FFVII Remake’s trap remix of the Chocobo Theme signals the game’s broader search for diversity.
Shortly after spending Cloud Strife’s first night in the Sector 7 slums in Midgar, Final Fantasy VII Remake players are met with a familiar tune. Playing out of a golden gramophone, the signature whistle of the classic “Chocobo Theme” rings out, only this time, it’s backed by thumping bass, hand claps, and liberal usage of the Chocobo “Kweh” sound bite that is a staple in recent games.
Long-time series composers Nobuo Uematsu and Masashi Hamauzu teamed up with relative newcomer Mitsuto Suzuki (Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns) to produce the song, aptly titled “Hip Hop de Chocobo,” and hundreds more for FFVII’s remade soundtrack. Though Uematsu is best known for his work on the classic Final Fantasy games, composing regal motifs like Edgar and Sabin’s theme in Final Fantasy VI, he’s equally recognized for his willingness to push the soundtrack past the point of repetition.
Uematsu and Hamauzu’s experimentation is for the best. Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs), had a history of dressing up tired gameplay mechanics with rudimentary stories about saving the world or abolishing evil. Classic JRPG’s were obsessed with kingdoms, mages, and monsters. Subsequently, that meant composing soundtracks befitting 13th century European royalty. In the late 80s and 90s, Fire Emblem didn’t sound too different from Dragon’s Quest, which didn’t stray far from Final Fantasy. Part of the similarities can be attributed to the limited sound chips at the time, but more likely it was the games’ subjects and stories dictating what the music would sound like.
For Square Enix (Then Squaresoft), that trend changes in 1992 with the release of Final Fantasy V. Uematsu scored his fifth iteration of the Chocobo theme song with the lollygagging groove of Cuban music. “Mambo de Chocobo”, which featured steel drums and the unmistakable rubbing of a guiro, was effectively the series’ first foray into in-house remixes, setting off a trend that speaks to the series’ bigger goals for diversity.
About a year ago, I praised Final Fantasy XIII, my personal favorite game in the series, for its inclusion of the character Sazh Katzroy. Sporting an afro and dual wielding pistols, Sazh could have easily been a replica of Japanese media’s all-too-stereotypical representation of black men. Instead, XIII gave us one of the series’ most human and universally understood characters. Unlike the rest of the party, which featured a stoic ex-soldier (not Cloud), a big dumb hero, a couple of fear-struck kids and whatever you classify Fang, Sazh was more or less average. He was a single dad who earned his living as a pilot. When Lighting was planning to take out every military official in her way, Sazh cowered in fear, wishing to return to his normal, if uneventful life.
Though Sazh never identifies as Black, his presence, like Barrett’s in the original FFVII, is loaded. On the one hand, Final Fantasy is supposed to take place in fictitious worlds, in which dwarves live under the surface of the earth and sentient pudding has taken over the moon (see Final Fantasy IV). Race, at least as understood in reality, never really comes into play.
On the other hand, the concept of diversity was at the forefront of producer Yoshinori Kitase’s mind when conjuring up FFVII Remake. In an interview with Esquire, Kitase said that the game’s creators highlighted their own varied upbringings when creating the FFVII world.
“Doing so adds that exceptional and unique individuality in the shape of the characters, the lore, the visual presentation, color palettes, etc. that makes this franchise so different from others (especially compared to Western titles),” Kitase said.
Though critics and forum threads have called into question Barrett’s brash and short-tempered representation in the remake — he was originally based off of TV personality and wrestler Mr. T — the wider world of FFVII, known as Gaia, doesn’t box its characters in so easily. The slums of Midgar are a melting pot, unidentifiably Japanese, unlike a series like Persona which is explicitly Japanese, nor are they strict Western replications, like the Norse world of God of War or the parodied cities of Grand Theft Auto.
Diversity in FFVII Remake is driven home by the game’s soundtrack, which draws on original compositions of classic songs. It’s genres aren’t limited to rote orchestrations of classical music. Sometimes, FFVII Remake channels the lazy bounce of Reggae, as it does on “Oppressed People.” Other times the soundtrack struts along with surf rock (“Electric de Chocobo”), bossa nova (“Costa del Sol”) and jazz-funk (“Cait Sith’s Theme”).
I never asked for trap music in Final Fantasy, but it’s inclusion is part of a broader message, which speaks to the growing importance of representation in gaming. How do you relate to a diverse audience? Final Fantasy VII Remake is a cultural record exchange, normalizing ethnic diversity through song.