considering her role as a healer, her “useless” holy materia’s appearance as the deus ex machina, and her tragic and (at the time) unexpected death, she tends to be remembered by most players as a virginal, sweet, naive young girl. One who loves flowers and being nice and romantic. She IS nice and likes flowers, of course, but she’s also a ratty slum kid who flirts, makes dirty comments, scams jerks trying to pick her up and has no problem making her feelings absolutely clear. She is absolutely nothing like the standard, demure healer girl jrpg players expect from the genre, and yet that is what they project onto her. Replaying the game after you know the plot twists to come makes it pretty clear how early on she realizes that Cloud is a false identity, and is specifically acting out the mannerisms and behavior of her dead ex-boyfriend Zack. Unlike Tifa, she doesn’t keep it “secret” because she doubts herself, but because frankly she has more important things to do regarding the fate of the planet and can’t spend all her valuable time helping Cloud the lost baby tip-toe around reality. She eventually leaves the party and ends up both saving the world and dying because, as much as she cares for Cloud and the other lovable fuckups of the party, she knows she can’t accomplish anything while holding their hands. The planet is saved because Aeris is authentically free from illusions, and Aeris dies because the party is, at the time, too weak to do likewise.
The larger mechanics of the game and the world it takes place in support this reading. While past Final Fantasies often focused on character customization through various systems (the jobs of III and V, the espers of VI, etc) the characters always had their own unique qualities as well. A knight is never going to be as good at spells as a black mage, and even if you abuse espers enough to give Relm an attack equal to Cyan’s she can’t equip his katanas to make use of it. But in VII, the characters of your party are virtually identical ciphers. Each character has their unique class of weapon, but the stats are largely the same. The deciding factors of a character’s stats and role in combat is not their stats or weapons, but their materia. Pretty much every character has the same capacity to be a fighter, a healer, an agile thief, a tank or any other role. The only tangible difference is in the characters’ limit breaks, the special attacks they can unleash when they take enough damage in combat. The only character who has stats built towards a particular role is Aeris, who will always be built with less fighting and more magic in mind. But, as noted earlier, Aeris is the only member of the party NOT trying to project the image of someone they think is cooler or more successful. Everyone else is a blank slate for you to work with because they lack Aeris’ sense of identity. Its also just another tip-off that something may happen to this character, so the player should keep an eye open.
Like V’s environmental themes, VII’s themes of how one presents identity and reality become more obvious once you know you’re looking for them beyond just Cloud. Shinra is an obvious example, with their public face as the good capitalist philanthropists and their literal paying of actors in Niflheim to spend their entire lives pretending to be people they are not. The Shinra corporation also makes a good villain for these themes because its an enemy with a changing face. When the Shinra president dies, his son simply takes over. The Shinra your party faces may be constantly changing with whatever board member you currently battle with, and that obscures how getting rid of these individuals who identify as the system is not the same as getting rid of the system. The question this should raise is, why do we then think that even getting rid of Sephiroth will get rid of the larger system threatening the planet?
VII’s ambiguous ending refuses (until the unneeded sequels anyway) to give a definite answer on if humanity survives with the rest of the world. The ultimate white magic is released and empowers the planet to remove all toxic and harmful variables. This includes the dark magic meteor set to crash into the planet, but it may also include the humans who spent their whole existence unsustainably harvesting the planet. The party can claim that it beat Sephiroth and the Shinra board members, but they didn’t actually fix any of the systems in place, did they? Everyone is still using power that has to come from somewhere, and that is draining the planet. They didn’t fix the fundamentally broken things inside humanity that apparently prevented them from acting in their own best interests. VII raises the question of whether the idea we can save the world is just another false identity, on a massive cultural scale. Does it matter if we think and feel that we’re getting better and capable of change if the planet itself knows better? Does the image we want to present as heroes matter if, when given the option, objective reality categorizes us as toxic and removes us? Even scarier, if we’re NOT moving forward and fixing problems, does that mean there’s any point, beyond our own egos, in attempting? How can we both deal with thse harsh realities without giving way to a selfish nihilism? Since (again, until they ruined it with sequels) the ending requires the player to decide and justify what happens to humanity, it requires the player to answer that question themselves.
In the end, what FF7 has to say about environmentalism is in terms of how existentialist ideas of identity impact our ability to deal with environmental issues. Over and over again, we find ourselves as a species embracing comforting lies to avoid harsh realities. Make no mistake though, “humanity is evil so there’s nothing we can do” is just as much a fantasy as “humanity is good and we don’t need to worry.” We’ve broken our own planet beyond what any species we’ve ever known is capable of, and the planet that comes from doing so is going to be one that a lot of people won’t survive. In a mere 14 years, we may be looking at a United States that is mostly desert and large parts of Europe that are uninhabitable. This is a painful future to think about, and our natural inclination is to escape having to do so. But its a reality that will still come, no matter how we choose to ignore it. We don’t have the luxury of solving this problem by spamming summon spells or just by admitting we’re overcompensating nerds, but there’s nothing wrong with bits of media that remind us how important it will be to face this reality sincerely. Accepting the difficult reality of what we can’t change, what we can’t avoid responsibility for, and what that means for our world requires cultivating an authenticity we’re not well versed in on a scale we have even less luck working with. But wether its on a personal or global scale, that existential pain will only abate when we face it with that same authenticity.