While the poster children of various other genre’s may differentiate between opinions, it’s unanimously agreed upon that Cloud Strife, the mysterious protagonist of Final Fantasy VII, headlines the JRPG genre. His rise in popular culture was not only due to a marketable (also iconic in its own right) character design for Square Enix’s groundbreaking franchise, but one of the first instances of truly complex and unreliable main characters in video games. In an age where players put their faith in the heroic, stoic personality of their protagonists, Cloud brought something drastically different to the table that many gamers will remember him by.
Cloud Strife began his journey in 1997’s seventh installment in the Final Fantasy franchise. The central story took place in the city of Midgar amidst an uprising against the major conglomerate Shinra Electric Power Company, who secretly sought to harness the life stream of the Earth (or in this case, Gaia). AVALANCHE, a rebellion lead by the headstrong Barrett Wallace, brings in a former Shinra mercenary, Cloud Strife, formerly part of Shinra’s SOLDIER unit, to join them in their upheaval of the established system. Unfortunately for Cloud, he wrestles with his placement and purpose in the rebellion while being haunted by his turbulent, shady past. Thus was born one of the most complex character studies in gaming history.
Cloud, seemingly painted as the archetypal hero of this epic journey, becomes more and more of an enigma to the player as the game goes on. Through playable flashbacks, we begin to understand Cloud on a much more personal level, and even spot out some inconsistencies in his demeanor and memories. His internal conflict is reflected on the player, throwing a few wrenches in the character mechanics of JRPG’s. As Cloud’s memories return of his past involvement with SOLDIER, players start to realize the unreliability of his actions and thoughts, also questioning whether or not everything you’ve been told about this protagonist even happened. It’s an extremely bold move on Square Enix’s part, especially in a franchise that so far played out like fairy tales with mostly straight-forward characters and their clear cut goals. Cloud was the first to truly challenge the notion of the reliable narrator in video games.
His rise to stardom was largely thanks to the popularity of the game itself, presenting an intricate narrative, a deep understanding of the world and the mechanics of its genre, and an assortment of great characters with rich and interesting backstories. Central to all of this, acting as the glue to the puzzle pieces, was Cloud, but the brilliantly played unreliable standpoint of the character jeopardized the players perspective of all the events and everyone around him, leading up to one of gaming’s most memorable climactic acts; an emotional whiplash of legendary status. His relationship and uncertain past with the games (seemingly) central antagonist, Sephiroth, left an even deeper scratch beneath the surface.
Cloud, in a physical sense, represented the everyday JRPG character complete with a sword big enough to counterbalance a truck and a hairstyle reminiscent of a shounen anime protagonist. The combination of broken armor pieces and 90’s cyberpunk fashion made him a standout among his rebellion counterparts who all resembled stereotypical action/adventure characters, but with enough depth to go beyond their roles. Cloud, in the center of most of the conflict, never really felt like a main character, rather being another cog in the machine. His plight, however, served as the backbone of the extraordinary character arcs between himself and the side characters, especially Aerith who complemented his psychological “defects”, for lack of a better word.
Cloud Strife became a pop culture icon thanks to the appeal of his design and the groundbreaking, extremely deep character study the game presented for its central “hero” character, going against genre conventions and making him one of the most iconic, recognizable figures not only in the Final Fantasy franchise, but in gaming history. With the much anticipated remake of Final Fantasy VII finally coming up, it’s time we appreciated the stories’ pillar character; a well-rounded, emotional, and wounded solider who reminded us that perhaps not all heroes should be trusted.