Thursday, January 5, 2017

Was Sephiroth a Good Villain?

After playing through the Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone, which has fantastically well written and nuanced villains, it got me back to thinking about someone my nine year old self thought was an amazing villain. Does he measure up to today's more well written, nuanced characters? I don't know if he's top tier, but I do think he has more going for him than people give him credit for these days. 

I'm talking about Sephiroth, from Final Fantasy VII, who has perhaps become one of the most iconic villains in gaming since his introduction. Sephiroth is the Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker trope, the fallen hero. That's cool, but did they pull it off well? I think they did. 

First, the positives:

SOLDIER is made out to be a bunch of freakishly strong people, and he spends his life being the best of the best, only to find out that he's only that way because he's a genetic experiment. This sends him down an emotional roller coaster as he tries to unravel the mystery behind his past, and the conclusion he comes up with leads him to decide to hate all humans because he thinks he's part of a superior race of people.

+I think that's a nice spin on the trope. It's given an even greater spin because of the misinformation Shinra had on Jenova. She's not an Ancient, she's a parasitic alien life form. In fact, she actually wiped out the Ancients! By the time we see Sephiroth in the present, he's become much more than the man he was. He's merged with Jenova, taken over her consciousness, and is using her body to traverse the world. That's a really cool plot point. He's half fallen hero, and half terrifying horror movie parasite. So I think he definitely gains points for originality.

+He serves as a good juxtaposition to the hero, Cloud, based on design alone. You might think this is shallow, but there's something really appealing about a well done rivalry. Dante/Vergil from Devil May Cry, Red/Blue from Pokemon, Mega Man/Bass from Mega Man. They're very similar, yet very different. On a surface level, they're both former members of SOLDIER who wield giant swords. On a purely visual level, Cloud's sword is big while Sephiroth's is long. This sounds like a dumb little detail, but it's a nice visual nod. On a deeper level, they're both haunted by a past they've misinterpreted.

+Sephiroth is set up really well as a powerful villain to be feared. You hear about "the great Sephiroth" from others, he attacks the Shinra building and frees Jenova, he kills the president... and then you get the flashback. He's level fifty and kills a dragon like it's nothing, when Cloud, who is level one, can't even touch it.

Sephiroth, who is in your party throughout the flashback, is not controllable by the player despite this. His overwhelming strength when compared to Cloud helps to cement his status as a powerful other; he is an almost unreachable entity, which is exactly how others describe him before you finally see it for yourself in this segment of the game.
He uses powerful spells. He shows he's knowledgeable about the world, such as when he stops your group on the mountain to explain how materia is made. He's able to burn down an entire town. Then, you chase him across the swamp in the present, narrowly avoiding a powerful serpent that your party is unable to defeat at this time, only to see this, which remains one of the most chilling moments in gaming for me:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MiWV2KseKeo - Music for full effect.
He's not perfect, however. I do find some flaws with his character:

-I think his reason for going insane is pretty thin. In the end, it's justifiable, but he switches from calm and aloof guy to totally crazy almost at the drop of a hat. Once he merges with Jenova, it becomes more believable, as he's now partially fused with a hostile alien life form and likely wouldn't be thinking like a rational human being, but his human self, and his initial reason for turning to "the dark side," could have used some more time in the oven. Crisis Core did help a bit with this, but I'm judging based on VII as a standalone game.

-I think his actual beef with Cloud is sort of weird. They don't share any real history together, and Cloud is theoretically not even his biggest threat. There's Shinra who wants him out of the picture, and Cloud and his ragtag band of friends don't really prove themselves as a threat other than chasing him place to place (and frequently failing to catch him or even stop him from what he's doing). The writers wanted us to feel like they had a personal connection, but they really don't.

That said, I feel the positives strongly outweigh the negatives.

Sephiroth's real forte is stage presence; he is an expert at stealing the show from the moment you see him, and encounters with him becoming increasingly creepy and surreal, right up until the end of the game. Sephiroth, like Vader in the cinematic world before him, is sold to the player through powerful iconography, such as his outlandishly large weapon, memorably haunting theme songs, and key scenes depicting his wickedness.

His presence is felt even when he is not physically on the scene, as characters begin discussing him long before his first real appearance. The ripples of his actions are felt throughout the game, whether it be in the creepy cloaked figures that mutter his name in Nibelheim, or in the giant meteor that hangs ominously in the sky during the game's third disc.

When I said he steals the show, he doesn't only do so by his presence alone: he also offers a mystery for the player to solve, adding an extra bit of intrigue to each of his appearances. How did he survive the battle five years ago? What is his connection to Jenova? Who's really in control?

Discovering Sephiroth's physical body in the Northern Crater marks the climax of the mysteries surrounding his character.
He even manages to make the player hate him on a personal level by killing off Aerith, which, in addition to being a really gutsy move by the developers for the time (since when does the main heroine die? And so unceremoniously so?) gives Cloud and co. an extra reason to want him taken down.

By the end of the game, you're not just fighting Sephiroth anymore. He's become a symbolic representation of evil, an amalgamation of the planet's past woes and the heroes' current problems. He is the fallen hero, the alien parasite, and the enemy of the planet. There's a reason one of his theme songs in the prequel Crisis Core is titled The World's Enemy. While it's true that many villains in RPGs eventually come to fill a similar role, Sephiroth gradually escalates into a more dangerous threat throughout the game. Most villains transform towards the end, or even during the final battle itself. Sephiroth does this, too, but it's the escalation of evil we see before his final transformation that sets him a head above most of the rest.

Despite how much he's been flanderized in popular culture since his original appearance, I feel as if Sephiroth was a very effective villain. I can't wait to see how the upcoming remake treats his character.

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