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Why Final Fantasy VII Machinabridged is Awesome

Disclaimer: This article is reuploaded from my previous site.

Final Fantasy VII and I have a very difficult relationship. When I started playing the game in the early 2000s, I remember being really into it. Especially throughout the first disk.  Midgar is the best starting level I’ve ever seen in a game and the ShinRa Corporation were fascinatingly realistic antagonists, far from anything else I’d seen on the PlayStation.  They weren’t magically-powered megalomaniacs out to destroy the world by becoming gods, they were just corrupt corporate executives screwing the world for financial gain – and only the game’s heroes, the eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE, could stop them.  That theme has only gotten more relevant with time, now that the wealth gap has widened and those at the top have led everyone else towards an inevitable environmental calamity.

So, what changed?  What made me flip from, “This is awesome” to “This is really disappointing?”  Well, part of it was the way the game was designed.  The Active Time Battle system and I have never seen eye-to-eye, and it took far too long to power-up the magic-granting materia for my liking.  However, I could have overlooked those frustrations had developers Squaresoft stayed with their interesting story about environmental issues instead of ditching it for a magically-powered megalomaniac out to destroy the world by becoming a god.

Admittedly, arch-villain Sephiroth was another element of the game that I really liked at first.  His decision to leave ShinRa and destroy the humans polluting the world made him a dark parallel to the game’s heroes.  His massacre at the ShinRa headquarters and the burning of Nibelheim town are iconic moments, not just for being shocking turns in the plot but also because they’re not that far from what AVALANCHE does every day.  Sephiroth represented what they could become if they gave in to their darker impulses and allowed their lust for revenge to consume them.  Squaresoft spent two whole hours setting up one of the best shadow archetypes in gaming history, and then immediately forgot about it.

After his fall, Sephiroth never talks about wanting to purge humanity to restore the world.  Never again does he express the desire to punish ShinRa for their crimes, or reclaim the planet for the Cetra race (whom he believes he belongs to).  Instead, he reappears in the Black Temple and declares, out of nowhere, that he’s going to become a god by slamming a meteor into the world.  This could be a means to an end, the first step in Operation Punish Humanity, but the game never implies that it is.  It just says, “Sephiroth is a Final Fantasy villain now and, since all Final Fantasy villains must become omnipotent beings for an awesome final fight, that’s where we’re taking him.”  It was disappointing to see a writer with as many good ideas as Hironobu Sakaguchi tread such tired ground instead of forcing the heroes to look at how the villain had a point and re-develop themselves accordingly.

While I concede that the story we did get out of VII (which revealed that the hero Cloud’s super-soldier status was just an elaborate power fantasy) did offer an interesting deconstruction of the relationship between player and player character, I maintain that Sephiroth is a massive waste of potential.  He remains one of the worst-developed villains in the series to this day – and, considering that its rogues gallery includes a giant tree that just wants to kill everyone, that’s saying something.

Yet, despite all my gripes, I didn’t hate Final Fantasy VII because I thought it was fun to do so.  I was infuriated by the game for its annoying mechanics and wasted potential but, at the same time, I did truly want to fall in love with the game that had stolen the hearts of all my friends and now, thanks to Team Four Star, I can.

Final Fantasy VII Machinabridged is an internet series that takes the game’s story and retells it with a faster pace, animation edits, and a tonne of excellent jokes.  It is a very affectionate parody of the series that takes full advantage of its nature as a web show.  Because it’s not a game, there’s no ATB combat or materia grinding to bog down the pace and the story scenes are punchy and direct.  The ellipses-laden dialogue that poisons the JRPG genre is nowhere to be heard, yet the story remains faithful to its source material.  While some characters are very different from their game counterparts – with the protagonist Cloud being a helpless buffoon instead of an overconfident badass and the considerate Tifa being rewritten as an aggressive manipulator – this is all done for the purpose of character development.

The characters of Final Fantasy VII are well-known for being a motley crew of broken souls.  Most of them have lost homes, friends, or families to ShinRa’s machinations and the few who remain hopeful, like Aerith, aren't quite as pure as they are commonly made out to be.  Unfortunately, because of how the game is designed, with only two people being able to accompany the protagonist Cloud at any time, you’ll very rarely get to see the whole team bounce off of each other after the group leaves Midgar.

Machinabridged doesn’t have this problem.  Instead, it features the group regularly communicating through the use of character skits that wouldn’t look out of place in a Tales game.  This, combined with their more obvious character flaws, means that cast members gets a lot more development.  It also allows new dynamics not present in the original game to flourish.  For example: In Final Fantasy VII, the teenaged ninja Yuffie is regarded as an annoying little girl but, in Machinabridged, her recklessness and broken home remind Tifa of herself.  While she is initially irritated by the kid, their shared personality traits lead to Tifa taking Yuffie under her wing as the little sister she never had.  Red XIII, the most superfluous member of the cast (whose only unique quality is that he’s a talking dog), is re-imagined as a very dopey but well-meaning goofball who forms a heartwarming friendship with AVALANCHE leader Barrett.  This bond allows each of them to serve as the other’s pillar of support when it’s time for them to deal with their past demons.

This increased emphasis on character development is also used to correct some of the more uncomfortable elements of the original story, such as Cid and Shera’s relationship.  In the game, Cid is an angry, emotionally-abusive man who takes out his frustrations on a beleaguered assistant.  While he does have a legitimate grievance, specifically that Shera’s over-protective nature led to him failing to achieve his dream, his sour temper and constant belittling of a woman whose only crime was caring about him made him come across as unsympathetic, despite his memetic quotes.  This got worse in the sequels when he married her, inviting the uncomfortable idea that abused women are forever shackled to their tormentors.  Machinabridged recognises this problem and wastes no time in correcting it.  While Cid is still publicly upset, a cutaway joke reveals that he and Shera privately work through the frustration together through BDSM with Cid as the submissive partner.  Not only is this an excellently-timed gag that blindsides the audience, it also makes their relationship seem far healthier given the importance of consent and communication in such dynamics.

Despite its comedic nature, however, Machinabridged is also capable of nailing the story’s dramatic moments – and even surpasses their original telling where it counts.  Nowhere is this demonstrated better than with the main villain.  While the ShinRa corporation are surprisingly entertaining despite being utterly evil, there is nothing fun about this show’s version of Sephiroth.  His dispassionate voice acting during the flashback sequence makes him seem less like a legendary warrior and more like a broken man who’s lost the cause he fought for.  Everything about him is underplayed, to the point that it’s almost confusing why Cloud would ever idolise him.  For all of his strength, he comes across as a depressed but still mostly normal man.  This, of course, makes his fall to evil that much more frightening.  Unlike in the main game, he doesn’t freak out and he’s never shown slowly slipping into madness. He just puts some clues together and suddenly realises that he’s been ShinRa’s pawn all his life.  His mannerisms barely change, and he still seems to be entirely in-control of his mental faculties. The implication not that he went crazy but that he’s probably never been saner.  This is a very important change because it undoes another recurring problem with Square’s writing: the conflation of insanity with violence.

Final Fantasy is, to put it diplomatically, not as kind as it could be to the neurodivergent.  From Kefka to Sephiroth, Kuja to Seymour, many antagonists throughout the series are best-described as having become evil after being, “Driven unto madness.” I want to be clear that I don't think that's a sign of intentional malice on Square Enix's part, just an unfortunate, not to mention lazy, writing trope that betrays a lack of understanding about psychological health.  That’s not to say that the mentally unwell don’t ever hurt anyone, the phrase “criminally insane” exists for a reason, but the world is more likely to be threatened by warmongering kings and corporations exploiting its resources than it is one guy with psychosis and a leather fetish. That Final Fantasy VII came so close to understanding this is a big reason why it frustrates me.  Mental sickness is not the One Ring of Power; you don’t automatically turn into a monster clown just because you start hearing voices in your head.  In fact, as someone who has heard voices in his head, I can tell you right now that you’re usually a bigger threat to yourself than anyone else in that state...

Fortunately, Machinabridged Sephiroth is fix this problem.  Whereas the original descended into hammy supervillainy by the end of his rampage, his Machinabridged counterpart just executes everyone with a cold, ruthless precision.  He even goes out of his way to murder Cloud’s mother specifically to fulfill our hero’s wish of having something in common with his idol.  This is an incredibly dark moment that sets the tone for the rest of Sephiroth’s appearances: he’s not just some lunatic running around, ruining everything, barely acknowledging Cloud’s existence, he's a complete monster with full awareness of what he’s doing who deliberately antagonises his enemies in the most personal ways he can think of just because it will bring them that much more pain.  It might not be particularly innovative but it is far more unsettling.

Sephiroth being so much more horrible than he was in the original game also makes Aerith’s death even more heart-breaking.  In Machinabridged, she’s portrayed as an exaggerated version of how The Compilation of Final Fantasy VII tended to write her.  Her flirty dialogue is replaced with more innocent lines and her Magic Dream Pixie Girl personality is dialed all the way up to twelve.  However, she’s also depicted as a clingy and surprisingly devious young woman, subverting her pure maiden act in a different way to how the original did.  This makes her both an endearing love interest to Cloud and a nefarious trickster who nearly gets her rival Tifa killed out of jealousy.  Being a consistent source of tender emotional moments and one of the funniest characters in the show means killing her robs the story of both.  Like the original game, Machinabridged perfectly understands how to make such a character’s death hurt.  Unlike the original game, however, Aerith’s death march isn’t a silent walk towards the inevitable.  It happens quickly during a moment of intense emotional confusion, with the whole party panicking as Cloud struggles to fight off Sephiroth’s psychic attack, right before the arch-villain stabs her through the gut and cuts her last words short.

What truly sells the moment, however, is that the dialogue following Aerith’s murder is incredibly personal.  In the original game, Sephiroth seems completely disinterested in Cloud and his victim.  He doesn’t gloat, he shrugs off Cloud’s sadness, and generally just rambles about his master plan to seize godhood — a ramble he’s already largely had in the Black Temple, so one has to wonder why he’s repeating himself.  In Team Four Star’s version, Sephiroth makes it brutally clear that, yes, he did this partly to stop Aerith from interfering in his plans but mostly because he just wanted to hurt Cloud.  While the, “Kick the girl to goad the man” trope is disgustingly over-used, it being a core part of this story meant that there wasn’t any way to avoid it.  So, instead of trying and failing to do so, Machinabridged doubled down.  Sephiroth completely acknowledges what he’s done, mocks Cloud’s failure to save Aerith, and even gives his first evil chuckle before warping away.  It’s the perfect way to underscore what a terrible person he’s become and how sweet it’s going to be when we finally get to the end and watch Cloud hand him the mother of ass-whuppings.

Finally, just when we think Team Four Star is done sucker-punching us in the gut, the season ends on the image of Tifa – the one character who never got on with Aerith, who disliked her from the moment she laid eyes on her – going back to her watery grave and leaving some flowers for her.  If you’d told me five years ago that I’d ever shed tears for Aerith, I probably would have doubted you.  Maybe raised a sceptical eyebrow.  Thanks to this show, though?  Yeah.  I did, and I can’t wait to see what else it’s gonna do to me.

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