WARNING: THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR FINAL FANTASY VII and REMAKE. DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU
There’s a moment in my life that I think about almost every day. I was finishing up my student teaching in winter of 2016, a pretty turbulent semester at a middle school with a thankfully tolerant group of kids. The classes were reading a book together, and one of the more precocious students had read quite a bit ahead. He was a nice boy; a bit odd in the way kids are, but I enjoyed the quirk he brought to my classroom. Unfortunately, he had a habit of reading ahead and wanting to discuss where he was, rather than where most of his classmates were. I didn’t really have a problem with this, but I wanted to keep the discussion current. So I did what I thought a savvy, pedagogy-focused instructor would do: I took charge as an authority and subtly shut him down by acknowledging he raised his hand, promising to get back to him later, and then never answering his question.
Except it wasn’t subtle at all, and about the third time I did this in as many days he mentioned it, laser accurate: “Why do you call on me but I never get a chance to talk? You’re just shutting me out.”
I had lied right to his face, knowingly, and he saw right through me. I’m already not tall, but I felt even smaller as I sheepishly gave some excuse. The credentials around my neck, the tie I was wearing, my nearly-complete semester calendar for graduation, none of that meant shit. I was an unserious person playing make-believe, recycling hack material I had ingested as wisdom from teachers in the past, just so I could appear smarter in front of a child, who had zero time for my horseshit.
Oh, wait, this was supposed to be about Final Fantasy VII, right?
One of the iciest takes around is how video games, similar to other genres of art, often take the form of an explicitly male power fantasy. Play as a hero with a big weapon whose goal is to smash all the baddies in front of him, charm the pants off (sometimes literally) of any women along the way, and lay claim to your newfound title as eternal champion of the universe or king or whatever your fancy. Killing, fucking, and ruling – these are the bread and butter of many a video game plot, and the details descend from there; big muscles, hot girls, sick weapons, and nasties to conquer.
But this is 2021, and to say there has been subversions of those stale tropes would be the understatement of the century. Hell, just go on Twitter and make a post about “Sad Dad” games, games featuring men struggling to soften into fatherhood from a grim life spent slaying, and marvel at the extremely polarized responses you’ll get. Whichever side you fall on, it’s hard not to notice that the days of dual-wielding giga-Chads smiting hordes and landing babes unironically are long gone. But even as a lot of the pimply-faced teens who played those older games grow to adulthood and yearn to correct what they now see as youthful ignorance, the landscape is still full of competent, brave, strong protagonists, who now are just a little more introspective and vulnerable, dare I say meta in their subversion.
But what about the male protagonists who are not competent, and the bravery and strength so often valued as characteristics of heroes are totally, utterly fake?
To 7-year old me, Cloud Strife, the player character in the seminal RPG classic Final Fantasy VII, was so…odd. He wasn’t burly or gassed to the gills like your usual game hero; in fact, he looked downright soft with his pointed chin, big eyes, and defined-but-average size build. Short too, with spikey blonde hair and baggy trousers that look like they’re too big for him. But despite those features, he still had the hallmark of any good hero: a big fucking sword. The iconic image of him gripping the hilt of that as he looked up at a giant intimidating tower that adorned the jewel case of the original game is absolutely badass 101
Despite his appearance, Cloud’s personality and given backstory was more in line with what I expected- he’s a mercenary formerly of SOLDIER, the game’s stand-in for high level military operations, he is extremely confident in his abilities, and he doesn’t let emotions get in the way of his pragmatic, almost cynical view on the world. After a successful mission where he tags along as the muscle for the eco-terrorist group Avalanche to bomb a reactor sucking the planet’s lifeblood out of the ground, Cloud is roped into one last job for them by his childhood friend, Tifa. He doesn’t get along with Avalanche’s leader, Barret, nor does he care for their political cause, but he could use the money and he owes Tifa one.
And this is where things start going awry.
If the game’s exciting opening mission serves to show how Cloud’s best traits – physical strength, calm confidence, emotionless disposition- are enough to conquer any obstacle, the rest of the game that follows is a testament to how useless those traits are in the face of an unfair world. Time after time, Cloud fails. The second bombing mission ends isn’t successful, he’s unable to stop a terrible catastrophe from befalling the denizens of the city slums, one of his party members is kidnapped by the corporation in charge of the army, Shinra, he is double-crossed by a party member, and in the game’s most famous scene, is powerless to prevent one of his other party members (and possible love-interest) from being killed by his arch-nemesis, Sephiroth, someone he thought he had killed years ago but was actually alive all this time.
There are victories along the way, sure, but when it comes to the grandest plot beats, Cloud’s record is abysmal. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, it becomes increasingly clear that there’s something deeply wrong with him. In describing his past, it’s revealed that his hometown was burned down and its inhabitants, including Tifa’s father and Cloud’s mother, slain by Sephiroth, yet the town is still standing and Tifa doesn’t quite seem to remember it that way. Not only that, he’s also prone to painful headaches where voices whisper to him, and more than once he loses control of his body to some terrible force that makes him act violently toward his teammates. While undoubtedly physically powerful, Cloud’s confidence and stoic attitude are nearly shattered by the time he is finally pushed to his breaking point.
When the reveal finally comes, it’s the final blow to Cloud’s fragile mind. Pushed into a corner by Sephiroth, Cloud admits it: he is not an ex-SOLDIER, and he was not the SOLDIER that was with Sephiroth when he burned down his hometown. The memories he has are not his own, and may in fact have been implanted as part of an experiment by Shinra. Accepting that all is lost and that he’s not in control of his own will, Cloud essentially gives up; the last we see of him for a little while is him mumbling an apology to his teammates, owning up to being a failure, then handing over a deadly weapon over to Sephiroth, which will lead to the planet’s destruction
What the fuck!?
All that bravado, all that coolness that was hinted at in the opening sequence of the game has basically evaporated at this point in the story. Cloud was not only not who he said he was, but when confronted with the truth he chose to surrender to the worst parts of himself. At that time, I had never seen a player character who was so achingly weak, who looked at the difficulty in his life and the consequences of his actions and said “This sucks, I quit.” He had the big sword but he lacked the necessarily big balls, whimpering as he did exactly what the main villain wanted him to do.
“What happens to a dream deferred?”
As much as this phrase spoke specifically to a generation growing up poor and oppressed in mid 20th-century Harlem, it is the quintessential human question, too. How do we handle putting aside what we wish could happen for what simply is?
For Cloud Strife, the answer is to pretend it came true, in spite of the disappointing reality.
Ever since he was a child, Cloud was an outcast, far too sullen and stubborn to get along with his fellow kids but desperately wanting to anyway. When he grew to be a teenager, he thought that joining the army “made sense” and would impress people, particularly the object of his affection, Tifa. Amidst a starry night, Cloud makes a promise to be a better person than he was as a child, and to be something he knew good people were – a hero.
Of course, this simply wasn’t to be. As revealed towards the end of the game, Cloud was not good enough to be in SOLDIER, just like he wasn’t good enough to be anybody’s friend. He isn’t good enough to prevent the catastrophe that happens in Nibelheim, and even when he believes that he put Sephiroth down, that didn’t happen either. In a near vegetative state from being poisoned by experimental research, Cloud also can’t stop Zack, his best friend who is actually in SOLDIER and the one who saves him from captivity, from being murdered by the Shinra forces chasing them down.
It is too much for Cloud to bear, particularly when he stumbles into Midgar and sees his old friend Tifa once again. In his weakest moment, he steals Zack’s valor, fabricating a backstory as an ex-SOLDIER-turned-mercenary. Promptly, he does his best to put the confidence of a decorated war veteran on top of his naturally prickly personality and hope no one notices.
Unfortunately, as already described, Cloud’s newfound bravado is a hollow shell that doesn’t prevent his failures from piling up. He is still, ultimately, not strong – something Sephiroth, whose entire presence appears to exist only to Cloud, appeals to.
These illusions haunt Cloud throughout most of FFVII, and he is usually quick to shrug them off, to power through and prove his strength. “Through suffering, you will grow strong” is something sold universally, that hard work and sacrifice are necessary to not just growth and fulfillment, but a happy life.
In this way, Cloud defines himself by his failures and his desperation to avoid them again.
But because all he is doing is running from failure, from weakness, he can’t muster the will to face the truth: he is weak, he has failed, and he needs help. Sephiroth is the manifestation of all that has haunted him his whole life, and even though he has cultivated this cool new persona, it is not enough to fight against the strength of his own psyche
While FFVII is absolutely a game for kids with a pretty basic plot and simplistic dichotomies of good and evil, I don’t know if at 7 I could fully grasp what the developers were aiming for with Cloud. Like a lot of my teenage cohorts, I eventually began to think of Cloud as whiny and moody, someone whose smugness was coached in a sort of detached, ironic air. Obviously he had his reasons, but to me they were excuses – nobody liked Cloud because he was unlikeable, and he was terrible at being a hero. Cloud was almost inarguably the most popular Final Fantasy protagonist, but to me that was just based on looks; if you played the game, you wouldn’t like him either. As FFVII became a lynchpin of Square-Enix’s marketing strategy in the 2000’s, the backlash was even more pointed, as future follow-ups continued to show Cloud at his moodiest and most brooding, and therefore most annoying to me. Jerk pretends to be deep to seem cool, water is wet, sky blue, etc.
But then something funny happened – I grew up.
For me, growing up was coming to the essential realization that the world – the planet itself, most of the heads of the systems that govern our lives, a decent amount of the people around you – is not fair, will hurt you a lot, and will not care if you think that sucks. There is no cosmic ruler of right and wrong you can appeal to (Sorry, Jesus and co.) who will take your case under consideration. That is harsh, but it is reality. Even so, it’s a lot to deal with, and everyone has to find a way to cope. Some people do it in healthier ways than others, but this doesn’t make them lesser.
Naturally, that revelation puts into perspective a lot of things you may have found insufferable as an ignorant teen. That asshole you knew who treated other kids like shit and was a massive bully? That might have been their coping method for dealing with a terrible home life and zero-prospect future. Teacher you knew who had a short fuse? Trying to overcome being responsible for a student drowning in the school pool on their watch. Parents who never seemed like they cared? Working two jobs and trying to manage intense chronic pain just to provide for the family.
This nuance, sadly, never really soothed the pain that came from dealing with these kinds of situations – it just complicated the ways in which it might make us feel. It is never really a matter of “thing good” and “thing bad”, and those dichotomies are as fragile as a simple change in perspective. Trying to put any sort of rational sense to it would only push you toward a path of demagoguery, of reaction, believing that there are the irredeemable and the redeemed, that people born fragile in an already broken world should do what “made sense” for survival, not to live.
It “made sense” for me to be an educator – a lot of my family was, so why not? It fulfilled the standards set by my social betters; go to college, get a degree, get a respectable salaried job and contribute to society. I suppose you could say it was my coping mechanism for finding myself unsure about the “need” to do those things but feeling pressured to do so anyways. I was, and am, an excellent student, and it was no problem at all to succeed in making it to graduation day years later.
But it wasn’t just a straight shot – the story in the opening paragraph was just one of many moments where the movie reels suddenly became visible, that what “made sense” was actually a cruel charade imposed upon myself in the vain hopes that no one would see the seams. It was those instances, few and far between but still revealing, that would make me hesitate when the glory I had wanted was right in front of me. It ate at me all through graduation, and in the months of job searching afterwards, making me feel anxious and uncertain nearly everyday
I was finally beginning to understand that silly game from when I was a kid, and why Cloud could be such a little prick.
Despite my constant highlighting of Cloud’s personality failures, he is not a bad person. While he may bitch and moan about it and demand compensation, he’s willing to put his life on the line to help others. If someone is too weak to do something, he’ll let his guard down and help them out. He’s loyal, even when it puts him in awkward situations.
And ultimately, he is able to piece back together who he truly is, thanks to the help of Tifa literally diving into his subconscious (don’t ask). Cloud, finally facing the friend he put in significant danger due to his terrible actions, acknowledges that he’s weak and a fraud, but strives to fix the damage he has caused.
He is welcomed back with open arms by his friends, who are just happy he’s alive. It will be a long time before Cloud is truly well, but by becoming self-assured for perhaps the first time in his life, he finds the will to vanquish Sephiroth from his mind for good in the end
It was hard to finally rip the band-aid off and tell myself that I didn’t want to teach. No one likes to waste time, but how about wasting six years steeped in post-secondary academia, racking up loans? It was a long and hard talk with family, but it had to be done.
The easiest thing in the world would be to define what my life is now by my failures: my failure to question the goals set upon me; my failure to keep my weight under control; my failure to even pretend to be a teacher; and my failure to maintain relationships with people I cared about. But in the end, what does that do but steelman a position of futility? If you’re a failure so many times that it’s all you’ll ever be, how do you get better? Truthfully, I don’t have the answer, but I know what has worked – finding meaning in the small victories.
I have a steady job, that while not the greatest in the world and with its fair share of bullshit, has co-workers and a superior who have always done their best to treat me with dignity. I live with a family that does in fact care about me and wants me to be happy. I have fulfilling relationships with people who truly care about what I have to say and think that I contribute something meaningful to their lives. I have the ability to write about things I care about unfettered from the editorial gaze of anyone else.
Like the kids say, I may be cringe, but I am free.
I am, as always, deeply critical of people who define their sense of ethics and personalities from the media they consume. I think it can lead to an infinite regress where people take simple stories often meant for children or teens and apply them to an adult life where those basic truths and dichotomies don’t apply.
That said, I believe that it is entirely possible to have something from your childhood prepare you for an adult life, and for me, FFVII and Cloud were that. A competent portrayal of someone who puts up a total facade to hide a weakness, caused by a world so unfair and so overwhelming that he couldn’t bring himself to bear it.
And that’s not just me talking – here’s Testsuya Nomura, Cloud’s original character designer and one of the creatives behind Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VII REMAKE:
Even if I didn’t internalize it at the time, revisiting the game as I grew to be an adult confirmed that there were aspects I gleaned from it that lasted to my current life. The masterful filmmaker Andrei Tartovsky said “The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” In this instance, I found a piece of art that showed me a portrait of a character having a difficult time adjusting to a harsh world, battered around by it, broken because of it, but ultimately finding the strength to push forward and do what’s right.
2020 was a really difficult year for everyone, and the prospect of having to go out to work while this invisible illness ravaged the population was quite frightening. But taking a long break to play Final Fantasy VII REMAKE, the fully fleshed-out reimagining of the original title, was a great comfort. All of the original creators were on board for this ride, and to see Cloud rendered as the awkward, hard-to-like, sad-looking character I recognized from the little polygonal figure all those years ago meant a lot to me as I prepared to deal with the new normal.
There is no universal sense of fairness, and the world doesn’t care about your plans as it turns and brings about whatever may come. Still, amidst that chaos, it’s on us to find the joy in small victories and ask for the help of others against overwhelming odds. It’s a tough world, and no one can blame you for feeling lost or broken, but to understand that and try anyways? That’s what makes all the difference.
I’ll always love Cloud because to me he is an extremely positive representation of failure and loss, the real danger of being swallowed by it, but the catharsis of finding the help you need to escape it. It doesn’t hurt that he has a cool sword, can do a bunch of flips, and rides a motorcycle like no one’s business, but hey, we all like surface level stuff, right?
He’s an erstwhile companion to have on my desk, and as I hope to finally step out of the shadow of this pandemic and into a more focused life, it’s good to know that he’s got my back.
Stay golden, SOLDIER boy