A Closer Look At Cloud Strife

By Patrick Molloy on December 19, 2011, 7:12PM EDT

Cloud from Final Fantasy VII is a compelling character. Even accounting for the nostalgia bias and the changing trends since Final Fantasy VII's release in 1997, Cloud Strife is still someone who is exceptionally multifaceted. He is one of the rare characters in games with depth, complexity, and a smooth, believable arc of character development.

The first time that we see Cloud, he is vaulting out of a train and single-handedly slashing down armed guards. He is a detached, impersonal sword for hire whose only priority is doing his job and getting paid. He is an elite military specialist gone rogue against an oppressive "corporatocracy." Rugged individualism and protecting women are his main motivations. He reacts to crisis with a cocky slouch and an aloof swish of his hair. For the first half of Final Fantasy VII, Cloud personifies this capable and arrogant warrior figure.

But halfway through the game, layers of Cloud's facade are peeled away. He is not only less capable than he lets on, but his entire identity is false. The major reveal of Final Fantasy VII is that Cloud has falsified his own memories. He was never a member of SOLDIER, he was not friends with the war hero Sephiroth, and he never lived as a mercenary. In truth, Cloud had a lonely childhood and failed to live up to his dreams. His entire background is mired with such an overwhelming sense of failure that he represses it totally and adopts a new identity.

Cloud's personality is based off of two templates: that of Sephiroth and that of Zack. Sephiroth is set up as a militaristic superman and famed war hero. Cloud adopts Sephiroth as a fatherly paragon of manhood. Similarly, Zack is a young stud rising up through the ranks of SOLDIER, a talented and respected man with a bright future that Cloud envies. Both men are armed with signature flashy swords. When Cloud takes on Zack's identity, he takes his sword and buries his preteen self beneath this other man's identity.

Halfway through the game, after the party acquires the Black Materia, Cloud's mind betrays him. He lacks the will to resist Sephiroth and turns on Aeris. At this point Cloud is no longer the cocky, dispassionate warrior he once was. He is as likely to curl into a ball and pout as he is to charge into battle. The more of his false identity that is peeled away, the less there is that remains. Cloud's self is so dependent on his masculine warrior illusion that there is nothing beneath it. When his illusion is stripped away entirely, Cloud is paralyzed and catatonic. Cloud's only self is the fantasized version that he has created.

As Final Fantasy VII comes to a conclusion, the real Cloud finally emerges. Cloud accepts his failures and apologizes (ad nauseum) for being weak. He acknowledges his flaws and overcomes them. His personal acceptance is rewarded when his friends accept him back into the fold. He isn't very masculine, but his peers still respect him. The Cloud at the beginning of Final Fantasy VII is quite different from the Cloud at the end. He whines, he fails, and he is weak, but he is far better equipped to save the world than when he was deceiving himself.

By the end of the game, Shinra is toppled, the Lifestream is too dangerous to keep using, and Midgar is destroyed, but there is still hope. This theme is echoed in Cloud's progress as a character. For all of his self-deception, mistakes, and weaknesses, he finds himself and ends up stronger after doing so.

Games seldom star such deeply flawed characters. Cloud is alone, afraid, and doesn't know who he is. This sentiment is shared by many young people (even those who aren't burdened with saving the world). As the story concludes, after the "real" Cloud is literally rescued from deep within his psyche, he becomes a complete human being. He is weak, and he is sorry. He will strive forward. He may never be the legend that Sephiroth was, but people like that are dangerous and unstable. Cloud far more closely resembles what most game characters aren't: a complete human being.

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