Shinra's Dystopian Stranglehold

Shinra’s Dystopian Strangehold: Dystopia in Final Fantasy VII By Kevin Swijghuizen

During the E3 of 2015, Square Enix announced that the company was going to remake one of its all-time classics: Final Fantasy 7,written by Yoshinori Kitase and Kazushige Nojima.[1,2] This news was received with a lot of excitement as many a fan reminisced about playing Final Fantasy 7 on the original Playstation some eighteen years ago. Thus, with Final Fantasy 7 being forced into the spotlight again, I feel that this is the perfect time to take a closer look at the  dystopian world that we will, hopefully, re-explore in the near future.Final Fantasy 7 is a game that combines immersive story telling with a fascinating world that acts as a backdrop for the drama that unfolds over the course of the game. This article will take a close look at the world of Final Fantasy 7 and explore the dystopian traits that are inherently part of it, and by using theories from both Darko Suvin and Tom Moylan this article will attempt to ascertain how Final Fantasy 7 fits in the dystopian works of the late twentieth century.

What is a dystopia?

Before we can embark on our exploration of the dystopian themes that are omnipresent in the narrative of the game, it is important that we first determine what a dystopia actually is. One of the leading researchers on utopian and dystopian works is Darko Suvin and he defines dystopias as: “The construction of a particular community where socio-political institutions, norms, and relationships among people are … organized to a radically less perfect principle.”[3] What this boils down to is that you have to compare the world in the narrative to the world in which the narrative was conceived in order to gauge whether or not the setting is dystopian. This is especially important because the idea of what a dystopia, and utopia, is, is not set in stone. As Robert M. Philmus points out in “The Language of Utopia” both dystopias and utopias are intrinsically tied to people’s personal opinions, because one man’s paradise can, after all, be another man’s hell.[4] However, in general, most dystopian narratives will be experienced as dystopian to almost everyone. A narrative would really have to skirt around the borders of what society defines as dystopian for there to be a divide between people as to whether or not a certain work is dystopian or not. In the case of Final Fantasy 7 the world is clearly dystopian, as we will soon see, when compared to the world of the late twentieth century in which it was written.

The world of Final Fantasy 7

Now that we have defined in what light we have to judge dystopian narratives it is time to describe the settingofFinal Fantasy 7. The world of Final Fantasy 7 is dominated by a single corporation named the Shinra Electric Power Company. This corporation is responsible for powering the world with its mako reactors: mako reactors basically suck out the life-force of the planet and convert it into electricity. This monopoly on power generation has placed Shinra in firm control of the entire planet. Although there are various small rebel groups and independent towns littered across the planet, there is no such thing as another country or government that functions independently of Shinra. Thus, in the way that the world is presented to the player, Shinra is, effectively, in control of the planet. It is also important to note that Shinra itself is very much run like a totalitarian company and not like, say, a democratic entity. Furthermore, Shinra has their own private army with which they can enforce their rule across the world and with which they are able to protect their interests. For instance, Shinra’s army was used to great effect in order to annihilate an entire town off the face of the planet when the company suspected that the people living in it were responsible for an attack on one of their mako reactors. Additionally, some of Shinra’s scientists conduct experiments on humans in order to try and create better soldiers. This is done in two ways, namely by injecting mako energy – the same type of energy that they also turn into electricity – in the test subject, or by breeding new soldiers who are enriched by cells of an alien that tried to destroy the planet millennia ago. Final Fantasy 7 does not try to hide the threat that Shinra poses to the planet, nor does it attempt to sugar-coat the company’s actions. It is immediately clear to the player that the Shinra corporation is only looking after their own interests and that they have no intention of releasing the world out of their vice-like grip.

The setting of Final Fantasy 7, thus, lends itself incredibly well for a dystopian narrative in which the focal point of all the dystopian elements is the Shinra corporation. Tom Moylan explains that: “From Yevgeny Zamyatin’s One State to Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, the state is a major target of critique in the classical dystopian narrative. Yet in the dystopian turn of the closing decades of the twentieth century, the power of the authoritarian state gives way to the pervasive tyranny of the corporation.”[5] Final Fantasy 7 is a product of the mid 90s and thus falls squarely into the time period that Moylan describes here. It is then unsurprising that a futuristic dystopia conceived during the closing years of the twentieth century has such a great focus on a corporation. According to Moylan,the idea behind these types of dystopias is that: “Everyday life in the new dystopias is still observed, ruled and controlled; but now it is also reified, exploited and commodified.”[6] One of the ways in which this is reflected in the narrative of Final Fantasy 7 is in how pervasive the Shinra company is. The general population is utterly dependent on the technology that the Shinra corporation provides. Whether it is the electricity that people use to power the appliances that they rely on in their everyday life, or the vehicles that people drive around in, they are all provided by Shinra. This is a good example of how the Shinra company has managed to exploit and commodify everyday life. People are dependent on the Shinra company for their everyday technological needs and are thus forced to pay money to Shinrato gain access to its products, which in return gives Shinra the ability to keep growing its army and its research department. There is no other corporation that is competing with Shinra, so the idea of a free market does not apply, which means that Shinra has a monopoly on products like electricity that people need in their everyday lives.

‘Disk-world’: Midgar

Moreover, the pervasiveness of the Shinra company does not only manifest itself in the way in which people are dependent on their services. Shinra’s headquarters is situated inMidgar, arather odd city because it is built on top of a giant disk that is supported by pillars. Thus, Midgar is effectively a city that is built in the sky. However, people do not only live in the dreary sky city; there is also an even drearier collection of slums that has settled around the pillars that hold up Midgar. The people living in the slums are literally living in Shinra’s shadow, as the gargantuan disk on which Midgar is built prevents the slum dwellers from seeing the sun. Thus, Shinra’s city acts as a constant reminder to the poor people living in the slums of how miserable their lives are. Furthermore, the people living in the slums are not able to leave their homes in order to find a better life somewhere else, because the slums are surrounded a glass dome that prevents people from leaving, so they are forced to lead their lives in the shadow of Shinra’s city. This fits in well with Suvin’s definition of dystopias due to the fact that the relationships between people, in regard to wealth and standing in society, are organized to a radically less perfect principle.[7] This means that in the world of Final Fantasy 7, the difference between the various classes in society is enormous, which is illustrated by the fact that the upper and middle classes literally loom over the wretched poor masses.

However, being part of the wealthier group of people who are privileged enough to actually live in Midgar proper does not mean that you are living a good and secure life free from the tyranny of the Shinra Electric Power Company. At one point in the narrative Shinra decides that in order to eradicate a terrorist cell that has set up their base in a part of the slums it is going to drop a section of the disk, including all the people that live on that section of the disk, right on top of the terrorists. This, naturally, ends up not only killing a lot of innocent people who live in the slums but also kills a multitude of the wealthier people who live on the disk. This callous disregard for both the privileged people living on top as well as for the people living below the disk illustrates how little the people that live under Shinra’s protection matter to the company. For Shinra, people are merely a resource to be used, a means to an end, and if Shinra has to sacrifice thousands of innocent lives to protect the companies interests then there is no hesitation whatsoever to do so.

‘Disk-world’: Junon and the Gold Saucer

Midgar isn’t the only example of Shinra looming large over a poorer population. The quiet fishing town of Junon used to be a nice fishing village until Shinra decided to build a giant port city right next to it. This new port city was so large that Shinra built parts of it above the old fishing town. Thus, what was once an idyllic fishing village is now a town that, like Midgar’s slums, wastes away in the shadow of a new, modern, industrial town erected by Shinra. Once again a dichotomy emerges between the people living above the old fishing town and the poor fishermen living in it.

Finally, a third instance of this can be seen at the Gold Saucer amusement park. The Gold Saucer is an amusement park that, just like Midgar, is built on a giant disk. The Gold Saucer, however, is built in the middle of a desert and the main entrance is a cable car that runs from a slum called North Corel to the Gold Saucer itself. Corel used to be a thriving mining community until it got wiped out by Shinra in retribution for a sabotage attempt at a nearby mako reactor. The survivors of the attack by Shinra mostly relocated to the slum called North Corel and are now forced to try and make a living by selling whatever wares they have to people travelling to and fro the Gold Saucer. Again, Shinra’s legacy looms large over the less fortunate people of the world. Not only did the survivors of the Corel purge lose their homes and many loved ones, they are now forced, by necessity, to live near an amusement park entrance in order to earn enough money to make ends meet. Additionally, this is not the only way in which the Gold Saucer looms over the outcasts of society. Under the amusement park itself, in the middle of the desert, is a prison camp. People that violate the law are forced to live under the Gold Saucer with the desert acting as a natural barrier to prevent them from escaping. This also showcases the disparity that is inherent in Final Fantasy 7’ssociety where the rich literally spend their lives hanging over the poor and the outcasts of their society.

Everyday control

The commodification of people also manifests itself during the narrative of Final Fantasy 7. As Moylan points out, commodifying people is something that is very much part of the corporate dystopian narrative.[8] One of the main ways in which this commodifying of people happens in Final Fantasy 7 is the way in which Shinra experiments on its soldiers. For Shinra, the people that fight for it are tools to be used, not unlike company assets. Thus, it is not surprising that they try to enhance their soldiers by injecting them with mako, effectively conducting tests on their own personnel. If someone signs up to be a soldier in Shinra’s army they essentially sign up to become a guinea pig for Shinra’s science department. For Shinra, its soldiers are little more than a commodity that has to be enhanced to become worthwhile. This also exemplifies how the relationships between people in Final Fantasy 7’ssociety are askew. For Shinra, its employees only exist to serve the company and it does not care about them on a more personal level.

Finally, the way in which Shinra tries to control everyday life is reflected in the aftermath of an incident at a town called Nibleheim. Several years before the start of the game, Nibleheim was wiped out by a genetically engineered soldier named Sephiroth, created by Shinra.  Shinra, unwilling to let the destruction of Nibleheim be known to the general population, swiftly rebuilt the town and filled it with personnel who live out their days in the rebuilt town and who act like they have lived there for their entire life. This charade solely exists to protect Shinra’s image and showcases the lengths that Shinra is willing to go in order to keep their control over people’s everyday lives. Shinra does not want the people to be shocked out of their routine by rumours of a rogue Shinra soldier slaughtering an entire village, because that would be bad for business.Thus, they create the façade at Nibleheim in order to ensure that people will instantly dismiss any and all rumours about Nibleheim’s destruction because, as far as people know, the town is still there just like it has always been.

Conclusion: the dystopia of corporations

By examining the myriad of ways in which Final Fantasy 7’snarrative fits into the dystopian mould as laid out by Darko Suvin and Tom Moylan, it becomes clear that it is very much part of the group of dystopias that focus on a world which is dominated by corporations, which rose to prominence in the closing decades of the twentieth century. The dichotomy between rich and poor and the way in which the rich, literally, spend their lives living above the poor slum dwellers exemplifies the dystopian nature of the society in the narrative. Furthermore, the dependency of the people on the Shinra Electric Power Company shows that Shinra is very much in control of people’s everyday lives. Also, the way in which Shinra treats its staff and citizens as little more than tools shows that it considers the people who work for them as a commodity that they can use as they see fit. Finally, the lengths that Shinra went to in order to cover up the Nibleheim incident showcases how far the company is willing to go to influence people’s everyday lives.

All these occurrences in the narrative really demonstrate how Final Fantasy 7 isrooted in the dystopian tradition of the late twentieth century, and it will be interesting to see how this older approach to dystopias translates to our contemporary world when the game is released for Playstation 4 in the near future.

Works Cited

  1. Kitase, Yoshinori and Kazushige Nojima. Final Fantasy 7. Square. 1997
  2. “Final Fantasy VII Remake Announcement Trailer.” YouTube. YouTube, 15 June 2015. Web. 6 Oct. 2015.
  3. Suvin, Darko. “Theses on Dystopia 2001.” In Dark Horizons Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, edited by RaffaellaBaccolini and Tom Moylan, 187-202. London: Routledge, 2003. Web. 1 Sept. 2015.
  4. Philmus, Robert M. “The Language of Utopia.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 6.2 (1973): 61–78. Web. 1 Sept. 2015.
  5. Moylan, Tom. “‘The moment is here … and it’s important’: State, Agency, and Dystopia in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica and Ursala K. Le Guin’s The Telling.” In Dark Horizons Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, edited by Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan, 135–154. London: Routledge, 2003. Web. 1 Sept. 2015.
  6. Moylan, Tom. “‘The moment is here…” Idem.
  7. Suvin, Darko. “Theses on Dystopia 2001.” Idem.
  8. Moylan, Tom. “‘The moment is here…” Idem.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *