Design in Action is a weekly column by Retronauts co-host Jeremy Parish that explores games both new and classic, analyzing the way their various moving parts work together to make them great. Currently: Final Fantasy VII has just turned 20 years old, and it's time to examine how the series' standards shaped a medium-changing masterpiece.
Sephiroth remains one of the most popular RPG villains of all time; no, scratch that. You could quite fairly call him the most popular RPG villain ever.
He's the genre's Darth Vader: Cool, powerful, imposing, and so venerated that even a slew of prequels that felt purpose-built to trivialize him did little to erode his stature. We can certainly attribute some of Sephiroth's legacy to the simple fact that he starred in this breakout hit, true; Final Fantasy VII's tide lifted a great many ships. But no other major force of evil in FFVII commands Sephiroth's reputation—not the Shinra family, not the Turks, not even JENOVA, arguably the true villain of the piece. To put it in terms of contemporary references: "There's something about Sephy."
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Let's go back to that Darth Vader comparison, because it really does speak to Sephiroth's appeal. Like Vader, the villain of FFVII has an intimidating and slightly larger-than-life physical frame clad in black, with a skirt-like element to his costume that calls to mind a samurai. Like Vader, Sephiroth wields an iconic sword (the preposterously lengthy Masamune) and complements his enormous physical power with an equally adept use of magic. Like Vader, he shares a significant bond with and relationship to the protagonist. And, as with Vader, he ultimately serves an even more powerful entity, whose ambitions seemingly guide Sephiroth's actions. Also, they both have memorable—even iconic—theme music.
By no means does this represent Final Fantasy's first flirtation with Star Wars iconography to define its villain. The RPG franchise has a fairly lengthy history of lifting elements from or making references to the world's most popular sci-fi film saga, and its villains have been a huge part of that. Golbez from Final Fantasy IV seems to be the first truly obvious example of this phenomenon: Not only was he a hulking, seemingly indestructible force clad in dark armor and a robe, he also had a direct connection to the game's hero (they were brothers) and even undertook a redemptive arc. Exdeath from FFV also had a distinct Vader-esque style about him, and while FFVI's clownish Kefka looked nothing like any Star Wars character, the part where he chucked his emperor over the side of a cliff sure did call back to the climax of Return of the Jedi.
As is the case with many elements of this game, we see in Sephiroth a synthesis of several Final Fantasy villains who had come before. It's not that he was radically different from previous antagonists in most respects, but rather that he was presented through a totally different lens. From Final Fantasy I through VI, the bad guy always amounted to some sort of inexorable force that craved the annihilation of everything for no particular reason. Chaos, the Emperor, the Cloud of Darkness, Zemus, Exdeath, and Kefka all seek nihilism more or less just because. It's fitting, I suppose, to have nihilists acting without a greater overarching justification, but it makes for unsatisfying storytelling.
Final Fantasy did at least try and put an interesting twist on its mindlessly destructive forces from the very beginning: Chaos was a primal force bound to the very first boss you battled in the game, and your actions ultimately created a time loop that prevented Chaos from ever existing. By the time we reached FFVI, Kefka did at least have insanity as a motive behind his actions: The Magitek process that created him (along with fellow imperial generals Leo and Celes) broke his mind. But, still, while Kefka's destructive whims and absolute power made him deadly, he never felt truly formidable.
Not so with Sephiroth. While Sephiroth may not be the prime mover behind FFVII's global crisis, he's the figure who looms large over the entire adventure. In fact, you can effectively break the entire story into three acts revolving around Sephiroth: The lead-up to the villain's reveal, the pursuit of Sephiroth, and the quest to protect the planet from the disaster he unleashes.
Even before you learn about Sephiroth, you see the impact he and JENOVA have had on FFVII's world. The tattooed people, such as the guy in the Wall Market who "are sick", have a connection to him. Cloud has a connection to him. So does Aerith, indirectly, and Tifa in brief. More than that, he was for many years a prominent public figure, the face of Shinra: The triumph of the company's SOLDIER program. Everyone knows who Sephiroth is, but not because he's a bad guy — rather, because he was a hero, one who disappeared without warning.
FFVII truly begins to take a different approach with its presentation of Sephiroth during the party's invasion of Shinra Tower. While you don't actually encounter Sephiroth there, his handiwork is hard to miss: You find the company's president skewered by his trademark Masamune up in the executive suite. It's here that the game also begins to build the connection between Sephiroth and JENOVA thanks to some excellent, horror-movie-like creepiness: You're ultimately led to the scene of the president's death by following a trail of blood from a strange detention cell; later, your first direct encounter with Sephiroth, aboard a Shinra boat, results in a fight with a freakish bio-horror. While this makes no sense at the time, eventually you come to realize that the "Sephiroth" you saw on the boat — and the one who killed President Shinra — was in fact the alien entity JENOVA, which adopted Sephiroth's guise. In the end, it turns out that all your run-ins with Sephiroth prior to the game's climactic battle in the depths of the Northern Crater are simply fights with different aspects of JENOVA, masquerading as its greatest child.
The real Sephiroth has spent years frozen in hibernation in the depths of the planet, a situation which is explained almost immediately upon the team's escape from Midgar. After the tense, fast-paced flight from Midgar, the story shifts into low gear in the aptly named town of Kalm, where Cloud recounts his personal history with Sephiroth. Rather than loading the player down with exposition, the game prefers to show rather than tell: Cloud's recollection takes the form of a playable flashback, wherein players control the protagonist as a young SOLDIER in Shinra's army, accompanying Sephiroth on a mission into Cloud's hometown of Nibelheim.
Although there are some curious inconsistencies in Cloud's tale, the flashback itself does a brilliant job of presenting Sephiroth as an almost godlike force. While he is treated as a member of young Cloud's party—you can see his stats and skills on the subscreen—you can't actually control him. He effortlessly wields his sword and spells, and his statistics outclass Cloud's by an order of magnitude. The game puts the player in the presence of a primal force, demonstrating the eventual villain's power up close and personal, building his reputation not through innuendo or exposition but through action. You know he's terrifying not because the writers tell you so, but because you witness his unstoppable power in the flesh.
And at the end of the flashback, when Sephiroth loses his mind and goes on a rampage, it becomes clear that you'll eventually have to take on this terrible force yourself.
Again, this wasn't the first time Final Fantasy presented its villain early in the game. Players had to face both Golbez and Exdeath long before their respective final encounters. And Kefka appeared several times throughout Final Fantasy VI, in a way that stands in marked opposition to your early perspectives on Sephiroth: You initially witness Kefka acting as a buffoon. He's a skilled mage, yes, but one the player can defeat easily quite early in their quest. Kefka's literal clownishness in the first half of the adventure creates context for his eventual rise to godhood: What happens with a cruel but relatively weak man gains absolute power? Sephiroth, on the other hand, is never presented as anything less than an unstoppable force. The dawning realization that you'll eventually have to fight him, when Cloud and Tifa barely escaped their previous encounter with him alive, creates a sense of dread that permeates the entirety of FFVII.
Sephiroth does have a stronger, more direct predecessor than either Darth Vader or his fellow Final Fantasy bad guys: The main villain of Dragon Quest IV, Psaro the Manslayer. The two characters even look identical. Psaro dressed in a black outfit with a samurai-like cloak and leather straps across his bare chest, like Sephiroth. He wore his silver hair long, carried an enormous sword, and wore an armored pauldron on his shoulder.
Furthermore, Psaro lurked at the edges of and eventually dominated his game's narrative much in the same way as Sephiroth. While DQIV's hero didn't directly encounter Psaro until far later in the story than Sephiroth (or at least a Sephiroth proxy), Psaro seems to pop up wherever the heroes need to be: Abducting children, dominating a combat tournament, and more. And, like Sephiroth, he begins the story as a hero of sorts, only to be driven to his nihilistic aims by his despair over the cruel actions of humans.
Even so, Sephiroth has far more impact as a villain than Psaro, and not just because of the strength of FFVII's more cinematic presentation versus DQIV's conservative storytelling. (Though certainly that stunning image of Sephiroth striding imperiously through the flames of the Nibelheim mansion stood out as one of the coolest-looking things ever to happen in a video game back in 1997.) His constant appearances throughout Cloud's journey, and the mystery of what truly happened after the Nibelheim incident, create a sense of anxiety and uncertainty about his motives and powers. As the truth of Sephiroth's origins is slowly revealed, the source and depths of his strength make him even more intimidiating.
And then, of course, there's Aerith's death.
While it eventually turns out not to have been Sephiroth himself who performs the deed—you battle another fragment of JENOVA immediately afterwards (though of course there's a long-running fan debate over whether it's JENOVA manipulating Sephiroth throughout the game or vice-versa)—his cold-blooded murder of the game's leading lady as she performs a ritual to protect the planet from his destructive ambitions remains one of the most shocking, unexpected, and heartrending scenes ever to play out in an RPG. Sure, the primitive CG looks comical 20 years later, but the heart of the matter remains unchanged. FFVII's villain ruthlessly cuts down a woman who is framed as both the hero's love interest and as the one being with the power to prevent the end of the world. In a single sword stroke, he injures the player (taking away the party's best healer and Cloud's presumed girlfriend — your companion for the charming date sequence at the Golden Saucer defaults to Aerith unless you're actively dismissive to her for the previous 15 hours) while seemingly locking his omnicidal scheme into place.
The revelation that JENOVA masquerades as Sephiroth for much of the game does nothing to diminish the loss of Aerith. The discovery that Cloud's muddled memories caused him to assume another man's identity does nothing to lessen the danger of the Meteor Sephiroth summons to wipe out humankind. The strange, interlocked story that intertwines Cloud and Sephiroth only serve to make the villain all the more nefarious. And it means that when you work your way through the grandiose final battles and the game boils down to a single one-on-one duel between the true Sephiroth and a rage-fueled Cloud, that final, essentially unlosable face-off comes as cathartic payback after several dozen hours of fear, torment, and murder.
Next time: I wrap this Final Fantasy VII look-back by asking, "Who am I?"
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