Note: This is a new edition of an old essay, which incorporates reader feedback into its analysis.
Final Fantasy VII is unquestionably a landmark for not only role-playing games, but the entire interactive electronic medium. Its story, characters, and combat system are the benchmarks by which a whole generation of players judge every other JRPG. It certainly hasn’t aged well graphically, but it is impossible to deny the effect it had on its industry and genre.
The premise of the game was fairly unique for its time. Instead of utilizing the standard “swords and sorcery” setup that had defined much of the history of roleplaying games and fantasy literature, Final Fantasy VII opened in a dystopian Dieselpunk universe in which the gap between rich and poor had widened so far as to incite a band of revolutionaries to overthrow their oppression. Although this setting is similar to the one presented in Final Fantasy VI, its implementation turned out to be quite a bit deeper than its predecessor.
Despite the originality this introduction had in video games, it was hardly without precedent in modern arts. The German expressionistic film Metropolis (later famously adapted into a manga and an anime) features an almost identical setup. In that film, not only is the disparity between classes a prominent theme, but the actual architecture of the city is clearly an inspiration on Midgar, the town where FFVII begins. In both the film and the game, the upper class citizens live in a great city above the slums, which eventually leads to a revolt in which the impoverished rebels are responsible for accidentally causing civilian casualties.
The significance of this influence is twofold. First, the economic schisms in society are a serious concern of FFVII up until about halfway through the game, and one of Metropolis’s key issues is this socioeconomic gap. Reflections of this can be seen in the treatment of the relationship between the town of Corel and the neighboring Golden Saucer casino. Like the dynamic between the two castes of Midgar, Corel and the Golden Saucer reflect a dichotomous tendency in society’s distribution of its wealth.
The second major effect that Metropolis has on Final Fantasy VII is it serves as a springboard for an exploration of many religious ideas and concepts. In Metropolis, the character Maria (likely representative of the biblical Mary) has a robot made in her likeness which is explicitly connected with the Whore of Babylon (Revelation 17:5). Also, references to the Canaanite god Moloch are made in a pivotal early scene depicting the dehumanizing effects of modern machinery—an apt comparison, given Moloch’s penchant for demanding sacrifice.
Final Fantasy VII similarly appropriates biblical imagery, names, and concepts to perpetuate its messages. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the fact that the primary antagonist’s name is Jenova, an obvious corruption of the word “Jehovah,” one of the many names for God in the Abrahamic faiths. It may seem strange that the villain of the game would be assigned a name based on a deity traditionally thought of in a positive manner. There are several ways to interpret this.
One tact that could be taken in examining this choice of nomenclature is approaching Jenova as a Lovecraftian entity. In the works of H.P. Lovecraft, “Elder” and “Outer” Gods are actually aliens that are so above human understanding as to render them deities by comparison. If Jenova is analyzed as an eldritch abomination—and it is well established to have come from space—then its name can be understood to signify how above the comprehension of men its nature and motives are.
Another reading can be made using Gnosticism. Gnosticism is actually the modern term used when referring to many different Judeo-Christian religions which scholars know about due in part to the Nag Hammadi library, but there are enough points of agreement to generalize about their beliefs for purposes of this analysis. In Gnosticism, the God of the Jews and Christians (YHWH or Yahweh), is considered neither alone nor omnipotent. That God, called the Demiurge, is usually portrayed as a creator deity which is either ignorant of the fact that there are forces beyond its comprehension, or simply lies to men to hide this fact.
Within the context of the game, if it can be inferred that Jenova is in fact not just an alien, but a God, then the name can be seen as emblematic of it being a corrupted, evil deity. It can be argued whether or not Jenova exhibits the powers of a God in the game, but it does seem to think of itself as a God, as its clearest motive seems to be to use Sephiroth to consume the Lifestream, which is literally made up of souls. This can be interpreted as a slight against Judeo-Christianity, but that is something that will be expounded upon later.
The last viewpoint from which to examine Jenova is through the lens of the character of Sephiroth. Unlike Jenova, Sephiroth’s name is not a corruption of a religious concept, but one that was left untouched. The concept of sephiroth (singularly sephirot) come out of the tradition of Jewish mysticism called Kabbalah. According to this tradition, God is expressed in the physical world in emanations, or sephirot, the specifics of which have been debated for centuries.