Jimmy Breck-McKye

Developing opinions

Sephiroth, the Fake

Final Fantasy VII is about two men who discover they aren’t the heroes they wanted to be. The game is about other things - war, capitalism, ecocide to name a few - but I think how these men address their shame, and compete to overcome it, is its real engine.

I recently replayed the 1997 original as a way of preparing for Remake and Rebirth. I wanted a frame of reference to compare what the remakes got right and wrong. But I also was surprised at how well the original game held up, at the plot details and narrative subtleties I never noticed as a teenager.

And I started asking myself a question - why does Sephiroth lie? Why - exactly - does Sephiroth pretend that Cloud was never a real person? The answer I came to put a new turn on a story I’d long taken for granted.

Sephiroth’s lie

Of course, Cloud Strife is certainly a fantasist. He pretends to be a SOLDIER First Class and Sephiroth’s personal protege, witnessing the Nibelheim incident first hand. In truth, he flunked SOLDIER recruitment and was only there as a masked, anonymous grunt. Whilst he did confront Sephiroth, and even killed him, the rest of his story is stolen from Zack.

…But you probably already knew that.

The thing is, Sephiroth doesn’t just taunt Cloud with the truth. He goes a step further and says Cloud was never a real person to begin with. Just a clutch of mutant Jenova cells, constructed five years ago and assembled with Tifa’s memories. Why?

Some might say it’s revenge for Cloud humiliating Sephiroth in combat. But I don’t think revenge is enough of an explanation. If Sephiroth wanted a second fight he could dominate Cloud quite easily.

No, I think that to understand Sephiroth’s sadism, you have to understand Sephiroth’s shame. Sephiroth is subjecting Cloud to his own shame at discovering he’s a constructed being, whose achievements aren’t even his own.

Who IS Sephiroth?

When we’re introduced to Sephiroth, the Wutai War is over. The celebration of war heroes is fading away. Just like Cloud asks: “How does it feel, MISTER Sephiroth?”. With no hometown or parents, and now his status fading, he’s losing his identity.

Cloud and Sephiroth ask each other about their feelings of identity
Above: Cloud and Sephiroth ask mirrored questions about their feelings of identity

This is what frames the Nibelheim incident, the experience they shared. It’s about how Sephiroth’s identity dissolves.

At Nibelheim, Cloud and Sephiroth are shamed. Cloud is devastated by his failure to protect Tifa. Sephiroth discovers he’s a puppet - that everything he thought he achieved, really belongs to Shinra. But they deal with their shame in opposing ways.

Cloud chooses denial. He steals the sword and the story of Zack Fair, a better hero than Cloud ever was. (Even the name “Zack Fair” sounds more honorable than “Cloud Strife”). He cobbles Zack’s war stories into a fake persona and lives a mercenary fantasy.

Sephiroth, on the other hand, embraces the truth. If he’s not human, why can’t he be superhuman? Like teenaged Cloud, he responds to humiliation with an ego-protecting projection of superiority. Sephiroth adopts the persona of a gleeful sadist, exactly the monster he sees in himself.

But Sephiroth is a fake man too. Literally. Every time we see him, between the Flashback and the Whirlwind Maze, it’s really just Jenova taking Sephiroth’s form. The game doesn’t do a great job of explaining this, but it’s the reason we keep meeting Sephiroth and then fighting Jenova. These bodies are just carbon copies of Sephiroth as he used to be - the real Sephiroth is a half-dissolved torso, a corpse in a mako crystal.

If Sephiroth has a “thing”, throughout the FFVII Compilation, it’s his obsessive compulsion to re-create his image over and over. Through clones or hosts or mental projection, Sephiroth’s quote-unquote “superpower” is that his image has to persist through death. The same perfect body, over and over, never aging or dying.

It’s a mirror of Cloud’s own ego-protecting fantasy life. Neither man can let go of his self-image.

Sephiroth despises Cloud, I think, because Cloud is a fake man just like Sephiroth was, and he isn’t even ashamed. It’s projection: he says Cloud is a monster, a puppet, a fraud because that’s exactly how he witnesses himself. A half-human Shinra-staged failed hero manufactured by a scientist he hates. And that’s where his compulsion comes from, to regenerate his damaged self-image.

Truth versus illusion

On their second encounter at the Whirlwind Maze, Sephiroth defeats Cloud because embracing shame is more powerful than denying it. He confronts Cloud with the inconsistencies in his story and forces him to experience his shame.

Overwhelmed and unable to resist, the revelation literally buries Cloud alive as Sephiroth pulls them both underground.

With Tifa’s help, though, Cloud is able to change into a better man. Painfully at first, he acknowledges his failures and opens up to his friends. He’s humble and he accepts the past, without using it as an excuse to shirk responsibility for fixing his mistakes.

The “Great Sephiroth” can’t do that. He hides behind his half-alien heritage as an excuse. He knows well into the game that he’s no Cetra, he would just rather destroy the planet and erase his past than live in a world that humiliates him.

And that’s why he loses.

Endgame

Deep in the planet’s core, Cloud confronts Sephiroth for the third and final time. There are no words: after the Whirlwind Maze, he simply doesn’t have anything left to taunt you with.

Sephiroth reveals his “Bizarro” form, an undead torso birthing his own giant body. I think this grotesque, bulbous mess is actually the real Sephiroth. This is the game’s only multi-team battle and it illustrates Cloud’s journey, choosing friendship and community over narcissism and decay.

The game culminates in a fight with the angelic “Sepher” Sephiroth. The fake man has reinvented himself as a fake god. The location is nonsensical: a floating sky palace in fact deep underground. A backing track choir sings his praises in Latin as a “generous, glorious” god. He fights with illusions, at one point he appears to do no less than temporarily destroy the entire solar system.

There’s an irony to it though. Even in his ‘perfect body’, as Bizarro or Safer, he’s unable to regrow his legs. Literally half a man, even in his grandest illusions, it’s like his self-image was permanently maimed by his defeat at Nibelheim. That face is the rage of someone humiliated, someone seen.

Shame is the secret weakness of Sephiroth’s being. The compulsion to project his image over and over, initially a super power, ultimately traps him. He can’t escape his wounded self-image the way Cloud can, and illusions are no match for reality. Defeated, Safer-Sephiroth’s illusory body shatters into pieces and dissolves into air - literally, a hollow man.