Surviving in Midgar's Slums
In order to realize the author's vision, this article contains spoilers.
You have been warned.
Every year I revisit Final Fantasy VII and every year I’m stricken with a familiar sense of melancholy while working my way through the city of Midgar, where the game’s opening hours take place. As the game introduces its various primary and tertiary characters it gives each dialogue that imbues them with sadness that is only enhanced by the soundtrack. No reason is given to talk to everyone, but I do it anyway. For many this is the only time I’ll have before their digital lives are wiped away. These are people who have had so much loss in their lives, and yet find a way to move onwards towards a brighter future. Despite existing as nothing more than a collection of pixels assorted into a cartoonish imp form, I still feel bad when they tell me about how they miss their son, or how they’re parents died when they were young, or how they wish to one day escape the polluted grip of Shinra.
Midgar’s slums is a location brimming with sadness. Not only is a majority of the music throughout the opening hours of Final Fantasy VII somber, but the people and locations themselves are full of gloom. Barret, your first party member, lectures you on how the planet is slowly being killed by the Mako Reactors. Not only does the Shinra Electric Company have a monopoly on the electricity but in government, military, science, and media as well. Midgar’s upper and lower class are separated by elevated plates, under which lies the slums: groups of villages whose names are no longer remembered by its citizens. Instead they just have sector numbers; they are reduced to simple data. The citizens who fill the slums have their own small stories that you can discover. The homeless man on the train greets you with kindness and even rewards you with a high quality item should you talk to him (even in the midst of an alarm). The train station attendant talks about all the people and emotions he sees working there, and how he is such a small part of their lives and can never be something more. A couple discuss wanting to be alone and pass out later from exhaustion at spending all night together. A man who fears the plate may one day fall shares his special place underneath it with you. Another person just wants to go to the upper world, realizing there are no good jobs in the slums. A kid tries to stiff you into paying to rest in his room and another says he'll go to the upper plates someday. Johnny leaves his parents behind, and they encourages you to keep in contact with your own family given their loneliness without their son. The slums are a terrible place, and upward mobility is impossible due to Shinra's tight control on every aspect of life. The citizens recognize this, but don’t give in to despair.
Recurring Final Fantasy characters Biggs and Wedge are joined by newcomer Jessie as a trio of Avalanche soldiers, having joined with Barret in his goal of stopping Shinra from killing the planet. I love these characters, and I am always saddened by watching their predetermined fate unfold. Biggs is loyal but secretly resents Barret, only opening up under the influence of alcohol, yet he pushes you to help Barret with his dying words. Wedge worries over your fate when you're late to a meeting, and asks if you think he has a bright future ahead of him. Avalanche helped boost his self confidence, despite barkeep Tifa's cooking helping him to become the rotund person that he is. But he states he has no regrets. Wedge also sees through your facade, recognizing another lonely soul beneath the harsh exterior. Jessie is infatuated with you and terrible at hiding it. She cleans your face and gets motivated after talking to you about the rail system. Her attention to your ID card is what gets the team in trouble on their way to the Sector 5 reactor and she's quick to blame herself when things go awry. Talking to her for the last time, she's glad she was able to see you again, and ponders if her death is punishment for the lives Avalanche took destroying the Mako Reactors. While Tifa, Barret, and yourself escape the sabotage of the Sector 7 plate, its fall kills many characters you spoke to before. While these characters have small roles, and offer no meaningful rewards for engaging with them, I always take my time among them since I know their fate.
This opening sadness is a preamble for the rest of Final Fantasy VII, as even beyond Midgar, Shinra’s toxic touch has affected everyone, from Cosmo Canyon to the ruins of Wutai, no one is spared from tragedy. Aeris’ death at the hands of Sephiroth is well earned as the tragedy above all others when discussing Final Fantasy VII, but the smaller moments throughout, as well as the somber score, really imbue a sense of melancholy. The ending, pushing aside any and all extracurricular material published afterwards, is one that shows Midgar overrun with vegetation and humanity long gone. Square put plenty of silly sequences in the game, but underneath everything is a sense of sorrow. So many of the people have experienced loss and yet hope for a better future, even though they know it is not coming.