Everyone has been trying to define the best game of 2020 to play under the coronavirus. The dominant narrative is that, as the often-perceived epitome of relaxation and escapism, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the ideal game. Some have rejected this notion and favored Doom: Eternal, with its deafening explosions and overwhelming chaos, or Valorant, the exciting first-person multiplayer shooter which puts you in matches so tense that you might forget the horrors of the world.
But for me, it’s been none of these 2020 releases. Animal Crossing: New Horizons instills as much anxiety as it does peace within me. I’ve never played a Doom game, so the latest installment didn’t pique my interest despite that it’d probably help me in the same way it helped Paste editor Garrett Martin. I haven’t been able to play most games for more than two hours before my attention drifts away to nothing in particular but the screen and walls in front of me. The one exception has been Final Fantasy VII Remake, which has provided the catharsis and escapism I’ve been unable to achieve through just about anything else.
For one it’s the nuanced ways in which it illustrates how individual complacent people uphold systematically oppressive power structures. While it makes sure to point to Shinra as a system under which everyone suffers, it highlights how systems thrive because of everyday people’s lack of action. As I watch people on social media defend multimillion-dollar corporations over the protesters rioting to speak their pain over the latest black deaths at the hands of policemen, I think of Barret in the Shinra building elevator saying, “A good man who serves a great evil is not without sin. He must recognize and accept his complicity.”
But I don’t just think of Barret as an uplifting personification of truth and justice, reflecting the fire that exists in those of us who know a better world is possible. I also think of the undercity resident who tears AVALANCHE’s poster, cursing, “Goddamn eco-warriors with their dumbass posters.” The same one who looks at the plates that represent oppression, poverty and subjugation and asks Cloud, “Look at all that steelwork… you’re trying to tell me that’s not progress?” I think of him when my mother tells me of the customers at her grocery store who lash out at her fellow employees over being asked to wear a mask; who brag about their beach plans as she checks out their beer; who support the notions of the elite, like the idea of reopening the economy as soon as possible no matter the human cost. Who have little concern for those worse off than them. And, while I’m most angry at the systems that have encouraged people to think this way, I can’t help but be furious at these individuals, too. Final Fantasy VII Remake validates that anger, showing how complacency and silence easily leads to the emotional and physical deaths of the underprivileged.
Additionally, the depth it has added to one particular character, Jessie, has spoken to me about the immense survivor’s guilt that many of us, especially those in media, are experiencing during these unprecedented times. Jessie is AVALANCHE’s technical expert who makes the group’s bombs. In Final Fantasy VII Remake, her family is one of the many privileged who live on the plates of Midgar because her father works for Shinra. She becomes radicalized through the pain she experiences after her father contracts mako poisoning during a work accident at a reactor, an event she blames on Shinra, and through a sense of guilt over the disparity between her family’s life and the lives of those in the slums.
That guilt has spoken to me as a writer in the age of COVID-19. While no industry has been untouched by COVID-19, the media industry in particular has been ravaged with furloughs and lay-offs. The list of newsrooms that have been affected is long and continuously updated, and the amount of freelance writers who have been backed into a corner is likely untraceable. As a writer, it’s been difficult to see my freelance friends, mentors and colleagues lose at least half of the places they regularly pitched to back when we had the “normal” of an obviously unstable and precarious industry rather than an increasingly decimated one. Although I’m certainly among them, I’ve also been lucky in ways too few have been since I’ve been able to keep a job that pays for my family’s rent. And as much relief as there is in that, there is also an immense amount of guilt at being better off. To be a vulnerable member of society right now is, more than ever, to be painfully aware of the people who are better off than you and whom you are better off than—and neither, as Jessie shows, is comforting.
What has been one of the few sources of comfort for me in the last few months is Final Fantasy VII Remake’s central theme of defying fate. It’s not one that is new to Final Fantasy by any means, but it resonates here powerfully because of how this game explores the reality of Midgar and its people. The fantasy of hope facilitating a radical change in one’s destiny lacks any sense of reward for me in games like Kingdom Hearts and Persona—games that don’t account for the reality that makes everyday people desperately wish we had the power to change our fate. But Final Fantasy VII Remake mirrors our dystopian reality in ways that would be too close for comfort if only I wasn’t so desperate for more stories like it right now as I sit in my room, unable to go much of anywhere else. By the end of the game, the cast is on an uncertain journey in which they might just have the power to affect change and pave the way for a better future. And defying the insurmountable odds, as well as rejecting an acceptance of the old ways through its upheaval of Final Fantasy VII’s entire legacy, feels particularly bold and inspirational right now.
I want the escape of a world in which it feels like fate can be defied; in which power structures can be not only dismantled, but destroyed. In which we can go outside and fight for change without fearing death at the hands of a virus it still feels we know so little about. In which the oppressors get their dues and we can take steps toward a future in which we can heal instead of being constantly retraumatized. For now, I can find that escape in Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Natalie Flores is a freelance writer who loves to talk about games, K-pop and too many other things.