Final Fantasy 7: the irony of remaking gaming’s greatest environmentalism story

The heavily anticipated Final Fantasy 7 is a beautiful piece of work. However its eco-apocalypse storyline struggles in a gaming industry whose environmental impact is sizeable and growing.

In 1997, 36 countries around the world came together to sign the Kyoto Protocol, a historic agreement to reduce the build-up of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. While compromised by political expediency – among other things, it made limited provision for helping poorer nations shrink their carbon footprints – Kyoto was cause for hope after a decade of campaigning by scientists and activists. 

Twenty three years later, it has been deemed an important step in the fight against climate change but overall, a failure. According to a Guardian study from 2012, what reductions the Protocol’s signatories made have been amply cancelled out by emissions from non-participants like China and the US.

1997 also saw the release of perhaps the greatest video game story about environmental apocalypse, Square Enix’s Final Fantasy 7. Spoken of with the same reverence film buffs reserve for, say, Battleship Potemkin, the game was, for many sheltered 90s kids like myself, a first introduction to the idea that human overconsumption might ruin a world. 

FF7 takes place on a planet whose very lifeblood is being extracted and processed into a fuel source, Mako” energy, by the cartoonishly villainous Shinra corporation. The ravaging effects of this extraction are obvious from the outset, as you race through the heart of Midgar – a ghoulish cyberpunk citadel where nothing grows and the dwellings of the rich block out the sun for those in the polluted slums below. Players take charge of a motley gang of eco-warriors, among them willowy poster boy Cloud Strife, and set out to sabotage Shinra’s operations while dealing with a mysterious renegade known as Sephiroth. 

It’s a fabulous game, by turns moving, incisive, goofy, rambling and thrilling – well worth playing today, given a tolerance for older game conventions such as randomly occurring battles. But perhaps you’d prefer to play the heavily anticipated Final Fantasy 7 remake, which launches for PS4 next month. I got a taste of it last week, and it’s certainly A LOT. Wrought using every trick that today’s hardware can provide, the new version of FF7 sticks to the original cast and story but treats everything else to a seismic tune-up. It’s a beautiful piece of work, intriguing for how it forms a dialogue with the artistic choices that comprise the original production. However it’s also one struggling in the shadow of an elephantine irony.

The most obvious beneficiaries of the upgrade are the characters, still recognisably themselves but appallingly lifelike and decked with new ornaments and flourishes. Cloud’s iconic Buster Sword – perhaps the second best-known video game weapon, after Mario’s feet – is no longer a hazy grey shard but pitted and massive, its surface elegantly scoured like the flank of a sports car. The script has been expanded, functional asides (FF7 is one of those games where characters sometimes just tell you what the buttons do) unfurled into miniseries-worthy banter and foreshadowing. The quests are meatier, new elaborations fitted, like miniaturised computer chips, inside the same scenario boxes. You can now creatively sabotage an Airburster” robot boss before fighting it, stealing parts from the conveyor belt while the bot is being assembled. 

Midgar itself has never been a more inviting chum-bucket of smog and squalor. You can rotate the camera to savour details the original’s static backdrops hid from view (though as with the overhyped marathon camerawork of 1917, some will miss the craft and atmosphere of those painterly 2D perspectives). The combat, above all, has been struck by lightning. In the original, battles are slow-burn stage productions in which characters square up and wait for their action bars to fill. In the new game you swing and shoot in real-time, triggering slow-mo at intervals to string together more precise combinations of attacks. It’s some of the loudest, angriest fighting I’ve seen in a game, a nuclear barrage of high kicks and machine gun fire, uppercuts that rattle the ceiling and sword thrusts that travel the length of a hall.

Everything is bigger and more ornate, and all that naturally comes at a cost. A game that once took 150 people to make – unheard of at the time – now represents the labour of many hundreds (Square Enix was unable to supply an exact figure before this article’s publication). A production that once took a couple of years now runs to five and counting. A story that once filled three CD-ROMs has been split into episodic, separately marketed releases, the first instalment of which weighs in at 73GB on two Blu-ray discs. Recall the medieval proverb about counting angels dancing on a pinhead? You could fit a few dozen 1997-era Cloud Strifes inside the ocean-blue 4K irises of the character’s 2020 incarnation.

All of which adds up to more resources consumed, more carbon burned in the name of retelling a story about the perils of bleeding a planet dry. A retelling that arrives 23 years after Kyoto, in the teeth of a global extinction crisis, with oil output rising as wildfires proliferate and our coral reefs turn white. I enjoyed my time with the game, but the mesmerising glare and fug of its newly 3D, high resolution Midgar also filled me with melancholy about the extent to which we are trapped by our own stories, revelling in visions of apocalypse as distraction from the more tangible narrative of our civilisation’s demise. More immediately, the irony of remaking Final Fantasy 7 points to the spiritual turmoil of an industry whose environmental impact is sizeable and growing.

Also read: World of anti-Warcraft: the activists turning online video games into protest sites

The creation of a modern games console like a PS4 involves vast quantities of plastic, steel, tin and gold, the extraction and processing of which is rife with environmental risks, from cyanide leaching to nitrogen trifluoride escaping into the atmosphere. Much of that console is not recyclable, and once you’ve manufactured the thing, you need to pack, store and transport it. The act of playing a PS4 game is hardly as energy-intensive as, say, catching a plane flight, but multiply it by the number of gamers now in circulation and you’ve got a lot of carbon dioxide. One 2019 report found that US emissions from gaming are the equivalent to putting five million more cars on the road. Electricity demand from gaming in California alone is forecast to equal Sri Lanka’s entire consumption in 2021.

Streaming services such as Google Stadia or PlayStation Now, which remove discs, packaging and local computing costs from the equation, have been presented as ways of cutting back (Square Enix launched its own such service, cheekily named Shinra Technologies, in 2014, only to bin it off in 2016). But of course, that’s to ignore the emissions resulting from the transmission of data, which have been pumped up by demand for higher-resolution visuals in media of all stripes. According to one report from 2015, data centres are neck and neck with the entire aviation industry for getting carbon out of the ground. The games industry’s share of that pie will only grow after this year’s launch of the PS5 and Xbox One X, both of which land with robust, market-proven streaming services attached.

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The games industry is, of course, but one of many swept along by capitalism’s death drive, prey to a logic that demands growth along every vector at any cost, be it gallons per hour or teraflops. Games publishers and manufacturers have made a big song and dance about reining things in, but as this GamesIndustry​.biz report suggests, the associated initiatives (which include carbon offsets through tree-planting) are inadequate and in some cases, self-deluding. Speaking briefly to the FF7 remake’s producer Yoshinori Kitase about all this following my hands-on, I detected a familiar paralysis.

In the technology industry, I think we’re not trying to return to a [more] primitive age,” he said. So it’s a difficult position for people like us, having to find the right balance of modern technology and working with the environment as we go forward.”

It might help if game publishers were less prone to resurrecting the past with additional bells and whistles. The Final Fantasy 7 remake is only the latest in a long, glittering procession of HD remasters, reboots and ground-up revamps; it lands within weeks of Capcom’s equally sumptuous remake of 1999’s Resident Evil 3. Cultural production isn’t quite a zero-sum game, but revisiting these stories at mammoth expense inevitably means less space and light for new fantasies that might be more relevant to our current plight.

Then again, the question is to what extent the FF7 remake is the same old story – whether there is a new sentiment or line of enquiry, buried in Midgar’s baleful neon, that sets this particular tale of overexploitation apart from 1997 edition. I did pick up on some interesting deviations from the old script while playing the demo, though they didn’t inspire a lot of hope. Before fighting the aforesaid Airburster robot in the original game you have the opportunity to bandy words with President Shinra himself, supreme architect of the planet’s demise. The remake fleshes out this sequence, giving one of Cloud’s companions, Barrett, the chance to inveigh against Shinra, promising to expose the company’s misdeeds to Midgar’s citizens. The President’s smug reply is that Shinra’s customers are well aware that reckless energy expenditure will kill the world. They just don’t care.

Final Fantasy 7 is released 10th April. 


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