Monday, March 24, 2014

Cloud Strife: The Man from SOLDIER

Note:  Since the Final Fantasy games are plot heavy, and there exists some major spoilers, I will put in a spoiler bar when the time comes for spoilers.

Additionally, it should be noted that although each game is numbered, each game follows a completely different story in generally a completely different world with completely different characters.  Final Fantasy VII does not pick up where Final Fantasy VI left off nor do the events of Final Fantasy VIII come after Final Fantasy VII.

Each numbered entry follows a different narrative which can sometimes go into multiple installments.  To name a few high points in the overarching Final Fantasy VII universe, there is a prequel, a feature length film sequel, and another sequel that more closely follows a supporting character.  To keep the story as simple as possible for everyone, I will limit the narrative to the game entitled Final Fantasy VII.  

Without further ado, we will begin our discussion of Cloud Strife. 

The Opening to Final Fantasy VII is probably one of the most memorable scenes in the game.  In it, a mysterious girl is seen walking out of an alley with a basket of flowers under her arm while various automobiles rumble down the street.  The camera zooms out and provides a crane shot of the city of Midgar (in which I should note all perceived references and allusions to Norse mythology are totally intentional), which is depicted as heavily postindustrial in sharp contrast to most fantasy settings as well as dark, sketchy, and circular.  At the center of the city is a large futuristic office building for the dystopian corporation Shinra Power.  Something that's important to note about this intro is that it suggests the series is taking a new direction artistically as seen in the transition from a Medieval and Steampunk setting to a very much more modern setting.

Full Motion Video opening of FFVII as seen at the end of the prequel.

As the camera zooms back down toward the city, shots of a train roaring by are interspersed.  These images of the train sync up with the city as the train pulls into station.  From atop the train jumps down a spiky blonde character as several fellow passengers jump out and attack the guards at the train station.  It is shortly after this point the blonde character is named Cloud Strife.

Cloud Strife's spiky hair and anime eyes mark yet another change in direction for the series.  This is the style of Tetsuya Nomura, the new lead character designer for the game, as Cloud marks the first of Nomura's protagonists.  As the series goes on, the heroes look more and more androgynous.  The wild haircuts never really go away.

Cloud begins as something of an antihero.  He's rude, he's self centered, and he's all around kinda unpleasant.  He is fighting alongside the eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE against his former employers at the Shinra Power Company where he served in the elite security division SOLDIER. His reasons for fighting are completely based on business with no regard for the mission of AVALANCHE.  Despite his cocky nature and general disregard for everyone around him, he has one friend who convinced him to help AVALANCHE.  This friend, Tifa Lockheart, grew up with Cloud in the small village of Nibelheim.  I'll discuss more about Tifa later.

Scene from game in all its low polygon count splendor.
It was impressive in '97.

What's important is that despite how unlikable Cloud is, his motives aren't completely farfetched.  He make look ridiculous with his spiky hair and sword the size of a small person, but even people who look ridiculous have to pay the bills and he is simply using his skills as a mercenary to make ends meet.  Of course, if people are really going to care about this character for an extended period of time, there has to be some appealing quality that makes the character more than a cold and static vessel into a world of fantasy.  This is found in his friendship with Tifa.

Tifa reminds Cloud of the day before he left for the military shortly after he makes an ass of himself.  Cloud told Tifa before he left that he would join SOLDIER to become a hero, to which she replies if he really wants to be a hero, he'll have to come back and help her one day.  Heroes help people, and Cloud has apparently forgotten this. On this basis Cloud continues to help AVALANCHE for Tifa's sake as she basically protects Cloud from himself.  This becomes quite literal much later on.

Cloud begins to change as a character fairly early on following a botched attack on a power plant when he falls from a really high distance through the roof of an abandoned church.  It is in this church he meets Aeris Gainsborough.  Aeris is the same woman from earlier with the basket of flowers.  She has found that the church and land around her house can sustain flowers while the rest of the city's soil has been blighted.  As such, she's made a business selling flowers.  During their brief exchange, Aeris suggests Cloud looks familiar to her, but this is interrupted by Shinra soldiers looking to capture Aeris for reasons unknown.  Cloud fends them off and Aeris decides it would be safer for Cloud to stay with her to protect her from the Company's soldiers.

Sooner or later, Aeris recruits herself to the cause of Cloud's employers at AVALANCHE, and then following several kidnappings of various invidiuals and their rescue, Cloud encounters Sephiroth, an old enemy with whom Cloud must settle a score.

And so Cloud leaves the city of Midgar to pursue Sephiroth as it is revealed Sephiroth destroyed Cloud and Tifa's home at Nibelheim.  Sephiroth's motives will be explored further in a later post, but what happens to Cloud next is life shattering.

SPOIIIIIIIIILLLEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRS, SCROLL DOWN AS FAST AS YOU CAN TO THE LAST TWO PARAGRAPHS TO AVOID SAID SPOOOIIILLLLLLERRRS(this is a very well crafted game that can be found on Steam for a reasonable price, so if you haven't played the game before I highly recommend you see it for yourself, but if video games aren't for you or you don't have the time to play such a lengthy game or if you already have played this game, feel free to continue)

Cloud is about to stop Sephiroth's genocidal campaign against humanity (again, explained later), but he is stopped when Sephiroth seizes control of Cloud's mind and almost manages to force him to kill Aeris.  He fails to completely control Cloud, but then Sephiroth dives out of the sky and kills Aeris himself.  Cloud is disturbed by Aeris' death as Sephiroth had claimed such a vibrant life, but then Sephiroth reveals to Cloud that Cloud's entire life is a lie, just about all of his memories are fabricated, and because of the genetic experiments that went into making Cloud, he is more or less a puppet of Sephiroth who could turn on his companions at any moment.

They say that good conflict is often consistent and severe conflict.  Kurt Vonnegut said the test of a good character is based on the author's ability to craft someone that audiences will warm up to and then sadistically ruin said character at every turn.   The Final Fantasy series has had a fair share of stunning plot twists that completely knocks the heroes of their feet, but this is one of the first that proved to be so personal for the protagonist.  The combined stress of the revelation alongside the poisoning of his body from the experiments that gave Cloud is heightened strength and speed.

It is within this coma Cloud discovers which memories are real and which are fabricated.  He was friends with Tifa and he did live in Nibelheim, but he never was a member of SOLDIER but rather was a simple infantryman. On a mission to Nibelheim, he befriended a kind member of SOLDIER who also grew up in a small town named Zack Fair.  When Sephiroth destroyed Nibelheim, Zack and Cloud fought side by side against Sephiroth and seemingly defeated him.  It was shortly after this Cloud was captured and subjected to medical experimentation, but Zack escaped with Cloud as fugitives from the law.  Zack was killed in the escape, but not before making Cloud promise to carry on as his living legacy.  It was at this point that Cloud confused Zack's experiences as part of his own under his stress from recovering from the experiments and witnessing the death of his one friend in the military.  Having all of these memories sorted out, Cloud returns from his coma with newfound resolve to defeat Sephiroth and save the planet from the genocide.


In this sense, it's safe to say Cloud could best be described as an emotional glass cannon.  When fighting an enemy he can get shot and impaled multiple times and shake it off, but the moment one of his loved ones is threatened he begins to break at the risk of losing them.  At the same time, Cloud grows stronger by acknowledging his reliance on others whereas at the beginning he was reliant upon his own abilities and his lack of motivation renders his potential severely limited from all he is capable of achieving.  This is best captured in a scene from the feature length sequel Advent Children where Cloud fights Sephiroth a third time two years later. Sephiroth proceeds to severely beat Cloud and offers to find the thing Cloud loves most and to have the honor of taking it from him before he kills Cloud.  Cloud responds that there is not one thing he doesn't cherish and that Sephiroth will never understand this.

I feel like this is the most fundamental and important element of Cloud's character in that he found value and strength not from himself but from everyone who stood by him.  It makes for a remarkable progression from how the hero presented himself in the beginning.

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