The Game Design Forum

Narrative and Design

Because the narrative aspects of a JRPG are a feature of design as much as anything else in the game, we have to study them with an eye toward the practical necessities of design. With everything we’ve seen about FF7’s place in the history of RPGs, we know that the story was of central importance to the design of this particular game as much as any JRPG ever. Now, I have said before, and I will repeat here again, that I will not make a defense of the literary qualities of FF7. To my knowledge, nobody has ever praised the prosody of FF7 in English or in the original Japanese. The inconsistent translation for which it is famous certainly did not help. Other assessments about the story’s literariness are a matter of taste and I won’t debate them. I think, however, that there are some structural ideas from which we can glean quite a bit of useful RPG design knowledge. When I say “structural,” I’m referring to two concrete ideas: the character design and the measurable way in which the story is told, line by line. Character design is something as old as the RPG format; players and dungeon masters have had to design characters for their campaigns since the first edition of D&D. Final Fantasy 7’s characters are, as we’ll see, the product of a well-established game design process. That is, the important people in FF7 are designed in the same way a level designer might generate the contents of a platformer. The other way in which we can analyze the structure of FF7’s storytelling (in the second half of this section) is by seeing how the story is delivered on a line-by-line basis. It’s not the nuances in the language we’re interested in here, but rather a statistical analysis of how story and dialogue are meted out over the entire course of the game. As a meaningful point of comparison, we’ll see how FF7’s statistical profile measures up to a novel of similar length (and similar themes), Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Do the Designers Really Want to Say Something Meaningful?

Before talking about the narrative of FF7, I want to show that it is a subject which has not received nearly enough attention. Earlier, I argued that the game is about survivors—people who have outlived the worlds that defined them. Below, I am going to show how this is true for each character, but I realize how easy it would be to believe that I have cherry-picked all my evidence and that most of the game is inconsistent with my thesis. After all, this game is nearly 20 years old at the time of this writing and—as far as I know—nobody has ever made this claim before. But to show how pervasive this theme actually is, I want to give a few examples from the setting of the game. During the escape from the first reactor, the party has a conversation about the history and geography of Midgar.

It’s easy to overlook that the game is already communicating its central theme through the setting. Final Fantasy 7 is a game about people who have outlived the world that once defined them. Midgar is the embodiment of this. It is a new city built over an old city—a new world order literally burying the past. Yet the buried people of the slums, for the most part, cannot move on from the place that gave them their identities. In that regard, they’re quite a lot like the player characters. The key difference, as we’ll see shortly, is that the connection the player characters have to the past motivates them to action.

Although it’s easy to miss, because it happens mostly as passing NPC chatter, this idea of people who have lost their identity is reiterated in many of the towns across the world of FF7. Kalm, Junon, Corel, Rocket Town and Wutai all used to be something far different than they are now.

In every case, the original inhabitants of the town have lost what defined them, and in some cases, nothing has really replaced what was lost. Although a few of the residents of these towns have found ways to live in their new world, most of them seem lost now that their identities are irrelevant to the world that Shinra has created.

Another thing most people have overlooked as a vehicle for the theme is the limit break system. These days, critics put special emphasis on consonance between narrative and mechanics. I don’t intend to make that issue a big part of my examination of FF7, but the limit break is one place where we can see such a consonance. The limit break system rewards the player for keeping the characters alive through large amounts of damage.

For every attack the player characters survive, the limit meter fills; the bigger the attack, the greater the gain—but if the player dies, the limit meter empties. In other words, the limit break is a reward for surviving, not a reward for taking damage. This is a reflection of the general theme of survivorship in the game. It isn’t a particularly insightful example of the theme: limit breaks are acts of violent rage. By the end of the game, the characters in FF7 all transcend that rage. Despite this inelegance, the limit break system does reflect the main theme of the game. What’s more, a number of player limit breaks (which need to be unlocked by items) are found in meaningful locations that tie the characters to their pasts. A widow in Corel gives Barret his ultimate limit break, Lucrecia gives Vincent his, a letter from Zangan contains Tifa’s limit break, and a reward from Godo gives Yuffie hers. Not every limit break in the game is so thematically located, but I think it’s meaningful that a few of them are. In the section just below, we’ll see how survivorship and an empowering connection to the past are two parts of a three-part checklist that defines the way that the characters were created in accordance with the game’s main theme.

Characters and the Ludic Method that Made Them

The creation of characters is, and always has been, a facet of game design. In the previous section I explained how Dave Arneson’s principal contribution to the RPG was the roles which characters played. From his experiences modifying and refereeing Braunstein, he understood that the RPG would depend heavily upon the player’s investment into the character they role-play. This idea carried right over into computer and console RPGs. A well-designed role/character gives its player an over-arching reason to push through dungeons and battles. Not everyone needs a reason to go questing; some players will do dungeons for the sake of doing dungeons. But for the audience that Arneson originally imagined, characters and their motivations were just as much a part of the minute-by-minute gameplay as dice-rolls and stat tables. Any examination of FF7 as a work of art must take into account the design of characters as an essential game design task. From a purely practical perspective, consider how well the motivations of the characters work to drive the plot. Final Fantasy 7 has 31 quests, but none of them consist of collecting eight snow-hare tails, killing twelve giant dragonflies, or curing four cursed treants. Every quest is relevant to the plot, and it’s always fairly obvious why the characters are pursuing it. If that isn’t enough, each of the party members, and most of the villains, all embody the theme of the game (outliving a world that gave them their identity) in a different way. Indeed, the way that the characters were designed is actually idiosyncratic to games. Because they were game designers, the FF7 team implemented the idea of survivors in an iterative way. To illustrate what I mean by this, I’m going to cite a completely different type of game. There’s a level in Donkey Kong Country in which the designers use essentially only two mechanical ideas: a rotating barrel and an enemy bee.

To keep the level interesting, and to fill it out with content, the designers do all manner of different things with the barrel and bee. The barrels rotate at different speeds, they move up and down, they’re placed at all manner of different angles. The bees move at varying speeds, in varying shapes and in varying positions. With only a barrel and a bee, the designers are able to come up with more than a dozen possible combinations with which they can challenge the player. The FF7 team practices the same kind of innovative iteration, except they do it with character design. In place of a barrel and a bee, the FF7 team has three ideas, what I call the “survivor’s trio,” which apply to nearly every character and the main villains. With one important exception, all the main characters:

  1. (1) Have lost the world that defined them
  2. (2) Have had near-death experiences
  3. (3) Have someone or something which both connects them to the past and motivates them in their quest

For some characters this is obvious, and for others it is subtle. But for each main character, we’ll see how the designers manage to fulfill these three characteristics in different (and very game-like) ways. I’ve already talked about Barret enough, but I do want to point out that he has all three of these criteria. He lost the world that defined him (Corel), he had a near-death experience (having his arm shot off), and he has someone in his life that connects him to his past and motivates him in his quest (Marlene). All but one of the characters have these three elements somehow worked into their design.

Protagonists

Besides Barret, Tifa has the most typical story of a near-death experience and the loss of a world she belonged to, but the person who connects her to the past is anything but typical. Tifa was nearly killed by Sephiroth during his rampage in Nibelheim. Her world was destroyed, her friends and loved ones murdered, and if Zangan’s letter hidden in her piano is true, she survived against long odds. Those two details are quite similar to Barret’s experience, but the contrast between Marlene and Cloud—who are Barret and Tifa’s respective connections to the past—is stark. Marlene represents all the memories Barret has of Corel, and all his hopes for a future in a world free from the control of Shinra Inc. Tifa’s connection to her past is different. Cloud represents the only living connection to her previous world, but their relationship is nothing like that of Barret and Marlene. Although the player only learns of Cloud’s psychosis late in the game, Tifa knows about it the whole time. Cloud is unstable, a compulsive liar, and in possession of a set of deadly skills and weapons. His behavior and motivations are suspect, and at key moments, he even appears to be under the control of the very same person who murdered her father. Critics of FF7 have often made the mistake of thinking Tifa longs for Cloud romantically. She may have these feelings at the end of the game, but it’s not clear that this is the case in the middle of it.

Tifa wants to believe that some part of her past still lives—that she shares her identity and the destruction of it—with someone else. She is so desperate to have this that she will endure all of Cloud’s eerie behavior, and will even help him to maintain an illusion she knows isn’t true.

Although she clearly cares about Cloud, Tifa’s underlying reason for denying her suspicions is a selfish desire for a connection to her past, not a patient acceptance of Cloud’s troubles. She’s not even sure that the person before her is Cloud, but she’ll take whatever connection she can get. There’s so much humanity in that contradiction, though. Tifa’s selfishness—her need to be connected to the past through Cloud—ends up doing her as much harm as good.

Although almost every party member adheres to the formula of loss of identity, near-death experience and a motivating connection to the past through a single person or thing, it’s not always as clear as it is with Tifa and Barret. Such is the case with Cid. Although we hear very little of it, Cid belonged to a world that ceased to be when the war between Wutai and Midgar ended.

The NPC chatter in Rocket Town makes it clear that Cid was a very important figure in the Shinra air force, and at the end of the war he was going to finish his career by going into space. Cid aborts the launch to save Shera’s life, and the space program is subsequently de-funded as Shinra switches from being a weapons manufacturer to being a utility company. Cid has nothing to fall back on now that the war is over, and the party finds him brooding over his lost ambition. In Cid’s case, it’s not entirely clear whether the thing that ties him to his past is Shera or the rocket itself. On the one hand, he certainly blames Shera, and relives his frustration every time he sees her. On the other hand, the party encounters Cid in the rocket—where he spends most of days. He obviously hasn’t moved on, even while a town has sprung up around the infrastructure left by the launch site. Cid’s near-death experience, too, is easy to miss. The malfunctioning tank which Shera was working on during the original launch really does explode, and very well might have killed Cid the first time he tried to get into outer space. Just because Cid wasn’t aware of how close he was to death doesn’t mean he didn’t narrowly miss a cruel fate. It’s easy to see Cid as a throw-in character because he isn’t wracked with guilt, anguish or grief. But while Cid’s brash reaction to the loss of his identity is different from most of the other characters, he still fits the same pattern as the rest of the party.

Vincent is in a similar situation to Cid, in that he was discarded by Shinra, Inc. A former Turk (secret police), he didn’t necessarily lose a world that gave him his identity—he lost his very humanity when Hojo experimented on him. One might say that Vincent didn’t have a near-death experience as much as he had an undeath experience. His connection to the past, meanwhile, is a bit more remote than those of other characters, but it fits the pattern well. The party does eventually encounter Lucrecia, who is Sephiroth’s human mother. Although she appears in only one scene, she nevertheless fulfils the criterion of connecting Vincent to the past and motivating him in his ongoing quest. Indeed, she does a better job of bringing back the past than most of the minor characters in the game. The flashback in Lucrecia’s cavern is the only time the player gets any explanation of Sephiroth’s actual parentage or any background on what Shinra was like before and during the war. Despite the brevity of her appearance, Lucrecia definitely does accomplish for Vincent what Marlene, Cloud, and the rocket/Shera do for their respective characters.

Red XIII’s adherence to the survivor’s trio seems, at first glance, more tenuous than it really is. Red XIII did have a near-death experience, but we never see it play out on screen. Red XIII’s near-death experience was during the battle between his people and the tribe of the Gi. Although it isn’t clear what ultimately happened after Seto made his last stand, Red XIII is the only member of his race the player ever meets—so obviously his escape from death was fairly narrow, as the aftermath of the event claimed every other member of his tribe. Like Aeris, Red XIII is the last of his kind, or at least the last of his kind that anyone knows about. His survivorship in a world to which he doesn’t belong is about as literal as it gets. His connection to the past is equally obvious and literal. One of Bugenhagen’s primary roles in the game is as a historian of the planet and of Cosmo Canyon. Because of his personal affection for Red XIII, Bugenhagen shows him the true story of his past and directs him explicitly to continue his quest. That’s about as straightforward an implementation of those two principles as exists in any character, even if we only hear about most of these events secondhand.

If any party character actually lacks one of the three elements in particular, it’s Yuffie. There’s no clear near-death experience in her past. Her defeat by the party might count as one, but she seems perfectly fine afterwards, so it’s not a very good example. Like Red XIII, she may have been greatly endangered in a past we only hear about, when Wutai was subdued. According to Elmyra’s story about Aeris’s origin, the war in Wutai was still producing casualties when Yuffie would have been a child—but this is admittedly vague. Her connection to the past and survival in a world where she doesn’t belong are both fairly clear, however. Wutai itself is the thing that connects her to her past.

Yuffie wishes to regain Wutai’s lost warrior tradition through a kind of bastardized vision of the ninja identity. Moreover, it’s not entirely clear that Yuffie is old enough to really remember what Wutai and its people were like before the war. But even if she’s not correct, Yuffie is still connected to and motivated by that past in the same way that the rest of the characters are.

Like the straight man in a comedy act, or the control in a scientific study, Cait Sith provides contrast. He doesn’t have any of the survivor’s trio, but this is a deliberate choice that highlights what the other characters have in common. I do not like to separate Cait Sith from the character who controls him, Reeve. Although Reeve speaks much differently in his own persona than he does when operating his fortune-telling dummy, his interests and motivations are not clearly different when he is “in character.” Reeve has a genuine interest in the party, as he explains.

Reeve does not start out a survivor. Reeve starts the game in a context that not only defines him, but which gives him power. From the moment that President Shinra drops the sector 7 plate, however, Reeve’s power is progressively eroded. By the end of the game, he has been removed from his position, and then Shinra itself collapses. Although Reeve doesn’t have a near-death experience (one of Cait Sith’s bodies dies, if that counts) or an obvious connection to a past that motivates him, he does end up in the same condition as the rest of the party: he has outlived the context (Shinra, Inc.) which gave him his identity.

Aeris clearly exhibits the survivor’s trio, but with an important variation. Obviously, she is the last of the Cetra, and she has therefore outlived the world they inhabited. She spends much of her screen time trying to reconnect to that past with increasing (although tragic) success. Equally obvious is her connection to the past: the Holy Materia which she received from her mother. The variation is in her near-death experience—she doesn’t actually survive it. The plot demands Aeris’s death, but I think many critics have overlooked the symbolic communication embedded in that death. Aeris is the only character with a job class, even though it isn’t explicitly stated. She’s physically weak and has a low defense. All of her limit breaks are support-based. She is the only character in the game that is in the back row by default. The FF7 designers, many of whom were veterans of the earlier games in the series, were entirely self-aware about the diminution of job classes in FF6 and FF7. Aeris’s death is, in part, a commentary on that. In the plot, Aeris has to die in order to activate the Holy Materia. To make a game as dependent on plot and characterization as FF7, character classes have to die. The mixing of drama and symbolic communication is little appreciated because, typically, people don’t expect it from videogames of the 1990s. Nevertheless, it’s in there.

Cloud and His Many Personas

Cloud is the character most difficult to talk about, not because he doesn’t fit the formula (he does), but rather because it’s easy to miss all the avant-garde things the designers do with him. The way in which Cloud deals with outliving his context serves as a major basis for the plot. Cloud suffered exactly what Tifa suffered: the loss of a hometown, the death of a parent and horrific sword wounds, but his delusions stem from the added burden of shame. Cloud was so unable to deal with his losses, his failure to join SOLDIER, his failure to protect his hometown and his loved ones that he has to steal someone else’s identity in order to keep living. By becoming a version of Zack, Cloud steals an identity to replace the one he lost. (Although, as we’ll see, this wasn’t the first identity he tried to assume.) Cloud’s dedication to this facade is, on its face, absurd. He must have known that Tifa would see through his version of the events in Nibelheim, and yet he can’t even admit this to himself while he’s telling the story. Cloud lacks the personal force and organizational power to insist upon this false persona the way a politician or celebrity might do, so it’s hard to understand his dedication to the charade. Yet his dedication is bizarrely intense. When Sephiroth punctures his assumed persona as an ex-SOLDIER, Cloud accepts an identity as a clone rather than admit (to himself and everyone else) who he really is.

Cloud helplessly begs Hojo to give him a third identity, a third context to give his being meaning. What really makes this a pathetic move (in all senses of the word) is how diminutive it is. Cloud is begging for a number—begging to be labeled as a nameless science project, a mere derivative thing. He’s willing to accept Sephiroth and Hojo’s denigration—he’s even eager for it! Compared to that level of agonizing vulnerability, his charade of pretending to be Zack seems sane.

Cloud’s connection to the past is definitely the most complex aspect of his survivor’s trio, but it also helps to explain why he is the way he is. His connection to the past isn’t Tifa, or Nibelhim, or even Zack; Cloud’s connection to the past is Sephiroth. Earlier I said that when FF7 appears to be about revenge, it is really a deconstruction of a revenge story. Too often, critics use the term deconstruction only to mean that a work of art does the opposite of what an audience expects. In FF7, and in the particular case of Cloud, it means something a little less polar. Instead of reversing expectations, the FF7 team carefully unpacks Cloud’s desire to defeat Sephiroth, and through this process they reveal Cloud’s personality more deeply. Cloud explicitly says at more than one point that he wants to settle the score with Sephiroth. But for all his focus on fighting Sephiroth, Cloud isn’t overly confrontational with him when the two of them are face to face.

Cloud doesn’t gloat, he doesn’t taunt Sephiroth, he doesn’t scream or curse at him, even when they’re one-on-one. The closest thing to actual venom Cloud ever manages is when he tells Sephiroth to “Shut up” at the water altar in the Forgotten City. If we try to understand Cloud’s overarching goal in terms other than sadistic glee, it makes more sense. When Cloud tells the rest of the party that they need to find their own motivation for the last battle, he explains his own motivation in personal terms.

This would be an odd way to say “I need to make Sephiroth feel the pain that I felt.” That’s what one might expect from a straightforward revenge story, but that’s not what we see. It’s also not the case that Cloud is merely putting on a tough-guy façade and speaking only rarely. As we’ll see in the next section, Cloud speaks way more words than any other character in the game. The whole point of Cloud’s revelation in the Lifestream is that he no longer has to pretend to be a disinterested mercenary. Instead of a mere desire to kill or cause harm, Cloud needs to defeat Sephiroth in order to be able to live as himself.

To understand what it means for Cloud to really be himself, we have to zoom out (so to speak) and look at Cloud’s entire life, with particular attention to the subtle symmetry between him and Sephiroth. During the catastrophe at Nibelheim, Cloud stabs Sephiroth, gravely wounding him. Sephiroth returns the favor shortly thereafter. Cloud throws Sephiroth into the Lifestream, and during his journey through it, Sephiroth learns his true identity as a descendent of Jenova. Five years later, after the events in the Whirlwind Maze, Sephiroth dumps Cloud into the Lifestream. With a little help from Tifa, Cloud discovers his true identity there, too.

But another very important thing is revealed during the Lifestream sequence. During his flashbacks, Cloud admits that when he was a child, he wanted to become someone else—namely, Sephiroth.

Cloud’s psychotic impersonation of Zack makes a little more sense in light of this information. Cloud has always wanted to be like someone else. He chose someone famous for strength, someone the world at large admired. He may not have chosen poorly, because that implies a foresight which is impossible; rather, Cloud chose unfortunately.

What if your idol came to your hometown and killed (or nearly killed) everyone you love? The violence of that act alone is enough to cause someone to snap. But Cloud also idolized Sephiroth, adding the feeling of betrayal to an already gruesome murder.

There’s a deeply bitter irony in Cloud’s connection to Sephiroth which helps to explain the depth of this betrayal, and why Cloud has to defeat Sephiroth in order to truly be himself. As a child and adolescent, Cloud wanted to be like Sephiroth. After Sephiroth nearly kills him, Cloud gets his wish, much more literally than he ever imagined. In the flashback that takes place in the Shinra Mansion basement, we see Cloud emerge from one of the tanks with Zack after being infused with Jenova cells—the same essence which gives Sephiroth his power. Unfortunately, this also gives Sephiroth/Jenova the power to control Cloud at the Temple of the Ancients and in the Whirlwind Maze. It probably also explains what’s happening during the very last battle of the game.

If there is a plot-related explanation for this event, it’s probably that Cloud is defeating the Sephiroth inside of him—both literally and symbolically. On the literal level, Cloud’s body is the last significant source of living Jenova cells anywhere near the Northern Crater, and would thus be Sephiroth’s last chance to complete his plan. On the symbolic level, Cloud is exorcising the last remnant of the person he wanted to be—the person who hurt him the most in his life. Cloud’s defeat of Sephiroth is still an act of vengeance—there’s no way around that fact. But it’s also more than that; ridding the world of Sephiroth is also the only way that Cloud can be himself, both literally and figuratively. And, of course, it also saves the world.

Villains

Villains in FF7 embody the survivor’s trio as well. The two major villains, Sephiroth and Rufus, are quite different in the way they relate to survivorship. To illustrate what I mean by this, I’ll give an example from a minor villain: Dyne. Barret’s confrontation with Dyne illustrates the meaning of the survivor’s trio succinctly. Dyne survived the same event Barret did, but had the opposite reaction. Whereas Barret is on a mission to save the world (albeit through deeply unethical means), Dyne is on a mission to destroy the world.

Dyne’s observation is a keen one. Marlene is a child, and as a child she is naturally resilient and will build an identity around the life she’s currently living. Dyne can probably never be connected to her, and he knows it. Lacking a connection, he wants to kill everyone and everything. Barret is willing to kill as well, but the scope of his vengeance is smaller and his ultimate goal is to save the world (rather than destroy it) so that Marlene can grow up and live in it.

Rufus, the game’s second-biggest antagonist, is the antithesis of the survivor’s trio. Because he’s so selfabsorbed and arrogant, he actually explains his own nature to the party clearly and immediately upon arriving. Nobody explains Rufus quite like Rufus.

He’s not a survivor in a world that doesn’t have a place for him. Rufus is an heir to a world that will do what he wants it to do. It doesn’t matter what the current state of the world is; Rufus is going to change it to suit himself. He’s never had a near-death event—in fact, no one has ever seen him so much as bleed. And he avows no connection to the past (willfully ignoring the means of his inheritance). Indeed, he appears to be on a mission to re-shape everything that came before him into a world he envisions, because he disdains the way things used to be done. Or, in other words, Rufus is the opposite of the protagonists.

Sephiroth, on the other hand, represents an extreme version of survivorship that leads him to evil. He checks off all the boxes in the survivor’s trio: he lacks the world that defined him, he has a near-death experience, and he has something that connects him to the past. It’s just that each point in the trio is extreme for Sephiroth. Although he has a human body, Sephiroth is much like a resurrected fossil, made from the cells of an organism that has been dead—or at least sealed away—for two thousand years. While some of the protagonists are a few decades removed from the context that defined them, Sephiroth is separated from the world that would have defined him by millennia.

Once Sephiroth believes that he should have belonged to a bygone era, he goes on a murderous rampage. His near-death experience—and his reaction to it—are just as extreme. After first being impaled by Cloud, he’s tossed into the very dangerous Lifestream, but he doesn’t suffer any ill effects from it at all. Instead, Sephiroth actually gets stronger and even more bloodthirsty. It’s not enough to merely kill the residents of Nibelheim. Sephiroth wants to kill everyone other than himself by literally ending the world—a scenario in which he will be the only survivor.

Sephiroth’s connection to his past comes through Jenova, his “mother” who finally gets to achieve her goal of consuming the world’s biosphere through him. In a certain sense, Jenova is like Rufus; she will remake the world in her own image, although in a much more primal sense of the word. Rufus wants to rule others; Jenova wants to absorb/infect them. (There’s no obvious separation between what Jenova wants and what Sephiroth wants.)

Hojo later adds that Jenova’s body always recomposes itself over time, reforming and returning to its mission. Jenova is the context that never truly dies, a past that never disappears, a cancer that is always relapsing. That Sephiroth is willing to accept an identity as a part of such a being in order to feel that he is a part of something is very grim (and it taxes belief in retrospect), but it does fit neatly with the theme of the game.

Although I haven’t yet attempted it for any other character, I want to make an additional defense of the character of Sephiroth. Final Fantasy 7’s main villain has long been an important target of its critics. There seems to be a popular memory of Sephiroth as a ghoulish caricature of a super-villain, laughable in hindsight. (Some of this stems from his poor secondary characterization in later media like Kingdom Hearts and Advent Children.) His megalomania does indeed reach an absurd peak; he wants to kill everyone in the world in order to become a god. It’s easy to understand why such a goal can be perceived as melodramatic: it lacks human scale. Kefka, the main villain of FF6, is also an omnicidal maniac, but he doesn’t receive as much criticism for it because of his human flaws. Kefka is inconsistent, disorganized, and genuinely vulnerable (although wholly unsympathetic) at several points in the game. Sephiroth, by contrast, seems to be an untouchable opponent whose every plan works out perfectly the first time. When I replay the game, I too find his success to be a little too easy. But on the other hand, I wonder if this reaction is a product of our collective prejudices against JRPG villains, rather than being the product of a poor characterization of Sephiroth. Very few JRPG villains are genuinely or consistently intelligent. Other Squaresoft villains have their moments: Exdeath (FF5) waits until his opponents are at their weakest to make his move. Kefka has the brutal clarity to know he can get away with genocide as long as Gestahl needs him. Ultmecia (FF8) is an adept enough student of history to know exactly whom to manipulate to gain political power in a different era. Kuja (FF9) cunningly selects Brahne as the ideal aggressor in a war that benefits himself. The rest of the time, however, these villains succeed based on players and player characters being ignorant of their machinations. How many times in a JRPG does the player’s party fight their way through a dungeon only for the antagonists to simply appear, thank them for their labor, and steal the prize? Or how often is there an ancient secret whose nature is quite easily understood when one has all the proper information, but the villain is the only one who has that information? Or, worst of all, how often does a villain’s power or intelligence fluctuate wildly when it’s convenient for the plot? The repetition of these tropes has biased us against displays of intelligence from villains generally, and JRPG villains in particular.

Sephiroth is extremely intelligent, and is characterized as such on a very consistent basis. It would almost be absurd of the FF7 team to characterize him as anything but intelligent considering the backstory they made for him. He is the super-human child of two brilliant researchers. And, from the very beginning of his introduction to the party, his intelligence and affinity for science are clear.

Note that he isn’t struggling with any of the technical terms, or merely repeating something he read in a manual. Sephiroth gives us his understanding of Shinra science in a casual vernacular. He is even familiar enough with the personnel of the science department to (accurately) judge the relative merits of professor Gast and Hojo. He figures out almost everything that went on in the Shinra Mansion and Nibelheim reactor in a few days. Although his super-human strength and stamina obviously allow him to do things other humans cannot do, his mind also appears to be capable of great feats as well.

Sephiroth comes to the wrong conclusion at first, but only because he doesn’t know what Ilfana eventually told professor Gast. In that sense, he is the very opposite of a typical villain. A typical villain has access to secret knowledge, but often seems inept at actually putting that knowledge to use. Sephiroth has wrong and incomplete knowledge, but he comes very close to the truth because of his excellent comprehension. It’s easy to dismiss Sephiroth’s rantings as a convenient way to deliver some exposition and move the plot. That misses the ongoing characterization of Sephiroth as dangerously intelligent. In the crater, when Sephiroth realizes that it might not benefit him to fight the whole party and the incoming Shinra forces all at once, he manipulates Cloud and Tifa quite deftly. Although the graphics of FF7 were among the best of its time, they weren’t perfect. It’s easy to miss that during Sephiroth’s speech to Cloud and Tifa they are surrounded by the mutilated bodies of the Nibelheim villagers, like the one on the left in the screenshots below.

Making manipulative speeches over the bodies of dead loved ones takes an understanding of human connections and their meaning. This should puncture any image we have of Sephiroth as an inhuman evil. He understands, as well as any Final Fantasy villain before or since, human weakness and how to exploit it. He’s a terrible person, but his personhood is still a major factor in his characterization through most of the plot.

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