Many stories struggle with showing over telling. While I can think of a few notable exceptions, I’ve noticed that it’s not very easy to make the supposed heroes of a story actually heroic when they’re terrorists. There’s nothing that grinds my gears more when characters are presented to me as self-righteous heroes before doing some pretty unheroic things. Final Fantasy VII struggles with this a bit.
Our playable party consists of people belonging to the terrorist organization AVALANCHE—which is apparently not an acronym, so I don’t know why it’s written like that—and their goal is to save the Planet from the evil corporation Shinra. As mentioned in a previous post, Shinra is an electric company, and it gathers power from something called Mako, which comes from the Lifestream. The Lifestream is essentially the Planet’s blood, so by sucking it out of the ground, Shinra is subjecting the Planet to a slow and painful death.
I may not like this setup for its obnoxious message that I see over and over again, but I can suck it up and get behind the desire to stop Shinra for plot-relevant reasons. The Planet’s alive in FFVII. Let’s just go with it, political propaganda aside.
I also suppose that by making a bunch of members of a company that has some really shady history and is pretty much the definition of evil into the game’s antagonists could also be a statement on corporations in general, which could lead us into another political discussion. Fortunately, it’s a discussion that I don’t want to get into, and I would probably have agreed that Shinra was a statement on the evils of big businesses if FFVII hadn’t been produced by a giant corporation itself. Looking at it like that, I would hope that any kind of message there was a complete accident, so let’s leave it at that.
My problem here is that AVALANCHE’s interactions with Shinra do not follow the story that we are told. We are told that AVALANCHE is good and Shinra is bad, and we are shown that to an extent. AVALANCHE is certainly filled with heroes. They want to save the Planet, and they do. They have the best intentions at heart, and the world as a whole is a better place because of them. Shinra, meanwhile, has a history of murder and genocide. But while Shinra’s history does impact how people view the company, and while the current president, Rufus Shinra, has some very questionable motives, the Shinra Company starts on the path to redemption during the events of the game. This is only furthered in the sequel, Advent Children. In fact, many of the interactions between the two groups actually make AVALANCHE seem like the evil eco-terrorists that they are and Shinra seem like the least reprehensible party.
I should make clear that I do not think Shinra doesn’t share any blame, especially before Rufus becomes president. His father holds the position before him, and they both give orders for some very terrible things. But I also want to be clear that AVALANCHE isn’t innocent either.
When the game begins, members of AVALANCHE Cloud, Barret, and a few others infiltrate a Mako reactor and set off a timed bomb. The player is then given ten minutes to escape the reactor, and after that happens, Cloud and Barret team up with AVALANCHE member Tifa and do the exact same thing to another Mako reactor. In the process of doing this, Cloud, Barret, and Tifa kill numerous Shinra guards who are only doing their job, and a bunch of innocent workers die when the reactors explode. During the gameplay we never actually see any of the operators for the reactors. That’s probably because, since we’re supposed to agree with AVALANCHE and not think of them as mindless murderers, the writers might have chosen not to show their innocent victims. I think it’s also safe to assume, however, that since Shinra’s an electric company, blowing up the reactors has the additional consequence of leaving thousands of people without power.
As for the workers who died, though we do not see them, it is a confirmed fact in the game that it happens. Late into the second disc, before the party reenters Midgar, electronic doll cat Cait Sith, controlled remotely by a Shinra employee called Reeve, actually does the decent thing and calls Barret out for all the innocent deaths he and AVALANCHE caused. Barret’s reaction is nothing short of “oh well, casualties are expected”. Because Barret’s an asshole. I just feel the need to remind everyone that Reeve, a Shinra employee who is only a member of AVALANCHE in order to spy on them and who spends the entire game playing with electronic cats, is the only person that seems to give a shit about all these innocent lives.
I’m also concluding that Barret’s a hypocrite, since he completely disagrees with how the Shinra Company responds to the threat his group poses.
Rufus’s father, President Shinra, also seems quite upset about the explosions. Although, that is probably because he’s more concerned about bad business than he is about the murders. President Shinra’s reaction is to drop a ginormous fucking plate the size of a town on top of the Sector 7 slums, where AVALANCHE is based, murdering everyone in the sector in an attempt to shut down AVALANCHE once and for all. Naturally, Cloud, Barret, and Tifa survive or we wouldn’t have a story, and President Shinra scapegoats them for the tragedy in the slums. Barret calls out Shinra for being evil—it did just wipe out a town—but he seems to have the perspective that murder is only okay when he does it, because, hey, trees and nature are more important that people, right? Yeah, I’m calling bullshit.
Also under President Shinra’s leadership, the company allows for some very questionable experimentations on humans and other sapient creatures. We can blame him for giving his head scientist Hojo the right to fuck people up, which is how Sephiroth got infused with Jenova’s DNA and comes to the conclusion to summon a giant meteor to kill the Planet.
Early on in the game, Sephiroth murders President Shinra, and so Rufus assumes leadership of the company. After Rufus becomes president and cackles and gives his “I’m a villain” speech, the Shinra Company improves dramatically. I cannot really speak on all of Rufus’s actions, since I haven’t played the prequels, but I do not think he’s evil like his father. He inherited a company that was founded on the destruction of the Planet and found himself in charge of employees who were hired for murder and kidnapping. Under Rufus’s leadership, I cannot think of one evil thing the company does that cannot be refuted. At the very least, as the game progresses, the company improves and becomes less evil.
AVALANCHE on the other hand, continues to break the law and never once shows remorse for all the lives they’ve taken.
Further on in the game, Sephiroth manages to summon Meteor by manipulating Cloud, and Barret and Tifa end up in Shinra’s custody. Rufus sentences them to be executed. Because he’s evil and not because Barret and Tifa are mass murderers. Even his employees are cackling evilly on live television during the attempted execution due to contrived evilness. I completely disagree with this. While I don’t support the death penalty and can give numerous reasons why I oppose it, I can at least understand where Rufus and the rest of the company are coming from. The game does play this off as being an act of evil—which I think it should—but it does it for the wrong reasons. Rufus should be executing them for murdering people, not just because it’s convenient for his image. That should just be an added bonus of getting rid of eco-terrorists who have caused a lot of damage.
One of the reasons given for the execution is that Rufus needs people to scapegoat for the summoning of Meteor, but as I explained last post, AVALANCHE is responsible for that. Any one of the members could have stopped Cloud from giving Sephiroth the Black Materia, and they didn’t.
Later, after Barret and Tifa escape, Rufus quite naturally turns his attentions to the giant meteor about to crash into the Planet and kill everyone.
Rufus sends his employees out to gather four special Materia called Huge Materia. Again, Materia are magical rocks made from Mako, and they can cause huge explosions. The Shinra Company plans to put the Huge Materia in a rocket and blast Meteor with them. Ideally, this would blow Meteor apart and save the Planet. AVALANCHE gets the brilliant plan to… stop Shinra? The hell?
Their dumbass reason for this is because there’s a lot of knowledge or some other shit stored in the Materia. I think that’s the reason. I didn’t really care, since I saw no point to thwarting Shinra’s plans. Who cares about all the special whatnot stored in the Materia? If Meteor hits the Planet, everyone’s going to die! For me personally, this had to be the most baffling part of the game, and even now I still don’t understand it. The story at least tries to justify this to some extent, but not in a way that actually matters. In the process of getting the one Huge Materia, Shinra company is going to run over a town with a train—because Shinra’s evil—and so our heroes have to save the entire town. After that, however, they take the Huge Materia for themselves and don’t let Shinra have it. Those are the options the player is given: save the town and take the Huge Materia or let Shinra be pointlessly evil in an attempt to save the world.
While I can understand not wanting the town to get run over, if my options are stealing the Huge Materia or condemning the people of the town in question, I think I’d go with the latter.
Granted, there is literally no reason for Shinra to run the town over, other than the fact that it’s evil, but there is no moral issue when it comes to the other three Huge Materia in question. Shinra already has them in possession, and our heroes steal them. In the process of stealing them, they even sink a submarine—again, killing people, because that’s what our heroes do—and… that’s all I really have to say about this Huge Materia issue.
Because the player has the option of letting Shinra get ahold of the Huge Materia, it is possible to let them blast Meteor with them, and that actually won’t destroy Meteor. It’s a failed attempt. So for the players, we know that we might as well get all the Huge Materia for all the special items and whatnot, but the characters don’t know that Shinra’s plan won’t work. None of it makes any sense.
When it comes right down to it, I like that the moral standings of some of the people in the Shinra Company were written as ambiguous enough for redemption to be possible—and that is one of the few things we can thank the sequel for expanding upon. However, for the purposes of the game, I think that might have been a complete accident, especially since everyone in Shinra likes to start cackling evilly when something bad is about to happen. They were written as clichéd evil villains, because why not? I truly feel that that was the intent.
On some level, the story seems to be aware of the moral quandaries here, or even the extent of the damage AVALANCHE has caused as well. Otherwise, Reeve would have never brought up the number of human deaths in the Mako reactor explosions. But I still do think that making our heroes murderers was an accident. It’s more or less brushed aside, because our heroes were written to be heroes, and not morally ambiguous eco-terrorists who happened to do the right thing after killing a bunch of innocent people. Regardless of whether or not the writers meant for this to happen is irrelevant, but if it is an accident, it’s a good accident. It makes the story and the characters more interesting and dynamic and it adds another layer of depth.
Then again, I’m not really sure how much of this story I can trust, because the translations of this game are horrible. But that’s a post for next time.