What’s So Freaking Great About Cloud Strife?
***Contains spoilers for Final Fantasy VII***
The Final Fantasy VII remake is finally happening. If you’ve met me in person in the past month or so, I’ve probably talked your ear off about it. I’m currently replaying the original, remaking my Cloud cosplay, and rereading fanfiction I wrote when I first discovered FFVII 8 years ago. I also discovered that people in this fandom have done what I never thought possible and written some really freaking good time travel AU’s.
In the middle of one of my impassioned rants, my sister interrupted me to ask “What is it that you like so much about Final Fantasy VII?” My sister’s addiction to a certain popular manga about high school competitive cycling focuses on the here and now, the glory of victory, the agony of defeat, the day-to-day challenges of getting through high school. How can I possibly find something relatable in the dim and grimy dystopia of Midgar?
At 24, I feel like I’m rapidly outgrowing my ability to relate to most anime protagonists. I have no desire to reminisce on my high school years – with the exception of Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, the only series I’ve seen accurately capture the hilarity of belonging to a group of creative teen weirdos. I have no love life to speak of, so the nostalgia of anime’s sakura-tinted love stories is lost on me. The single-minded devotion to club activities and the feeling of taking a team to victory ring false to me as well. I’ve quit a wide array of sports and musical instruments, my shortest stint being a single day on the track team in 7th grade. The story of an anime hero ends at high school graduation, but the moments I will remember as life-changing didn’t happen until much later. I have lived maybe a quarter of my life, but from the perspective of most anime protagonists, my life is already over.
So why Final Fantasy VII? Why Cloud Strife? If I have a hard time relating to first love and sports stories, you would think that saving the planet from a Calamity and a corporation would be even more difficult to comprehend. It’s true that Cloud Strife’s problems are anything but mundane, but it’s in his extremes that I find something relatable. I’m fascinated by the fallibility of human memory, a theme central to the plot of FFVII. Cloud is a character who has built his identity around false memories and childhood dreams that never came true. He spends the first half of FFVII acting like the cold-hearted jerk he believes an ex-SOLDIER is supposed to be, only to find out that the memories he had relied on actually belonged to someone else. To say I know what this feels like would be melodramatic, but I think most people have their own examples of false or questionable memories. As a twin, I know I have plenty of distant childhood memories that I’m not sure who to attribute to, myself or my sister. Psychologists have shown that memories aren’t the reliable tape recordings of the past that we like to think they are. Memories shift and morph as we retell them, and it’s interesting to see a video game attempt to tackle that complexity.
Once you learn that Cloud is only acting like a jerk because he thinks he’s supposed to, the glimpses of awkwardness beneath his spiky shell become endearing. Cloud may be able to swing a sword as big as he is and master powerful Materia, but he gets carsick unless he’s the one driving. He grew up as a Sephiroth fanboy. He’s hopelessly nerdy about motorcycles. The pre-Advent Children novella On the Way to a Smile reveals that he didn’t know the names of most fruits and vegetables before starting his delivery service, which seems impossible until you realize that he joined the military at 14, spent 5 years of his life as a science experiment, and then got spat back out into the world probably never having gone grocery shopping. Whenever I feel like I’m not functioning, I can give Cloud a mental pat on the head and feel a lot better.
I desperately hope the FFVII remake preserves Cloud’s awkward speech patterns. Most of the dumb things he says can probably be attributed to bad translation, but I love imagining him saying weird stuff with a straight face. “Let’s mosey” is classic, but I also love when he warns the party that a dragon will turn them into “crispy critters.” My favorite Cloud quote occurs if you fail the “sneak in and steal a submarine” mission so many times that the game gives up on you. Cloud decides that the best way to get to the submarine is to hold a Shinra guard dog hostage and exclaims, “Shinra dog, I’m going to dognap you!” No matter how many planets he saves and how many swords he manages to swing around at once, Cloud will never really be cool, and that’s one of the things I love about him.
Unlike so many anime and video game protagonists, Cloud was never chosen to be a hero. Cloud’s entire fate is unfair, almost random. He set out to join SOLDIER and failed, never advancing in rank beyond the military police. He looked up to Sephiroth, maybe even wanted to be him, but he never knew the real Sephiroth before becoming his mortal enemy. He barely knew Zack either, just happened to be assigned with him to the mission in Nibelheim where Sephiroth lost it, happened to become one of many Nibelheim victims taken as Hojo’s experiments, happened to have a mind that was particularly vulnerable to mako poisoning and Jenova’s influences, happened to survive while Zack died trying to protect him. It’s through no special effort of Cloud’s that he became the ideal warrior to defeat Sephiroth and Jenova. Hojo tried to turn numerous other victims into Sephiroth clones. Cloud just happened to be the one that survived, and his survival depended on him being so much of a nobody that the Shinra troops didn’t bother to look for him after they made sure Zack was dead. Nobody ever told Cloud he had potential, and it’s his very lack of potential that allowed him to live on to save the world.
Saving the world, however, did not come without consequences. Cloud will never fully heal from the painful experiences that made him who he is. Aerith and Zack will never come back to life, and Cloud will never again have a mind without mako poisoning or relive the years of his adolescence that were stolen by Hojo. Although Cloud didn’t really experience Zack’s memories, he can never go back to a point where he didn’t have them. Some part of him will always feel like he was close to Sephiroth, like he really was in SOLDIER, like he knew Aerith for years before he met her. Even though he will learn to sift through his mind, finding the perspectives that are Cloud and pushing the Zack-thoughts to the side, there is no such thing as a perfect, blank-slate Cloud he can use to remake his personality. He has to create the litmus test for himself as he goes along, but the doubt, the insidious whisper of “are you really who you say you are?” will always be there in the back of his mind. Cloud will never be able to fully escape his own insanity.
Perhaps this is the thing that I find most inspiring about Cloud. He stands out to me not because he can beat Sephiroth, but because he can go toe-to-toe with the darkness in his own mind and come out relatively functional. Like Cloud, I too have done battle with the dark parts of my mind, with insecurity, self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and one thing I am learning is that it never really goes away. There may be days, months, or years that I feel better than others, more confident, less vulnerable, but the dark thoughts are always lurking in the background. Like Cloud, who feels like he is Zack but knows that he isn’t, I am getting better at knowing when my mind is lying to me. I am getting better at accepting my emotional reactions without letting them take me for a ride. I’m learning to seize the things I can control and let go of the things I can’t, and I’m building up an arsenal of strategies, a team of supportive friends, and a sturdy sense of self that can withstand whatever crises might come next. Cloud is ten thousand times more screwed up than I am, broken in so many different ways that he can’t possibly be put back together, but he keeps fighting for the people he cares about and the things that he believes in. He’s seen the world end and rebuild itself from scratch, and he still gets up in the morning. Cloud Strife will never, ever be okay, and yet he’s made a place for himself in the world. Sometimes, that’s all you can really ask for in a hero.