From the greatest SOLDIER 1st Class to the most dangerous adversary of The Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth’s fall from grace is reminiscent of a classic tragic hero. (Warning, contains spoilers).
Final Fantasy VII is lauded as one of the most stellar and revolutionary RPGs in the history of gaming. With its unforgettable story, enjoyable gameplay, and eclectic cast of characters, it retains an enduring presence. While Final Fantasy VII gave fans iconic content from the Buster Sword to Aerith’s death, one of the most legendary elements to come from the title is the game’s central antagonist, Sephiroth.
It is undeniable that Sephiroth is essentially a household name amongst those indulged in the gaming-verse. From his ostentatious silver-haired appearance to the intimidatingly long Masamune sword he wields, he stands out as an extraordinary character with a personality and ambition to match. Sephiroth possessed incredible power and a dangerous god complex, rendering him a formidable adversary that the main protagonist of Final Fantasy VII, Cloud Strife, was forced to reckon with in order to save the world. However, before assuming his role as a terrifying villain, Sephiroth was, in fact, very much the opposite.
Prior to the events of Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth was a part of the industrial enterprise and main governing force throughout most of Gaia, the Shinra Electric Power Company. He was a member of Shinra’s elite fighting force SOLDIER, known as the greatest SOLDIER 1st Class (The highest rank in SOLDIER) to exist. He gained acknowledgement and fame as a war hero in light of his endeavors in Shinra’s conflict with the nation of Wutai, rendering him an inspiration to many all over the world of Final Fantasy VII (Including the young Cloud Strife). However, upon learning the true nature of his birth and Shinra’s dark activities, Sephiroth fell into despair and eventual insanity, becoming enveloped with hatred and seeing himself as a superior, divine figure to all others. He subsequently became murderous and eventually plotted the destruction of Gaia, aiming to become a god by fusing with the life energy of the planet, known as the “lifestream.”
In light of Sephiroth’s initial status as a beloved and glorified figure in the world of Final Fantasy VII, his subsequent and severe fall from grace are heavily reminiscent of the path of a tragic hero. The journey of the tragic hero traditionally follows a protagonist or main character of great and decorated status who is ultimately fated for a downfall. The root cause of their fall is identified as their hamartia, or fatal flaw, which acts as the seeds of destruction for the tragic hero. The cycle of the tragic hero has many interpretations, ranging from basic steps to in-depth stages. In Sephiroth’s case, his character arc correlates quite closely with that of a traditional tragic hero as he, once revered as an inspiration and champion, descended into a dreadful state in which he would eventually be defeated as the threat of the world by Cloud and his friends.
With regard to significant elements which often classify characters as tragic heroes, Sephiroth verily fits several of these tropes. Oftentimes, a tragic hero is one of noble birth. Sephiroth was born to Shinra scientists Professor Hojo and Lucrecia Crescent, both of whom held significant positions at the company and spearheaded some of its most important experimental projects. In a sense, this could be viewed similarly to being of noble birth as Shinra is the central, autocratic force of Final Fantasy VII in light of their power over most of the world. Furthermore, Sephiroth was never told of his true parentage and instead only told that his mother’s name was “Jenova.” This corresponds to another element in the cycle of the tragic hero: the tragic flaw, or hamartia. Sephiroth was born as the superhuman individual he was due to various experiments performed on him at his earliest stages of development. Like a fetus, he was injected with cells belonging to an otherworldly entity discovered by Shinra, known as Jenova, who was thought to be an Ancient. The Ancients, properly known as the Cetra, were a mystical and near-extinct race of beings with special powers over the planet. They were believed to have the ability to lead Shinra to the supposedly mako-abundant (Mako being the power source they distribute) “Promised Land.”
Upon discovering this truth, Sephiroth mistakenly believes that Jenova is a Cetra, and under the impression that he is Jenova’s “son,” comes to the fallacious conclusion that he too, is one of the last remaining Cetra. Manipulated and lied to for most of his life, these factors and Sephiroth’s own mistaken judgments culminate into hatred for everyone around him, believing that humanity betrayed the Cetra many years ago and essentially “stole” the planet from them. The revelation of his origins ultimately became the catalyst for Sephiroth’s figurative demise and descent into madness. Thus, it can be concluded that Sephiroth’s tragic flaw was his lack of awareness of the artificial and unethical nature of his birth and upbringing as an instrument for Shinra’s greed.
Most who know the story and universe of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII understand that the true antagonists of the series go beyond Sephiroth and can conclusively be identified as the Shinra company, Professor Hojo, and Jenova. With this deeper acknowledgement of the true villains at fault, the audience feels even more pity for Sephiroth as his fate was a technical result of the three aforementioned antagonists’ actions. Examining the classic Greek tragic heroes, it was often the gods who would enforce an ill fate upon the character. Shinra’s relationship with Sephiroth can be seen in a similar manner, as they treated him like a tool, raised him to essentially serve them, and concealed the truth from him without regard for his feelings. It should also be noted that in Before Crisis – Final Fantasy VII –, a particular fight with an individual known as Elfe would strike Sephiroth emotionally.
In Sephiroth’s battle with Elfe, she asks him what his purpose for fighting is, leaving Sephiroth to question this very matter. With respect to these factors, Sephiroth’s understanding of the world and life around him can best be described as limited and narrow due to his extremely controlled environment. It is these circumstances that in a sense render Sephiroth as a real tragic hero. Having been at the disposal of others for so long, he finally broke down upon coming to understand that he was created and manipulated to serve the purpose of another and lacked the awareness that he could possess his own. In light of Elfe’s question prompting Sephiroth to seek out his reason to fight, the discovery of his “mother” and his supposed status as an “Ancient” gave way to a new purpose, which would ultimately be vengeance against humanity and Gaia’s destruction. In a broad examination of Sephiroth’s life and situation, it can be best described as tragic. He grew up with the truth hidden from him and was instead made to serve an organization that used him solely for their own greedy benefit to the extent of his own parents using him as the subject of their experimental endeavors.
While tragic heroes are typically protagonists in their stories, Sephiroth’s role as the essential antagonist doesn’t completely separate him from this archetype. With regard to the story and context to Sephiroth from the main events of the prequel game Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, this particular title depicted him as a character of good alignment for most of its narrative. Though still largely taciturn even in his most humane state of mind, Sephiroth was shown to be a caring individual with a dry sense of humor. Though he wasn’t particularly social, he had close friendships with fellow SOLDIER 1st Class members Angeal Hewley and Genesis Rhapsodos. In his bid to save these two friends from retribution, he even befriends Zack Fair in light of this shared goal. When the game reaches the infamous point at which Sephiroth uncovers the sinister truth about his origins, the audience sees a different side of him, a side of despair and genuine hurt over the revelations. In tandem with the journey of the tragic hero, this moment where Sephiroth sadly questions himself to be a monster is the point of catharsis for the audience; that is, the point in which fear and pity are felt for the tragic hero in name.
This was the moment that the heroic, admirable Sephiroth so prevalent and likable throughout the game ultimately begins his descent into destruction. This moment can also be acknowledged as a peripeteia of sorts, which denotes the “turning point” or reversal of fortune in the tragic hero’s arc. Crisis Core’s depiction of Sephiroth is effective in that it essentially gets the audience attached to him. Sephiroth started out as a strong hero who fights for his friends, a conventional pinnacle of sorts in likability. This makes his downfall that much more painful for the audience as they see someone who was once so great collapse into a path of ruin. Thus, with regard to Sephiroth’s long and arduous journey from the lauded hero to heinous villain, he effectively depicts an archetypal tragic hero.