Cloud Strife and the Ontological Tragedy
Let’s just say it. We love this guy. The badass mercenary-for-hire who was emo before there was emo; he’s man enough to wear a dress; the only polygon-based character with hair that would make Alec Baldwin jealous; his hell-can-wait demeanour, and star-crossed tragic love affair granted him both street cred and player-pathos. But why, exactly, do we love him so much? Even Square-Enix does not seem to have an answer to this question, as their attempt to channel the same heroic pathos into their next major hero resulted in the uneven, often whiney, Squall–a character who kicked up a lot of fuss but never fully delivered.
So why do we love Cloud Strife? He’s no cerebral powerhouse—despite much solitude and reflection, he seldom philosophizes; and even his revolutionary actions against the eco-terrorizing Shinra Corp. seem more reactionary than ideal-driven—; he is not a particularly admirable person—his earliest memories show him perpetrating atrocities as a member of SOLDIER, and afterward we see him killing innocents with the terrorist group AVALANCHE—; and, while he is admittedly cool-looking, and possessed of uncanny physical prowess, the same could be said of almost every JRPG hero since the dawn of the Famicom. I would like to suggest that what makes Cloud so easy to identify with and care for is not his much-loved mopiness, his super-cool hair, or his special-forces background; rather, it is his willingness to uncover and confront his own ontology, as well as his relentless (and tragic) pursuit of transcendent experience.
At first glance, one might be tempted to conclude that there is little for the average gamer to identify with in Cloud’s past—his science-experiment-gone-wrong origin, his imbuement with super powers, and his partial amnesia are hardly common biographical fair among gamers. Nonetheless, what Cloud shares with the rest of humanity is a certain uncertainty about his own origin—after all, what thinking human has not asked where he/she came from, whether we were created with purpose, or whether we exist as the result of a biological accident? Cloud is, ultimately, admirable because he does not just accept that he cannot know these things—contra late modern and post-modern ethos which rejects meta-narratives and metaphysics in general because of their apparent inscrutability. Cloud effectively tells the likes of Lyotard and Foucault to shut up and let him pursue the big (meta?) answers about his identity.
Even when Cloud begins to uncover the nefarious nature of his own ontology—i.e., his connection to Sephiroth, Jenova, etc.—he does not shrink from the truth. In a world where the existential assertion that action (i.e., existence) trumps essence seems to reign supreme, it is refreshing to follow the story of a man who is willing to admit that he was not born a blank slate, but that he is a broken creation. Don’t get me wrong, Cloud (not to mention pretty much every other character in the Final Fantasy multiverse) still ascribes to the existentialist belief that he can forge a new identity via his actions—his choice to stand against Sephiroth and co., and to save the cosmos both mark and validate this belief. In this Cloud stands safely among the status quo of Final Fantasy heroes—he finds redemption through positive action of a scale so grand that nothing less than the universe hangs in the balance. But what truly sets Cloud apart (along with, to some extent, other shinning characters in the franchise like Locke, Tidus, and perhaps even Zidane), is the fact that his existential redemption is insufficient. Ultimately, the player is aware that Cloud is tragically unhappy—even after he has saved the world.
This is what makes Final Fantasy VII stand apart from other iterations in the series, and from many other RPGs in general. The game makes the all-too-familiar existentialist assertions of individual salvation through action; yet, unlike other games, FFVII admits the insufficiency of this view. Despite having secured his existential salvation Cloud remains tortured.
So what is it that makes Cloud’s story poignant and not just another whiney Nickleback rock ballad? Isn’t Cloud’s story just another teen romance where guy meets girl, guys loses girl, guy mourns loss of girl? Perhaps what sets Cloud’s story apart is the fact that in Aerith (or Aeris for those of you who loved the original English version) Cloud finds something much more than just love; he finds the transcendent. Aerith’s murder, then, is not just a romantic tragedy, it is an ontological tragedy.
I suggest that, in Aerith, Cloud finds his meta-narrative. After all, Aerith is a Cetra (i.e., one of the Ancients, the world’s oldest race). Through Aerith, the drifter-mercenary in search of his past finds a link, not just to his past, but to the past of humanity. Additionally, by Aerith’s summoning of the Holy Spell that outlives her (and was conjured at her death in an attempt to save the world from Sephiroth) Aerith’s life achieves significance that transcends her own corporal existence.
As the pink-clad flower vendor who lives among a battered church in a slum district, Aerith is innocence personified. As a member of the world’s oldest race, and as the martyr who gives her life upon an altar to save the world, she represents the best of humanity. She is nature—Tetsuya Nomura gave her green eyes for this reason, and her very name is a play on the English word “earth,”—, she is holy—both by virtue of her summoning the Holy Spell, but also by her association with holy places like sector 5’s church, and the altar on which she dies—, and she is love.
So, in finding and loving Aerith, Cloud not only finds love, he finds his place within the grand scheme of human existence (past, present, and future). When Aerith dies, this connection is taken away from him, and no amount of world-saving or temporal happiness will satisfy him. It is not just love that he pines for (after all, Tifa would happily and effectively fill that void); he longs for his lost connection to something bigger than himself.
Ultimately, Cloud makes himself admirable by devoting himself entirely to something transcendent. Unfortunately, what makes Cloud so tragic is the fact that the transcendence her devotes himself to is so fleeting. And this, finally, is Cloud’s appeal. We love him for his devotion, and we relate to him because we know what it is to want something transcendent—even as we know the pain of giving our devotion to that which does not last.