When the topic of “Greatest Video Game” comes up, Final Fantasy VII is usually included in the discussion. The game is not only a standout within the Final Fantasy franchise, but it also managed to popularize several tropes within the JPRG subgenre of video games, particularly the recurring antagonist, side quests, and a found family saving the world. In addition to these accolades, it also holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first video game I ever managed to beat on my own. Along the way, I connected with many of the characters, especially Cloud Strife.
In the summer of 1999, I went to Tenessee to visit my parents and several cousins. One of these cousins had a PlayStation, and I remember being extremely jealous because my only game system at the time consisted of an old Game Boy I had found in a McDonald’s parking lot. When he offered us a choice of games to play, I immediately landed on Final Fantasy VII. The image of a man with a giant sword staring up at the sky resonated with me on so many levels. I too often looked up to the sky, wondering where my place was in the world.
We stayed at my cousin’s house for three days and I spent the majority of two days playing through Final Fantasy VII. This was the first video game world I felt fully immersed in, from beginning to end. The character designs were eye-grabbing, especially Cloud’s outfit and massive Buster Sword. I also remember being visibly shocked at the cutscenes. Even though graphics have improved vastly over the years, for the time, the Final Fantasy VII cutscenes felt cinematic. I would set down my controller and watch in awe as Sepiroth strode through a volley of flames, and especially was awed by the ending where Red XIII and his cubs survey what remains of Midgar. It felt like a movie that I had a hand in shaping.
However, the biggest draw for me was the characters, especially Cloud. Cloud was moody and suffered far more than anyone had a right to, but he felt more real than any other video game I’d played up to that point. I loved playing Pokemon, but the main character in those was meant to be a blank slate for the player to project himself onto. With Final Fantasy VII, I felt for Cloud. I cheered when I steered them to victory against multiple foes. And my mind was blown when Cloud’s past was revealed, because much like how Cloud idolized Zack and tried to be like him, I idolized my dad and tried to be like him, and still do to an extent.
I saw a lot of myself in Cloud. The lead character is quiet, fairly antisocial, and struggling with mental issues. Cloud is suppressing the memories of his friend Zack, as well as his time serving the diabolical organization known as Shinra. It isn’t until later in the game that he confronts these painful memories and forms bonds with the other members of AVALANCHE. I related deeply to this and although I wouldn’t know I had Asperger’s syndrome until I got into middle school, I felt like I never fit in anywhere and that everyone hated me. It wasn’t until later in life, and with the help of therapy, that I learned to combat the darker sides of my own personality.
The final battle between Cloud and Sepiroth sticks in my mind, especially because Sepiroth at that point was a manifestation of all of Cloud’s fear and doubt and Cloud still managed to strike him down. That showed me that I too could face the bad thoughts that plagued my mind and strike them down.
The found family elements of Final Fantasy VII also stood out to me, especially Cloud’s relationships with Barrett and Tifa. Cloud at first comes off a bit standoffish, and Barrett is mistrustful of him. However, through their adventures, Barrett gains respect for Cloud. Similarly, Tifa is always in Cloud’s corner, urging him to join AVALANCHE, as well as nursing him back to health while he is poisoned by Mako. She never gives up on him, even in his darkest moments. Perhaps the most moving moment for me is when Barrett and Cloud go on a “date” and talk about Cloud’s love life. I didn’t really start making friends until college, but it meant a lot that I had people I could talk with about anything and everything, and they genuinely wanted to listen and help if they could.
Thirteen years after its debut, Final Fantasy VII remains a definitive game of my youth, especially where Cloud is concerned. This is a character who learned to face his demons and found a new family, and those are things I’ve taken to heart over the years. I definitely am looking forward to the Final Fantasy VII Remake this week. Hopefully, I can recapture some of that magic I felt back in my cousin’s room in Tennessee.
Collier “CJ” Jennings is a freelance reporter and film critic living in Seattle. He uses his love of comics and film/TV to craft reviews and essays on genre projects. He is also a host on Into the Spider-Cast.