But first, we need to meet the third corner of Cloud's pointy little love triangle. Whom I love, despite Squeenix dropping heaps of overhype on her tombstone. Did I mention this walkthrough would have spoilers?
Which brings me to the most difficult and challenging, thorny and complex issue of this entire game. No, it's not Cloti versus Clerith, which sounds like dueling nasal sprays. This issue is much more challenging, and has riven fandom to the core...
Aerith or Aeris?
The naming of cats is a difficult matter, and reams of pixels have been spillt over this debate. I'd been waffling about what to call her in this playthrough for weeks beforehand. A Tumblr poll showed that at least most of my readership shares my preference. Here's the deal.
- Aeris is the name in the original English release of FFVII that many fans grew up with.
- エアリス (Earisu) is her name in the original Japanese release that more fans grew up with.
- Which shows what happens when a native Japanese speaker tackles a soft English -th sound. It turns into -su or -ss, depending on whether the speaker feels like confusing dumb westerners like me by swallowing the -u. Nan des[u] ka? ("WTF?")
- Which means that Earisu is actually a Japanese rendering of English "Earth." Earth/Cloud, Yuna/Tidus, Terra/Celes (See, it's canon!)
- However, more recent games spell her name Aerith in English, presumably an anglicization of "Earisu."
- But here's what Aerith sounds like in those games in Japanese. (And Sephiroth sounds like "Sefirosssss!")
- I assume that Final Fantasy characters are actually speaking Japanese, just as Star Wars characters magically speak English. So I incline towards the "Heiress" pronunciation with or without the -u.
- Accidental bilingual pun: Greek Eris is the goddess of troublemaking (dischord), which appeals to me because it punctures the "demure, virginal innocent" mischaracterization of this earthy, irreverent, grew-up-in-the-slums flower girl.
Also, the name "Waffles" was already taken.So I went with Aeris.
However, before Cloud can meet her, he needs another Cloud Hears Voices moment.
"Now you've graduated to falling off exploding 20 story nuclear reactors
Confusingly, a second voice butts in with blue dialog boxes. (I guess the blue means it's out loud, i.e. in the waking world.)
I will never not read "Oh, it moved!" as innuendo, thanks to this translator's unfortunate tendency to mix up English pronouns.
I used to think the second voice was the flowers talking, but I think it's actually Aeris talking to herself ("Oh, he moved!") and then addressing Cloud ("Hello hello!") The Crisis Core scene that's a deliberate echo of this one shows Zack waking up to Aeris' "Mosh mooosh!" (Hello hello!)
I've notice that FFVII likes to distract us with a Famous and Memorable scene or dramatic action after each Cloud Hears Voices moment, blurring our recollection of them so that it's harder to piece together their scattered clues. Yes, this game is playing with our memories, as well.
Rise and shine, Bubby!
"Aerith's Theme" triggers nostalgia for me, even though FFVII isn't my main fandom.
There's the usual "are you okay?" ceremony, and then Aeris explains that this is a Church in the Sector 5 slums.
Wait....the building fell on her? So is she a good witch, or a bad witch? Nevermind, the translator is having he/it pronoun issues again.
Cloud apologizes for falling on her flowers, which she said helped break his fall. Thank goodness for anime physics.
So far, FF7's environments have been a shabby montage of urban grunge, graffiti, heavy industry and piles of scrap metal as if we never left Kefka's Junkyard Castle. Now, suddenly, FLOWERS. And LIGHT! The contrast makes this whole scene feel more magical and backs up Aeris' claim that flowers and grass don't grow anywhere else in Midgar (not quite true, as we'll see shortly).
The church intrigues me: Aeris says it's a sacred space, but I think she's denying her own influence. On the other hand, I keep seeing an ongoing tension in many FFs between the Shinto/animist notion of kami, nature spirits and elemental energies, versus organized religious institutions and dogma (Notable exception: Ivalice). Here, it looks like the kami of the place is breaking through the floorboards of a Christian-ish church — an abandoned church, at that, where organized religion has disappeared, but a few locals still make personal pilgrimages. I don't know quite what to make of it, but even the primitive graphics convey a sense of wonder.
However, FF7 won't let me get all metaphysical for long. When Aeris asks if he remembers her...
Again with the middle finger to censorship. I wish I had time to play through and see all the game's 'bad' responses.
While Aeris and Cloud are getting acquainted, a brown(!)-haired man in a suit slouches in to eavesdrop. It's Reno, my favorite disreputable Shinra employee! Alas, I was afraid to talk to him, for fear the Plot Conveyor Belt (tm stealth_noodle) would shuffle me past the rest of this conversation.
Cloud spreads his peacock tail and describes himself as a hotshot "jack of all trades." Aeris calls him on it, asking him to be her bodyguard in exchange for one date. Aeris, you imp. (I think she and Edgar would have a fabulous time trying to out-flirt one another.)
At last, Cloud, ex-SOLDIER with Mako-honed senses, notices Reno who's been listening in for the past five minutes. "I don't know who you are, but..." Cloud starts. There's another odd flash, and Mysterious Voice says "I know you" before Cloud corrects himself to mutter vaguely that he knows the guy after all. (How?)
Reno takes stock of Cloud's synapses:
"Sis"? I thought Reno was addressing Elena, but she's nowhere to be seen. I guess it's meant to be, "Hey, sister," gangster-speak directed at Aeris.
Aeris, unintimidated by a bunch of armed mooks, takes charge. "Don't fight here; you'll ruin the flowers!" She drags Cloud into the back and up into the rafters. Reno ambles after them and pauses to ruminate long enough to give them a head start. No wonder Shinra hasn't caught her in seven years. Then he orders his troops to get on with apprehending "The Ancient."
Funny how everyone defers to Aeris. Except not really, because Reno tromped right through the flowerbed, as his minions are quick to protest. Don't you hate hypocritical bosses?
After an improbable dropping-barrels-on-hapless-grunts sequence to throw off pursuit, Cloud and Aeris clamber onto the roof, where he (still playing the know-it-all ex-SOLDIER) explains about the Turks. Officially, their job is to scout and recruit SOLDIER candidates, which may explain why he knows Reno. Unofficially...
Confession: I'm such an innocent that I hadn't figured out that the Turks were the local mafia, with their well-pressed-suits and everything, even though I was born in an upscale mafia-run neighborhood. (Parents left when I was wee. Long story.) I'd figured out that Shinra, Inc was a parody of corrupt megacorps, but the mafia connection didn't click until I watched Advent Children. So then I Googled and learned about the yakuza, the Japanese mob. From which I gather that the Turks must all have amazing tattoos under their suits.
Cloud wonders why they were chasing Aeris. Is there something special about her? (He must not have heard Reno calling her "the Ancient.") Aeris plays coy:
Cloud takes her seriously (yay!) and tells her that she could do it. Irony: both of them are using the "I could be/used to be in SOLDIER!" dodge as a lie to hide who they really are.
The term "scenery porn" doesn't really apply in Midgar, but I like the background below. There's the plate's underside, the enclosed train track spiraling around the central support, and one of those square pillars holding up the plate. Sorry, Dirge of Cerberus gave me an odd fondness for this wreck of a city.
Aeris asks for a breather from Cloud's Super Mario high-jumping:
"Oh, you're terrible!" she shoots back, then asks him if he was in SOLDIER. He says he "used to be," and we get the backstory detail that Mako infusion makes people's eyes glow. Which reminds me of Tom Smith's wonderful Crystal Gayle Killed Frank Herbert filk. "Don't it make my brown eyes blu--uee...." Nevermind.
I double back briefly to check out the church again. I'm sure Reno's already gone home for coffee.
These two children, who appear at the end of Advent Children, say that they're "taking care of the flowers for the lady here." Cloud replies, "Take good care of them." Awww. I'm afraid I hit this scene too early, and I'm really meant to discover it after Disc One :(.
Before bidding the church farewell, I gotta excerpt my favorite Advent Children scene (with apologies for the godawful English dub):
Much like Jackson's LOTR and Hobbit films, the best thing about the Compilation is seeing old FFVII settings translated into fully-realized 3D glory.
On the way to Aeris' house, we meet some poor schlub living in a pipe who's even more of a basket case than Cloud. He's got a tattoo (number 2) on his arm and only says things like "ooogh uuuh." We'll meet more of these guys later.
Yes, Aeris, they are. But at least this guy and Cloud get an actual body instead of shambling around in black cloaks like rejects from Org. XIII.
Aeris asks Cloud to help the sick fellow, but...
"Dammit, Aeris, I'm an ex-SOLDIER, not a doctor!"
I find this scene ironic and sad: Zack helped Cloud when he was in exactly this condition, whereas Cloud turns away. I can't fault Cloud for having a hangup about doctors, however.
Finally we reach Aeris' house. Didn't she say the church was the only place where flowers and grass grew? She's too modest. Frankly, I'm surprised that Elmyra was able to hang onto the place without some petty crime lord seizing it:
Also note the clean water. Symbolism much?
It's time to meet the 'rents, or rather, Elmyra. Since this is Final Fantasy, we know at once that she's a stepmom because (a) she's got a name and (b) she's not dead by the end of the cutscene.
Aeris calls, "Mom, I'm home!" and introduces Cloud as her bodyguard.
Primitive as the animation is, there's homey touches like Elmyra giving a Japanese bow to thank Cloud.
Bodyguard duty fulfilled, Cloud says he's headed back to Tifa's bar in Sector 7. Oho! Aeris asks if Tifa is his girlfriend.
Here I must pause to goggle at fandom shipping wars. "Option A!" "No, option B!" "Option A is totally canon; yours isn't, neener neener!" (I always wish the Barret/Cloud shippers would speak up).
Did everybody play the same game I did? As far as I can tell, one of the groundbreaking features of FF7 is that it's multiple choice. The main game script sets up a classic love triangle with two women who genuinely like each other and Pointy Haired Hero having feelings for both of them. The game then provides options such as the above dialog box to let the player define Cloud's feelings more precisely and pick a preferred pairing (if any). By the endgame, the divergent shipping lanes have come back together, thanks to Option B dropping out of the race. But both paths were valid possibilities supported by the script. Do Dragon Age players argue over which of its multiple story tracks is truly canon?
So (Option A) Aeris teases Cloud for protesting too loudly or (Option B) offers a lukewarm "How nice" if he says yes. Either way, she offers to guide him to Sector 7.
Really, while I've been scolding FF guys for treating every girl they meet as a potential Distressed Damsel, Cloud has a point. This is a fox/grain/chicken scenario, in which Aeris would have to lead Cloud to Sector 7, then return alone or have Cloud escort her back to Sector 5 before retracing his steps. As I've already wasted an hour or two in Sector 6 level grinding and/or being lost, this could get tedious. Luckily, Cloud saves us with a sexist gaffe:
Aeris, streetwise denizen of the slums, is quick to call him on it. "A girl! What do you mean by that!?"
*exhale* aaah. Breath of fresh air. Too bad we can't sic the ghost of Aeris on those pervy game designers who imagine that we like Lightning for her clothes rather than her character.
Aeris goes upstairs to prepare a guest bed for Cloud. While she's gone, Elmyra apologetically asks him to leave early so that Aeris won't follow him. Elmyra has noticed his Mako eyes as well.
So there's our first official hint of Zack (earlier, Aeris refused to explain why she knew about SOLDIER).
After Cloud tucks in for the night, his Inside Voice muses, "I haven't slept in a bed like this... in a long time." Which rather puts the kibosh to my theory that it's Zack's ghost (but not quite, as we'll see below). Cue a flashback to the last time Cloud slept in a bed.
This flashback is sketchy on details, but I have a sinking feeling that the Unnamed Woman is a card-carrying member of the Final Fantasy Dead Moms Society. The scene appears to be Cloud visiting home after going off to Midgar to make his fortune.
Woman: I'll bet the girls never leave you alone.
Cloud: ...Not really.
Woman: I'm worried about you. There are a lot of temptations in the city [SHE AIN'T KIDDING]...I'd feel a lot better if you just settled down and had a nice girlfriend.
Cloud: I'm all right.
Woman: An older girlfriend, one that'll take care of you. [WHAT. LIKE AERIS PERHAPS?]
Cloud: ...I'm not interested.
Cloud is the typical young male acting bored with Mom's fussing. Still, this scene shows that his blasé, "tough guy" persona existed even before his mind splintered. (Or did it? Narrator reliability issues add spice to FF7's flashbacks.)
Speaking of narrator reliability, I wonder whether that "older girlfriend" comment is Cloud's subconscious nudging him towards Aeris, an actual thing his Mom said, or an echo of Zack.
The next morning, Cloud sneaks out alone as requested to hunt for Sector 7. He find Aeris waiting for him, not well pleased at his trying to give her the slip.
"Are you finished?" Aeris says, and that's that. She may be Magical Girl with a stick, but she lives in a rough neighborhood that's got worse random monster encounters than Sector 7, so he'd better not underestimate her.
I'd think that Cloud really didn't need her guidance, since anyone who lived in Midgar would know that the city is shaped like a pizza with the slices numbered clockwise. Except that I'm one of the six jillion n00bs who got lost in Sector 6, fiddling with the crane trying to find a switch to shift the board and make a bridge. Damn you, Square. And damn Aeris for failing to, you know, actually guide us. She's probably giggling behind her hand watching Cloud run in circles.
On the far side, they take a breather in a cute playground with a Mog theme (Confession: I thought mega-mogs were hideous on my last playthrough).
Aeris asks Cloud his SOLDIER rank. There's a flash indicating that something's fishy before he answers, "First Class."
Here we finally hear about "her first boyfriend." "You were... serious?" Cloud asks.
Before the cutscene can drag any longer, a chocobo-drawn wagon passes by in the background.
Cloud calls, "Tifa!" which is the only way to know it's her. Video game characters should not be allowed to change clothes at this resolution. Aeris remarks that she "looks strange," a red herring to make us think she's been drugged. Or perhaps she's only just noticed that everyone has PopEye arms.
We give chase. And now it's time to scout the most infamous location in Final Fantasy, the red light district known as Wall Market!
Outside the local "gentleman's club" (an oxymoron right up there with "military intelligence") is Johnny, who's appalled that Cloud is two-timing Tifa with some other girl and/or the Honey Bee Inn staff. There's a few other horndogs out here plus some weird guy who head-butts everything and everyone. (Another failed Sephiroth Clone?)
On the off chance that she's gotten herself into trouble, Cloud asks the bouncer if Tifa's working there. Wait...yes?! Uh oh.
The sleaze factor in this section of the game is Up to 11.
So hopefully our next quest will be to assassinate this creep and free the local strip club workers from that misery. We head north to check out Don Corneo's mansion, where the guard only admits cute girls. Because cute girls would never carry garrotes in their purses.
Aeris is rarin' to go in and find Tifa, but Cloud protests, "No, you can't!... You DO know...what kind of...place this is, don't you?" Cloud, what's with the Shatnering? Oh, right, he's embarrassed. Country boy evidently didn't get out much while he was in the big city.
Aeris bursts out laughing at him. See why I thinks she's a troublemaker?
She sweeps blithely over his "WHAT!?" and off we go for a screwball sidequest which makes me love Aeris forever. (What do you want to bet she plays Magenta in Sector 5's midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show?)
First, we tackle the tailor, sulking in a bar. Cloud's people skills are nearly as impressive as Squall's.
Aeris sidles up and confides that "just once, he'd like to dress up like a girl." Improbably, the dressmaker is so intrigued by this challenge that he signs on and even gives Cloud tips on where to go to for cross-dressing accessories. I seem to have fallen into the Castro District. (And me without my Goodvibes coupon.)
Tailor Geezer sends us to the local gym to find "Beautiful Bro," who may be a homage to Georgeous George, the original ham of pro wrestling.
A "squats" minigame nets Cloud a Blonde Wig, and we're off to the next task, picking up some Sexy Cologne by way of bathroom humor before we brave the infamous Honey Bee Inn.
Which, incidentally, was originally designed to be even more racy by Motomu Toriyama, director of
I have the sneaking suspicion that Toriyama would not only approve of this outfit, but also Rogue Tomato/Al-Cid.
Buckle your swash, Cloud; it's time to make you a man! Or something. Into the Honey Bee Inn he boldly goes, leaving Aeris to charm all the guys outside. She can handle 'em.
...I have no idea why the girls in here call Cloud "Poo."
Listening at the keyhole of one of the occupied rooms, we get the weirdest Foreshadowing Dump EVER. Picture Maechen of FFX, only with bondage gear and whips. (Sorry. I'll be waiting when you get back from scrubbing that image out of your brain.)
We can't see anything through the keyhole, but the eerie sound effects include unmistakeable whipcracks:
"The time is ripe...A legend has been passed through generations...the sought after Promised Land...One with Blue Eyes...and a Great White Sword on his back...Will not lead to the Promised Land..."
Is this part of the ancient text that sent Sephiroth off the deep end? I can't remember.
Here, it's President Shinra declaiming a prophecy to two helpless lackeys who grumble that they came to Midgar for a business luncheon and are now stuck having to humor him in some twisted power-fantasy. How the heck did Toriyama come up with this sequence? Too much late-night reading of the FF section of adultfanfiction.net?
Things just keep getting weirder. One of the lackeys says: "Geez!! Mr. President!! I mean, Your Majesty. *whipcrack* Oh... I'm sorry. Please remove the ancient curse!" Totally skipping ahead, I'm thinking that the "ancient Queen" may actually be Aeris, who's supposed to "remove the ancient curse." But President Shinra probably thinks it's Jenova and is back there dressed accordingly. (I'll wait until you get back from washing that mental image out of your head.)
The other keyhole-listening option serves up a mildly offensive joke about old people having sex who turn out not to be having sex, just wheezing and complaining that their son got them a room in a posh hotel that makes them very uncomfortable.
Okay, Cloud, I've given you a moment to collect yourself. There are two doors left, since I'm not going to let you choose option C, "run out the way you came in." Because I am a sadistic player and saved before entering, I'm going to abuse the reset button and force you to experience both rooms.
First off, the "Group Room." Cloud does not put two and two together until the aforesaid group arrives.
So this one screencap sums up the entire FF7 compilation. Hilariously.
"Mukki," the 'stache bodybuilder in front, coaxes Cloud to join them in the hot tub. Yes, Cloud goes of his own accord. Er, at least in the options I picked.
I am torn between glee at Cloud's inadvertent plunge into a gay pool party and concerns that I may be subjecting a video game character to sexual harassment. Um.
This entire sequence seemed designed to cram in as many innuendos as possible. Line after line after line.
How the heck are that many ripped guys going to fit in that tiny hot tub? It's like the TARDIS of Earthly Delights.
HONESTLY, GAME DESIGNERS. YOU ARE NOT BEING SUBTLE HERE.
But it's all in a good cause; we needed these "bikini briefs" for Cloud's costume. Tifa can wait.
So, are those Mukki's briefs, or does he carry around spares to hand out as favors? I wouldn't put it past him.
The rest of the guys jog out of the room to give Cloud and Mukki a moment alone. They exchange Significant Looks.
That does it. All the Cloti and Clerith shippers are dead wrong; Mukki/Bubby is clearly the canonical pairing for Cloud in this game.
Enough canoodling. Cloud stops by the bee girls' dressing room to ask them to do his make-up. (Totally the wrong order; he's going to smear his mascara when he puts on the dress. Stupid boy.) I would like to think that the Bee Girls are in fact cross-dressing nubile youths, since they all deliver a delightful George Takei imitation once the make-up is applied:
Well, Miss Cloud, it's almost time for your big moment. But first! After saving hard-earned key items, I reset and send Cloud back in for more torture.
In the final #%@% Room, Cloud finds and loses an argument with — himself!
While the rest of the Honey Bee Inn rooms have their special happy carnival music that is nearly as much of an earworm as the Gold Saucer theme, this room has FF7's creepy-ass "Who Are You" music:
Cloud walks in and discovers a hologram of himself huddled on the floor. He is surprised:
There's a rising whine that we've heard a few times before, and Real (?) Cloud rears back clutching his skull while hallucination!Cloud staggers up like a zombie to nag him. So I guess this the owner of our Mysterious Voice:
Hey, man. Cloud's got needs.
Hallucination!Cloud scolds, "You think problems will just go away just thinkin' about them?"
Actually, I haven't observed Cloud doing a whole lot of self-reflection so far; he doesn't turn into Hamlet until at least Disc Two. So — HEY! WHOA! Why are you attacking him with Buster Sword?!!!
Seriously, hallucination!Cloud stands up and lunges for him with the sword like Auron attacking the illusion of his younger self in Zanarkand. Except this time it's the illusion attacking the real person. Maybe. I think. At the last moment, luckily, hallucination!Cloud is absorbed into Real?Cloud, and Real?Cloud collapses to the floor in fetal position and blacks out.
Whereupon the game does its very best to distract the player with incredibly suggestive dialog boxes. The blackscreen gives us the gray-text: "It's started moving." Then...
Stop that. I'm getting flashbacks to the worst fanfic I ever read. [*checks* Yes, it's still there. Seven years later, it is still a crime against my OTP. You don't want to know.]
Cloud wakes up to find his bath house buddy giving him a backrub. Er. No, scratch that, Cloud's lying on his back. Oh, dear.
The game throws a little more Mukki-and-Bubby slash at us to make darn sure that the whole Cloud-attacks-Cloud sequence has been driven out of our minds. And now I'm going to be mean and do exactly the same thing, because I want to finish up the Don Corneo mission.
So it's time for Cloud's dress fitting. Back at the tailor's shop...
Aeris grabs a little red number, and off we go.
We're invited in immediately, and the minion ("Kotch," which is a truly unfortunate name) goes to inform the Don.
We find Tifa downstairs in what looks like a bondage chamber. I would like to point out that Tifa did not sit around pining after Cloud fell to his possible death in the bombing mission; she got right back to work and applied herself to another spy job.
Aeris introduces herself while Miss Cloud skulks in the corner. Tifa, observant:
So there's a brief awkward moment while they size each other up. Aeris says, "Don't worry, we just met, it's nothing," and Tifa hastens to add, "Don't misunderstand, Cloud and I grew up together. Nothing more."
This is the only awkwardness between Tifa and Aeris in the entire game, and by the end of this scene they're finishing each other's sentences and laughing at Cloud's expense. The game doesn't spend enough time on their friendship, but from what I can see, Tifa and Aeris get along really well. Unsurprisingly, Jealous!Tifa and Jealous!Aeris fanfics drive me batty.
Tifa pogo sticks straight up in the air in shock when she recognizes him, and starts asking him what he's doing here and why he's in a dress. Then she checks herself...
Cloud dodges the "what happened" question because anime physics are too hard to explain, but he assures her he's fine and says, "I'm dressed like this...because there was no other way to get in here." He wants to know what she is doing here.
Tifa explains that there was a weird guy snooping around Sector 7 who dropped Don Corneo's name, so she came here to investigate — against Barret's wishes. Now she's in a bind: she needs to get picked as the Don's "bride" for the night or she'll lose her chance to grill him. Aeris points out that all three of them can present themselves as candidates, ensuring that one of them gets picked. Cloud doesn't want to let Aeris or Tifa take the risk, but the ladies say, "Yo, we get to have agency too, Bubby," and off they go.
Above: More fancy Japanese characters that probably say boring things like "Don Corneo" and "rich dude," but I'm curious. There's really great backgrounds in this place.
Cloud's sexy dress and Pippi Longstocking braids win the Don's
Don Sleazeball makes various offensive remarks and leaves Tifa and Aeris to his underlings. YUCK YUCK YUCK it's a good thing they can fight. Cloud follows the Don back into his opulent bedroom for another anything-but-erotic scene that leaves him with no choice but to play along. I am irritated that the game keeps the conversation going in circles until we pick the most sickening options:
(Sorry, Barret, I want the Tifa or Aeris Gold Saucer Date on this playthrough.)
Tifa and Aeris burst in to rescue Cloud just as things get hairy — no, not like that; Cloud is just about to kiss the toad — then Tifa takes charge of the interrogation and grills Corneo for info while Cloud and Aeris provide backup intimidation. Their synchronized thug-imitations are priceless:
Tifa: Talk, or else...
The sniveling Don reveals that Shinra hired him to locate AVALANCHE's headquarters, and that Shinra's planning to drop the upper plate on it and blame the resulting carnage on another AVALANCHE terrorist attack.
In their haste to hurry off and warn the residents of Sector 7, Tifa and friends fail to kill this slimeball and don't even think to tie him up. HELLO. Cloud, I thought you were Ex-SOLDIER? The moment their back is turned, Don Corneo presses a switch and drops them through a trapdoor in the floor.
And that makes a good cliffhanger.
All right, so much for the Wall Market adventure. Now, finally, it's time for Cloud Psychoanalysis. I saved it for the end, since I'm just going to edit/tweak the Tumblr post I wrote about Cloud's mental problems a few days ago.
Appendix: So, What IS the Voice in Cloud's Head?
I had all sorts of wild theories about this: was it Cloud’s buried self? Was it Tifa helping him sort out his memories? Or — my craziest idea — was it Zack’s ghost coaxing him? In a way, it turns out to be all of the above.
I tracked down the answer in Ryu Kaze’s translation of the Final Fantasy VII Ultimania Omega guide. It explains much, and I’m inclined to accept this harebrained backstory as canon (it fits right in with the convoluted backstories of Cecil, Zidane, and Tidus— Square can get *cough* LUNAR WHALE creative).
***Enigma of the voice***
(Page 68) As Cloud is trying to place the bomb, a mysterious voice speaks to him. Later, this same kind of mysterious voice resounds in Cloud’s head in the scene where he and a voice have a conversation, and it offers him reminders. These voices are the original Cloud, as — due to Hojo’s Sephiroth Clones experiment — Zack’s personality merged with his, creating the present day Cloud, producing a conflict of multiple personalities(—>P.11).
During the scene in the first mako reactor, what [the voice] says is it [trying] to point [Cloud] toward the memory of Sephiroth five years ago in Nibelheim’s mako reactor, as the two places were similar. However, Cloud is not able to listen to the words of the memory.
So the voice is Cloud’s original, buried self talking to his traumatized self, which has constructed a new personality and memories. What’s interesting is that his new memories are constructed partly from Zack’s, not only because Cloud was imitating his idol but also because of the memetic transference of some of Zack’s personality through Hojo’s experiments. Furthermore, some of Cloud 2.0’s persona is built from Tifa’s memories of him:
*Jenova’s mimic ability*
Jenova has a mimic ability which allows it to read the memories and feelings of others, then adjust its appearance, speech and behaviour accordingly to immitate what it has seen. Jenova once used this ability to get close to the Ancients and infect them with its virus, which killed many of them. This ability is not limited solely to Jenova itself, for those who have its cells within them possess it as well, though in an incomplete form.
Immediately prior to the start of the game, when Cloud’s mind was shattered, he ran into Tifa and seemed to immediately return to “normal” (—>P.13); this was because the mimic abilities of the Jenova cells inside Cloud read her mind, seeing her memories of him, which were then combined with his own ideal vision of himself, fashioning a new personality for him.
So Cloud 2.0 is a mental chameleon: he’s feigning “tough guy,” the hero that he promised Tifa he was going to become, but to that macho persona he’s added some of Zack’s mannerisms and filled in some of his memory gaps with Tifa’s. On top of which, the Jenova cells in his body make him susceptible to Sephiroth’s control.
Furthermore, that scene with hallucination!Cloud taking a Buster Sword to Real!Cloud's skull is analogous to Auron losing it and taking a few swings at the pyrefly-echo of his younger, more clueless self. Except that the roles are reversed: Cloud's old self is trying to knock sense into his new self.
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