The Sephiroth Problem

 

If there’s one thing that really bothers me about Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, it’s the portrayal of Sephiroth. In the original game, players are constantly confronted with the aftermath of Sephiroth, not with Sephiroth himself constantly popping in to ask if you have time to hear about his Lord and Savior, Jenova. It’s hard to take this monstrously powerful man seriously, which is a big problem. I never thought I’d be asking Sephiroth, of all people, if he could just get a hobby, but, here I am. 

 

This difference in portrayal stands out from the very beginning of Final Fantasy VII Remake. In the original Final Fantasy VII, not the remake, players’ very first encounter with Sephiroth, is when they find arguably the most powerful man in the world, the President of Shinra, impaled on a sword in his own company headquarters. The sword is unmistakable. So is the implied fact that players spent hours making their way through Shinra security, but that Sephiroth not only has zero problems making it through the labyrinthian setting undetected, but murdering the one running it all. But Remake can’t wait that long to introduce its iconic villain, and has Cloud reliving the trauma of the Nibelheim incident, complete with flames and the appearance of Sephiroth, in the streets of Midgar first thing.

 

 

This is only the first of many fumbles in the portrayal of Sephiroth in the remake trilogy.  During Cloud’s playable recollection of the Nibelheim incident in Rebirth, players have the legendary heroic Sephiroth in their party, just like in the original game. But Rebirth, even with its flashier action combat and beautiful cutscenes, just doesn’t have the same impact. In the original turn-based game, players have maybe one attempt to hit whatever monster as Cloud, the main character we all thought was strong, before Sephiroth absolutely demolished it in a one-shot. It is a quiet scene, without the advantage of higher quality graphics, the beautiful soundtrack of Rebirth, or the talented voice actors, but I remember being absolutely astonished by just how powerful Sephiroth was and how big his damage numbers and stats were in comparison to that of Cloud’s. And how effortlessly easy it all was for him.

 

It was truly a uniquely humbling experience and nothing about Rebirth’s Sephiroth, complete with a fixed cat-caught-the-canary expression every time he sidles up to play with Cloud and torment his idea of the truth, quite manages to capture. This juxtaposition between the original game’s Sephiroth and Rebirth’s Sephiroth is also present during the game’s fight with the massive swamp snake, Midgardsormr. In the original game, the party simply stumbled across the murdered gigantic snake, which is very much impaled and reminiscent of what happened to President Shinra. Cloud asks, “did Sephiroth…do this?” Because it’s immediately apparent that no one else in existence could accomplish this feat. For what could fell such a monstrous creature, if not a bigger monster?

 

 

The party and the player are both absolutely unsettled by this unforgettable sight. We don’t know why Sephiroth killed the snake. Is it just because he could? And all at once, players and the party are faced to reconcile that dead snake with the knowledge that that is the man we are chasing and trying to stop from destroying the planet and everyone in it. How do we stop a God? It’s terrifying to merely imagine any kind of showdown with him. And that’s what the original game lets us do—it lets us use our imaginations. It doesn’t need to show us exactly how Sephiroth killed this nightmarish creature, it shows us the aftermath of an event that nothing could stop, singlehandedly proving more frightening than anything the graphics of 1997 could render, and expertly using a classic hallmark of horror. And also unbeknownst to the player, the game once again foreshadowed Aerith’s future untimely demise.

 

Unfortunately, leaving things up to player imagination is not something Rebirth likes us to do, as amply demonstrated by its yellow paint to signify climbing spots on cliffs, but also in the story itself. With its new graphical capabilities, the game loves to show us exactly what Sephiroth is capable of, uncloaking a lot of his mystery. This is especially present in the aforementioned scene with the snake. In Rebirth, Cloud is suddenly pulled down into the lake by the massive snake, (even though that same water was shallow moments ago, but I digress). In the depths of this lake, Sephiroth appears out of thin air before Cloud once more and slaughters the snake, freeing Cloud from its constricting clutches. Players are left to not only ask why Sephiroth would save Cloud in the first place, but also if he was ever actually really there, as Cloud is consistently the only one who can see the shampoo-commercial of a man. Is Cloud actually capable of the same feats as Sephiroth? Is Cloud a future enemy? 

 

There certainly are mysteries afoot in Rebirth, sure, but they aren’t the same awe-inspiring ones surrounding Sephiroth and his motives.

 

Similarly, by making Sephiroth appear more human in Rebirth’s version of the Nibelheim incident, he’s consequently less of a frightening enigma and more understandable. Who wouldn’t be devastated to learn his entire existence was a lie?  Who wouldn’t be upset that the reason he always felt different was because he was actually made to be that way? Rebirth’s Sephiroth feels less like an inhuman monster, and more like he could have been reachable or stopped, if only “Cloud” had had the right words to say to the struggling man during the Nibelheim incident. Whereas in the original game, he’s a complete and total unstoppable force of nature, flying out of the Shinra mansion like a literal bat out of hell and off to level the town and everyone in it because of his own selfish desires.

 


Original Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth’s Sephiroths feel very much like different entities.
Rebirth’s Sephiroth appears to have all the time in the world. The man has no problem making time to show up to tell an uncertain Cloud that he should, in fact, stop in an amusement park, the iconic Gold Saucer, and have his fun “while [he] still can.” It’s pretty comical that this moment is so high up on Sephiroth’s to-do list. If Rebirth’s Sephiroth kept a diary, it would probably read like this, “Dear Mother, today I appeared before Cloud again and threatened him with a good time. Tehehe.”

 

One could even argue that the person who shows up the most for Cloud is actually Sephiroth. While Tifa struggles to confront Cloud about his misaligned memories or Aerith patiently waits for Cloud to find his truth and master his identity, Sephiroth has been showing up at every crossroads or pivotal moment to whisper in Cloud’s ear with an all-knowing smirk. If it’s not a mini-game and it’s a story event, players can trust that Sephiroth is going to make a superfluous appearance. And it always feels like mere fan service. It almost never feels sinister or vital to the story. It is entertaining, as the man can’t seem to resist showing up out of thin air to hurl some vaguely evil blanket statement at Cloud, but it feels unnecessary and even cringey.

 

 

Perhaps this is why Rebirth’s Sephiroth is so at home in noodle commercials—he’s both utterly recognizable and completely ridiculous. At some point, he stopped being the ultimate, unstoppable villain, with no pesky moral reservations, to the caricature of himself that is currently smeared across social media in a series of viral tweets stating that Sephiroth should be in every game, started by Twitter user @eyebrowpillar, even ones meant for children. Though it’s fun to laugh at these portrayals of one of the most iconic villains in video games, I do also think it’s a shame that the fandom has turned Sephiroth into less of a monster and more of a loveable running joke or even a sex symbol.

 

Heck, even creator Tetsuya Nomura doesn’t really understand why Sephiroth is so popular or attractive to players. Speaking to Shack News via GamesRadar, he says:

“As far as Sephiroth being this extremely popular character, frankly, I’m very curious as to what makes him so attractive to users, because I hear this opinion very often. His appearance, firstly, I’m sure, but also perhaps there is something about his background that brings about a particular appeal to so many of the players that makes him this iconic character. And so, for Rebirth, I would think that besides Cloud, Sephiroth is also a protagonist that we can think of for this title.”

 

I think this quote is rather indicative of the Sephiroth Problem because it seems as if developers are uncertain what exactly makes the character so iconic in the first place. Instead, they are merely aware that fans like him, and therefore want to please their fans with how they utilize him in Rebirth. To think of Sephiroth as a protagonist is problematic in and of itself to me because it thoroughly demonstrates that both the developers and the fans lost sight of the who the character actually was somewhere along the way.

 

I think one of the reasons the ending to the original Final Fantasy VII was so strong is because it took everything the heroes had to defeat Sephiroth, who seemed to always be several steps ahead no matter what the party did. Even with all of their strength combined, Cloud conquering the inner demons of his shattered psyche, and Aerith summoning Holy and harnessing the powers of the Lifestream from beyond the grave, it felt like the gang barely managed to destroy him. That’s something we barely see even nowadays in tales of good triumphing over evil—we don’t see the emotional toll it takes on often cookie-cutter heroes or see the good guys almost fail to succeed.  Frankly, we don’t need Sephiroth to be a protagonist in order to make him a powerful character. He is an antagonist (and a foil to Cloud), and that is just as crucial to good storytelling as the protagonist.

 

 

So I can’t help but to be disappointed that Rebirth essentially defangs Sephiroth in some sort of misguided attempt to make him more human or relatable. It feels like we didn’t only lose an iconic villain, but we lost the other side to Cloud’s coin—Sephiroth was always a symbol of the fallen SOLDIER and what Cloud could have become without his support network and without his value for life. As it stands in Rebirth, the Worst Case Scenario, which was Cloud losing himself to the control of Sephiroth/Jenova no longer seems quite so bad. After all, Sephiroth is the one showing up to make dad-joke level threats to Cloud and saving him from monsters no one else can hope to defeat. The fear factor of the nightmare of Sephiroth, working in the shadows and doing god-knows-what for what end, is completely gone. And that’s a problem, because without a great villain, the heroes triumphing over evil, even at great personal cost, isn’t nearly so big of an accomplishment.

 

As Robert McKee states, “The more powerful and complex the forces of antagonism opposing the character, the more completely realized character and story must become.” This is especially true of the relationship between Sephiroth and Cloud. It is through Sephiroth’s actions that Cloud is forced to confront his past, conquer his failings, put aside his grief, and find the strength to move forward. Without Sephiroth continually pushing Cloud forward, he may never have found a solution to his identity crisis. And when Sephiroth shows up again before a splintering Cloud in Advent Children: Complete, it’s Sephiroth’s persistence and utter disdain for the value of life that forces Cloud to recognize that he isn’t ready to give up on life, his fight, and that there’s not a thing he doesn’t cherish in this world. It is because Sephiroth is such a good opponent that Cloud is able to dig deep and to grow past his reservations and feelings of inadequacy as both a character and a hero. And it’s through Cloud’s struggle with Sephiroth and his actions, that the players are able to feel empathy for Cloud.

 

In Rebirth, Sephiroth’s unclear motivations, obsession with Cloud and singsong-y one liners, stagger the story even more than the constant minigames. It is easy to forget why Sephiroth is the villain in the midst of the meandering plot, in the face of his saving of Cloud’s life, and his constant encouragement of Cloud to keep seeking answers. A story is only as good as it’s villain and when you already have one of the most iconic villains in video game history, I think it’s a regrettable choice to try and turn him into a protagonist, which is something Sephiroth, of all characters, is not.

 

Personally, I am not interested in seeing Sephiroth rehabilitated or redeemed as a good guy. I like the character as he was in the original Final Fantasy VII, insidiously evil and nigh all-powerful. However, I can’t help but to wonder if the redemption of Sephiroth is what the developers are leading up to, what with Crisis Core showing him before his fall, and The First Soldier story in Ever Crisis, the mobile game, which depicts a young and sympathetic Sephiroth struggling with being different, but still being ignorant of his true origins. Though I am interested in seeing where the remake trilogy’s story will take this version of Sephiroth and the rest of the characters, I ultimately can’t help but to mourn the loss of the original game’s iteration of Sephiroth in favor of Rebirth‘s Sephiroth, which has reduced the character to his current, fanservice-y state. For a weaker Sephiroth inevitably makes for not only a weaker Cloud, but also a weaker story.

 

As John Truby says, “The relationship between the hero and the opponent is the single most important relationship in the story. In working out the struggle between these two characters, the larger issues and themes of the story unfold.” Final Fantasy VII, at least in its original form, was a game centering on the total devastation of grief and irrevocable loss. Sephiroth, as the villain, was the one largely responsible for almost of the traumatic experiences of the characters in the game. If developers and popular culture turn Sephiroth into a protagonist apparently worthy of redemption, what does that mean for not only the characters who suffered from his actions the most, but also the themes of the game as a whole?

 

 

 

Works Cited:

 

Francis, Valerie. “Stories Need Great Villains.” Story Grid, 5 July 2021, https://storygrid.com/stories-need-great-villains/

 

Harris, Iain. “27 Years Later, Final Fantasy 7 Veteran Tetsuya Nomura Wants to Know Why You All Find Sephiroth so Attractive.” Gamesradar, GamesRadar+, 6 Nov. 2023, www.gamesradar.com/27-years-later-final-fantasy-veteran-tetsuya-nomura-wants-to-know-why-you-all-find-sephiroth-so-attractive/.

 

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The Sephiroth Problem - Blogging with Dragons

Posted March 22, 2024 in Games

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