Building Worlds: Midgar of Final Fantasy VII
[Building Worlds is a series where Dan Cox examines one facet in a video game and shows you how, from that one angle, an entire society is reflected.]
In the city of Midgar, no one but the very rich ever sees the clear sky.
Have you ever wondered about that? Why would a city be sealed? Why would a metal lid be placed on the hopes and dreams of its people? What does that simple design say about the world, its leaders and, of course, to the player about the narrative of this game?
I cannot say, when I first played Final Fantasy VII back in 1998, I ever thought much about it. What did the layout of a city mean to me when I could explore this world, talk to these characters and even, yes, breed chocobos? I was caught up in Cloud’s confusing life. Together, we wandered from place to place watching events unfold and, each time the game gave us more room, exploring the new edges. I never stopped to think about the reasons behind the designs.
Coming back to Final Fantasy VII and Midgar many years later showed me a very different place. This was not the technological wonder I thought it was at first. Those pipes that ran from area to area, often without regard to houses, told a different tale. The shanty towns, which I had forgotten from my hundreds of hours of adventuring outside, surprised me. This was not my city. This Midgar is something different. This is a strange claustrophobic conglomeration of pipes, wires and lives without hope.
It was always right in front of me though. The city is a circular, walled off structure. It’s also one of the first things you see when you start the game. After nearly a full minute of seeing the vastness of space and then a quick scene with Aerith, it’s shots of Midgar inter-cut with a train arriving. The first spectacle of the game and the very last shot are of Midgar. Final Fantasy VII starts and ends with this city.
Its design, then, must be one of the core symbols of the game. To understand Midgar is to understand some part of the world of Final Fantasy VII. It stands at the center of the story and is the catalyst for all major events in the game. Without Midgar and Shinra at the heart, there is no game. And Midgar, at its most basic, is an enclosed area.
In architectural design, there are two reasons to make a barrier: to keep something in or to keep something out. When looking at all floors, walls and, yes, even ceilings, this axiom must be constantly considered. Architects and designers who work on public spaces must always be thinking about whom or what they might be excluding, including and what the unintended consequences of their actions might be. What does it mean, then, to put a plate over people’s heads?
It’s always dark. That’s the first consequence. The people within the city would go their whole lives without seeing a sunset or a gentle rainfall. When they looked up, they would see the metal that Shinra placed there when they decided to build on top of the people already there. Those that live in the slums would be reminded, just as the plate is fixed, so too is their fate and their social standing. Theirs would be a world of city lights, fixed angles and constant boundaries. The walls do not keep threats out, then, but keep the people trapped within it. What started as a corral for workers has expanded to become a city-wide cage.
A wheel is normally a shape of equality; all points on the circumference are equal distance from the center. Eight reactors ring the outer edge of Midgar, each in turn providing spokes to the inner circle and subdividing the city. They power the city but also, as the game goes on to explain, lead to pollution of the neighboring areas, sickness in the people around it and even, given enough exposure, mutation. The people of Midgar work around these reactors. They work for Shinra. The city and its shape exists to direct the flow of power from the edges where the work happens to the middle where it is used.
Midgar started as a small town around a single reactor built by Shinra, a struggling power company. Jobs opened up and people flooded into the area. More people meant more work and thus more reactors could be built. Those that governed the business wanted to keep the useful but often poisonous reactors close but not too close to their own homes. They built them centrally located around their base of operations. Over time, the walls of the city became taller and the technology got more advanced. The company stopped needing as many people and then, as happens with all companies once they reach a certain size, the people stopped mattering at all. If the reactors needed more room and there was none to be found, why, they could just build on top of the people’s homes.
The group called AVALANCHE seeks to stops this inequality between Shinra and the people they rule through violence. Their plan is to to blow open holes in the walls and cause the reactors to explode. Their mission is to rid the world of Shinra and its influence. As the player, you join them in this fight. But before even that happens though you see the city, the reactors and then, only after this symbol has been planted in the player’s mind, play as those fighting against it and trying to lead the people out and to point the way to freedom.
Through a series of events in the game, your small band of terrorists-turned-heroes do eventually leave the space that Midgar occupies. But they never really shake the influence. The greed that led to the design and the hubris of its leaders haunts the world and those connected with Shinra. The layout of Midgar says through its design that life does not matter. It attempts to bottle up life and change it into something else. Shinra cares only about the power, the money and the influence its reactors produce. The wheel must keep turning and, if it rolls over their own people in the process, so be it.
When I see Midgar, I don’t think of a city anymore. It’s no longer just a place where people live and breathe. I see the worn edges and the loose bindings. Those that are bound within this cage are pushing against it – and I’m one of them. We are waiting for the right moment to escape and for some that might mean breaking down walls in the process. When I come back to Midgar, I know what the future holds. The open sky is just outside. I just have to push hard enough to get to it.
Life will find a way. That’s the story of Final Fantasy VII. Midgar, with its people in darkness, finally sees the light and joins together with the rest of the world at the end of the game. Even with the sky blackened by industry and the people still trapped within the city, they become part of the larger good and stand against an even greater threat.
The walls do not hold. The straight lines are broken by growth. Life interrupts the constructed world. All the buildings, the vast plans and the unchecked greed all end in one sudden moment when Midgar collapses. At the end, the people can see the sky, they can dream again and the world just keeps moving on through empty space. In all the shadows and dark places, life moves to claims its own. And the wheel finally stops.