Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth Reaffirms Cloud x Tifa, And That’s Okay

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Let me be clear from the start, in no way am I arguing that Final Fantasy VII Rebirth makes Cloud x Tifa the only valid path forward, and neither do these remakes in any way devalue or try to dismiss the meaning any other character has to Cloud. Namely, I’m not here to argue that Cloud and Aerith are not compelling together. The romantic read for those two characters not only still exists in these Final Fantasy VII remakes, it is cranked up significantly. However, I am here to argue for a specific interpretation of the original game that these remakes seem to validate entirely.

That interpretation, of course, is that Tifa and Cloud are the main romance for each other, and the one both characters were truly invested in.

Now let’s dive into this a bit more, because the complex emotions and tragedies at the heart of these characters is a significant part of what made Final Fantasy VII such a landmark game that Square Enix is still making money off of after 27 years.

We first meet Cloud Strife in the seemingly very recent aftermath of a horrible trauma that leaves his friend Zack dead and Cloud utterly traumatized by years of mako experimentation upon his body. To put it bluntly, we don’t really meet Cloud for a long time in Final Fantasy VII. We meet an amalgamation of the original Cloud and his image of Zack, the ideal of the hero Cloud wanted to be, which in turn created a self-image in Cloud’s mind that never actually existed.

It is this person Aerith is initially attracted to. In retrospect, we know that Aerith and Zack were an item at one point, and she is recognizing this impersonation of sorts that Cloud puts on when the two of them meet. Aerith makes the comparison between them multiple times during their Sector 5 adventure together. If you get the Gold Saucer date with Aerith in the original Final Fantasy VII, Aerith explicitly mentions that Cloud looks and acts exactly the same as someone. We don’t know it at the time, but she’s referring to Zack.

This is so strange to think about, but we never really see any bond form between Aerith and the actual Cloud Strife. Their bond up until Aerith’s disappearance and eventual death is firmly based in the similarities Cloud has with her previous boyfriend. Aerith herself realizes this eventually. The remakes only expand upon this fact. We get more scenes with them, but they never escape the reality that Cloud is basically cosplaying the man Aerith used to love. Once again, this is the point stressed in the Gold Saucer date, that her attraction to Cloud was based in how much he resembles Zack.

The tragedy of these two is that, in both versions of the Gold Saucer date, Aerith has come to terms with the fact that Cloud is not Zack and wants to get to know the real Cloud, but Cloud is utterly incapable of being the real Cloud because he has no idea what the hell she’s talking about. He’s totally unaware of what he’s doing.

Such is the appeal that drives interest in those who ship Cloud and Aerith. We want to see what happens if Aerith had met the real Cloud. We want the unrealized potential that we only see the surface of.

On the other hand, Tifa did know the real Cloud. She knew the quiet boy from Nibelheim who shuffled on the outskirts, hoping to be noticed, who wanted to join SOLDIER but ultimately failed. Even with everything Cloud lost, he remembers Tifa, and the rage which drove him to attack and “kill” Sephiroth when he thought she was dead, even if his memory of said events are warped beyond reason.

While not as boldly open as the attraction between Cloud and Aerith, Cloud and Tifa have the same interest in each other, though it’s somewhat more stymied because of Tifa’s more reserved personality and the differences she sees in Cloud. She recognizes his version of Sephiroth attacking Nibelheim as a lie and is the only one who truly understands the extent of what’s wrong with him. That creates a more familiar intimacy between them that Cloud has with no one else, especially if you play up the flirting in the dialogue options.

When Cloud’s mind is utterly broken in the aftermath of the Northern Crater, Tifa’s the one who pieces him back together so he can remember who he was before the death and experimentation that created the Cloud we meet at the start of Final Fantasy VII. It’s heavily suggested that they have sex during the final night before the ending of the game, and even if you think it’s more PG than that, it’s still an intimate moment shared with each other that serves as an acceptance of their shared feelings.

I don’t think there’s much of an honest way to deny that by the end, these two have chosen each other.

The “love triangle” of Final Fantasy VII was never really a love triangle, but rather a mess of half-understood, if not fully misunderstood, emotions centered on a main character whose mind is shattered to pieces for 75% of the game. And as such, I’ve always liked to view the ending of the game as something way more complex than Cloud having one true love. Whatever his state of mind, Cloud did develop feelings for Aerith and those did not vanish when he finally regained his memory. However, she’s dead, yet another loss in a life full of them.

Tifa is much the same. She lost her father and her hometown. She loses her friends in Avalanche. Cloud is the last connection she has to her childhood, and it’s a connection she cannot bear to lose. There was never a childhood romance, and it’s made clear that Tifa didn’t really pay much attention to Cloud when they were children. Her desperation to keep Cloud around earlier in the game takes on a different meaning in hindsight.

That scene before the final battle with Sephiroth is not some triumph for one group of shippers over the other. It is two broken people, facing the end, who simply cannot bear to lose each other on top of everything else they have lost.

I was so curious to see how the Final Fantasy VII remakes would handle this dynamic. After all, 20 years of fandom debate and argument and influence on the views of these characters could change everything. It would be so easy to lose sight of how the original game treated Cloud, Tifa, Aerith, and their relationships with each other.

And while this is obviously at least some slight bias on my part, I think the remakes kept them exactly how they should be, and simply confirmed how I always looked at the situation between those three. Along the way, they only made the fraught emotions between them all the more powerful.

Still, it seems fairly obvious that the game is leaning heavily into the idea of Tifa being the woman that Cloud loves. She is the only one Cloud can kiss in these games. They have many more scenes playing on the unspoken attraction between them. They play up Tifa’s fiercely protective attitude towards Cloud and the role she will play in repairing his fractured memories. There are even more scenes playing up Cloud’s boyhood crush on Tifa, such as the story of how he rescued her when she tried to climb Mt. Nibel after her mother’s death.

Considering what we’ve seen so far, I think the third part of the Final Fantasy VII remake will go hard on that pre-Sephiroth scene. I think the game will build heavily to that moment, and perhaps go a bit farther than the original game could. The only question I have about the endgame status of Cloud and Tifa is whether this project will go full multiverse rewrite so that Aerith is somehow alive again, and give players a chance to “canonize” her relationship with Cloud instead. I don’t expect it, though, not based on the first two games.

Despite the work put into legitimizing Cloud and Tifa, I am so glad that these games have not dismissed Cloud and Aerith. Instead, they have given players even more chances to build a bond between them (along with every other character in the party).

Whatever the eventual canon result, players will be able to view Cloud and Aerith’s relationship however you want, just like you could in the original. Rebirth made the wonderful decision to base almost every side quest around a member of the party, so the player gets many more moments to flesh out Cloud’s bond with Aerith. Whether you’re picking flowers in a scene reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII Remake, playing minigames at Costa del Sol, or snapping photos of constellations, you see more of Cloud and Aerith together than ever before.

Even if Cloud and Tifa end up sharing some intimacy together, you can easily read Aerith as a true love that Cloud lost, just like you could in the original.

Rebirth is a game that respects player choice in their affections towards the characters. Sure, I read the way the story plays out a certain way, but others can totally disagree with me, and that’s perfectly fine. You don’t have to develop a romantic relationship with Tifa or Aerith. Hell, in my playthrough, my Gold Saucer “date” was with Red XIII.

Even if you do focus solely on Tifa and Aerith as romantic options, and even if you view the story the same way I do, there is already added depth to a potential Cloud x Tifa endgame here.

Something the remakes have done a terrific job of is fleshing out party relationships independent of Cloud, with one of the most prominent examples being the relationship between Tifa and Aerith. Where the original Final Fantasy VII didn’t offer that much between them, these games have created a significant, consistent bond between the two. They share secrets they never shared in the original game and seem to be a source of emotional dependence for each other.

While the rest of the party was obviously hurt by Aerith’s death, I’d argue it means much more now, especially for Tifa. The scene before the final battle, with Tifa and Cloud sharing a night together (platonic or otherwise) so that they won’t be alone, means even more when we know that Aerith meant so much to Tifa.

(I’d go so far as to argue that Tifa and Aerith have as much romantic chemistry in Rebirth as either of them do with Cloud.)

This only adds to my personal view of Tifa and Cloud as endgame. Giving both Cloud and Tifa such a close relationship with Aerith only adds to the fraught emotions that would push them towards each other by the end because it makes their shared sense of loss even stronger. I believe this is a strong motivation for how the creators chose to approach the relationship between Aerith and Tifa in these games, and really the relationship the entire party has with Aerith. Everyone shares so much loss that pushes them together by the end of Final Fantasy VII, and now Aerith’s death explicitly means as much to Tifa and the others as it means to Cloud.

Also, with Zack now hanging around, it feels like these two remakes have gone out of their way to make sly promises about the possibility of Zack and Aerith reuniting. We haven’t seen said reunion yet but by the end of Rebirth, it seems all but certain. Somehow, someway, those two are going to see each other again.

Of course, for all the multiversal nonsense shenanigans being thrown at players, I still think these games will adhere to the original story more than I expected. That means Cloud and Tifa together at the end of the world in a way that is going to be all the more devastating because these games dared to show us even more of what life could have been without all that loss.

Images Courtesy of Square Enix

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