How Final Fantasy VII Helped Me Grieve
This post contains some light spoilers for Final Fantasy VII Remake from Chapter 12 on.
It was the end of May when I started this post, and the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City. The streets were quiet, save for the passing of sirens at all hours of the day. I hadn’t seen my family for months. I missed my sister’s birthday, and she missed her college graduation. Refrigerated trucks were parked outside nearby hospitals. Friends had lost parents and loved ones. All the while, the president mocked us and made it clear he wasn’t going to do a damn thing about it.
Then the George Floyd protests started. The horror of one moment was compounded by another, and it suddenly felt like the last thing the world needed to hear was my thoughts on a video game. I shelved the post.
Six months on, as results for the 2020 election are being tabulated, the pandemic tallies hit new highs, and the next few months, let alone decade, feels more uncertain than ever, I find myself thinking back on Final Fantasy VII Remake often. It was a bright spot during that dark time, taking me by utter surprise and washing me in both nostalgia and a sense of burning understanding and radicalization. This is a game that doesn’t just understand its characters and politics – it understands how people in power enrich themselves at the expense of others, deflect blame onto marginalized people, and take advantage of crises to enrich themselves.
Yes, I’m talking about the plate collapse sequence.
I still can’t think back on the plate collapse sequence without feeling a tightness in my throat. It’s a mix of immeasurable sadness, and a burning anger at those responsible. A video game has never left me in such distress, shaking on my couch, succumbing to waves of tears. Truthfully, it was the first time I had cried since the pandemic began. In many ways, Remake allowed me to grieve. It helped me understand the emotions I was feeling, particularly that simmering rage, were okay. It focused me with clear eyes on understanding how and why something like this could happen, and who was to blame. That’s because the parallels between the sequence and the ongoing reality were too difficult to ignore, and I’m not sure this moment would have hit as strongly any other time.
For the uninitiated, the plate collapse sequence was a moment of supervillain horror in the original 1997 game. Our heroes uncover a plot by Shinra, the mega-corporation and main antagonistic force in the game, to destroy a section of the city, condemning the lower class people, their homes, their business, and their families to die. They do this to try and squash a resistance faction that dare to oppose Shinra’s literal planet sucking agenda (and then pin the blame on them), but they also do it to pave the way for a new development project that certainly doesn’t involve the lower class citizens trying to make do with whatever scraps Shinra will give them.
It’s almost too cartoonish on paper. In what world would a powerful entity snuff out an entire section of a city, killing untold thousands in the process? Yet here we were, in the middle of a pandemic, denied PPE, tests, and supplies needed to combat it. I was starting to understand that the plate collapse wasn’t so far fetched after all.
The brilliance in Remake is how you think you can stop it. Man, does the game tease you with that. It knows you’ve probably played the original and you know how this is going to go. You rush to the top and have a clear shot at the blast device. You can still get this under control. Be smart, wash your hands, ban travel from a specific area, don’t go out if you’re sick and quarantine for fourteen days if you have a cough. It’s not inevitable yet. You’re so close.
Of course you can’t stop it.
Then the game has the gall to shift perspectives. You no longer play the hero trying to stop it. You’re on the ground. You’re trying to warn people to get out. Many of these people don’t believe you. How could the plate be collapsing? That’s beyond the realm of possibility. Where would they go? That’s preposterous. It’s no worse than the flu. Wearing a mask is silly and ineffective. Lock downs are going too far.
Of course many would die.
Panic starts to set in when they realize the plate is about to come down around them and they can’t deny it anymore. There’s a narrow window to escape. You can’t stop it, but maybe you can mitigate the damage. You help people try and find their loved ones to make sure they evacuate in time. You argue with the Shinra guards at the gate who deny citizens safe passage. There’s no way the plate is actually collapsing. They’re just following orders. Marginalized communities are hit the hardest. Panic buy. Say goodbye to a loved one over the phone. Lose your job. Get evicted.
Of course support and safety would be denied.
Then it hits, hard. You barely make it out, but it’s not over. You have to sift through the rubble. There are still major fires. Business, homes, and families will never return. They can’t start recovery because Shinra still has plans to bulldoze whatever remains. The wealthy make a literal killing. You’re crazy for still wearing a mask. We need to reopen now. Don’t be afraid of the virus. No stimulus or support is coming.
Of course you can’t go back to normal.
Under the Rotting Pizza
One of the things that sticks with me the most is the way in which Remake accurately distills the the response of the aftermath. People begin to blame AVALANCHE instead of Shinra. Citizens are dumbfounded that the seemingly impossible did happen. The poorest community is hit the hardest. The guards you argued with say that they didn’t think the plate would actually collapse. They’ll deny their complicity until they die. It’s all too familiar.
I think about this sequence often, and in the six months since I’ve played it, my feelings towards it have only grown stronger with each cruelly passing day. It was an important outlet for helping me work through reality at the time. And yet, the pandemic continues to surge to endless heights, and those in power continue to be complicit. I’ve never felt such rage as I did then, and that burning in my gut continues to be fueled by the passion exhibited by AVALANCHE. They made me feel like I could do something. They didn’t make me feel so alone. They told me that the anger I felt was normal and justified, if not healthy. It was that same anger I took with me to the ballot box, and that same anger that will fuel the fight for the years to come, regardless of the outcome.
Below is the original post I started to draft back in May. I decided not to edit it and let the gut reactions of what I was feeling at the time remain unaltered for my own sake. I was livid, and filled with immense grief that I’m thankful Remake has helped me work through. I hope I never experience anything like the plate collapse sequence the same way again. But in the words of Barret Wallace…
Hold onto this. This…anger. Okay?
The Plate Has Collapsed on my Home
It was impossible to play this sequence and not be starkly reminded of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. In the span of two hours, the game let me experience the disbelief that this was happening, the hope that it might be averted, the terror as it unfolded, and the immense hopelessness of picking through the rubble. It was the most emotionally distraught I’d ever been playing a video game.
We’ve been failed by every level of government, from this shithole administration who speaks about the crisis in jest, to local governors and leaders who act too slow, but play the hero on television while refusing to provide aid to people most affected. We’re not just on our own, but actively have to fight against the people in power who should be there to help us.
We’ve been written off and left to die. Either out of incompetence, or some kind of revenge for having opposing political views, or just plain cruelty. – the plate has collapsed on New York City.
The anger I felt in the aftermath of the scene was palpable. I just wanted to stop it. And fuck the people who allowed this all to happen.
The Plate Has Been Collapsing
When I played the original Final Fantasy VII when I was fifteen, the plate collapse sequence meant next to nothing. It was a piece of supervillain horror on par with Darth Vader blowing up an entire planet to make a point. It was nigh unbelievable, and the cost so high it was something we could safely place in the realm of fantasy that would never happen in the real world. It’s unthinkable that someone could cause so much destruction and pain with the swipe of a pen.
In 2020, the collapse seems all too real. This administration and those who have come before it resign countless people to despair and death in the breadth of time it takes to compose a tweet.
The plate collapsed on immigrant communities when ICE targeted sanctuary cities.
The plate collapsed on sexual assault victims with a nomination to the highest court in the country.
The plate collapsed on trans people serving in our military.
These moments are to say nothing of the systemic racism, prejudice, and xenophobia that the communities constantly face. But these moments of pure terror, of wiping out livelihoods and destroying families, strike with little to no warning, and often with derision targeted at the victims, as if they were to blame.
What the game gets so right isn’t just the act itself, but the denial of the people under the plate who are about to be crushed. It’s so unthinkable, surely they won’t go through with it. Surely someone will stop it. Surely this can’t be happening.
The Collapse Has Left a Hole in the Sky
I’ll never forget the moment in Sector 7 following the plate collapse. Barrett, having been told his daughter Marlene may have made it out alive, is rushing towards Aerith’s home. On the way back, you pass the orphanage where children are gathered out front, their heads tilted towards the sky. I whirled the camera back and gasped.
There, where the Sector 6 plate had been…was nothing. It was empty sky. The children were able to see the stars for the first time, above the ruins of an old world. They’ll grow up having never known anything else. They’ll always be living in a post-plate-collapse world.
But it’s a world where you can see the stars.
I’m as cynical as they come. The people in power before this mess began will still be in power when it’s passed. Likewise, it’s clear Shinra already has their own plans for plate reconstruction that certainly doesn’t involve caring for the orphans in the slums. And yet, I hope we can build something new and better from the rubble of all this, if not for us, than at least for the generation to come who deserve better. One that’s better than the post September 11th world me and my friends grew up into.
There’s been no better time for the people who have had the plate collapsed on them again and again to say that enough is enough. If we don’t do something now, they’ll build right back on top of us.