Not so Final Fantasy is a tri-weekly column dedicated to all things Final Fantasy; from specific aspects of specific titles, to the universal features that set Square Enix’s inimitable JRPG series apart from the rest.
Who is the greatest villain ever to grace a Final Fantasy game? Kekfa or Sephiroth?
Just as reaching a general consensus on which of their two respective titles – VI and VII – is superior, it’s a difficult question to answer. Both possess charisma in spades, pose a very real threat to the world they inhabit, commit heinous acts in pursuit of their goals, and are haunted by the ghosts of a tragic past that at least partially explain their motivations. It’s truly too close to call.
Which is fine, really. To be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure there’s any particular benefit or value in trying to find a definitive answer to a largely subjective question like this: and I’m not just saying that as someone whose sentimental bias toward Final Fantasy VII has them worried about the outcome of such a comparison.
But I need a subject for this week’s edition of ‘Not so Final Fantasy’, so I’m going to put in my two cents anyway. Inevitably, what follows is heavily laden with spoilers for both FFVI and FFVII.
Attempted genocide and cold-blooded murder aside, Kefka and Sephiroth exude confidence and charisma – which is hardly surprising, I guess, given that one has the power to obliterate an entire continent with a casual wave of his hand, while the other is capable of summoning magical, world-ending meteors from the depths of the planet’s core. But I digress.
Returning to the point at hand, Kefka’s increasingly nihilistic monologues and innately mercurial nature are relentlessly engaging. His pointed contempt for friendship, love, and humanity’s indomitable perseverance in the face of unimaginably difficult circumstances comprehensively dismisses a set of themes that permeate almost every Final Fantasy title in existence. “Why do people insist on creating things that will inevitably be destroyed?” he asks bitterly “Why do people cling to life, knowing that they must someday die? …Knowing that none of it will have meant anything once they do?”. A depressingly bleak outlook on life perhaps, but one that provides a refreshing change of pace for long-time fans and, of greater importance to the actual plot, forces the game’s party of heroes to confront the fragility of human existence.
Yet for all his hatred and cynicism, Kefka isn’t evil for evil’s sake. He’s not a stereotypical pantomime villain whose motivations are considered unimportant so long as he provides a focal point for the protagonist’s world-saving efforts. From a purely superficial perspective, his flamboyant personality, high-pitched cackle, and unusual fondness for clown attire instantly set him apart from the average video game antagonist; which is quite an achievement for a 16-bit sprite. While, as we progress through the story, we discover hidden depths to his character that belie his outwardly negativistic philosophy and make him a far more rounded character in turn (more on that, later).
By contrast, although they adopt similar methods in the pursuit of comparable goals, Sephiroth’s draw is entirely different.
He’s a cold, brooding individual whose flowing silver hair, pec-exhibiting wardrobe, and unfathomably complex character rendered him the perfect villain for angsty 90s audiences, and yet he continues to captivate audiences to this day.
Through various flashback sequences and expository dialogue, we discover Sephiroth was a peerless and universally respected warrior even before his unplanned trip through the Lifestream taught him numerous, otherworldly abilities: such as how to manipulate the very cells of an alien super-monster and how to project corporeal images of himself into the world that are capable of physically interacting with the people around him. As a result, Sephiroth radiates an aura of hidden strength and supreme confidence that only becomes more engaging as the relationship between him and Cloud deepens, and the set of tragic circumstances that made him into the villain we’ve come to know and, strangely, love, are revealed.
It’s odd that we should feel so attached to a pair of individuals whose actions are so unquestionably vile. However, more than anything else, these displays of heartless brutality are tremendously effective at displaying the incredible power and influence these two villains possess, raising the stakes considerably for the heroes (and thus the players) trying to stop them over the course of their respective adventures.
While Sephiroth isn’t quite as successful as Kefka, managing only to destroy Midgar before his enchanted meteorite is repelled by Aeris’s white Materia, FFVII does such a good job of portraying Sephiroth as a genuine, ever-present threat, the player simply cannot escape the feeling that the civilization itself is on the line until the very last scene: the actual last scene, that is; you know, the one with Red XIII and his kids/grandkids looking down on the ruins of Midgar five hundred years in the future. Compare that to something like Skyrim which, by flooding the player’s quest log with countless secondary objectives and side-plots, ends up turning its central antagonist into a largely peripheral figure. Unless the player has made a concerted effort to tackle Skyrim in linear fashion, by the time they reach Sovngarde, it’s difficult to remember exactly who Aldiun is, let alone what his goals are – especially as the player’s avatar is so strong by this point, they can destroy the so-called world-eater with a few languid sweeps of their sword.
Simply put, Alduin doesn’t leave any noticeable mark on the world before or after he’s defeated. Whereas Sephiroth not only kills a beloved character in cold blood, entirely out of the blue halfway through the game, his plan to absorb the accumulated wisdom and power of an entire planet, though ending in failure, leaves an indelible scar on the face of the planet.
And it’s much the same for Kefka who, by virtue of the fact he accomplishes his initial goal of destroying The World of Balance, gives the player a rare glimpse into what life might actually be like in our favourite fictional worlds if there wasn’t a conveniently placed band of heroes always on hand to save the day. Not only that, but by the time Terra and co. have mustered up the strength necessary to confront him, Kefka has ascended to become a bona fide God; ruling with merciless cruelty from a skyward tower constructed, in a characteristically macabre flourish, from the remains of the civilization he’s just finished decimating.
Although the player might have dismissed him as just another weak, cowardly, comic-relief villain when they first saw him saunter into Figaro Castle at the beginning of the game – another minor antagonist whose only purpose was to occupy their attention for a few, brief hours before the real big-bad shows up – they’re left in no doubt as to his power or the fundamental impact he’s had on the world of Final Fantasy VI come the end of the tale.
Victims of Tragedy
The foundation for these two superb villains, however, is the tragic backstories that define and motivate them.
Kefka, it transpires, wasn’t always the eccentric, habitually malicious lunatic we meet in Final Fantasy VI. Years before the events of the game take place, and 18/19-year-old Kefka volunteered himself as a test subject in the Gestahlian Empire’s experiments into Magitek technology. Their goal: learning how to harness the magical abilities of the Espers to create super soldiers.
In as much as it granted him the ability to channel magic, the experiment was a success; but the cost of this newfound power was a shattered mind. Afflicted with unpredictable mood swings and no longer able to empathize with his fellow human beings, Kefka was left with a skewed world view in which life, and everything that makes it worthwhile, is pointless. Worse still, as he rails against Terra, Locke, Cyan etc. at the top of his makeshift tower during their climactic battle, punctuating his invective with staggered questions about the meaning of life and the value of human emotions, we realize there’s still some small part of him capable of feeling (or at least perceiving) emotions other than anger. He’s clearly aware of what’s been stolen from him by the Empire’s experiments and these questions are simply a belated attempt to restore some measure of equilibrium to his fractured psyche.
In Sephiroth’s case, the undercurrent of tragedy runs even deeper. Injected with Jenova cells whilst still in his mother’s womb – by his own father I might add, because Final Fantasy VII is funny like that – Sephiroth is not only an entirely unwilling participant in the experiments that created him, but his life thereafter is, to a certain extent, one long, on-going test to understand what happens to the human body when it’s infused with large concentrations of alien biological material; material those workings within it we don’t fully comprehend.
And yet, notwithstanding this inhumane treatment, Sephiroth was a well-respected and widely admired soldier before the Nibelheim incident poisoned his mind, governed by a strict code of ethics and duty that wins him the friendship of other honourable warriors, such as Crisis Core’s Angeal. In fact, the only reason he becomes the evil, destructive force we spend almost the entirety of Final Fantasy VII chasing is because he’s been kept in the dark as to the true nature of his birth.
Left to construct his own, misguided image of the past from the library of silent tomes stored in the bowels of the Shinra Mansion, Sephiroth comes to hate humanity and think of himself as the descendant of Gods; the heir to the Cetra whose job it is to punish his traitorous ancestral enemy by bringing about the destruction of civilization. An act of neglect that more or less precipitates the events of the game and, in my opinion, identifies Hojo as VII‘s true villain.
When looked at from this perspective, a pretty strong argument can be made that both Kefka and Sephiroth are, in reality, just as much victims as the people who would later suffer at their hands.
And the Winner is?
As far as I’m concerned, deciding which of these two characters is objectively the best is almost impossible. While they’re roughly neck and neck in the charisma stakes, possessing the kind of magneticism most video game villains can only dream of, Kefka’s clearly the more successful of the two in terms of actually executing his plans, while, on the other hand, Sephiroth boasts (if that’s the right word in this context) the more tragic backstory.
Gun to my head, I might be inclined to choose Sephiroth. But as I said above, it doesn’t really matter. The important thing to remember is that this pair of unique villains are absolutely, unremittingly fantastic and, on a grander scale, are two of the biggest reasons why the Final Fantasy series is what it is today.