More Final Fantasy essays, metas, and examinations can be found here.
Today is the 20th anniversary of Final Fantasy VII’s North American release. As with prior years, I always attempt to post something to commemorate the occasion, and I was fortunate enough to have this essay half completed (also fittingly as you’ll soon see). Despite being on vacation this week and the next, it was still a challenge to finish, and I nearly had to find an alternative to post, but my stubbornness prevailed, and I am able to celebrate my favorite story of all time’s release on the day it happened with writing, the method I love the most.
A Greek tragedy depicts the downfall of a basically good person through some fatal error or misjudgment, producing suffering and insight on the part of the protagonist and arousing pity and fear on the part of the audience. A true or full tragedy should evoke such, as they are natural human responses to the spectacle of suffering and pain, which causes relief at the end through catharsis as the spectators are purged of these feelings. There is a release in witnessing painful pageantry and its subsequent resolution, but when tragedy is halved, leaving all of the sorrow and none of the purge, the tale lingers without this necessary release.
The story of Final Fantasy VII has endured for two decades where countless other games are antiquity’s lost. It is frequently discussed and forever argued. There are neither clear cut answers to many of the questions the narrative asks, nor a satisfying release to the tragedy it presents. Lifting one side of the scale high in the air without the resolution of catharsis to balance. Like an unresolved seventh in music, the tragedy of the story lingers in respect to Sephiroth.
Though the origin of Greek tragedy is one of the unsolved problems of classic scholarship, it is still possible to trace its various influences from other genres. The stories it deals with stem from epic and lyric poetry, but how many of the factors came together in relation remains a mystery. The elements though are quite clear cut.
- Begins in media res
- Downfall of a basically good person
- Evoked pity, fear, catharsis from the audience
- Melody (Chorus)
In media res means “into the middle of things,” and a narrative work that starts such commences in the midst of action. Often exposition is bypassed then filled in gradually either through dialogue or flashback, the latter which is most decidedly used in the focus of our examination. Milton’s Paradise Lost is a famous example of such a work, and more recently George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire can be added to the annals, as well. Final Fantasy VII is a perfect example of in media res, literally starting in the midst of action with the train, which is an important metaphor in its own right.
The Final Fantasy series as a whole has a knack for dropping the player (audience) into the thick of things, casting the characters (and by extension the player) into precarious situations with cause unknown. FFX would be another example of this, though the flashback happens almost immediately, catching us up to the point in which Tidus was speaking in the supposed beginning, qualified because the true start of the narrative goes much further back.
When a story opens in the middle, that act itself leaves much to be resolved. The reader, watcher, or player is forced to rely on either a narrator or aspect of the narrative to fill them in on what the characters already know/have experienced. This is in contrast to stories that start at their beginning, (though I could argue that every story in some way starts in media res since we rarely see ones were we’re witness to every single significant character’s birth, life, and death) where we’re privy to all or most events of importance as we go along. Beginning the tale in such a way breeds ample opportunity for unanswered questions and lingering doubt.
The Greeks believed everything happened for a reason, and that the path they led in life was prescribed them by the gods. There is no escaping fate or destiny just as there is “no getting off this train,” a perfect metaphor for fate.
The pointed commentary about the plight of the impoverished notwithstanding, trains only go where their tracks are laid, and whoever is within is forced to experience the ride. While arguably one can choose when, where, and what to board non-metaphorically, life is thrust upon you or rather you are thrust upon it. The only way to “get off” is to die, which though an eventuality, does not occur until its designated time. Whether that time is designated by you or an outside force is irrelevant. Even the former could be argued to point to fate.
If the train one’s on leads to downfall and horror, is fate or free will culpable? If every thing happens for a reason and the path so laid is prescribed by the gods, then “fate monstrous and empty” is a burden one must bear with its horrifying consequences. Though hubris brings a potential “switch” in the tracks, a measure of control (if poorly chosen) in one’s circumstances,
The trifecta of tragedy is 1. the downfall of a basically good person through fatal error or misjudgment. 2. This produces suffering followed by insight on the part of the protagonist, which 3. leads to pity and fear on the part of the audience.
Only the first step occurs in Sephiroth’s case, with the remaining two-thirds left wanting for lack of knowledge, although the suffering aspect is certainly valid. Because only the first part of the trifecta is complete, the lack of the second increases fear while diminishing pity for many a player or “audience member,” thereby stymieing the third and leaving the seventh unresolved. Sephiroth’s hubris in believing he’s owed godhood is another stumbling block to sympathy. While he fits the mold of tragedy’s initial traits, the lack of insight for why he fell blocks the necessary pity needed in order to complete the circle; however, how can one have insight when knowledge is not only lacking, but replaced with lies?
Hubris is exaggerated/overbearing self-pride or self-confidence often resulting in fatal retribution. It’s no argument that perceived worthiness of godhood is exaggerated and overbearing pride, which classically and biblically has always gone before the fall, and VII doesn’t fail in this. The once Great General makes a severely fatal misjudgement that leads not only to his, but many innocents,’ demise; however, it is this fatal judgement that should be the key to unlocking pity on the audience’s end.
The tragic hero must be essentially admirable and good, which is what Sephiroth was. He was an aloof, but certainly heroic character that everyone looked up to, a paradigm presented even more blatantly in FFVII’s prequel Crisis Core. In true tragedy, the hero’s fall must come as a result of some personal error or decision. The game plays with this as Sephiroth’s downfall is outwardly presented as his choice. He reads about his creation for seven days in the basement of the Shinra Mansion, and then decides all his future actions will be to punish/destroy humankind by harvesting the world they inhabit, never realizing that his entitlement is entirely unwarranted and based on falsehoods he believes about a being that isn’t even his mother..
Surface-wise his actions are reprehensible, but it is not even a fraction of the story. He should’ve had this knowledge before ever coming to Nibelheim and arguably would have had his real mother not run/been driven away. The information he garnered was near thirty years old and severely outdated. Because the lack of knowledge makes insight impossible, the necessary catharsis at the end of the tragedy never occurs.
It’s ironic that this serves to stymie sympathy, since it’s yet another thing the once general lacks in order to avoid the inevitable. If one is led down a bad path, one still (arguably) has the choice whether or not to continue upon (though the concept of choice itself is tenuous at best). For the purpose of tragedy, though, there is no innocent victim, which is more than supported by Sephiroth being the primary antagonist of the game. He’s at least the visible or shown actor, regardless of what is really pulling the puppet strings.
The excavated entity named Jenova was not an Ancient like the original finders believed, but of alien origin and an eldritch abomination. While it is possible that Sephiroth was convinced to and therefore chose to side with it, the fact that it’s a known manipulator of minds and he thought it was his mother must be taken into account. The tragic hero always bears at least some responsibility for his own doom, but since the gods are the arbiters of fate, and the false mother, itself occupying a position of godhood, steered its wanting “son’s” desires to apotheosis, sympathy for such a plight if not the fear that one could fall into such a trap (given the proper circumstances) should be a logical emotion. It is not possible for him to be entirely the author of his own downfall.
Mother is the name for god on the lips and hearts of all children.
-William Makepeace Thackery
Sins of the Father
Oedipus Rex is not only the paragon of Greek tragedy, but clearly influenced integral aspects of Final Fantasy VII especially in regards to Sephiroth’s story arc. Both narratives, despite the centuries that separate them, are testaments to dramatic irony, as well.
Oedipus is doomed before birth due to the actions of his father King Laius who violated the sacred laws of hospitality when he was the guest of another king in his youth. Later when his son was born, Laius consulted an oracle who prophesied the child would slay him who was his father and marry her who’d given him birth. In horror, Laius pins the infant’s feet together and gives him to his wife Jocasta, ordering her to kill him. Unable to murder her own son, the queen orders a servant to do the deed. The man takes the child away and exposes him on a mountaintop where he is found by a shepherd (though in some versions the servant directly gives the babe over to him). The shepherd names the child Oedipus, which means “swollen feet,” and brings him to Polybius, the childless king of Corinth who raises him as his own.
As he nears manhood, Oedipus hears a rumor that he might not be the blood of Polybius and his wife Merope, so he seeks out the Oracle of Delphi to ask who his real parents are. The Oracle ignores this question; however, telling him that he’s destined to mate with his mother and slay his father. Hearing this Oedipus leaves his “homeland” in order to avoid this “terrible fatum” and goes to the city of Thebes.
So true to form, Oedipus Rex starts in media res with the titular character already established as the Theban king, which he attained by solving the riddle of the Sphinx. Unbeknownst to him, he slew his father Laius on the way to the city, and as Thebes is currently without monarch and Oedipus saved it from the Sphinx’s curse, he is granted the kingship and takes the widowed queen Jocasta to wife.
The legitimate action of the play itself is relatively brief in comparison to the tragic setup with the mise-en-scène being the unavoidable results of the foretold. Through Oedipus’s actions to uncover the cause of the plague ravaging Thebes, he discovers the truth about himself, which reveals the people he thought were his parents were not so (in the biological sense), and in actively seeking to avoid the “terrible fatum,” Laius and Jocasta caused it to occur. This concept is echoed in another Oracle’s question to the protagonist of The Matrix, Neo.
…what’s really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?
It’s as though the past (Laius and Jocasta) speaks to the future (Oedipus), and though the communication goes both ways, it isn’t enough to dismantle the tragic hinge. By the time Oedipus finds out what’s he’s supposed to do, he’s already done it, and the actions of his own sire and dam to keep it from happening cause it to occur. They are all not only victims of fate, but of time in either being informed too soon or too late. Had the former king of Thebes not received such a prediction, he never would’ve taken the actions that caused it to be fulfilled, and that’s exactly it. Had he not been told his son would murder him and commit incest with his own mother the terrible fate would not have occurred, but fate has to happen per the Grecian belief, and men are merely pawns.
We are puppets dancing on the strings of those before us.
-George R. R. Martin “A Clash of Kings”
After Oedipus’s “crimes” are revealed, he flees while the chorus laments how even a great man can be felled by fate. The chorus, a staple of Greek productions is potentially paralleled in FFVII with the game’s leitmotifs, which are songs that represent particular characters. The chorus serves to comment on the dramatic action with a collective voice, and music is used for the very same purpose. Each character’s individual song could be considered their own personal chorus, and their leitmotifs are utilized and emphasized for dramatic effect. “Aeris’s Theme” swells at the moment of her death, and “Those Chosen by the Planet” (the song that plays when Cloud searches for Sephiroth in the basement of the Shinra Mansion) erupts into an ominous organ on top of the already chilling layer of bells and drums like a shattered heartbeat.
A great man can be felled by fate, and “One Winged Angel” echoes both the “fell” in its title and “fate” in its original lyrics:.
Sors imanis et inanis (Fate monstrous and empty)
and its Advent Children verse (which has been quoted throughout) of
Terrible fatum (Terrible fate)
The Advent version also gives the warning
Ille iterum veniet (He will come again)
which is due to retribution without insight. The cycle will never be broken, because that integral part was denied.
In looking at the lyrics to Advent’s “One Winged Angel,” I could write a brief essay on that alone as it compares to the motifs of Oedipus Rex, but I’ll save that for another time.
When Oedipus returns, he calls for a sword in order to cut out his mother’s womb. Raging through the house until he comes upon Jocasta who has hung herself in the bedroom. In despair Oedipus takes the gold brooches from her dress and plunges them into his eyes binding himself, which is a callback to a prior conversation with Tiresias the prophet who, though sightless, saw more than Oedipus the King. Now grieving and humbled, the once monarch begs to be exiled, but his final fate for the time remains unknown until the oracles can be consulted, thus bringing the tragic story right back to where it began.
Sins of the Son
Final Fantasy VII is a bookend with its first and last image being Aeris, the last Cetra, a maiden goddess figure who references if not parallels Persephone, speaker to and for the dead, and potential prophetess. She is killed by Sephiroth (or at the very least by Jenova in Sephiroth’s form). Sephiroth is a fallen angel, “man in black,” Lucifer/Satan/Antichrist analogue who fits the mold of Hades to her Persephone. He “steals” her away to the underworld he’s already trapped in by killing her, and the fact that he does so by transfixion adds a blatant rape metaphor to the action, which is heavily implied in the Hades/Persephone myth itself. Note that the Latin word for “steal” comes from the word rapere, which is of course where the term “rape” originates.
Whether or not the strike would have instantly killed her is not an issue for this examination. What matters is that the Masamune exits in the exact same location as Jenova’s tube, which is where the womb would be.
When Oedipus discovers what fate has wrought, he seeks to cut out Jocasta’s womb, which two daughters (and half-sisters), Antigone and Ismene, were born from, but that vessel should never have produced such fruit. The disgraced king’s actions suggest that by excising the part he and his mother/queen sinned with, he excises the sin, as well.
Jocasta should never have become a mother by her son. This act taints motherhood into the profane and could be considered a “horror of the body” in terms of what it created in comparison to Jenova’s Body Horror, which (among other things) indicates what it cannot.. The “pierced womb” of the eldritch abomination reflects that, and the transfixion of Aeris mirrors it.
Aeris and Jenova are the primary god/goddess figures of the game, one light and pure, one dark and corrupted. By giving Aeris the same wound, the fallen general emphasizes their contrasting connection all the more, and if we consider that “Sephiroth” is Jenova wearing his skin than the alien entity is “personally” trying to taint the true goddess so that she is just as corrupt. This, of course, fails, but the sentiment and symbolism behind it is staggering.
The tube running through Jenova (and arguably the “eye nipple,” as well) expresses the same sentiment as well as hinting at the truth Sephiroth never knows. The seemingly comatose alien’s “motherhood” is profane in its falsehood. Its grey skin renders it corpselike, and the impaling of its womb further drives home the point that no life can nor should come out of that which is both dead and corrupt, just as no issue should’ve come from Jocasta’s womb by her son’s seed. But fate uses men as pawns, and Sephiroth (though enhanced) is no different. It necessitates the once general’s belief by rendering it impossible for him to know any different. The only people who know have either abandoned him, are actively using him, or dead.
Though Oedipus is a tragedy of unavoidable fate, the fallen king still has something that the fallen angel lacks: insight. As fore mentioned tragedy depicts the downfall of a basically good person through some fatal error/misjudgment, which produced suffering. Both Sephiroth and Oedipus share this path, but they diverge right before the most integral part: where the protagonist’s suffering grants them insight and knowledge as to why everything occurred.
Oedipus suffered because he was granted the truth (which leads to an “ignorance is bliss” supposition), but Sephiroth’s came from a foundation of falsehood, which led to erroneous conclusions, insanity/manipulation, and him externalizing his wrath to lash out upon the world he believed falsely robbed him and his “mother” of their due. The king of Thebes lacked the truth about himself and his origins, as well, which led to his downfall and had he this information beforehand, no tragedy would’ve occurred. However, Oedipus was eventually granted this knowledge, which allowed insight on his part. This is the necessary component to arouse pity and fear on the part of the audience at the spectacle of suffering. We then think “But for the grace go I,” and are able to experience relief through catharsis.
Their situations stand in opposition. Oedipus begins with false information and eventually learns the truth, which leads to his downfall, insight, and garnered pity from the watchers. Sephiroth begins with fragmented knowledge and finds only lies to fill in the cracks, which lead to his downfall…but that’s where it ends. He is defeated without ever knowing the truth.
This is expected of a tragic protagonist as they typically commit some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant they are. When they realizes their error, the world slowly crumbles around them, but this part never happens for Sephiroth, since he has no information or agency to recognize his hamartia or fatal flaw. Due to what is revealed, he tries to make the world crumble to fit (what he believes is) his will, becoming the villainous actor instead of the passive victim, yet he still remains a victim of fate.
Retribution is the inevitable cosmic payback for the act of hubris, which Oedipus inflicts upon himself and what Cloud inflicts upon Sephiroth. Oedipus’s retribution occurs at the instant revelation lays him low, and the horrified king punishes himself, showing insight leads to internal conflict and self-induced physical suffering to parallel mental grief.
Sephiroth’s retribution is inflicted upon him after he destroys Nibelheim due to outdated and fallacious information. There is no insight that can be gained from such, and indeed, the generally immediately turns his wrath outward onto the humans he believed robbed him of his birthright and due. He is “killed” nearly immediately without ever knowing the truth, and the fact that he comes back again and again lends itself to the idea that insight would break this cycle (i.e. “The truth will set you free.”)
The tragedy is ironically increased by being halved. The seventh is unfinished. Fear is certainly experienced by the audience/players in Sephiroth’s case, but it is fear of without the ubiquitous pity, but pity should be granted. The same things that lead the sympathetic Oedipus to his downfall also waylaid Sephiroth. The only difference is lack of knowledge, which means the necessary insight can’t occur, and this is possibly what stymies sympathy.
As an audience, we are used to all the parts of the Greek tragedy falling into place (whether we are aware of what a Greek tragedy entails doesn’t matter. It’s part of the zeitgeist), and if some pieces are missing, it distorts our reactions, leading some to unquestioningly follow the line of Sephiroth’s unequivocal villainy, which is unfair. One would not consider Oedipus the villain of his story despite the fact he killed his father then married and copulated with his mother. Oedipus lacks the knowledge and information to avoid this fate (which per the Greeks is unavoidable).
Sephiroth not only shares the same ignorance as Oedipus at the beginning of their respective narratives, he also never gains it in the end. Both king and general start off on equal footing: in a position of power and respect. Oedipus cannot morally hold his place, and though it might appear that Sephiroth sets out and achieves a higher one (one winged angel), it is one of corruption, festering on a foundation of lies. His character goes from hero/protagonist to both monstrous and the seeming villain of the game, though he is not the author of his own destruction. With even less than was granted to Oedipus, Sephiroth should theoretically be even more sympathetic. He’s not because the audience expects insight regardless of circumstances, but insight cannot come without knowledge.
The audience is not to blame for their fear and loathing. Sephiroth becomes a fearful figure in his final form, borrowing the same body horror from his false mother. Oedipus, with his eyes gouged out, is a lesser version of this; however as the king disfigured himself due to the truth but the fallen angel did so due to lies is the core difference.
According to Aristotle, it is not so much the story itself, but the arrangement of the incidents and the way they are presented to the audience that defines the plot. Tragedies occur where the outcome depends on a tightly constructed cause-and-effect chain of actions. They are therefore inherently plot driven with the characters unwillingly swept up into their flow, which again lends itself to the metaphor of FFVII’s train. Not only are you unable to “get off,” but there is also not a choice in whether you will ride in the first place. This is of course counter to our idea, or worse, dream of free will, and it is another factor for why insight and catharsis are so necessary to the structure of tragedy. We require the lull of pitying the hero made monstrous by unavoidable fate, so that we can continue to hope that we are not at the mercy of such, that our choices do truly matter, and (if we are wise with them) this will keep us from such horror.
Oedipus garners more pity because the mise-en-scène of the play is only the result of fate’s cruelty. Conversely, it is either deliberately said or implied that Sephiroth had a powerful will, meaning he chose to take the actions of apotheosis that led to his destruction, but what is will without knowledge? What kind of choice can be made with less than truth?
Tragedy by definition deals with love, loss, pride (hubris), the abuse of power, and the fraught relationship between men and gods. Oedipus and Sephiroth both have an unnatural love for mother figures where Oedipus’s is his actual mother and Sephiroth’s is an eldritch abomination, which makes the affection doubly unnatural.
Both Squeenix’s magnum opus and Sophocles’ premier play are precipitated by not only loss as in death, but far greater and overarching ones due to shattering the natural order. Oedipus marries his mother and produces children with her. Sephiroth attempts to become a god by merging with an alien, eldritch abomination which he believes gave him birth. This symbolizes and implies copulation, considering it “produces” the Safer Sephiroth form, which could either be considered a combination of Jenova and Sephiroth (which is what a “child” would be) or the final stage of the latter’s corruption (which is what Jenova’s manipulation did to its “child”). Regardless, it is as visually and symbolically profane as the moral bankruptcy of Jocasta birthing children by Oedipus, her son..
Sephiroth is an “unnatural” creation himself (through no fault of his own), being a human/alien hybrid though both of his parents are of this world. This is possible due to hubris and the abuse of power, which go hand in hand with Oedipus’s murder of his father on the way to marrying his mother as a result.
Sephiroth’s situation is more complicated as he is first abused by power: his father whom he hates and wishes to kill. Hojo (the father) uses his son (and wife) as an experiment prior to birth by injecting him with alien cells while in utero and after birth as a specimen for his own twisted designs on godhood and perfection. Sephiroth is also used by the Shinra Corporation, and he eventually kills the president, who could be considered the father of such, before absconding with Jenova. He is then used, manipulated and/or tempted by the eldritch abomination, which compels him to abuse the power given to him by his biological father and father-like Shinra in terms of the power’s source. Both are of course evil and corrupt with the term “Shinra” possibly meaning “dark god.”
It would be far more outrageous for Sephiroth not to become a fallen angel given that earthly and human corruption (Hojo and the Shinra Corporation) bestow upon him heavenly corruption (Jenova) through a false mother figure, and his biological mother abandoned him, leaving not even a trace of her existence to cling to.
The relationship between men and gods shows the gods are callous and cruel, caring nothing about humanity’s fate. The oracles and prophets in Oedipus only reveal with will happen prior to the plays start or give cryptic responses to what’s already been set in place. They offer no comfort nor chance at change, no power to escape the horrid path. What was foretold will come to pass with neither care nor compassion to whom it will destroy.
This is a shadow of what the Cthulhu Mythos, as created by H. P. Lovecraft with its eldritch abominations (i.e. Jenova), professes. The universe does not care about you. Neither the lives nor happiness of men mean anything in the grand scheme of the cosmos. Jenova is an alien entity that feeds off the energy of planets, and it could not care less that doing so will render all life extinct. The Lovecraft philosophy could almost imply the universe is selfish, but selfishness requires some kind of emotion, and his universal model was wholly amoral as opposed to immoral.
In presenting itself as half a tragedy, Final Fantasy VII creates an unresolved seventh, a bottomless chasm for catharsis to fester in as it waits in vain for release. Though Oedipus Rex is the epitome of tragic, in its completion of the cycle, it leaves its audience with a satisfaction that in the end renders them whole. The king discovers the truth about himself and suffers for the cruelty of fate, and in the spectacle of this suffering that leads to insight, both he and the audience find release. It doesn’t absolve him of his “crimes,” but in discovery of them, Thebes is freed from its plague for the rightful scapegoat has been found.
Final Fantasy VII sets up a similar situation in Sephiroth’s lack of knowledge about his origins, but denies him the necessary insight and catharsis that only the truth can wake. This may be the reason the story of VII endures even twenty years to this day. While not everyone agrees with Sephiroth’s pitiable plight, there are more than enough to keep the decades old discourse open for debate to freely flow.
An unresolved seventh shivers upon its own instability, yearning to shed its dissonance, but Final Fantasy’s seventh doesn’t know how. It lacks the ability to do so, and despite all of the pieces being present, the melody can never resolve. The answers exist outside of the necessary ken for you can only have knowledge you are given, and you can only act on what you are told..