Overexposed – Sephiroth & the FFVII Villain Dilemma

Overexposed - Sephiroth & the FFVII Villain Dilemma

Spoiler warning: This piece makes a basic assumption that the reader had played 2020’s Final Fantasy VII Remake, or at least has basic awareness of the aspects of FFVII that have made their way into the wider popular culture.

I still remember where I was when Sony’s E3 press conference for 2015 took place. This is possibly in part because I was, as were many people, at home. It was dumb luck in my case – a random day off accredited to a blip on the work calendar, not clairvoyant foresight.


I can recall the firmness of the sofa, though, the texture of the fabric; how it dug in under my upper thigh as I sat increasingly forward as the announcements rolled on. Somewhere in the back of my mind, the part of me that knew I was a grown-arse adult – with years of freelance bylines in numerous gaming publications, no less – likely felt a hot flush of embarrassment at the fanboy-like behaviour that was seemingly bubbling inside the marrow of my bones, scarcely contained.


There was a lot for someone such as myself to get excited about in this conference, spearheaded by a big three: The Last Guardian being resurrected from purgatory and Shenmue 3 somehow being a real thing were perhaps the biggest deals to me, personally, but their cultural impact paled in comparison to another announcement.

That shade of teal. I recognised it as well as anyone. After years of baiting and then denying its fans of their most-voiced desire, Square-Enix was masterfully displaying how to tease the real thing. All of the letdowns and missteps of the past suddenly felt a part of some grand, intentional ploy. The Final Fantasy VII Remake was a reality, and the reveal trailer damn near played an entire generation of gamers like a violin. A classic Stradivari violin, original maple. That trailer achieved brilliance.

FFVII Cloud and Sephiroth

While such an announcement may seem like the easiest home-run imaginable, successfully unifying almost the entirety of a fanbase as large as this one in excitement is no easy task. 1997 – the year that Final Fantasy VII originally released – is a long time ago, and that distance only grows with each passing day. Many readers may not even have been born yet. Time has passed and interpretations have formed; what made the game so special may well (will almost certainly) depend on to whom you speak. 

I, for one, can confidently tell you that the 2005 film, Advent Children, is hot garbage that missed the point completely. But some people apparently liked it. Some people like Hershey’s chocolate, too, for what that’s worth.

And so, come early 2020, with fresh pandemic hell breaking out, Final Fantasy VII Remake did the seemingly impossible and actually released for the PlayStation 4 console. Even more impressive, rather than being a disaster that some weirdos still liked anyway, not only was it good – it felt fresh and, by and large, managed to appease the fanbase more-or-less in its totality.


I legitimately loved it. It remains my favourite game of that calendar year. There were a few niggles – things like inconsistent visual quality, or how the active player-character always drew disproportionate enemy attention – but nothing so bad as to ruin the experience. Not even close. In fact, the thing that came closest to undermining the achievement was perhaps the most quintessential example of spoon-feeding the fans what they love.

To wit: by far my biggest beef with what remains a fantastic remake of Final Fantasy VII is that there was far, far too much Sephiroth.

FFVII Cloud and Sephiroth Battle

It’s perhaps ironic, then, that the thing that made this excess stand out was the total absence of something else entirely. Final Fantasy VII Remake takes the first few hours of the original game – those that take place in the megalopolis of Midgar – and fleshes them out into a more meaningful 30-or-so hour experience. In doing this, though, it also managed to completely eschew probably my favourite scene from this original section of the game.

You could argue that this is a case of Square-Enix needing to kill its darlings for the greater overall good, but this was still arguably a selective process. In some aspects, Remake also seemed to be taking extreme lengths to keep them alive, plump and well-fed.

This one particular scene was gone, but Sepheiroth – the eventual, ultimate villain of the story – was freaking everywhere. Or, perhaps more accurately, because Sephiroth was freaking everywhere, this scene, in particular, might have had to have been removed.

The scene in question? A failed rescue mission. Or, more specifically, the failed part of the rescue mission. After breaching Shinra HQ in an attempt to rescue the kidnapped Aerith, Cloud and company find themselves locked up in a series of cell-like rooms within the very building they had broken into.

Final Fantasy VII allowed itself a moment to breathe here, to stretch out its fingers and toes. There was no need to rush forward; this was a moment for building atmosphere and putting the characters into a situation where they would be forced to reflect, to mull over their purposes and question why it is they’re doing what they’re doing. There was no secret hole in the wall, no accidentally dropped key, no faked illness to try and trick a guard… and not just because such things would be illogical.

Eventually, the party decides to get some sleep.

FFVII Cloud and Sephiroth Duel

Things start to get strange when Cloud wakes up. It’s easy to imagine his confusion, the sticky sweat on his brow. Something is off, and he is alone with this knowledge; the rest of his party is still blissfully resting. The door to his cell is open, and just outside and down the hall lies the body of the guard that had been stationed to keep an eye on them. Perfectly motionless. Dead.

To date, I don’t know if I’ve experienced a ‘what the actual hell?’ moment in a videogame as impactful as this scene, and the game is again in no rush to play its hand. Cloud returns to his cell and is able to use a key from the deceased guard’s body to release his companions. The cast of characters share the player’s confusion and mildly-disgusted wonder as they leave the cells behind them and return to their journey, only to now find the walls and floor clearly marking the path forward with bountiful smearings of blood.

Until this point, each room and floor had behaved like a good little video game and presented a variety of challenges that needed to be completed in order to progress, be they sneaking past enemies or finding a series of keycards. None of that matters any more. The music evokes slow strings, somehow suits what a haunted house vibe might be like if said house were a cyberpunk skyscraper where the player now simply has to follow an almost-metallic trail of messy red. It’s a hugely powerful removal of expected mechanics, a shake-up of a shake-up that underscores just how unreal, how unexplained this sudden change of circumstance is. It’s like the tectonic plates of the very narrative themselves were able to wake Cloud as they shifted beneath his sleep to set up this moment.

Finally, the original game and Remake meet up, in a luxurious office at the very top of Shinra tower. The president of this life-sucking, planet-destroying mega-corp is dead at his desk, his term as lead villain cut brutally short. An assassination, in a sense, if such an act can have theatrics and intentional mess; a statement of intent and power and narrative presence. While a few simple narrative beats are shared (both games see Cloud and company fight the deceased president’s son, Rufus), the original uses this as a chance to turn Sephiroth into a character of scope and scale that Remake, by default of creative decisions that came out to play well before this point, simply can not. It takes all of this strangeness, this seeming unreality, this unexplainable, unstoppable something and doesn’t grant it a face. At this point, it merely gives it a name. 



Sephiroth Levitating

For much of the 1997 release, Sephiroth is not a character. He is a myth, a legend. An idea. He could be those things back then, though, because the world had no idea of who or what he was, because the fanbase was yet to exist. There was nobody asking for him. It is perhaps ironic that the things that made him such an excellent villain back then have made it incredibly difficult – maybe even impossible – for him to hit with the same impact today. Fans understandably started drawing fan art, making costumes, writing alternative (and often horny) fan-fiction. That’s just fans being fans.

And, of course, Square-Enix (then still Squaresoft), being a for-profit company, would read this enthusiasm and then act very much like a for-profit company.

Sephiroth would go on to enjoy cameos in everything from Kingdom Hearts to Smash Bros. to Puzzles & Dragons. People have or have had Sephiroth plushies at the ends of their beds, posters of him on their walls, prints of him on their shirts. Some may even be wearing his scent. Sephiroth is a phenomenon, now a product of popular demand, the catch-phrase that one cannot detangle themselves from. The demand would inevitably always be for more, and Final Fantasy VII Remake absolutely delivered on this. Sephiroth pops up early, and continues to appear throughout the game, going so far as to take boss fight status despite this being just the first in a trilogy-scale project.

While there will no doubt be surprises in store when Rebirth releases shockingly soon, it seems likely that Sephiroth’s screen presence will only expand. I have every faith that this game is going to be excellent and that, importantly, the team has really started to figure out the work-flow required for this humongous project, but fan expectation and pressure is an even stranger beast than usual where the seventh Final Fantasy is concerned. I fully expect a few twists and surprises to pop up, but you can’t take too many liberties without giving the fans at least some of what they want, and Square-Enix seems happy enough to give and give when it comes to Sephiroth.

For a brief moment, Sephiroth was everywhere because he was nowhere. 


Now he is merely in a lot of places.

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