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November 26, 2015

So Who is Cloud Strife, Really?


Full disclosure: I didn’t see the recent Nintendo Direct live, so I heard about the biggest headline indirectly thanks to my brother and his phone.  He had me guess who the new Smash Bros. character was, and my first (and only) guess was Shantae thanks to some rumblings I’d heard.  He didn’t even know who that was, so he did me a solid and said it was Cloud.  My delayed response?  “That’s impossible.”  And for minutes after, “But why?” repeated with an increasingly desperate and confused tone.

In all honesty, though?  I’m not all that hung up on Cloud coming to Smash Bros.  Sure, I can think of other characters who deserve a spot first, but that’s what the big Smash Ballot was for (wherein I voted for Wonder Red, because of course I did).  I don’t intend to play as Cloud, since I already have a stable of characters that’s bursting at the seams; still, his inclusion has made plenty of people happy.  That’s something worth celebrating -- and indeed, plenty of people have already started celebrating.  Seeing Maximillian goberserk over the reveal was an experience more emotional than all of the David Cage games put together.  Not that that's very difficult.


I’d bet that there are people who’ve had even more bombastic reactions, and they’re not wrong for it.  Like it or not, Cloud is one of the most important figures in gaming history.  The same goes for Final Fantasy VII.  The so-called ex-SOLDIER’s journey to save the planet might as well have been branded on the brains of gamers everywhere, and even the slightest mention of it -- the mere chance to let players young and old indulge in those sweet memories -- is enough to shatter the internet and the reality that contains it.  That’s a good thing for a video game (and a character) to do…though it’s a little scary how passionate people can get.

That kind of brings up a problem, though.  Maybe it was against my better judgment, but I’ve been reading the comments on any news related to this “impossible” event becoming possible.  Hype is all over the place, for sure, but there’s a funny thing I’ve noticed: people have talked about Cloud as a character.  There have been some divergent interpretations -- so naturally, there have been plenty of arguments.  Those arguments lead me to ask a simple question…which you’ve probably picked up on if you read the title.  Just a hunch, though.


I wish I could go on at length and offer up an in-depth analysis on everyone’s favorite swordsman in a bright purple jumpsuit (and no amount of design edits over the years can run that back), but I can’t.  FFVII isn’t exactly a game that was part of my personal gaming history; the first time I actually got around to clearing it was via the PC version long after its original release -- and I mean long, because I didn’t even start until well after my brother cleared it, and he had to start over because he somehow brute-forced his way to the third disk while being criminally under-leveled and poorly-equipped.

Couple that with the fact that it’s been geologic ages since I even touched the game -- and back then I had the analytical skills of the average centipede -- and that makes for a Voltech that can’t say too much besides “he fuckin’ hates Sephiroth”.  I mean, that’s pretty important too, and I can’t blame him for it.  But it’s not exactly substantial, is it?  So I’m in no better position than a lot of people.  That’s a problem -- and not just a personal one, either.


Earlier this year -- and hot off of Final Fantasy Type-0 -- I asked if anyone actually remembered what Cloud was really like.  I wondered if anyone had a definitive, conclusive explanation of his character -- not the one we saw in Advent Children or Kingdom Hearts or Dissidia or any of the Compilation installments, but the guy whose arc started and finished in the original game.  I asked that because of two reasons. 

First off, I’m not wholly convinced that Square-Enix remembers what Cloud was like; setting aside the divergences seen in the stuff I mentioned, it’s worth noting that 13’s poster girl Lightning was supposed to be “the female Cloud”.  I don’t think I need to go into detail about how that went; it’s as if they got as far as “is a soldier” and “has a sword” before they left her character to a doped-up sloth.


But more pressingly, I think it’s important to ask what Cloud was like precisely because we can’t always come up with a definitive answer.  In the absence of a full forty- or fifty-hour playthrough, those arguments online are going to help remind people just what sort of icon the gaming canon has idealized.  More to the point, we need to sort out who the golden boy really was (or is) so that the specter hanging over the franchise can be removed. 

People usually look at Final Fantasy and expect a heaping helping of angst and emo whining -- and to be fair, Squeenix doesn’t always prove them wrong (see: FF13, FF13-2, Birth by Sleep, and Type-0, just to start).  I guess the idea is that Squeenix is giving the fans what they crave -- and most certainly not because of general incompetence -- so if they’re steering into the skid to sate customers, then maybe it’s time we start steering them out of it.  And what’s the best way to do that?  Well, there probably isn’t one, but humor me here as I bumble my way toward a conclusion. 

So let’s try and answer the question at hand: who is Cloud Strife?  (Oh, and I guess there’ll be spoilers for this almost-twenty-year-old game, so look out for those.)


Now, I could be way off-base here, but I don’t think Cloud is the angst-riddled mess that some people make him out to be.  Thinking back, he reminds me of the team’s straight man, so to speak.  He’s the level-headed one, and likewise the most realistic of the bunch (at the outset, at least).  He teams up with a bunch of eco-terrorists for the money, and could care less about morality.  I suppose that changes fairly quickly once he meets with Aeris -- I mean Aerith, right? -- and the plot starts moving; in turn, he ends up helping out a good half of the main party before he even gets out of Midgar.  His journey starts in earnest when he has to chase after the ghost of Sephiroth, but he still tries to keep his composure…and also act like a Total Cool Guy when he has the chance.

Maybe the biggest part of Cloud’s character doesn’t come from his personality or his actions (important as they are), but his circumstances.  And I don’t mean his time with Shinra; I mean that when you stop and think about it, Cloud is a normal guy living in a weird-ass world.  Everybody loves going gaga over his rescue mission early on in the game, where he has to dress up in drag to save his improbably-buxom childhood friend from the clutches of a Mohawk-bearing mafia playboy and his creepy sex mansion.  But remember, his party consists of a sick talking panther-dog with a flaming tail that’s the last of a warrior race and a robot cat that rides a stuffed animal and plays the fortune-teller.  That’s ignoring the optional characters, like a kleptomaniac ninja girl wearing some weird armguard/cast thing, and a sealed-away vampire who can turn into Frankenstein’s monster…and was most certainly not the star of any spinoff gamesNone at all.


Over the course of his journey, Cloud ended up doing some ridiculous stuff.  Think about it: remember that time he had to cross a marshland plagued by a cobra the size of a skyscraper by riding on a giant roadrunner?  Remember when he played a real-time strategy game out of nowhere to protect a massive condor and its egg?  Or when he took part in a parade in a city that doubled as a giant gun and learned how to salute the president of a corrupt conglomerate?  Or when he fought a bunch of vengeful ghosts from an ancient warrior race and could kill their boss by tossing a Phoenix Down at it?  Or when he thought that climbing a blizzard-swarmed mountain while wearing a sleeveless purple jumpsuit was a good idea?  Or when he broke the fourth wall in half by noticing the glove cursor in the middle of a tutorial?

I guess that what I’m getting at here was that Cloud’s character -- whatever it may be -- was a necessity for the plot and the world.  In part, he was defined by it.  His reactions to the world and people around him, however absurd, made him a good character to have around -- a sort of anchor to reality, reason, and common sense.  So in a way, taking Cloud away from those absurd elements hurts him as a character; if he doesn’t have a world to react to or scoff at, then he runs the risk of being less interesting.  That might be one of the key problems with stuff like Advent Children; a Cloud without a colorful world to riff off of is hardly a Cloud at all.  And the audience suffers for it.

But that’s all in theory, and focused on overarching issues.  Let’s focus on our hero.


The big wrinkle to both the character and his game of origin is that Cloud isn’t who he says he is.  He claims that he was a First Class SOLDIER, sure, but before long he stops believing his own hype.  Sephiroth brings out the worst in him, from dredging up the past to forcing him to act against his will (as per the alien cells injected into him).  The white-haired villain may be famous for running Aerith through, but Cloud came pretty close to doing the deed, or worse.  If not for Cloud losing his mind -- partly caused by his testimony of past events being completely wrong -- then maybe the planet wouldn’t have had to deal with the meteor that gives the logo its oomph.

As it turns out, Cloud isn’t the puppet that Sephiroth claims he is; in reality, our hero was just a low-ranking soldier who couldn’t be the Total Cool Guy he set out to be.  So instead of having a suite of amazing stories to call his own, he piggybacked off of his friend Zack, and more or less assumed his identity (and weapon) once the black-haired hero bit it.  So in essence, Cloud was a loser pretending to be cool; that’s some heavy stuff, but once he was forced to acknowledge the truth, he got the chance to take steps forward.  He didn’t have to be Zack’s shadow, or Sephiroth’s puppet.  He could start being Cloud…whatever that meant.


So on one hand, Cloud was -- and still is -- a pretender forced to find an identity.  The events and revelations of the game left him in a bad place, as they should; he pretty much had to start over with the stigma that he couldn’t even call himself the puppet of Sephiroth, mad scientist Hojo, or pseudo-space-mommy Jenova.  Even so, it meant that he had the freedom to evolve.  He could become more than what people expected of him.  If he wanted to be a Truly Total Cool Guy, then he had the chance. 

It would take some soul-searching and a lot of time, but before the game’s end it looked as if Cloud was making progress.  The events might have left him uncertain, but he started bouncing back.  He didn’t shut down (well, after he came out of his freaky coma that made the player venture inside his fractured mind).  He moved forward, however shakily -- thanks in part to lines like “Let’s mosey.”


Maybe that’s part of the reason why everything beyond the original game -- except Crisis Core, maybe -- has been so…contentious.  Squeenix wasn’t wrong for giving their character a weakness and issues that needed sorting out, but that’s just it: there needs to be a level of proactivity that keeps the drama from completely overriding every other aspect of a character.  Cloud wasn’t 100% “cured” as of the end of FFVII, but it was at least assumed that he made progress. 

Paradoxically, Squeenix backpedaled hard on that character development -- direct and implied -- to leave him broken or hurting or tortured.  I don’t know about you guys, but as much as I claim that having weaknesses isn’t bad for a character, there’s always a limit.  Someone who wallows in sorrow will never be more interesting than someone who moves past it.  And while Cloud managed to make progress at the end of Advent Children, he shouldn’t have gotten reset in the first place.  He -- and we -- shouldn’t have had to deal with a heaping helping of angst, even if he has legitimate reasons for it.  Is it realistic for him to relapse into depression?  Sure.  But it doesn’t guarantee a good story.

On the other hand, there’s a big problem that shouldn’t be ignored: if Cloud doesn’t know who he is, then how can we?


If Cloud’s identity is built on lies and desperate attempts to build himself up, then can we say with any certainty who he is or isn’t?  What if he’s actually the type to relapse into depression?  What if he can’t find an identity?  And more pressingly, how are we supposed to say what sort of character he is if the character we largely understood is just a fabrication?  It raises a lot of questions about who gamers have been idolizing for almost two decades.  I mean, if we think of Cloud as an extension of players -- a normal person who sees a Total Cool Guy in action and pretends to be him -- then doesn’t that mean that one of gaming’s greats is just an empty shell for gamers to project their dreams and insecurities onto?  Does that mean that some fans out there missed the entire point of the developers’ intent?

That’s a negative spin, I know, but there is a positive side to it.  If Cloud’s actual character is nebulous, then it’s up to the player to assign meaning based on the context.  Whether it’s from events throughout the game, the big reveal, or simply scenes from the finale, there’s more than enough evidence for fans of all kinds to latch onto.  And when they do, they can decide who Cloud is -- maybe not definitively, but certainly on a personal level.  In a way, that bond and understanding is more powerful than an objective, undeniable answer.  Being able to decide who the main character is in the flagship title of the biggest franchise in the genre is a huge deal.  There’s no telling if the devs planned for the response they got from the game or the character, but one thing is clear: not everyone knows who Cloud really is, but everyone knows what Cloud represents.

Or maybe I’m just talking out of my ass.  It’s possible; I did use Squall in Dissidia.  You know, the most beloved of all Final Fantasy characters.  Draw from that what you will.


In any case, this is where you guys come in.  My expertise with FFVII is embarrassingly limited, least of all because it’s been ages since I’ve even seen the discs it came on.  So in order to find some answers -- or just some fresh perspectives -- I’m opening the floor for anyone who wants to weigh in.  Who is Cloud Strife?  Why is he so popular?  What makes him so special, or cool, or amazing?  And most importantly, why doesn’t he have even a fraction of the awesomeness of Red XIII?

Feel free to say whatever you feel like saying.  I talked at length, and now it’s your turn.  So go right ahead and indulge.  As for me?  I don’t know.  Writing about Final Fantasy makes me think of Type-0 now, and that’s not a good place for me to be in.  So maybe I’ll just bang my head against a wall for an hour.  That’ll make the pain go away. 

Well, either that, or multiply it tenfold.

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