[This piece was first published exclusively to patrons at Final Fantasy VII: Camera and Composition – Part 3. What was originally an excerpt of the piece here has been edited to contain the whole text as of 11th February 2015. If you like what you see and wish to support my writing while gaining access to patron-exclusive articles (one per month) and artwork, zoom on over to Patreon and sign up as a patron.]
All throughout the story of Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth taunts our hero Cloud over deep-seated uncertainty of his identity. Cloud is a puppet, a military goon, a freelance nobody. He is a lost child, a second-hand personality, a repressed psyche. Although Cloud tries to overcome it, he eventually crumbles under the truth of it all. And then he builds himself back up, by acknowledging these factors of his existence as a part of reality he simply must accept.
But Sephiroth is above this. He considers himself a transcendent being, the only one on the planet of true significance, the only one real. Sephiroth’s bliss is his folly.
In previous articles on Final Fantasy VII’s composition, we examined how its form is dedicated to the task of communicating its many interlocking themes. We saw how visual symmetry can signify the spiritual harmony of a scene’s key inhabitants, and how the past looms large on our heroes’ trials to come. We noticed the subtle ways Cloud’s identity becomes a subject of doubt and distance for us as players. And we met a great big dragon.
Now we’re knee-deep in the Nibelheim Incident. Cloud, Sephiroth, Tifa et al are ready to hike up to the Reactor on the nearby mountaintop, where they hope to discover what has been causing a sudden boom in monster attacks. We’ll find out soon how all these threads are drawn together in beautiful compositional affect.
Our first glimpse of Mount Nibel arrives in the form of a cutscene of a sweeping panorama. First impressions are it looks like a Christmas tree dipped in tar, which is actually not terribly far from the truth. Ok it’s pretty far from the truth, but the instant provocative imagery is useful: Mount Nibel has the same blackening gloom of death as Midgar. We know straight away there’s a link here to how the Shinra capital has bleached its earth of Mako. Mount Nibel is nearly parched of the planet’s lifeblood thanks to just one single reactor. Bastards.
It’s a nice FMV cutscene, which are generally reserved for Important Things and as rewards to the player for one reason or another. In this context it may be intended as consolation after a rather long period of walking around a town and talking to people, followed by another period of walking around another town and talking to more people.
If FFVII were released today the whole Nibelheim Incident would probably get slammed for not being ‘game’ enough, in that it’s basically what is derogatorily referenced nowadays as a “walking simulator.” Players of such a mindset might be pleased to know there is a tiny ‘dungeon’ area coming up shortly where they can press O to Attack creatures, which is universally accepted as gameplay and thus sufficiently ‘game’.
Before we continue let’s just take note of a sly nod to Norse mythology here. Cloud mentions “the cold air of the mountains of Nibel” which as far as I know is the only reference to Nibelheim’s climate. It’s a cool little homage to the etymology of the town’s name which we’ll be expanding on later.
Moving on, the first area of the trip to the reactor is this super-wide shot of a windy linear path along the mountain face. It’s also our first compositional treat for the day.
Wide shots like this allow the developers to encompass large distances without the need for multiple pre-rendered screens—it’s a lot of walking (and typically battling) for the player but not too much work for the devs. We can sense this conservative attitude sometimes while playing a section of a game that tends to be a bit stingy with itself since it usually amounts to a somewhat unpleasant play experience. The monotony of climbing (more or less) the same stairwell over and over in the Shinra Headquarters is a prime example whose repetitive nature was a sacrifice we may have opted into taking.
In a wide shot like this on Mount Nibel random battles often punctuate periods of walking, both slowing travel and tossing in some variety. For a game reliant on fresh visual and narrative stimuli to denote progression, it feels a slog just to get to the next screen. We needn’t worry about that in this case because the game does the walking for us, but at the back of our minds we nevertheless register ‘wide landscape shot with one linear path’ as ‘quite a long and dull distance to traverse.’ A nice bit of storytelling that blends level design, camerawork and ludology for you there.
So the player enters from the bottom-left, winds all the way to the right hand side, then up and back around to exit the shot at the rope bridge you can glimpse here. Because we’re climbing a mountain the general thrust of our progression to the reactor is upwards, which will remain consistent all throughout this part of the game. As always, the camera tracks Cloud’s movement across the area but when he reaches the top-most point of this leg of the trek, the camera has the rope bridge positioned in the lower third of the screen. This tells us we’ve still a long way to go.
Now look at that, we’ve only been walking for ten seconds but already we’re very high up. Thankfully we can depend on that nice sturdy bridge to see us over the chasm.
It collapses, and the party falls hundreds of feet to the cold stone below. The only damage is that one of the Shinra MPs, whose name could very possibly be Gary, goes missing from the fall. Plummeting to one’s death seems impossible in this world so Gary’s probably fine but the group decides to continue without him.
They soon enter a green –sorry, a mysteriously coloured cave.
Our detour takes us to areas of the mountain not yet been drained of Mako by Shinra, and an opportunity for exposition on the connection between Mako, materia, magic, and what Sephiroth calls ‘the wisdom of the Ancients’. I’ve played FFVII half a dozen times and each time I basically forget everything they say here, such is my memory.
Keeping with the pattern of verticality, the exit to the mysteriously coloured cave is upwards. The camera pans from its current position rather than tracks, so distance is created between Cloud and the camera when he moves through the area. Feels like progression.
The shot here begins at the top of the rendered area, following the columns of light around the Mako fountain before heading down and left to our party’s entry point into the scene. More on that in a second, but first I want to look at this lovely close-up of the gang as they gather around the Mako fountain for a chat.
I like what happens in this shot for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is the comfortable way it depicts the party. Sephiroth is generous with his knowledge of Mako and materia in spite of Tifa’s implied rebuke of Shinra’s plundering. Tifa is comfortable around nature and is not afraid to raise questions which Sephiroth invariably answers.
On the other hand, Cloud is chastised by Sephiroth-senpai for his continued lack of awareness. When he calls Mako “a mysterious power” both Tifa and Sephiroth share a moment of exasperation at his silly attempts to sound cool and thoughtful. Bearing in mind Tifa’s description of the cave as “mysteriously coloured” did not meet with a similar rebuke from Sephiroth, and that only moments ago Sephiroth himself unscientifically called the fountain a miracle of nature, it seems his problem might be more Cloud’s attitude than his choice of words.
As the story goes on Cloud will eventually shed this desire for an image and find some legitimate respect for nature, but for now it marks him the butt of a joke between Tifa and Sephiroth. This adds a little bit of complexity to the shot’s visual composition: Cloud is an interloper in the others’ conversation despite placing himself close to Tifa; Sephiroth is divided from the group by the fountain but united in his interest in and willingness to share knowledge of the natural world.
Throughout these few scenes a connecting relationship begins to show from Tifa’s and Sephiroth’s interactions. Cloud tends to frame Sephiroth’s relevance to AVALANCHE as exclusively through his own past connections with the villain and ultimately the game follows his self-centredness, but Tifa also had perhaps the bones of mutual respect, shattered by his upcoming betrayal.
Moving on with our journey, a skip and a jump takes up straight to the foot of the reactor. It’s a glorious muddy mess of sheet metal and pipes as we would expect from our time in Midgar.
At the foot of the stairs our group disassembles despite having never reassembled since last we saw them—strange, that. Cloud and Sephiroth tell Tifa to wait outside while they go on, so suddenly these social barriers that had been fizzling down are right back up again: these are Shinra personnel, separating them from civilians by rank and authority. Corporate decree rules firm and Tifa is left outside with the remaining MP.
Anyway, I don’t envy whoever had to drag all that steel and concrete up the mountain and across that rickety rope bridge. But it’s no wonder it eventually gave way under pressure—poor thing must have been shattered from a lifetime supporting heavy cargo and equipment. Another victim to the capitalist machine.
Let’s look a little closer at the reactor’s insides.
Shinra architects are mad.
At the top of the room is a mysterious chamber labelled “Jenova” – the name of Sephiroth’s mother. We’ve gotten the feel of moving upwards to progress our investigation of the Reactor so the “Jenova” room seems the natural conclusion to our journey, but the trip actually ends here for now.
Aside from the enormous printed “JENOVA” (twice so we don’t miss it) what’s unmistakeable about the reactor’s innards is how its array of vats connected by pipes very much resembles buds on a plant. That’s symbolism, that is.
Cloud and Sephiroth peer into the vats and find they contain these rather glum Mako-infused human monsters. Sephiroth for one doesn’t appreciate the connection of his mother’s name to these gruesome lab experiments.
Suddenly, an FMV cutscene. One of the vats sputters and out erupts a monster-man. Sephiroth still has a lot of existentialing to crisis but social etiquette dictates the scene must end here.
Now that we’ve seen what the Reactor’s all about I want to take a moment aside to talk about the cinematic structure of these last few areas, since there’s something deceptively significant in what initially appears trivial: the camera motion of downwards and left which introduced the Mako fountain being repeated a minute later at the Reactor.
The obvious result of this is that it has the nice effect of retaining our sense of direction as we transition from scene to scene, so it has an immediate use in visually explaining our trek through Mount Nibel. But that’s not what really interests me here. What grabs me about this leg of the journey is how we’re being shown the exaggeration of two vying worlds of nature and technology as if they’re comparable, which is consistent with how FFVII’s overall conjoining of them as themes.
Taking these shots in succession, there’s a nice symmetry in how the gang approach first a wellspring of nature and then one of technology. The colourful cave preludes an open-aired fountain of pure Mako, while the drab Reactor entrance fronts an enclosure of vats and Shinra’s sick exploitation of life. If we use our passage through the game as a guide to its structure, the cinematography suggests the two technology-themed areas repeat the two nature-themes areas, rather than being an inversion or in distinct opposition.
In many other media texts dealing with topics of nature and technology the two are often depicted as being in a sort of antagonism with one another, and I think it’s easy to read FFVII in the same vein of ‘nature versus technology’ given its broad criticisms of industry and man-made evils in all shapes and sizes.
While I think that has significant precedent, I’m not sure if I personally find it satisfied by the text here. In this specific case, the cave/fountain areas and the Reactor/vats areas lie within a smooth structural flow—they don’t contradict each other in presentation, despite one showing a miracle and the other a monstrosity. Rather, they appear to co-exist.
This seems counter-intuitive because, well, clearly they don’t co-exist given the desiccated state of the mountain due to the Reactor’s mining. One is killing the other. However, focussing on the Mako Reactor for a second, it’s not a source of evil because it’s a technological construct, nor are the creatures it produces monsters because of the mere existence of technology at the crown of Mount Nibel. Likewise, we recognise it isn’t the natural world at fault for the monsters’ origins even though their creation is a result of Mako concentration on human subjects—nature added to nature. Technology and nature are not in contest here, they’re in combination.
The actual travesty on Mount Nibel comes from how they’re being directed to an end that favours their imbalance, depleting nature to advance a scientific and capitalist agenda. In this relationship, nature is the patsy of a technocratic agenda. Further on in the game, jeopardy strikes when the dynamics flip the other way and the Weapons—the planet’s teleology manifested—threaten a city of (mostly) innocent people. Both cases are the result of an extreme imbalance of technology and nature brought upon by someone’s disrespect and meddling. But outside of extreme intervention, FFVII advances the narrative that technology and nature can and do co-exist in all sorts of ways.
This all ties back into its pantheistic depiction of all organic life living in concert with the planet, including humans. Men and women are of the planet just as much as the lifestream is. In fact, the lifestream is merely the distillation of human life to its purest spiritual form. The lives of humans, which is to say the existences of humans, are not by their basic nature unholy, but they can be lead down a dark path that sets them at odds with the planet and thus with their own nature. Through Bugenhagen’s teaching we come to learn that to act against the planet is to act against ourselves, feeding directly into our themes of existentialism and identity, so we’ll see this play out in a different form once we come to Sephiroth’s folly.
After the scene in the Reactor the screen fades to black and we’re given Cloud’s editorializing on events. Specifically he says, “Am I ……human? I didn’t quite understand what Sephiroth was saying at that time. I was even more surprised by that fact that Shinra was producing monsters.” Because he never suspected the highly exploitative and war-hungry militant world government might be evil, you know.
Anyway, I draw attention to this because the opening line is a bit confusing. Sephiroth has just found out he might have been made in a lab, but Cloud doesn’t phrase the question as if he’s quoting his mentor. As always, it could easily be a translation error. I like to think instead this is the little Sephiroth living inside Cloud’s head being given voice and displacing Cloud’s identity, in which case the fracturing of Cloud’s mind is rising to the fore.
Obvious foreshadowing of Cloud being unable to cope with finding out he’s a clone, as well.
At this point we cut to the inn in Kalm. Barret is raging at how nasty Shinra can be, so Red XIII calms the mood by giving Barret the option of continuing the story or resting. In this tiny way of having the option we chose married to the character of Barret rather than our usual Cloud, it puts a little distance between us and Cloud as a storyteller. Remember that the whole Nibelheim Incident flashback is designed to gently disrupt the relationship between the player and Cloud, similar to the wedge he’s putting between his own consciousness and authenticity with all this bad faith in his life.
Let’s pause for a second to examine the composition of this wee thing.
When we talk about ludology we tend to discuss how mechanics operate in relation to one another to form intricate systems. The player’s role is in actualizing potential options within these systems, moving Cloud this way or that way, equipping fire or ice materia, and basically interacting with the bits and bobs to change game states around and cause different situations to result.
However, the value of this tiny moment in the context of the extended flashback lies in something of a gray area within this scheme. It’s not that the actual act of pressing Circle to choose whether to save or continue with the story is of systemic significance to the player. That’s what the mechanical interaction is but it’s not what inspires our slight divorcing from the character Cloud. Simply put, this comes about through merely the presentation of options to power through with the flashback or rest now, rather than either’s actual selection.
But that’s not all, since it also hinges first on the history of our identifying with Cloud as a primary playable character and focus of player identity, and second with the swapping of Cloud for Barret in the context of this particular scene. For example, the option to save or continue without saving could have been presented in a typical blue menu box on an empty background as a sort of intertitle, as it often is during FFVII. Presenting the options via Barret’s dialogue changes the situation to a more diagetic context, one that is ‘of the characters’ and thereby relates to them in an appropriate way.
Boil it all down and this is a tiny instance of a game’s ludic systems affecting our narrative irrespective to mechanical interaction and indistinguishable from the situations in which they exist.
Meanwhile, in the past, the Reactor party has returned to town and Sephiroth’s gone and locked himself in the Shinra mansion. That’s the imposing walled-off building overlooking the town, appropriate given the corporation’s #brand.
The mansion’s interior layout presents a near-symmetrical front which, if you recall, suggests compositional, and therefore existential, harmony. The ground floor is a great example of symmetrical architecture in Shinra-designated spaces. All the anterior rooms are encompassed in a single distant environmental shot which lends them nicely to our perception of the whole.
Progressing towards our destination, however, sees this initial impression giving way to discordant use of line inside the frame, with a much steeper camera angle suggesting a warping of perspective. Sephiroth is currently shacked up in the laboratory basement of the mansion accessible through this poorly-concealed secret door, which is where Shinra scientists practised and catalogued their inhuman research. Heading there means parting from the balanced sensibilities of Shinra’s corporate existence and moving into its less stable, less sane, experimental frame of mind.
Because of how we move Cloud using the directional buttons, this shot above is a bastard to navigate in particular. We can’t really control our diagonal direction too well so we end up treading jagged paths or butting into and hugging the walls, giving the impression Cloud has a sudden attack of vertigo. Given his motion sickness as well it’s no wonder he never got into SOLDIER.
You’ll notice as well the Shinra MP hanging out around the mansion’s east wing. We clearly saw a Shinra MP outside the house before we made our way in, so either the lad who vanished on the way up Mount Nibel eventually showed up safe and sound or the sole remaining MP can teleport. Let’s skip the latter and just say Gary’s back.
Look, I never said Final Fantasy VII was completely subtle. It’s a spiral into madness.
The Shinra mansion wasn’t a cheery place to begin with but at least it didn’t have skeletons lying about the lobby. Between the ceiling chains and the weirdly colonic vibe the walls are giving off things have really taken a turn for the worst. But whereas earlier we were stopping to have a think about how a cave could be the colour green, Cloud doesn’t seem to mind any of this. Not even the fact that Mr. Skeleton clearly has two heads.
Much, much later on when the party returns to Nibelheim you’ll find yourself getting into random encounters inside the mansion. In the basement is a creature resembling a conjoined twin, with the two heads named Ying and Yang. Ying is the left side, has a blue face and is generally physical in combat, while Yang is on the right, has a pink face and is generally magical.
In Chinese philosophy the concepts of yin and yang are used to convey two seemingly opposing but actually complementary forces. The creature Ying and Yang could be read in this light as signalling harmony between the magical and physical realms, relating back to natural and technological themes through terms of one’s materia and weaponry. Alternately, taking into account the basement’s subtext of corruptive science, it might suggest an unnatural and incomplete splitting of a single whole, resulting in the creature’s now pitiable existence.
Either way, Ying and Yang happen to be the favourite enemy design of FFVII’s character designer Tetsuya Nomura. Whether the environment design came before the creature design or vice versa, it’s satisfying to see the two areas of development complement one another like this.
Fade in to Sephiroth pacing back and forth in the laboratory while reading excerpts from its research logs. We start off with this lower shot showing all the neon tubes and gizmos lining the bottom wall. Scientists are magpies for neon.
Sephiroth begins his recital before Cloud enters from the left-hand side and the camera rises to put them both centre-screen. He continues his monologue while our hero stands rather politely on the periphery without so much as a peep. That all takes less than five seconds but it gives a staying impression that Sephiroth owns this scene, has owned this scene ages before we mooched into it, and will continue to own it long after we’re gone. He’s so immersed in his work our presence is insignificant to him.
This is one of my favourite shots from all of FFVII, not just because of how it uses depth and composition for some memorable visual storytelling, but also because of how the characters behave while inhabiting it.
Right at this moment, Sephiroth enters from the left-hand side in the immediate foreground—the closest we’ve been to him since the truck at the very beginning of the flashback. He walks to this position shown here in the near mid-ground, stops, and slowly raises his head to the sky as he asks, “My mother’s name is Jenova… Jenova Project… Is this just a coincidence?” Then he lowers his head and says:
At this point we regain control of Cloud to guide him out the door and trigger the next cutscene, but first we can go up to our former mentor and attempt to speak with him. All he will say is, “Let me be alone.” Not “BEGONE” or “Leave now” in the commanding bellow of a JRPG villain. Instead it’s a rather sad and meek request to be allowed to face his newfound loneliness, and his plea to Professor Gast a desperate if futile cry for help. It is such a heartbreaking end for the character of Sephiroth, the war hero, the mentor and friend, the human, prior to the ontological birth of Sephiroth the nemesis.
I wonder if things had been different and Cloud had found some way to properly console his companion, the tragedy to follow might have been averted.
Sad montage time. Cloud narrates how Sephiroth was consumed, how he remained inside the Shinra mansion and “not once, did the light in the basement go out.” This is paired with Sephiroth leafing through the memoirs as he fades in and out eventually to the background, raising his head and lowering it, turning to reside in the extents of the library.
If we set aside the tonal implications of the narration with its deliberate, pensive prose, and focus on what’s going on visually in this montage, there are three big things that produce a remarkable effect. We have Sephiroth’s choreography as he descends deeper and deeper into the recesses of the laboratory basement, the vault of Shinra’s most hidden and depraved research. His movement isn’t simply him walking from A to B to C, however; instead his character model gently vanishes and appears at intervals along the bookcases, illustrating the slow passage of time, while his animations switch between reading and bodily expressions of exasperation and sadness.
Next we have the scenery itself changing as the shot continues, which is itself a quite rare occurrence in FFVII. Scores of books leave the shelves and stack up in piles on the floor in Sephiroth’s wake. Not only do these small mountains of research volumes denote the significant progress he’s making through the library, they also increasingly clutter the corridor visually and obscure Sephiroth from view the farther he travels into Shinra’s, and therefore his own, dark past.
Lastly, the most glaring part of the montage is the shot’s framing itself. While FFVII frequently elicits skewed perspective through camera positioning and vertical angles, it’s not often that it pulls out the old Dutch tilt on the horizontal axis. This technique is most often used to portray psychological imbalance and, no surprises, that’s exactly what’s going on here. Then there’s the low camera placement and upwards vertical angle which keeps Sephiroth centrally while exaggerating on-screen prominence through distance: the closer he is the greater he looms, while the farther away he goes the more his presence diminishes.
All combined, these three aspects produce the intuitive affect of correlating Sephiroth’s uncovering of his past with a sympathetic descent into insanity alongside, as well as his emotional parting from our allegiance.
Fade to black.
Don’t let the cosiness of the bedroom fool you, something’s gone wrong. We can tell because the music’s changed from Nibelheim’s usual eerie, melancholic vibe to the ominous slow thrum of distant deep drums and a bone-rattling chime. Sephiroth’s leitmotif. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start taking about music at this late stage in the analysis except to say it often plays a significant part in informing our experience of a scene. Case in point: every single player of the game is on the same page right now.
Since we know something horrible looms on the horizon, let’s run towards it. Cloud heads through the mansion and back down to Sephiroth.
Oh good, he’s cheered up.
We find the happy lad bang smack in the middle of the anterior room of the basement library. He’s positioned dead centre on-screen, encircled by bookcases, seated at the opposite side of the desk as if this is his study, as if he’s right at home.
We instantly gather his demeanour has changed.
While he was hardly super chirpy before, his manner of speaking has now taken a remarkably dour turn. He’s dismissive, arrogant, impassioned, and rather callous in his regard of his former protégé. Nevertheless, he obliges us of the knowledge he has gleamed from Professor Gast’s memoirs on the Cetra (aka “the Ancients”) and Jenova, although he’s kind of mean about it.
The Cetra were space-travelling race who lived long ago. Their custom was to migrate to a planet and settle for a spell before moving on to the next one, through this process seeking the ‘Promised Land’, but at one point a portion of their people decided to settle on this planet permanently. These would become the ancestors of humanity.
But then, some earth-shattering calamity threatened the planet. Humanity hid while the Cetra were forced to sacrifice themselves to prevent the disaster, following which humanity grew in numbers and thrived.
Eventually Shinra discovered the body of Jenova in a massive crater in the north. Figuring her for a Cetra, they ran experiments on her and began infusing her cells with human subjects, hoping to create a Cetra-human hybrid who could lead them to the fabled Promised Land. Sephiroth was the result of this project. Having learned all this, he’s somewhat miffed at how humanity threw his ancestors the Cetra under the bus yonks ago.
With this all now said, Sephiroth announces his intentions and exits stage left. There’s some lovely structural symmetry with how an emotionally distraught Sephiroth originally entered this shot and worked his way into the far chamber proportionate to his psychological diminishment, and now returns from the chamber a new man, imposing and full of purpose. If we were feeling up to it we could say the layout represents a birthing chamber, albeit one that is corruptive both in its foundations being the Shinra science department and in its effect on setting Sephiroth on a misguided path of justice. Certainly our villain is now born.
He theatrically departs from the laboratory and Cloud follows suit. Now that Sephiroth is out and about again the village is just bound to greet him with a warm welcome.
Oh Stephen, you card!
Yes the town’s ablaze. Some of the residents are in the square seeing to survivors and recuperating. Cloud checks his own house to rescue his mother but… it’s no good. Cloud’s in shock over the ramifications of Sephiroth’s actions and can only clutch his head when he sights the villain cutting people down beyond the fire. Senpai no more.
Cue the iconic FMV of Sephiroth bathed in flames.
It’s clear to see why this image has had such a lasting impression on everyone who’s played this game. It’s certainly very striking in its depiction of Sephiroth as this Great Destroyer, full of contempt, ruthless and invincible. By the principle of symmetrical framing we can interpret this shot as encapsulating Sephiroth’s essence within the scheme of his role in the story, and it wouldn’t at all be far off the mark. His antagonism here is exquisite.
What this particular shot lacks, however, is substance beyond Sephiroth as an indomitable destructive force. We see fire and ruin but we don’t see his motive, his passion, his reverence, which play such a crucial part in his character I hesitate to accept this representation of him as existentially satisfied. We’ll be coming up to a good alternative in a minute though, so bear with me.
Before that, however, cast your memory five thousand words back—Cloud had described the climate of the area through the words, “The cold air of the mountains of Nibel. It was no different…”
In Norse mythology, Niflheim is one of the Nine Worlds, a land of primordial ice home to the frost giants and ‘all terrible things.’ In the Norse creation myth, the ice of Niflheim mixed with the primordial fires of another realm and formed a lifestream, out of which grew an immense being called Ymir. Ymir’s body would become the foundations for Midgard, the world of humanity, who found their sustenance through him as land.
While there isn’t quite a one-to-one repeat of all these events in Final Fantasy VII, the resembling pieces offer enough affordances for some allusions to be drawn. For instance, the city of Midgar does thrive by draining its land of resources, until it is ultimately destroyed during a cataclysmic event and reborn as fertile.
However, in the case of the primordial fire mixing with ice and triggering Creation, the analogy can’t be as literal: the lifestream chronologically precedes the Nibelheim Incident, as does the founding of Midgar, so Nibelheim’s razing does not exactly create the world. What it does instead is mark the origins of two important things: Sephiroth’s birth as a villain, which we’ve already covered, and Cloud’s quest for revenge. It therefore sparks the impetus for the entire story of Final Fantasy VII, beginning with Cloud working as a mercenary for AVALANCHE and ending in his final dual with Sephiroth and the thwarting of his plans for Meteor. Not bad for a creation myth.
Cloud doesn’t really care about this, what with his family and hometown just being burnt to cinders, so he simply pegs it up Mount Nibel without bothering to appreciate the significance of the metaphor.
We arrive at the reactor to find Tifa cursing out all things Shinra and having a go at sticking Sephiroth one, but war hero trumps tour guide and he easily overpowers her. Things are looking bad.
The urge to give chase is more important than taking Tifa to a doctor, but then I don’t suppose there’s any hospital near the summit of the mountain, so Cloud lays her body to the side and enters the Jenova chamber.
Finally: the pinnacle of Mount Nibel, the ultimate destination for the expedition team. Now we’ll see what this was all about.
The camera pans down from the angelic figure of Jenova to her son on the platform below, arms wide in worship for his long lost mother. Those Chosen By The Planet reunited at last.
This shot above all others signifies Sephiroth’s existential completion through his utter devotion not just to the idol of Jenova but to what she signifies for him. She is his purpose, the embodiment of his legacy on earth as the sole remaining Cetra, heir to the Promised Land. And through her, Sephiroth will attain his birthright and exact ruinous justice on the humans who betrayed his people, who manipulated him and imprisoned her, tapped her like a resource for greed and power.
So, let’s look at this shot.
Notably we have a lot of machinery and canisters circling the pair, spiking up through the floor and spreading outwards, offering vertical space to Sephiroth’s platform. Tubes emerge and flow into shadows draping the anterior. Girders frame the scene diligently like columns of a church hall, while an umbilical cord winds down from Jenova’s lower half to visually attach to Sephiroth’s own abdomen. Fitting that the Reactor’s heart would see technology taking the place of nature and spirituality.
Something especially intriguing happens next.
Cloud barges in on Sephiroth and protests the massacring of Nibelheim, but Sephiroth doesn’t even turn to acknowledge him. Instead he voices his disregard for humanity through praise for Jenova, as he reaches upwards and rips the mechanical figure from its podium.
Oil pours as blood and tears. Tubes snap, circuits spark, wings break away. He tosses the mannequin aside as the shadows behind surrender to a vivid blue-white light. Sephiroth’s manic bliss flares at the sight of true Jenova now revealed beyond the mechanical doll.
Clearly Sephiroth knew the Jenova doll was not actually his mother as he didn’t hesitate to tear it from its plinth. His adulation and monologue must actually have been addressed to the concealed creature behind it, meaning he treated the doll like it wasn’t even there in the same way he did to Cloud and, more or less, every human who stood in his way.
This revelation adds a sweet twist to the previous shot—where it appeared Sephiroth was worshipping in a temple of technology, he was really directing himself to the reality behind all the metal and wires. As the last surviving full Cetra Jenova is a creature fully of the land, an avatar of natural supremacy over machines and humanity. This is the truth Sephiroth believes he has found in Professor Gast’s books: that the planet, the lifestream, shall rise up through the chains and illusions of humanity’s technocratic dominion, and overcome the bastard human race in fulfilling their spiritual quest for the Promised Land of antiquity.
It is the first of many of humanity’s ‘dolls’ Sephiroth tears down in his validation of the one true Jenova.
That is from what I can tell the single purpose of bothering to have the Jenova doll there in the first place. There must be some canonical reason for its inclusion detailed somewhere in all the spin-off media to follow, but within the confines of this game on its own I can’t think of anything that might explain its presence. I’m absolutely fine with it this way—I think it’s a nice bit of artistic indulgence. Besides, watching Sephiroth lean up to ‘his mother’ and violently wrest it from the wall is delightfully shocking!
We’re nearing the end of this part of the story so let’s power on through.
Cloud is distraught at the sight of Sephiroth at the zenith of his mania and gives him some fairly weak guff all things considered. It’s Sephiroth’s birthday though so he doesn’t even care.
Unable to find a mutual ground, the two ready their swords and prepare for combat. The camera cuts from one man to the next, then back again, then faster and faster, flashing Cloud and Sephiroth over and over, until the screen fades to white.
Ah here, Cloud you dowsy bastard. After all the crap you made up during the flashback I think you could at least have deluded yourself up a proper ending.
The rest of the party are understandably frazzled by this cliff-hanger. They all agree Sephiroth would have overpowered the young recruit so they try to puzzle out how he, Tifa and now apparently Sephiroth could have survived the finale, but they don’t have enough information to go on.
Suddenly Barret has a bout of Unfortunate Caricature Syndrome and calls an end to the brainstorming session. It’ll be hours of game time until we eventually discover what really went down in the Jenova chamber, but for now the party must march on regardless.
And thus ends our analysis of the Nibelheim Incident flashback.
There is a further twist to the Jenova chamber, something even more delicious about how its composition evokes technology, spiritualism and identity.
In his deep respect for Professor Gast, Sephiroth made the grave error of thinking the scientist infallible. What Sephiroth doesn’t know, and what Gast would learn only after abandoning Shinra, was that Jenova is not actually Cetra at all.
We come to find out much later in the game that Jenova is basically John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s an alien that crash-landed on the planet and began to devour all of its inhabitants, taking their form and identity as it assimilated them into its organism. This was the great calamity from long ago, and so it was actually Jenova who brought the Cetra to near-extinction before they were able to seal it away beneath the northern crater.
Now, Sephiroth really is the result of an experiment fusing Jenova cells with that of a human foetus—that much is true. But Sephiroth inherited Gast’s erroneous assumptions of Jenova’s origins, resulting in his dedication to a misguided sense of justice and planetary heritage. Furthermore it means his plan to unite with his mother and visit the Promised Land together was always going to be stillborn, since Jenova has nothing to do with the planet, the lifestream or the destiny of the Cetra.
So what does it mean? Put into context of our core themes of nature/technology, past/present, and identity/existentialism, the reality of Sephiroth’s actions is this.
Per the flashback’s constant overlapping of the past and present through Cloud our narrator, we’re told a story that sees this confusion merge into an eternalist manifestation of personal identity. Sephiroth believes he has discovered his true past through decades, centuries, millennia of the world’s history, and has allowed it to reach out from the dredges of time to drastically distort his present nature. He has transcended the gulf of time between humanity’s ‘betrayal’ eons ago and humanity in the here and now, eliminating any distinction of time that would threaten his current ontology.
But in the throes of our story, the past has consumed him and transformed him into a villain. While he believes he is enacting an age-old justice on the world, in truth he is condemning it through a distorted understanding of past events compiled from the outdated information. He acts in the present but is forever lost to the past.
Per our inter-dependant themes on nature and technology, he now comprehends himself as the rightful heir to the planet and the lifestream, including interpretations of Mako as ‘knowledge of the Ancients.’ He perceives himself as an avatar of nature. This puts him at distinct opposition to the Shinra Corporation and the technological means by which Mako is refined and produced to serve mankind and how all technology is designed towards that end. Humans are creatures living on the brow of Ymir, sucking nutrients out from the dormant earth. Sephiroth has come to regard technology as valueless and sees through it to the true reality beyond: the natural world. His domain.
Jenova’s status as alien changes this. Sephiroth cannot be heir to the land due to his extraterrestrial ancestry, nor can he and Jenova communicate with the lifestream through the ancient unholy power residing within them. When they tumble into its currents in the true version of events, Sephiroth retains Jenova’s head to use as a tool in his quest against humanity—despite his Jenova-fuelled god complex he objectifies his mother and devolves her to the status of technology. Unbeknownst to himself he exemplifies true opposition to nature, not just exploiting it but corrupting it, assimilating it. Jenova cells become his means, and Meteor, the typified extraterrestrial object, his harbinger against the world.
His identity, meanwhile, has consolidated into concrete form. He acts with full certainty of his origins and nature and dedicates himself to the full completion of his birthright. Sephiroth exists in spiritual solidarity with his self-perceived nature through his worship of Jenova; there is no drop of doubt in his mind to threaten his faith.
Since he is fully resolved and committed to his identity, he now lives an existentially satisfied life.
None of the contradictions to the premises by which he came to his conclusions changes any of this. Not the fact that his beliefs of his (via Jenova’s) origins are incorrect. Not his dependence on humanity in achieving his epiphany, through his trust in the scientific mind of Professor Gast, or through the technological mechanisms of literature and archaeology and bioengineering that facilitated the data to flow his way. Not the calamitous end of the path he has now set himself on, resulting finally in his own defeat.
Each irony fails to shake Sephiroth’s existential enlightenment but they do succeed at registering his worldview and enterprise as folly. This is the beauty of our tragic villain—in spite of acting in perfect self-determination, so guided by the fate of his making, all his successes beget only disaster and farce.
We can contrast him right now with Cloud.
Cloud recognizes Sephiroth’s existential justification for his actions and challenges them by raising his own self-worth as a counter-point. Rather naively, he’s still intent on reasoning with the villain. Maybe he’s searching for a shred of remorse. I think it’s more likely Cloud seeks vindication from his former hero, even at this late stage in the Incident. He wants respect because so much of Cloud’s life was spent pursuing this dream of matching up to the decorated war hero and becoming the next great SOLDIER.
What’s especially interesting though is the way he chooses to express that desire for recognition. Look familiar?
Cloud has a tendency to frame the tragedy befalling others in a spectacularly self-centred light. It’s in these moments of extreme emotion that Cloud can be seen at his most self-involved, which repeatedly interrupt Sephiroth’s megalomaniacal reveries and drive him to confront our hero as an existential being. “Are you trying to tell me you have feelings too?”
But while it’s a nasty way to react to things, self-centredness does not contradict existential wellbeing. Through his childhood idolization and the infusion of Jenova cells, Sephiroth so consumes Cloud’s identity that his questing for the villain becomes his raison d’être. Pulled forward by the call for a Jenova Reunion, Cloud advances with the blind fervour of a man obsessed. His dedication might constitute a similar state of existential harmony if his conscious wasn’t so fragmented by past trauma.
Nevertheless, through pursuit of Sephiroth Cloud finds some form of spiritual satisfaction, an impure form, given how it’s predicated in obsession over a person other than himself. He is a knight chasing a dragon, finding wholeness through combat but ultimately forever self-deferring. You might be pleased to know Cloud gradually overcomes most of his conditioning, and although he never quite surrenders the chase after Sephiroth (which is fortunate, for the planet’s sake) he does find spiritual accomplishment in the defeat of his long-time nemesis.
But I don’t have any screenshots of it so you’ll have to trust me.
 Full motion video.
 Ludology: the study of a game’s mechanics and their systems.
 Truthfully, at this exact point in the game the player doesn’t control Cloud to traverse the screen—he walks it automatically, and the camera fades in and tracks left to give the impression of distance travelled. The effect is the same as when the player does travel the area later on in the game, though. It might also be fun to note the camera panning left coincides with Cloud’s movement leftwards on screen, signalling time passing without alarm. If the camera instead panned right, it might signal to us some discordance with the journey.
 EGM Magazine, August 1997.
 The category of his being. For instance, toasters have a different ontology to unicorns.