This article is part of the Final Fantasy: Crystal Compendium blog project, a love letter to the Final Fantasy franchise on its 30th anniversary. Be sure to check out all the other fantastic pieces from the WordPress community about every single Final Fantasy game that ever was.
Jenova: “Because, you are……a puppet.”
There are so many amazing things to be said about Final Fantasy VII. The first Final Fantasy in 3D, amazing cinematic scenes and cutscenes, a haunting soundtrack, and an epic story. As a young teen playing Final Fantasy VII, however, what really stood out and haunts me to this day is Cloud Strife’s struggle with control, memory, identity, and authority.
I was thirteen when I played FFVII in 1998. I did not have a PlayStation, but I did have a brand new PC that I got for my Bar Mitzvah, and the PC Port had just come out. After having loved FFVI on the SNES, I was dying to sink my teeth into this critically acclaimed game.
Despite the graphics now being super dated, when I look back now on FFVII, I am still blown away by how well composed it is. At the time, the scope of the world, characters, and story were completely unprecedented – the sweeping score and emotional beats made you feel like you were playing a movie.
FFVI had great characters and worldbuilding, but FFVII took storytelling to another level. The characters motivations were wrought in mystery and had truly tragic backstories that didn’t feel forced and actually informed their actions in the present. From Barrett and Marlene, Cid and Shera, Vincent and Lucrecia, you really got a full emotional picture of each character and how those events led to their current actions.
Which takes me to Cloud.
Young me: What the hell is going on?
To this day, Cloud’s backstory and the way it is slowly revealed through several agonizing and eventually redeeming episodes is the part of FFVII that resonates with me the most.
Right from the beginning of the game in the first MAKO reactor, Cloud is faced with visions and breaks from reality that alert you to the fact that something is terribly wrong. Tifa’s confusion about Cloud’s memory gaps and Cloud’s confusion of Zack’s memories with his own, which aren’t made clear till later in the plot, continually keep you on your toes. Suffice it to say, this weird disconnect drew me in tight.
When Cloud almost kills Aeris, that quote “because you are…… a puppet” held such an emotional weight, it hit me like a punch in the gut. What could have possibly compelled me (as the player) to almost kill Aeris, a beacon of pure light and sweetness? What was happening to me?
The power of these events and the eventual reveal that Cloud’s memories were false and his own motivations may have have been driven by Jenova, were captivating in the subtle events that led up to it. Young me was captivated by the idea that someone could act believing they were exercising free will, but at the same time were secretly being controlled by a larger, malevolent force.
In looking at creator interviews, I am immediately captivated by the piecemeal way the game was created, with one hand not knowing what the other was doing, and how that almost reflects a type of collective amnesia amongst the team. Sound familiar?
According to director Yoshinori Kitase in this Famitsu interview, even the wider team didn’t know about Cloud’s amnesiac condition as they were creating the game, thanks to story writer Kazushige Nojima working largely out of his own head:
“For Cloud’s identity, we only vaguely had an image of Cloud’s own existence being up in the air and it ending there, but the actual unfolding of events was left in Kazushige Nojima’s hands. And he made not only the scenario but the actual event scenes as well, and the parts where all the mysteries get made clear like Nibelheim in the past were all in Nojima’s head so he hadn’t written it down in detail in the scenario. So we were doing the test play with no idea how it was going to end, and that’s how we first found out what happens. In particular Zack was made like that as well, he was a character Nojima brought in while he was building up the mystery, so we had no clue that he was that important a character (laughs).”
Frankly, with that kind of patchwork game design, I am amazed they made such a timeless game! Perhaps it was this unconventional approach to designing a game that actually lent the Cloud identity crisis plot more weight.
While the mystery behind Cloud’s backstory was so fascinating, it was his eventual coming back to himself, aided by Tifa, that was truly inspiring to me.
The Path to Self
Teenagers are confused people. Between turbulent friendships, hormones, and the struggle to find identity, it’s a wonder any of us making it to adulthood. At any rate, this is when I discovered Final Fantasy VII, and it was formative to me.
When Tifa and Cloud fall into the lifestream, and she helps Cloud remember what truly happened on that day in Nibelheim, suffice it to say, I was fairly giddy. I am pretty sure my thoughts were…
“Holy SHIT, Cloud was the nameless Shinra soldier next to Zack?”
“Zack and Cloud were bros…? Bro!”
“Cloud DID save Tifa!”
“Cloud managed to actually best Sephiroth holy CRAP.”
*Clears throat* yes, something like that.
After you think Cloud has lost everything and really was no more than a shell, the game allowed for the catharsis of restoring your vision of who Cloud was when the game started – a badass hero, albeit with a more human side.
He did not make SOLDIER. He was embarrassed to meet Tifa because of that. Yet, when the chips were down, he still saved the day and his childhood friend.
Later on, I would immediately make parallels between Jenova / Sephiroth’s control, and the Ingsoc government of the novel 1984 with their complete authority over the thoughts and motivations of their citizens. Clearly, this idea was larger than Final Fantasy, and one which would always fascinate me – who controls reality, and how can you really discover who you are outside of the reality you are expected to live in? In the story of 1984, ultimately Winston gets crushed by the state (spoiler), but Final Fantasy VII offers a more optimistic interpretation.
Despite the society you are in or the people who supposedly pull your strings, there is always the opportunity to become your own unique self. Someone who doesn’t follow the norms imposed by society. Someone who appreciates art and isn’t afraid to dream. Someone who rises above their worst impulses despite the barrage of negativity in society.
Cloud’s journey isn’t an easy one – he gets completely broken down emotionally before he can build himself back up again. But he does, despite all odds, and becomes stronger for it. He earns the forgiveness of those he wronged. And in the end, he and his friends save the day.
To a vulnerable anxious teen, that message truly resonated with me and is no doubt one of the main reasons FFVII remains a classic. Though I was very anxious throughout my teens and only really started to name my issues and take care of them in my 20s, Cloud’s journey was always there in the back of my mind, ready to assist when I was ready to grapple with my issues.
Whatever your age, it is powerful knowledge that you can rise above the expectations of people or society and become a truly whole and unique person – and that’s a lesson everyone can take to heart.