Most people would consider Final Fantasy VII, with its opening party members being an environmental terrorist group and its focus on materia as a metaphor for fossil fuels, as being the most overtly environmental-themed Final Fantasy. However, despite its place as narrative window-dressing, these themes take a backseat to themes of identity, performance and the conflict between how you and others perceive yourself. I would argue that, rather than VII, the Final Fantasy that is truly most about environmentalism is Final Fantasy V.
The world of Final Fantasy V was split in two millennia ago. An evil being emerged from The Void, the primordial chaos that is both nothingness and the potential to be anything, and became such a threat that the power he unleashed could only be destroyed by splitting reality in two and forcing The Void between them like a prison. Today, neither world realizes that the other exists, or that they were originally one, and on their own both worlds have inadvertently been leading themselves to destruction.
Like in VII, one of the driving conflicts in Final Fantasy V is the over-consumption of a finite resource. The kingdoms of the first world extract energy from the four elemental crystals in order to power technology and live easy lives. While the power of these crystals is considered to be limitless by short-sighted and short-lived humanity, their increasing reliance on that energy eventually weakens the crystals enough that they can be shattered. As the elements of the world are intrinsically linked to the crystals, this means that the world is going to slowly collapse. Air will become thin and polluted, fire will refuse to burn and the world will grow cold, the earth will become fallow and crumble, and water will grow stagnant and filthy.
It turns out that the crystals serve a second function, that of sealing away Exdeath, an evil warlock from that second world who longs to achieve the power of The Void. When he tried to destroy his world, four heroes from his world drove Exdeath to the first world and sealed him away. Naturally, the denizens of that second world are pissed that the thoughtless people of the first world abused their crystals’ power and allowed Exdeath to return and threaten both worlds.
But as the party explores the second world and learns the true history of Exdeath, it becomes clear that the situation is not quite that simple. The second world is not innocent, and the creation of Exdeath himself is directly related to their own environmental catastrophe. In this world, the people discovered that the Forest of Moore contained trees that could absorb and process “evil spirits.” The people dealt with destructive monsters, evil wizards and the most repulsive criminals by sealing them inside the trees of this forest (in particular one large, great tree at the forest’s heart) and allowed the forest to purge them of corruption. Of course, the concentrated evil energy was not destroyed any more than plastic or radioactive waste is in our world, and slowly the forest itself would become increasingly corrupted and evil itself. In time, a branch of the great tree became so infused with the discarded evil spirits that it formed a being of nothing but corrupting, destructive urges. That being was Exdeath, the evil tree-warlock behind the party’s troubles.
So improper psychic waste management lead to the creation of a being of pure radioactive evil, how does the world deal with it? By burying it in someone else’s backyard. Imagine if that chunk of plastic in the Pacific Ocean the size of Texas was also sentient and wanted to twist your flesh into an untenable form of abstract terror. Imagine that the drinking water in Flint is not only still dangerously toxic, but that by trying to even use the tap, the water becomes increasingly self-aware and hungry for your degradation and death. Of course, they don’t bother to tell anyone, or give them instructions on how to make sure the sealed evil doesn’t awaken, or mention that they used the source of that world’s life-giving energy to do all this. While the first world’s sin is of unregulated resource extraction, the second world is guilty of a hideous form of environmental racism. Both worlds end up doomed because of their separate failures of conservation, and in the end are forced together for survival.
For a game rightly remembered for its light-hearted atmosphere of friendship and camaraderie, Final Fantasy V is undeniably dark. From the very beginning of the game, we are told that when a crystal shatters, the long-term effects on the world are irreversible. The shattered wind crystal means the air quality of the entire planet will simply get worse and worse, until it is possibly too toxic to support life. As each crystal shatters, it becomes a race to mitigate a dying world rather than a quest to save it. When Exdeath attains power over the Void and begins banishing entire populations to realms of unending horror, the game doesn’t tell you “oh, they’ll be fine, don’t worry.” Because its an early Final Fantasy game, we trust things will be alright in the end, and they are, but strictly speaking the narrative of the game is that each place lost to the Void is gone for good, condemned to an existence of undying horror. At least one species ends up functionally extinct by the end of the game, and even that doesn’t get undone during the happy ending. There is no false hope presented here, and while the game doesn’t explore the world that can be expected to come, that reality of a cold, polluted, dying world existing even after you defeat the evil warlock is there for players to consider.
Nihilism can be a destructive tendency, especially when it gets wrapped up in selfish narcissism. There are certain things we cannot change or save, and it is easy to give up on everything in the face of this. Its almost comforting to give up in that circumstance, to mock those who cling to hope and use life’s lack of meaning as an excuse not to create meaning yourself. This is the kind of “college 101” nihilism that most of us are familiar with, the kind that not simply acknowledges a lack of innate purpose or hope, but that actively seeks to prevent such things from being created. Nihilism is a terrible ethos, but then, so are most things we tend to use as such. As merely another tool or lens to be used as needed, nihilism can be something different. Facing the reality that the world as we know it is “doomed” and will change into something different is important. Acknowledging that there is no inherent value to life or our world allows us the opportunity to create and examine value ourselves. The world as we know it IS over. Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than it has ever been in the last 650,000 years, and a national parks social media account merely pointing that out is considered an act of rebellion. On a global level, we’ve passed the tipping point of climate change and a lot of people are going to suffer and die in this hotter world. On a national level, we have a president emboldened by literal nazis and an opposition party that is more intent on procedure than opposition. On a personal level, I will probably end up losing my insurance pretty soon, as well as many of the slight lgbt protections we worked so hard to win over the past decades. We can’t walk back from the damage we have done to the environment or from the political failures of neoliberalism and the resulting rise of fascism. But the reality that things are bad cannot be an excuse or a crutch. Only by allowing nihilism to be a tool to foster compassion, introspection and realism can it be anything other than a source of apathy.
While Final Fantasy V doesn’t shy away from the reality the world will still be doomed, its focus is on hope and finding meaning in fighting regardless. The ending, where everyone’s friends and hometowns are returned from The Void and both the world and the crystals are restored can be seen as a deus ex machina, or a generic happy ending (after all, only Final Fantasy VII really explored a potentially apocalyptic and unhappy ending, and even that was eventually walked back from in order to cash in on sequels). It can also be seen as a just reward for how the party continued to fight, regardless of the reality of their situation. Exdeath succeeds, even in death, in returning creation to that primordial Void, but the Void is not merely nothingness but potential. The drives of the party to find meaning, even when everything is lost, is what allows a world to be born out of that Void. Notably, the world that returns is NOT the status quo, but a new synthesis of the two worlds that must remember and deal with the consequences of what has happened. The idea that this happy ending is in fact earned rather than given is enforced by the narrative fake-out that results if one or more of your party members is at 0 hp when the final blow is struck against Exdeath. In that case, the party member does not have the strength to return from the Void, and the ending is changed to show their friends mourning them and the repercussions of their absence on the new world. The game treats them as dead, up until the very last moment of the ending, when they are shown to have been struggling against the Void even in their weakened state. All struggle is rewarded by the game’s narrative, no matter how weak or futile.
Still, in the real world, a truly happy ending IS a fantasy. We can’t expect to be rewarded overtly with a return to normalcy just because we didn’t give up. But the reminder that nothingness contains the potential for somethingness is important in this age. There is always time to create meaning and purpose, and to fight for that. We can’t stop the hotter world we’ve created, but we can support the people who must live through it and create new models for a society that can do so. We can’t undo Trump (even impeaching him just leaves the equally terrifying prospect of president Pence), but we can obstruct and mitigate damage, and create new visions of a future that opposes fascism. It may not be as flashy as setting up a loop of mimes dualcasting Holy while equipped with the Sage’s Staff, but in our world its what we’ve got.
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