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Original Editorial: The Difference Between Cloud and Squall
Warning: Contains MASSIVE Final Fantasy VII Spoilers
No matter how often I attempt to clarify the matter, the problem keeps arising: swarms of gamers totally misinterpret Cloud, possibly the most finely crafted Final Fantasy character yet. I’ll be the first to admit, the game does not do much to steer the gamer in the right direction. You could go through the game, start to finish, without ever seeking out the side-quests and flashbacks that fully reveal his past. Yet I’m not inclined to believe most gamers neglected to do such. Why, then, do people keep making up theories about Cloud’s inadequacy and his “inferiority complex” when the truth lies right in front of them? But it continues to happen.
Before I go on, I want to make a few points clear. Cloud was never refused from SOLDIER. He never applied, out of fear of rejection. Virtually, there is no way Cloud would have been denied entry: his performance throughout the game proves that he is more than SOLDIER material. He was simply too afraid to put himself on the line, and settled for ShinRa Regular Infantry. Also, Cloud’s name was originally conceived of in the Japanese language, not English. There is no relevance between the katakana construction “ku-ra-u-do” (Cloud) and the potential form “could,” which is indicated by a different verb suffix. If anything, the significance of Cloud’s name comes from the fact that Aeris’s name was supposed to be “A-i-ri-su” (Iris), and clouds, as we all know, hide the sunlight. But even that’s speculation—my main point is that Cloud and “could” were never intended to be associated, and I sincerely doubt the connection occurred to any of the game’s developers.
With that said, let me begin by stating that everything I say from this point forward is presented inside of FFVII. None of this is my personal interpretation: it’s all there, in blue and white. On the 3rd disc, you have the option of returning to Nibelheim. Once there, if you enter the mansion basement, you are treated to the following flashback, taking place immediately after Sephiroth’s descent into madness. I will describe the scenes prior to the flashback as well, for the sake of continuity.
After discovering the experiments performed on him in the mansion’s basement, Sephiroth goes insane. He kills a good portion of the townspeople, sets fire to the mansion, and then goes to reactor to “free” JENOVA. Zack and Tifa pursue him, but Cloud takes a moment to care for his dying mother. When Sephiroth reaches the reactor, Zack and Tifa try to stop him from entering the JENOVA room. He knocks both of them out easily. Cloud then arrives, and after moving Tifa safely away, challenges Sephiroth. Sephiroth runs him through with the Masamune, but then Cloud uses the blade as a lever and flings Sephiroth into the Mako reactor below. I want to make sure everyone understands this. Cloud kills Sephiroth. From this point on, Sephiroth is dead. Cloud, suffering from heavy blood loss, passes out. Zangan (Tifa’s tutor) arrives on the scene and whisks the wounded Tifa away to safety. Begin flashback.
We next see Cloud and Zack imprisoned in Nibelheim’s basement. A few scenes later, Zack manages to break free of his holding cell and decides to rescue Cloud. Strangely enough, Cloud is unresponsive. Throughout their escape, he sags and stumbles—almost like he’s been drugged. (Haven’t we seen Cloud act like this somewhere before?) Yet Zack is the picture of health. The SOLDIER ignores it, and easily carries his listless companion out of the mansion.
The flashback then reveals the two sitting in a truck that’s headed toward Midgar. Zack describes his plans to become a mercenary to the truck driver while Cloud—still—flops around. Finally, the two get to Midgar, but ShinRa is right behind them. With a few bullets, Zack is eliminated. But they do not kill Cloud. The last scene of the flashback shows Cloud, still somewhat disoriented, crawling towards Zack’s body and picking up his sword.
Clearly this chain of events leaves many questions to be answered. Why was Cloud detained in the first place? Why wasn’t he able to move properly, or try and defend Zack? More importantly, why wasn’t Cloud killed along with Zack? That’s certainly not ShinRa’s style.
The journals in the adjacent library provide our explanation. I must infer from this editorial, and countless others like it, that most gamers did not take the initiative to search the bookcases in the back. They describe the escape and subsequent pursuit, but they also show that while Zack did not experience a reaction to JENOVA treatment, Cloud did. We discover that the soldiers let Cloud go, (they say he “escaped” in the report), because of his “diminishing consciousness.” He’s not considered a threat, because his treatment was incomplete. (Didn’t you ever wonder why Cloud had glowing eyes, even though he was never a SOLDIER? There’s your answer.)
Here’s the clincher—Cloud never “thinks” he’s Zack, at least not in the conscious sense. He is subjected to experimentation that leaves him physically and mentally instable. We have no idea how long he was kept in the basement, so there’s no real way of measuring the damage done. And unlike Zack, Cloud has a reaction to JENOVA—in fact, he’s SO reactive that Hojo takes him to Phase II of the experimentation! (Unfortunately, Phase III grants stability and conscious control over the JENOVA—and Cloud escaped before he could be given the third injection.) When he finally regains a semblance of autonomy, he’s face-down in a mud puddle, holding Zack’s sword, lying in front of Midgar. Everything else is a blur. He obviously does not remember the experimentation—the only things he does remember are entering Nibelheim and leaving it, both with Zack. Earlier in the truck, while still dazed, he overheard Zack’s plans to become a sword-for-hire. Logically, Cloud assumes he IS Zack, because all of the cues point towards this conclusion. (He’s got the sword, he’s wearing the uniform, and although he sees Zack’s dead body, he doesn’t seem very affected by it. He doesn’t actually regain facility until he’s left the body far behind. This is made further evident by his “ugh” and “ah” dialogue right after Zack dies.) This is not the result of an inferiority complex—Cloud has no idea what’s going on and tries to piece together his past. He does so incorrectly but not deliberately.
With this information in mind, Cloud’s “insecurities” fall apart. He doesn’t cower in front of Sephiroth because he’s some craven lackey that can’t live up to his own lies. The Sephiroth we see is simply a physical manifestation of JENOVA, one she’s able to maintain because the Lifestream is too weak to prevent it. JENOVA uses Sephiroth’s image to stop the last of the Centra from invoking Holy and saving the planet from impending destruction. (And succeeds.) This explains Cloud’s helplessness. He’s two-thirds of a Mako experiment, people. He’s completely subject to outside interference. His cells are incomplete. He can’t consciously control them; his body lacks the chemical stability to do so. He’s unaware they even exist in the first half of the game! Faced with JENOVA, Cloud is virtually powerless to exert his own will. Only in situations of extreme duress can Cloud force his body to obey his commands, rather than JENOVA’s. (This speaks VERY highly of Cloud’s physical and mental discipline, because according to Hojo, Cloud shouldn’t be able to exercise free agency at all.)
Keep in mind that none of what I’ve said so far is opinion—I’m going off solely what the game provides. But there’s still one question left unanswered. Why is Cloud able to reject Sephiroth’s control at the end of the game, if it wasn’t simply psychological?
Our answer lies in the northern crater. After Cloud collapses when he realized he cannot remember how he joined SOLDIER, Ultima Weapon wakes up and starts going berserk. This causes the crater to collapse, and the companions barely escape-Cloud does not. The party flees, and eventually makes its way to Mideel, where they find Cloud washed up on shore, babbling incoherently. (Hmm... does this seem familiar?) When Tifa takes him to the resident doctor, he’s diagnosed with Mako poisoning. In fact, it’s so severe that the doctor says Cloud should not have survived. Now, Cloud is one tough SOB, but that’s not why he pulls through. He already had Mako in his bloodstream from the earlier experiments. News flash, ladies and gents: Cloud just got his third injection.
This has devastating psychological implications. Now that the haze over Cloud’s memories has been lifted, he’s presented with two contradictory memories: reality, and the illusion his mind crafted in order to make sense of the world. Cloud is torn between the two, and that is why the memory sequence with Tifa is necessary. She helps him piece his world back together—especially after JENOVA shattered Cloud’s self-image by controlling his incomplete cells. But this is all possible because he’s chemically stable. From this point on, we see a marked change in Cloud’s behavior. He refuses Sephiroth’s (and thus JENOVA’s) control because on a molecular level, he is finally able to reject outside influence.
Now to address the counter-arguments. First and foremost will be the argument that subconsciously, Cloud was ashamed of himself. Everyone seems to believe that he’s some sort of weak fool who couldn’t cut it in SOLDIER, so he created this alter-ego to soothe his pride and impress his hometown sweetheart, Tifa. It’s common knowledge that he left Nibelheim to join SOLDIER and convince the world that he wasn’t a loser. His childhood is characterized by rejection from peers and condescension from adults. So, this theory follows, Cloud modeled himself after those he thought were powerful, (Zack and Sephiroth), and lied about his history because he was too ashamed to admit he was weak. He submits to Sephiroth’s will because he’s rendered so helpless with fear of the truth that he’ll do anything to avoid it.
I can’t even begin to say how wrong this theory is—and I’d like to slap the hell out of whomever originally thought of it. Subconsciously, Cloud knows that Sephiroth is dead—Cloud killed Sephiroth himself! Although these memories are muddled by the haze of experimentation, they never really go away. As evidenced by Cloud’s breakdown in the crater, his true self is constantly trying to emerge but is consistently held back by his chemical instability. This new Sephiroth isn’t really Sephiroth at all: the original died five years ago, in the Nibelheim reactor. It isn’t until now, with the Lifestream drained to critical levels, that JENOVA can maintain a physical presence in the world. Naturally, she chooses Sephiroth, because he was the most successful experiment (actually, Cloud is, but we’ll get to that later) and she already assimilated his body when he fell into the reactor. So, when Cloud confronts Sephiroth, he’s really facing JENOVA, and he’s incapable of rejecting her influence because he’s still incomplete. It isn’t until he falls into the Lifestream that his cells are made whole, and it’s then that we see him come into his own.
Also, I want to cite quantitative evidence to further discredit this asinine theory. Cloud killed Sephiroth. By himself. Let that one sink in for a moment. Cloud killed the strongest man in the world by himself. Not only that, but has anyone ever bothered checking Cloud’s progression through the game? He is easily the strongest character in the party. Why else would Hojo continue experimentation on him, if he wasn’t ripe with potential? Even when Hojo calls Cloud a failure, we know this to be untrue: Hojo expected Cloud to die after he was denied the last phase of the injections. That Cloud could survive this long, much less grow into a powerful warrior who is capable of resisting (albeit marginally at times) JENOVA’s control, completely disproves Hojo’s theses about JENOVA usage. JENOVA experimentation was originally intended to make easily manipulated superhumans, like Sephiroth. Sephiroth was the perfect soldier until he discovered what had been done to him—before that, he followed his orders without question. All of the SOLDIERs did the same: most people cast Zack in a favorable light, but we’ve no way of judging him morally. For all we know, he was responsible for oppressing the citizens of Midgar. Even when they flee Nibelheim together, Zack doesn’t express any desire to strike back at ShinRa for its crimes. Cloud does not fall into this mold. He constantly struggles against JENOVA’s influence. Clearly, in Hojo’s eyes, Cloud is a failure—but only because he far surpasses anything Hojo set out to create. By the end of the game, Cloud is far and away the most powerful character in the game. While we don’t know how much this has to do with the JENOVA in his bloodstream, it’s ignorant to assume it had no effect.
Given all of this, how could you begin to believe that he wasn’t good enough to make it into SOLDIER? Cloud is an excellent fighter. He’s not weak. His childhood has stripped him of a lot of his confidence and he’s afraid of rejection, but he is certainly not weak. Even after he emerges from the Lifestream whole, he blames himself for the incident—and not without good reason. He failed himself, because he was too afraid to try for SOLDIER, and then too afraid to admit his failure to Tifa when he came back to Nibelheim. But Cloud never tried to be someone he wasn’t. When Sephiroth goes on a rampage, the first thing Cloud does is make sure Tifa is all right. Although he wasn’t who he wanted to be, he’s still the same Cloud. On the airship, he admits that he can’t live in the world he created for himself after Nibelheim, but this is a moot point. He doesn’t have to anymore. He’s finally a whole person.
Another vocal faction has been the “he did it all to impress Tifa” believers: that his false reality stems from this childhood desire to be close to her. Judging Cloud emotionally, I don’t see that the Tifa sub-plot has much relevance. The only theoretical part of this editorial is that the third Mako injection made him stable, and not the memory sequence: everything else is just a reiteration of what the game gives us. To say that Tifa is the reason he pretends to be Zack is unfounded. It may have been a significant factor in keeping him from realizing the truth sooner, but throughout the game we see the “real” Cloud come through sporadically, whenever Sephiroth confronts him. It wouldn’t make sense to say, if Tifa were the real reason he was upholding the façade, that seeing Sephiroth would throw a wrench into the act. Sephiroth affects him so acutely because when the JENOVA inside of him reacts, his suppressed memories try to come forward. Unfortunately, Cloud lacks the control to reach out and meet them. There isn’t enough evidence presented in the game to say that Tifa is the sole reason he pretends he’s someone else. It is, perhaps, one of the defining aspects in understanding why he acts so strangely around Tifa, and why his portrayal of Zack is more akin to Sephiroth than it should be, but it cannot be the sole reason for his assumption of this new personality.
And that, my friends, is the truth behind Cloud. All of this is derived from in-game dialogue and flashbacks, so there’s not much to be left to opinion. Most of it isn’t discovered in the natural course of the game, so I suppose that is why so many people misinterpret one of the most complex characters Square has created. His history is incredibly deep, however, and ties the game together admirably. For that, Cloud deserves a place in the annals of gaming history, as the first truly complicated main character.
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