They say there ain't no rest for the wicked. Here I am, giving up time I'd otherwise be using to nap, just so I can push out another update for my fortnightly serial blog which aims to determine if Final Fantasy VII still has something to offer a modern audience. I must have been really cruel in a past life. Roll title card!
Episode Twenty-Five - Revealing A Clouded Truth
At the end of the last episode, we'd just witnessed an eruption from the Lifestream that tore the small town of Mideel apart. Most of the crew escaped, but Cloud and Tifa were caught in the eruption and ended up plummeting deep into the Lifestream. It's here that we pick the action back up.
Tifa regains awareness in a dark void, surrounded by nothing but a distant clamour of noises. While it's never made explicit, Tifa's utterances make it seem like she's being accused of doing something terrible. Whatever's going on, it overwhelms her, forcing her to her knees and back into a state of unawareness. When she comes to again, it's in a different setting - a surreal dreamscape, populated with different instances of Cloud. From what Tifa says, it's possible to work out that this ethereal place represents Cloud's own subconscious. Each instance of Cloud represents a different, suppressed part of his memory. It's up to Tifa to help Cloud recover and repair those memories, so that he might emerge from his coma and finally lay his internal conflicts to rest.
The first part of Cloud's memory that Tifa tries to repair is that of his supposed arrival in Nibelheim five years ago. Tifa takes one instance of Cloud to the gates of Nibelheim, where the events play out as Cloud seems to remember them - Sephiroth arriving in town with Cloud accompanying him as a newly-promoted SOLDIER First-Class. It's here that Tifa intervenes, and finally admits to Cloud that he wasn't with Sephiroth on that day. Sephiroth had been joined by a fresh-faced member of SOLDIER, but it wasn't Cloud. Instead, it was the black-haired young man that Sephiroth showed to Cloud in his vision back at the North Crater. Tifa confesses that she didn't want to say anything, because she was afraid of how Cloud might react to the truth.
With Cloud's first attempt at recollection now shattered, he begins to question other memories as well. The second instance of Cloud is sitting before a vision of the well in Nibelheim, and seems to be contemplating the possibility that the promise he made to Tifa in their teenage years was just another fabricated memory. Tifa leads him into the memory of that night, and tries to convince him of its authenticity. Remembering something Sephiroth said about Cloud's memories being built around Tifa's own, she tries to force him into sharing a memory from their childhood that she doesn't have. She asks him why he wanted to join SOLDIER, and Cloud confesses that he wanted her to notice him. Finally, he seems to be hitting on a memory all of his own.
Tifa approaches the third and final instance of Cloud in this realm, and is allowed to gaze into his own private memory - a memory of a time when Tifa barely even knew Cloud existed. Cloud takes Tifa back to the day her mother died, and how afterwards, she ventured into the dangerous Nibel mountains alone. Cloud went after her, but after both took a bad fall and Tifa ended up in a week-long coma, it was Cloud who received the blame for taking her to such a dangerous place. His anger at the misdirected blame, coupled with his determination to grow strong enough to protect Tifa and earn her attention, were what ultimately drove the young Cloud towards a career in SOLDIER. These memories are proof enough to confirm at least one truth for both of them - that Cloud is the same person who Tifa grew up with in Nibelheim.
With that proven, only one thing remains to be done - to revisit Cloud's memories of Nibelheim and see if the full truth will finally surface. Cloud chooses to revisit his memories of the events at the Mount Nibel Mako reactor, where, as before, Sephiroth is seen attacking Tifa at the entrance to Jenova's chamber. Once again the black-haired man appears in Cloud's position, and this time Cloud recognises him, identifying him as a SOLDIER First Class named Zack. The truth about Cloud's involvement in the Nibelheim incident is finally revealed as well - he was simply there as a Shinra lackey, afraid to reveal his identity to Tifa for fear of showing her that he hadn't fulfilled his ambition. Clothed in a regular Shinra infantry uniform, he witnessed the entire incident from the periphery. He even threw the fleeing Sephiroth into the Lifestream beneath the Nibel reactor. Unfortunately, whatever follows that remains a blur, at least for now.
Thankfully, enough clarification has been given to reunite the disparate threads of Cloud's mind. All the instances of Cloud merge, until Tifa is at last sitting beside the young man she grew up with in Nibelheim all those years ago. With Cloud finally himself again, the pair leave the Lifestream and return to the conscious world above.
I'm really glad this series' silver jubilee has fallen on such an iconic, important and meaningful moment of Final Fantasy VII's story arc. There's a lot I could say about the Lifestream sequence, both from a gaming perspective and (for the first time) from the perspective of a student of literature. I'll try and keep my write-up focused on the former, but given the latter is very much a new experience for me, I'll probably address it at least a little bit. Here goes...
As with so many other of Final Fantasy VII's pivotal story moments, I think the Lifestream sequence is worthy of praise due to its interactive nature. As Tifa, you're actually in control of this entire sequence. Admittedly, it's pretty limited control, but it still serves to amp up the player's emotional involvement in a way that simply sitting back and watching a cut-scene doesn't. By doing something as simple as moving Tifa around the screen, it feels less like you're watching Cloud's mind being reassembled, and more like you're actually the one re-assembling Cloud's mind. It's something that movies, books and other methods of story-telling simply can't do, and to see it done so well in a game that's nearly fifteen years old is pretty damned impressive. Equally rewarding is the fact that so many loose threads of the game's main story are finally tied up simply through this sequence. All the business with Sephiroth, the identity of the black-haired man, Cloud's confusion, Tifa's awkward avoidance of the subject - almost everything is dealt with and explained here, and I also feel like it's pretty well justified. Those of us who know the full story know that there's still a couple of questions that remain unanswered, but for now, the story has finally become whole enough to overlook the individual components and recognise the big picture. As a companion moment to Cloud's Kalm flashback and Sephiroth's reveal at the North Crater, it completes the trilogy of accounts of the Nibelheim incident in a satisfying way.
There are some things about the sequence that I'm not overly keen on. While I've praised the interactive nature of the sequence, it's definitely a case of including the absolute minimum of interactivity. I'm forced to think back to moments like Cloud's near-execution of Aerith beneath the City of the Ancients, where the interactive nature of the moment hit home in a much more powerful way. This sequence feels very procedural and uninvolved in comparison. That being said though, I'm not sure if a deeper level of interactivity would have improved it - in fact, it might have only served to distract from the plot exposition, which really is the most important thing about this part of the game. Another of my complaints is directed at the awkward translation, which makes the flow of the narrative difficult to follow. That complaint is one I've levelled at Final Fantasy VII as a whole throughout this series, so to bring it up again specifically here might seem a little unfair, but when a story reveal is dealing with so many abstract concepts and threads of uncertainty as this one is, clarity really is paramount. This sequence reminds me that the prospect of an improved translation would perhaps be the only thing that would turn me into an advocate of a Final Fantasy VII remake.
To briefly dip into the literature student side of my mind, I just want to quickly explore the symbolic significance inherent in this series of events unfolding in the Lifestream. Think about it - the Lifestream beneath the Planet's surface is a physical manifestation of the united souls of the dead. It kind of makes sense that in this environment, the minds of Tifa and Cloud would be able to unite and co-operate in the way we witness in these scenes. Not only that, the Lifestream is a representation of everything that's pure about the world of Final Fantasy VII. It serves to heal and protect the Planet, and in many ways that's what is also happening in this sequence - Cloud and Tifa are trying to find a way of healing Cloud's fractured mind, which in turn will allow Cloud to return to consciousness and continue in his efforts to stop Meteor from falling. Finally (and I recognise this is a really far-fetched interpretation), let's not forget that the Lifestream is now where Aerith's spirit resides. It might not have been intended by the developers, but I think it's pretty cool that it's possible to interpret that Aerith's spirit might have had a passive role in Cloud coming back to himself.
Cloud and Tifa awaken washed up near the enormous crater where Mideel used to be. The rest of the crew are nearby, and they waste no time in returning them to the Highwind. Back on board, Cloud recounts the whole story to his companions - how his real memories became confused with those of Tifa and his long-lost friend Zack, and how he'd come to believe that muddled account of events was the truth. Now broken free from the illusion that's held him since he turned up at the Sector 7 station, Cloud is ready to stop pretending and continue the fight to stop Meteor from crashing into the Planet. Cait Sith informs Cloud that the only reactor still harbouring Huge Materia is likely to be the underwater reactor at Junon. Now aware of my next destination, and with my PSP's battery close to death, I decide to wrap things up for this episode and head to the Operations Room to put together a placeholder party and save my game.
So at the close of Episode Twenty-Five, my vital statistics are:
- Current Party - Cloud (Lv 50), Cid (Lv 53), Red XIII (Lv 56)
- Current Location - Highwind
- Time on the Clock - 35:59
The Story So Far...
Like I said above, this part of the game seemed like a great way to mark this series' silver anniversary. It's kinda crazy to think I've written twenty-five of these things now. Based on how much of the game I have left to play, it's probably fair to estimate that there'll only be around fifteen more episodes of the series to come. I'm still really enjoying it though, and already looking forward to penning the next episode (which, if the recent un-written schedule is anything to go by, should be up in about a fortnight). As always, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)