Minor spoiler alert: I tried to avoid specific spoilers throughout the article but, obviously, some wider game themes are discussed. Read at your own discretion.
I first played the original Final Fantasy VII two years after its 1997 release, during my lazy summer break from school in 1999. As a matter of fact, it had just so happened that I had completed its successor game, Final Fantasy VIII, just a few months prior. Absolutely amazed by that title’s storyline and gameplay, I decided to give VII a chance. Boy, was that 10-year old schoolkid in for a ride! Everyone who played the game back then knows what it feels like to cry over the (mis)adventures of pixelated characters and to struggle to explain to non-fans why this game is so special to you.
I purchased Final Fantasy VII Remake just a couple of weeks ago. As every other fan, I felt excitement, curiosity, impatience and a strong wave of nostalgia. But, above all, I felt an overwhelming sense of realization and revelation. I think the easiest way to describe it would be a deep shock. While walking through the (polished and upgraded) streets of Midgar, I slowly realized with my now-adult mind what made this game so special and why it is often quoted as the fanbase’s favourite title from the whole series.
Sales alone are enough to speak of Final Fantasy’s value as a product and thousands of detailed reviews and walkthroughs have been written on this gaming phenomenon, that has been keeping fans at the edge of their seats for over 23 years now. For that reason, I decided to write about a different aspect of the game, which is its power to tell stories and pass messages that can help carve young people’s values and characters. Here are the five life lessons that Final Fantasy VII gave me at the age of 10:
Way before the whole conversation about protecting the environment and saving the planet became a mainstream topic of discussion, Final Fantasy VII’s plot opens with an underground group of environmental activists plotting to bring a greedy, dictatorial, resource-sucking power company down.
Back in the mid 90s, all I knew about environmental consciousness revolved around not throwing trash on the ground or in the sea, leaving no trace of your trips out in the nature and recycling paper or cans. In 1997, the Kyoto protocol was signed. References and discussions around it lasted for many years, well beyond 2005 when it officially came into effect.
While I was just starting to develop an abstract, theoretical stance towards all these topics as a schoolkid, Avalanche, the game’s extremist environmental activism group, exposed me to a different type of activism — the one where people risk their own lives to stand up for the planet. It was definitely refreshing for a kid of that age to start reflecting on where personal liability ends and collective or political action should take over. The game definitely added fuel to that early internal debate.
Capitalism & Social Injustice
I grew up in a country, where the 90s were more or less seen as a decade of constant progress and non-ceasing miracles. The Western lifestyle had reached its peak, unemployment was a non-existent concept and there was a generalized feeling of well-being and pride in our achievements as nations. Under these circumstances, it was extremely difficult for many mid or upper-class children and teenagers back then to even spend one minute questioning life around them. Life felt good so it was all good, period.
Final Fantasy VII’s Midgar presented me with a harsh reality that I never really considered at the age of 10 (and which, to a large extend, much more evidently applied to ex-communist countries neighboring to mine — but who cares about the neighbor when you have it all figured out, right? 🤷)
Midgar is a post-war capitalist society with two complete opposite sides. On the one hand, the suits working for the Shinra power company (which sort of also functions as the government of the land) living a good life in all the Sectors on the upper side of the city’s plate. Job security and development prospects, free education, expensive vehicles, the works. On the other hand, below the plate, with no sight of the morning or night sky and well-hidden from their compatriots living on the upper plates, live the people of the slums. The city constantly promises them a better life, which just happens to be coming WAY more slowly than for everyone else. The most interesting thing though is that they supposedly have access to exactly the same rights as everyone else — however most of those rights are practically out of their reach because of their low social mobility. Sounds familiar?
Needless to say that, following my first gameplay of FF VII, I started noticing the world around me more. I started paying attention to the drug addict in the corner, or the family with four kids living in a basement, or the neighbor with mobility difficulties who cannot land a job. No system is a great system, at least not for everyone. The game was my first meaningful chance to open my eyes to this hard reality.
Facing Past Trauma
Literally all of Final Fantasy VII’s characters have some big skeletons hidden in their closets. Cloud and Tifa are both still haunted by memories of losing their parents and homes to one man’s acts of revenge. Barret for many years holds on to the secret of how he lost lost his wife, his best friend, and his arm. Aerith always felt different and struggled to live a free life because of her ancestry.
One common thing that all the above characters have at the beginning of a game is a tendency to escape from the past and not face their deeply-rooted traumas. Tifa and Barret choose a life of unlawfulness to protest against the status quo. Cloud leaves the army but keeps fighting for money as a mercenery. Aerith dedicates her life to tending flowers and making others happy. However, at the end of the day, each one of them keeps having painful reminders of their truth and eventually are forced to face their demons straight into the eyes. Many of those scenes are heartbreaking, almost painful to watch, as you cannot help but empathize with their inability to cope with their overwhelming feelings when that happens.
Trauma is a concept that any child can and does experience, but most likely does not comprehend. Seeing characters in a game like Final Fantasy VII go through such turmoil in a way that is definitely more human and relatable than heroic and Hollywood-ish is a great first lesson of how that works in real life situations and what the results of prolonged escapism are. The game’s writers did an excellent job with this, making the concepts both deep but also easy to digest for people of all ages.
Addressing Mental Disorders
I don’t remember much meaningful talk around mental disorders in my social circle, well until my 25 years of age. There was always chatter about that “crazy neighbor” or that “depressed girl who should go out more” but that was pretty much it. There was always a veil of mystery around the topic of mental health and, believe it or not, as a child I learned more about it through TV series and video games than I did from real humans around me.
Even as a 10-year old, it’s hard not to realize that something’s bothering Cloud, the main protagonist of the game. Throughout the whole game, specific things he hears or sees trigger excruciating headaches and nightmares, which lead him to relive past traumatic memories. His PTSD-induced episodes get so tangled up in his head from all the replays, that he also seems to slowly develop a Dissociative Identity Disorder (most commonly known as a Multiple or Dual Personality Disorder). The focus on Cloud’s mental health slowly grows from minor details in the early plot to the main objective in one point, which is extremely rare in the videogaming world. Actually, back in 1997 it might have even been unheard of.
The raw agony the player experiences alongside Cloud is extremely eye-opening. Mental disorders have traditionally been a big taboo topic and still face a lot of sensorship and misconceptions from the biggest part of society. One of the reasons for that is because the average non-suffering person cannot identify with and understand a mental health patient. Developing this sense of empathy through a video game at an early age is an effective way to remove the veil and, thus, the taboo from mental disorders and open a dialogue that can save or improve human lives.
Seeing Beyond Gender Stereotypes
Video games are a perfect study on masculinity and societal constructs around it. Although I love gaming, I have to admit the vast majority of titles play a quite detrimental role in solidifying gender stereotypes, portraying boys as “buff” and “badass” and girls as “pretty” or “pure”. On a first glance, Final Fantasy VII seems to be doing the same — but there’s a few too many twists thrown in the mix to actually make it stand out as a solid example of breaking gender stereotypes, without making any grand statements on the topic.
From early on in the plot, Cloud is presented as the classic RPG protagonist: a badass, kinda mysterious and distant character, who pursues money and fame more than human connection and love. Barret goes along the same lines, being a loud and strict authoritative leader, who only has a soft spot for his 5-year old daughter.
Throughout the game, they both start showing new sides of themselves. Cloud starts opening up to Aerith and — eventually — Tifa, slowly understanding human interaction and subsequently using it to accept his past trauma, own up to his mental disorder and allow his healing process to start. Barret, on the other hand, is shown as generally prone to meltdowns, looking like a child asking for confirmation, forgiveness or relief of his own anger. Deconstructing both characters’ masculine exterior by exposing their internal agonies is a great way to address toxic masculinity, without making it the centerpiece of the game’s plot.
I’d also like to recognize some of the game’s female characters as great examples of breaking traditional gender molds. Tifa’s presentation as an accomplished martial artist and her courageous — yet indecisive — attitude make her and Cloud have excellent chemistry and dynamics. Although she has a quite stereotypic feminine exterior, Tifa’s personality is much more complex, as she tends to worry about everyone but bottle a lot of angst up, often bordering the role of the father of the original group (Aerith being the more stereotypical, nurturing mother). Additionally Yuffie, one of the female characters, who don’t appear in the Remake but are playable in the original, is a young vagabond who learnt to take care of herself at a very young age and lives a lifestyle that most games would attribute to male characters.
Final Fantasy VII has been widely acclaimed for its strong script and character development, this is no news to anyone. However, what many fans fail to see (especially if they only played the original once) is that behind the game’s innovative design and gameplay lies a storyline full of obvious and not-so-obvious commentary about modern society.
The shock I referred to in my prologue came from the raw realization that the topics addressed in the game more or less coincided with many of the values I still hold dear as an adult. It is impressive how an immersive audiovisual experience, such as a video game, can help teach young people lessons in a more effective and absorbable way than their own family or teachers possibly ever could.
We all heard our parents refer to gaming as a “waste of time” or a “damaging hobby”. I am sure it can be this and much more, if practiced in an excessive and unfiltered manner. However, mine and many other people’s cases speak differently. They speak of a story of developing empathy, better language skills (especially for non-native English speakers) and making friendships based on a common passion. Which, if you ask me, are all pretty much invaluable lessons to be learned.