Final Fantasy VII has no shortage of memorable characters. But in the new remake, the most important might just be a place instead of a person: the futuristic megacity known as Midgar.
In the original game, the city was the focus for the opening hours, but now it has become the centerpiece of an entire 40-hour experience. Because of this, the developers at Square Enix had to greatly expand the scope of the city to make it a larger, more believable place without sacrificing the offbeat personality that fans remember. “It was a challenge for us to balance these elements, which were at times contradictory, with its realism,” Takako Miyake, environment director on Final Fantasy VII Remake, tells The Verge.
The core of Midgar remains the same. At the center of the city is a massive central column, with eight additional support columns that hold up gigantic plates that house much of the population. The upper class lives in the regions on top of the plates, while everyone else is stuck in the slums below. When you play the game, this discrepancy is always apparent; in the slums, you can see the columns and plates pretty much everywhere you look. This was always part of the original game, but the remake expands the scope of the city and makes it more believable. There are multiple scenes where you can see the vast expanse of the slums below, and the game also reveals new details, like massive lamps that serve as artificial suns, that add to the realism.
According to co-director Naoki Hamaguchi, the planning process started with the original design for the city, and from there, the team created architectural documents outlining how various aspects would actually work. “We researched things like how much weight [the plates] would be able to support from a mechanical perspective,” Hamaguchi says. “When it came to city planning, there is a gap in wealth between the city on the upper layer and the slums underneath, and even wealth inequality within the upper city as well. We depicted the city as one beset with numerous contradictions that accompanied the extremely rapid development it underwent.”
Hamaguchi says that the team didn’t start from the perspective of changing the original city; rather, they wanted to expand it in a way that made sense. That meant not only making areas larger and denser, but also thinking about how they functioned. In the Sector 7 slums, for instance, a focal point is the 7th Heaven bar, the home base for environmental activist group Avalanche. The bar is huge, one of the largest structures in the sector, and a number of smaller businesses extend from there, including a vibrant street food district, small-scale apartments, and other essentials like a general store and weapon shop. “We didn’t approach this with the idea that we needed to change anything, but that we had to create specific roles for each area and town to play within Midgar and the vital functions within those towns,” says Hamaguchi.
Another important element was making sure each area felt distinct. Since players would be spending so much time in the city, given it’s the only location in the game, it couldn’t have the same vibe throughout or else it would become monotonous. Sector 7 has a grungy feel, while the Wall Market — a sort of red-light district — is vibrant and colorful. When you venture to Aerith’s home in Sector 5, you’ll find one of the only patches of green in the whole city. It’s an urban oasis, full of flower gardens and even a waterfall.
One of the most iconic elements of the city is the Shinra office, a massive structure on the center column that serves as the headquarters for the evil corporation that runs virtually every element of Midgar, from the news media to the reactors that power the megacity. In the remake, Shinra headquarters is appropriately intimidating, like something ripped out of Blade Runner, with gleaming glass and harsh lighting. You even get a look at the appropriately mundane, suburban-like employee housing district. Each area makes sense within the context of what Midgar is, but it still has its own style inspired by its function. “We wanted to give each individual location its own unique visuals and game design,” says Hamaguchi, “and to accomplish that, we felt it was necessary to have each location have its very own atmosphere or feeling.”
“We wanted to give each individual location its own unique visuals and game design.”
Helping tie these elements of the city together are supplementary aspects like the fashion and technology in the world. It’s hard to precisely nail what Final Fantasy VII Remake’s style is, but it definitely has a retro-futuristic vibe. There are motorcycles that look like they’re from Akira and pickup trucks that wouldn’t look out of place on a Dust Bowl farm. Shinra bosses use sleek smartphones, while slum-dwellers watch the news on ancient tube TVs. Hamaguchi notes that these aspects “give more dimension to the game’s world by making players imagine the daily lives of the characters.” But they also create contradictions that are part of what gives the city its unique flavor. For the design team, part of the process was finding elements that were interesting on their own, even if they didn’t necessarily fit together in a logical way.
“The original Midgar’s eclectic feel, with its mix of various elements, was something we kept in mind throughout development as the most important part of what made the original Final Fantasy VII universe so captivating,” says Miyake. “Generally, when we extracted elements from the original, we focused on combinations that unconditionally inspired excitement, consistency aside.”
Overall, the redesigned city does something remarkable: it expands on the 1997 iteration of Midgar in ways that make it feel more lifelike without sacrificing what made it so memorable in the first place. Longtime fans will find a place that feels familiar, yet also answers questions about how the city actually works. “We needed to depict these details in order to express a more vibrant, life-like Midgar,” Hamaguchi says.