Climate, religion, capitalism, Final Fantasy VII (FFVII) has never been more relevant than in 2020, when the official remake of this classic was released. Like many, I grew up with this game and it was the first of the series I ever played. But the game never resonated as much as it does now, literally released during a global pandemic and a time when the climate crisis is more urgent than ever. In FFVII you play a group of ecoterrorists called Avalanche and sabotage Shinra, a powerful conglomorate that runs the high-tech city of Midgar. This city is not an ordinary one, but a disc of sorts where the rich literally live on top of the poor.
While FFVII has sparked many game theories since its release in 1997 already, one thing I want to dive deeper into is the significance of technology in the game, and the character Heidegger. While many fans agree that Heidegger is named after the famous philosopher, the implications of this are seldom thought through. This name is not a neutral reference. By reading the game through the lens of Heidegger’s philosophy, we can gather key insights on technology, nature, and the message of FFVII. In this Game Theory, I focus in particular the first installment of the remake, which takes the theme of technology a step further by focussing exclusively on Midgar and Shinra.
Midgar as a Capitalist Symbol
“Midgar is known as the city of mako. Rising 300 meters above ground level, the steel plates surrounding the Shinra Building offer comfortable residential districts for its well-heeled citizens. Below these plates, however, are the dark and derelict slums for the impoverished.” – Final Fantasy VII Remake (loading screen)
Midgar is a detailled and diverse city, formed around the mako reactors, which are the key technology of the game. The city is a fascinating contrasts between the rich and poor, a symbol of capitalism, greed and wealth. The city itself is a disc (sometimes described as a pizza) build around the reactors of Shinra, that extract mako (life energy) straight from earth. Below the city, on ground level, workers live in absolute poverty in the slums. Like our slums, they are formed in suburban areas and a response to urbanization.
It is a powerful design in the game that Midgar is vertical, and that the slums expanded literally below the intended neighborhoods. Construction of Midgar began in 1976, to provide residence for the Shinra’s growing employment base. By the time the game starts thirty years later, the city seemingly consists of two cities – one in the sky, and one on the ground. The history of Midgar is the history of Shinra Electric Power Company, a history of labor and capital.
Players never leave Midgar in the first episode of the remake, which easily lasts between 30-50 hours. In the original game, Midgar was a short introduction to the world, but now Midgar has become a world on its own. I found it strangely compelling to be immersed in a world of steel, technology and science for so many hours. The diversity of the city helps as we travel from the slums to the bright neon lights of wall market and the middle-class house of Jessie’s parents. I would even go so far as saying that the city is an additional character in the game, which has an anatomy and symbolism of its own. Part of the magic of the remake lies in how Midgar is represented and spinned out, and how spaces like the Shinra HQ go beyond a typical dungeon.
The history of Midgar and Shinra are deeply entrenched
No quest explains Midgar as well as Playing the Tourist. The party has infiltrated Shinra HQ and has to navigate an exhibition that glorifies the company, its founder, its products and corporate history. Much to the annoyance of Barrett (‘oh hell no!’), who is repulsed by the different corporate videos and other propoganda in the exhibition, the party has to get educated on Shinra. The game becomes a walking simulator briefly, in which Cloud watches movies, interacts with holograms and reads signs to learn all about Shinra.
By putting the player in the role of a spectator and audience member, the game also asks you to critically reflect on Shinra’s mission and purpose. A chipper AI tour guides you through rooms and promotes you to ranks like Shinra Scholar and Shinra Expert. Aside from the marketing, a 3-D model of Midgar can be admired, as well as various prototypes and weapons from the game. Through this propaganda, you get to know Shinra intimately.
The history of Midgar and Shinra are deeply entrenched, also in terms of politics. Governmental power is in the hands of major Domino, who in actuality is just a puppet. In the remake, find out that the mayor who has teamed up with Shinra is actually an inside-man, and a member of Avalanche. In other words, governments cannot control large private companies, such as a Shinra, a critique that especially resonates today. Companies like Google and Facebook, and pipelines like Shell, escape regulation in ways that are eerily close to Shinra. The surveillance capitalism, to loosely borrow a term from Shoshana Zuboff, of these corporations resembles that of Shinra closely. In fact, Midgar is portrayed as a panopticon more than once in the remake where president Shinra and Heidegger loom over the protagonists and observe their every move.
The Philosophy of Heidegger on Technology
This narrative about technology and nature can be better understood through the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. In the game, Heidegger is referenced explicitly as an antagonist, and acts as Shinra’s head of Public Safety, in other words, the military. He collaborates closely with president Shinra and is shown in the remake as engaging in surveillance. Through different screens, he is consistently spying on Avalanche. His character is also present as a hologram during a boss fight, and is consistently linked to weapons and (media) technology. The character is named after Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), a famous philosopher, in particular in the fields of phenomenology and existentialism.
Technology has a prominent role in Heidegger’s philosophy, especially in his seminal work On The Question of Technology (1977 reprint, Original: Die Frage nach der Technik, 1954). In this essay, the philosopher argues that modern technology can rearrange our world dramatically. Let me summarize the argument as brief as I can, and for more, I urge you to really dive into his writing yourself. Heidegger discusses how technology has long been discussed as a tool or a means. He is not in favor of conceptualizing technology in this instrumental way, which leads to a specific discourse on use, including the idea that technology can be mastered and fully controlled by humans. The philosopher writes that in an instrumental paradigm:
‘Everything depends on our manipulating technology in the proper manner as a means. We will, as we say, “get” technology “spiritually in hand.” We will master it. The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control’ (p. 2).
However, technology extends far beyond this paradigm, and has the potential to be a way of seeing the world. Rather than being a means for an end (an instrument), technology can act as a way of understanding the world – a way revealing the world. Revealing is a key term in Heidegger’s work, best summarized as a way of ordering and seeing the world and reaching a certain truth. Technology is not just a tool, or a goal, but it is a way of reordering the world in a certain way, and repositioning even ourselves. The boundaries between subject and object blur in the technological regime. In other words, the effects of technology are more complex than simply mastering it.
Modern technology transforms subjects and objects into complex stocks and resources
While technology has the power to reveal the truth, modern technology is different and more ambigeous. It “conceals” itself. Heidegger emphasizes that modern technology has the tendency to make itself invisible (“conceal’) which makes its impact even more nebulous. He writes: “The essence of modern technology has for a long time been concealing itself, even where power machinery has been invented, where electrical technology is in full swing, and where atomic technology is well under way” (p. 11). We cannot readily see or grasp this technology, but it shapes our industrial reality completely and boosts related ideologies, like capitalism.
Most crucially, modern technology transforms subjects and objects into complex stocks and resources, or what Heidegger calls standing-reserves (Bestand in German).Things are “immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering”(p. 8). One example of this is how the river Rhine became a resource that was continously extracted in German history. Heidegger emphasizes how seeing the world in terms of standing-reserves has implications for nature, including humanity itself. Modern technology and its related technocratic worldview also transforms humans into resources (human capital) to fit this industrial worldview. In other words, everything natural becomes a resource that can be mined.
This is the ultimte danger of modern technology that we have to be aware of. Written in post-war times, Heidegger’s piece can be understood as a critical warning.
The Essence of Technology in Final Fantasy VII
In Midgar, technology is everywhere at once and has radically redefined the world. Mako is extracted from the planet itself and remade into materia. It is the absolute example of the concealing that Heidegger writes about. Mako powers every aspect of the world, and is even injected in humans, but it is largely invisible and made into current, power, electricity.
The planet (Gaia) is turned into a giant resource by Shinra, thereby evoking the idea of the “standing-reserve”. Shinra sees the world as a vaste amount of industrial resources that it can exploit. An infinite database or “Bestand” in the original German text. Shinra does not stop at extracting mako for electric power, but has anonymous armies of Soldiers, engages in human experiments, cloning and many other dubious scientific and technological advances. These horrors are intimately related to the idea that anything and anyone can be profitable, and that this value can be harnessed through technology.
Shinra sees the world as a vaste amount of industrial resources that it can exploit
Shinra is contrasted with those that embrace nature, in particular the Ancients, also known as the Cetra. This nearly extinct race acted as the planets caretakers, and guided the flow of the Planet’s spiritual energy. They had a vastly different approach to nature than contemporary mankind, which exploits the planet and its natural resources, which is at the root of power and magic in the game. Most of the dangers in the game are related to Shinra, including the actual antagonist, Sephiroth, who is Hojo’s creation. Can Shinra eventually be stopped? In the words of Bugenhagen in the original version:
‘Cloud says they are trying to save the planet. Honestly, I don’t think it can be done. For even if they stop every reactor on the planet, it’s only going to postpone the inevitable. Even if they stop Sephiroth, everything will perish. But, Nanaki. I’ve been thinking lately. I’ve been thinking if there was anything WE could do, as a part of the planet, something to help a planet already in misery… No matter what happens, isn’t it important to try? Am I just wishing against fate?
In other words, it is not only up to heroes to save us, but it is up to us to change our behavior. When the planet is suffering, citizens have to take action, and cannot only rely on a small group of activists. Everyone has to do their part.
To summarize, where I see parallels between Heidegger’s philosophy and game is:
- Technology as concealed. Shinra draws from electric energy draws from other energies seemingly invisibly, even deities and aliens like Jenova and the planet herself.
- Technology as a standing-reserve that transforms nature. Humans, natural energy, animals. Everything is just stock to Shinra.
- Technology as ideology. An entire technocratic city has enfolded around Shinra’s tech company. Midgar is not a pizza, it’s a panopticon.
- Technology as weaponized. Mako reactors, giant war machines, Shinra dropping the plate. Is it that different from Heidegger’s critique of nuclear energy
How to Mitigate the Danger of Technology
It is no coincidence then that the game references Heidegger, whose ideas on being, truth and technology have been fundamental in Western society. Heidegger’s work also contains many critical warnings about modern technology, and mining our natural world. The solution that the philosopher provides against this paradigm is acknowledging the complexity of technology and how it affects our world, thereby avoiding instrumental discourses and naive ideas that technology is just a tool that you can use, master, and control. Heidegger emphasizes:
‘Human activity can never directly counter this danger. Human achievement alone can never banish it. But human reflection can ponder the fact that all saving power must be of a higher essence than what is endangered, though at the same time kindred to it’ (p. 18).
To reflect on the world, we need to turn to art, Heidegger suggests. Art is the only medium that can reveal the truth about anincreasingly complex, technological world. Moreover, art has the function to help us reflect on it. It is the perfect way to mediate ambiguity, because the artist, or the poet as Heidegger suggests, views the world as it is and as it reveals itself. Only art can reveal the essence (Wesen) of technology. Heidegger contemplates: ‘Whether art may be granted this highest possibility of its essence in the midst of the extreme danger, no one can tell. Yet we can be astounded´ (p. 19).
Today, art includes narratives and games which help us represent our world and reflect on it. Games imagine possible futures, outcomes and scenarios through which we can see the world. FFVII in particular meditates on the boundaries of technology and nature in an increasingly modern world. It is a powerful lesson on climate change and the instrinsic dangers of a highly capitalist society that exploits its world. It was a momentous game not only in how it innovated J-RPG’s, and shaped its characters and world-building, but also in how it represented our world, a post-industrial society.
Through the fantasy and science fiction tropes, FFVII critiques our world today. It is the ultimate narrative on corporate greed and climate change, and has never been more relevant.
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