Social stratification exists within Midgar on two dramatically different tiers. The lower class lives on the ground under eight large plates blotting out the sun. Instead of sunlight, the underclass lives under artificial lamps that mimic the sun for the slums where they often lament they have never seen the sky.
The air in the slums is heavily polluted because, along with their industrial look, the machines that power Midgar create a large amount of smog, pumped through fans into the area. Don’t want people living in the upper class to deal with it.
Due perhaps to the nature of them living on the earth, they have a more direct connection to the planet Gaia. As such they have a native understanding that what Shinra is doing to their planet is wrong. They look at this often without blinders. They aren’t entirely woke, but I’ll discuss the reasons for that later.
Midgar’s upper class lives on top of these plates blotting out the sun and this class is largely made up of Shinra employees working in the multitude of roles constituting the Shinra Electric Power Company. Their physical detachment from the earth they ruthlessly exploit means they are mentally and emotionally disconnected from what Shinra is doing to the planet on which they reside.
However, I believe they choose to remain unaware because it is in their interest not to understand the implications of what the Shinra Mako reactors are doing to the planet. Most times that you encounter Shinra employees within the game, they’re portrayed as uncaring bootlickers who only care about perpetuating the system of power keeping them in a state of wealth, whatever the cost. Their blatant self-interest is obvious, as biting the powerful hand that feeds them is a one-way ticket to destitute life in the barren slums.
The members of the upper class choose to remain oblivious to the ramifications of Shinra’s actions and the effects of those actions on the planet because it directly benefits them to remain in blissful ignorance.
Later in the game, Cloud and the flower girl Aerith are sent on a quest to pick flowers for a local orphanage seemingly operating on a non-profit basis. Because of this, Aerith charges them nothing for the flowers she tends and grows around her house.
As we see her interact with her fellow slum dwellers, we begin to realize her character doesn’t care about being paid for her service. She does things simply to better the community without worrying about payment. This is very countercultural to Cloud, who up until this part of the game was only working for a paycheck. In fact, for the first few chapters, one of Cloud’s most consistent lines is “but when am I going to get paid?”
Speaking of quests, the only real chain of connected side quests to exist in the game are three side quests leading to one of the better items, if you complete all three of them. These are a series of quests revolving around a folk hero character known as the Angel of the slums. This character is pretty obviously based on the Robin Hood story, and the Angel makes a living of stealing from wealth hoarders and redistributing their valuables to the destitute communities.
It’s also interesting to note these missions are generally given to us by unsympathetic non-player characters (NPCs). Two out of the three times, this NPC is a reporter for the Daily Buzz trying to expose the Angel and take them down for their crimes.
I’ve got to admit, I have never felt so apprehensive about doing a side quest as taking the first quest in this mission line for this boot-licking employee of the evil company I’m spending the entirety of the game fighting.. But this quest line subverted my expectations and really played a fool of that reporter in a way that I enjoyed interacting with. And as far as the side quests go, I think this one adds the most to the game’s story. And since it leads to one of the better items in the game, so there’s a practical reason to do it as well.
Back in the main story, on the first mission, Cloud and the crew place a bomb at one of the eight Shinra reactors powering Midgar. This bomb is intended only to disable, not destroy, the reactor. The mission of this group, called Avalanche, is not to destroy Midgar but to stop Shinra from extracting the life force of their planet.
However, the President of Shinra, having kept a close eye on our protagonists, chooses to use their own internal security systems to detonate the reactor; a decision that costs many lives and causes much destruction within that sector of the city.
The reasons for doing this appear to be twofold: first, to undermine the morale of Avalanche, and second, to give Shinra a way to twist the media narrative and the way the residents of the slums view the Avalanche, so as to force Avalanche out of the slums.
At first, this approach brings mixed results, because many of the people in the slums see the members of Avalanche as the heroes, even if some do not. Some see them as dangerous terrorists but even then, their connection to the dying planet helps them understand Avalanche is doing what is ultimately right and beneficial to their long-term survival. I believe that, while this adversarial viewpoint by some in the lower class is their reflexive opinion, they often choose to be flexible in their framing of Avalanche’s actions and their sometimes-harmful consequences.
When Avalanche attacks a second reactor, using a smaller bomb so as not to repeat the mistakes they believe they made with the first attack, Shinra gets cocky, and reveals to Avalanche they are being recorded. This recording will be broadcast to the people in a way that would frame them as the villains after the reactor is destroyed.
After this point in the game, Shinra uses the Shinra News Network, their personal media company, to demonize Avalanche by presenting a very edited and stilted version of their objectives to the people who support them the most. In doing so, Shinra attempts to both turn the slums against Avalanche and quell a potential revolution against Shinra’s control over Midgar.
Recuperation is something that is almost explicitly mentioned within the storyline of this game by the way. There is a cute dog mascot, named Stamp, which has come to represent Shinra . However, this was not always the case, as Stamp originally had much more innocent roots. In this way, an evil company has taken innocent imagery to try to rehabilitate their public image by appropriating a friendly face. It’s interesting to note here that Avalanche specifically takes this logo and embeds it in their graffiti, which helps them navigate the underbelly of the city, thereby reclaiming this symbol for the revolution. This process is turning capitalist symbology into something revolutionary, more correctly referred to as detournement.
Shinra’s use of the media and the company’s payouts to common people to act as pseudo-grassroot organizers, speak to the methods discussed by Noam Chomsky in his 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, in the way Shinra uses the media to poison the public perception of Avalanche as a group of freedom fighters into a group of mean-spirited terrorists that don’t care who has to die, so long as Avalanche gets what they want.
It’s sometimes a bit of a hard pill to swallow, but often the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist is simply a product of media narrative. During the American Revolution, the British media most likely framed the American rebels as terrorists, treasonous to the king. Yet, from an American perspective, we think of these people as revolutionary heroes even though they killed a lot of people and did things to scare a lot of people in a way that could meet the dictionary definition of terrorism.
To take a modern day example, there’s a recent story about shoppers who were angry with rules saying they had to wear masks in public. They held employees of grocery stores at gunpoint, committing terrorist acts and threats in order to get the mask rule taken away. The governor of that state folded, and there are undoubtedly those who think of these people as heroes fighting for their civil liberties to walk around and be plague rats.
No one tells Grandma what to do.
In an example of this from America, a Family Dollar security guard was murdered for enforcing the store’s mask rule. Meanwhile in France, a bus driver was recently assaulted by a passenger, resulting in the brain death of the bus driver, all over mask rules.
In using terror as a political tool to achieve a political ends, they literally meet the definition of terrorism. However, because their actions weren’t dangerous to the capitalist system controlling the media, so far media organizations have been slow to label them as terrorists.
Meanwhile, only a little while later, the police employ violence and tactics that are banned even in warfare to crack down on the first amendment of rights all over the country as largely peaceful protesters fill the streets protesting police brutality and murder.
Where was that anger when a lone gunman was holding grocery store clerks in emotional terror so they didn’t have to wear a mask in public?
Now, I hear you saying, “but wait, Jackie, that was just a guy who is mad his wife got disrespected. He’s not a terrorist.”
And maybe you’re right. My point is that who is and isn’t a terrorist is entirely up to how you frame the narrative. And in this respect, we can have our differences of interpretation. If nothing else, I hope that shows you how arbitrary that line can be. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter…
To the larger point, I think the people holding clerks hostage over these mask regulations are terrorists; and while they don’t belong to a particular terrorist organization, they do seem to represent a growing problem with stochastic terrorism. Armed gunmen seemingly taking their cues from tweets to liberate Michigan stormed the Capitol building and effectively held the state Congress hostage. After this, Congress refused to meet, fearing for their safety when other protests broke out in front of the building.
Stochastic terrorism is when a vile idea spreads through people’s minds like a virus, until people begin to stoke fear and commit acts of physical violence in order to achieve a political goal.
If I were to say I had Coronavirus and then walked into the halls of Congress and threatened to cough on everyone who wouldn’t vote for Medicare for all, those would be terroristic threats. I would be committing an act that could be defined as terrorism. Although for the many people who die without proper medical coverage every year, I might be thought of as a hero.
And if just mentioning the coughing inspired enough readers of this article to actually do what I just described, then I would have inspired stochastic terrorism which spreads best when an unhinged authority figure stokes fear and anger in the people. The unhinged figure admonishes those listening to lash out even though there was no organization or formal plan. If the suggestion, combined with distribution was enough to get some people to do it, and this stoked fear, achieving a political goal, that would meet the definition of stochastic terrorism.
It’s also worth noting that one of the ways Shinra manufactures consent, is by creating a connection in the public’s mind between the organization of Avalanche and the external nation of Wutai, which the city of Midgar was at war with only 5 years prior, using their own private army, which Cloud seems to have been enlisted in.
They use references to the war with Wutai as a shorthand to connect Avalanche to a group the people are hostile to in order to make Avalanche look like another enemy of Midgar itself, which makes Shinra’s job of reframing Avalanche as a terrorist organization even easier.
To give you a real life parallel, in 2016, we did have a very serious problem with Russia using fake accounts online to influence the way news stories were perceived by the American public where they attempted to use that influence to sway our election. But since then, it has become a popular media narrative, especially on a channel like MSNBC, to take everyone who is critical of them and suggest they are either a paid Russian asset, or if they exist online, a Russian bot. For example when Tara Reade first came forward there was a lot of speculation she was being paid to make her accusations by some shady Russian organization; furthermore, the people who use the hashtag I believe Tara Reade were nothing more than Russian bots with the sole intention of amplifying the fake story.
While MSNBC certainly played a key role in amplifying the “everyone who disagrees with me” as a Russian bot concept, by the time the Tara Reade accusations started to come forward in the news nearly two month after the initial sexual assault was reported on Katie Halper’s podcast, MSNBC could ignore the story. Their audience picked up the trend for them because after only about two years, they had fully internalized this narrative.
Of course, this isn’t exclusively a liberal phenomenon. I’m pretty sure most people who have been to a protest over the last couple of years have probably seen themselves or their protest labeled as a paid liberal operation and been accused of being funded by George Soros, a billionaire scapegoat Boogeyman in a conspiracy pushed by people like Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh and various Fox News hosts.
My initial analysis of this conspiracy theory missed a line of dialogue from Biggs early on in the game where he speculates that the larger Avalanche organization may indeed be funded by Wutai. However both the protagonists and antagonists seem unaware of this. It’s possible that Biggs just heard a rumor spread by the Shinra Corporation. Though in the original Final Fantasy VII the greater Avalanche organization was based in Wutai, so it’s possible that this is true. However, given the ending, we have no guarantee that part two will go this route. What we do know for certain is that the people who are pushing this narrative believe that it isn’t the case.
And even if it was, Barrett’s Avalanche group is a splinter cell of the overall group that is certainly not based in Wutai in any way.
In the final installment of this 5 part series, I’ll discuss the invisible hands of fate and how they shape our world. Tune in next time or check out more of my work at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDfnoYQUfECzpS5r_f7mFUA