Our heroes exist in a world with two classes: the rich Shinra Corporation and the impoverished people that inhabit the slums. Shinra is an energy company that makes money from drawing power from the planet’s “lifestream,” a stream of pure energy (with some mystical qualities as well) that gives life to all things on the planet. They also control the military (known simply as SOLDIER) and are the de facto government of the world (there is no real political institution). Underneath the giant structures within which Shinra employees live, are the slums: devastated areas in which a small underground economy exists based on whatever meager livings the inhabitants can procure for themselves. Outside of these central cities lay several smaller communities who generally live in peace, although Shinra continues to attack and destroy these sporadically-placed oases. Out of this dystopian nightmare arises a small revolutionary faction named AVALANCHE whose sole mission is to destroy all of the Shinra reactors that suck the lifestream from the planet.
Cloud was born in Nibelheim and lived next door to his friend and future companion in arms, Tifa Lockheart. He was raised by his single mother and lived a largely solitary life due to the harsh treatment he received from the other children in the village. When his only friend Tifa perilously climbed Mt. Nibel after the death of her mother, Cloud ran after to save her, only for Tifa to be injured and to have the townspeople blame it on Cloud. Believing he could make Tifa and the townspeople like him, Cloud expressed his plan to run off to join SOLDIER. If he could be stronger like the famous Sephiroth, he could finally get people to appreciate him. However, Cloud never makes the cut. Instead he spends his days traveling around with friend and First Class SOLDIER Zach, and the hero Sephiroth, as a lowly grunt and assistant. In one mission, he has to return to Nibelheim to investigate a damaged reactor. Ashamed of his failure to achieve SOLDIER status, he hides his face from everyone, especially Tifa. It is here that the real supervillian emerges.
The group discover information about experiments performed using a substance called Mako (from the lifestream), and Sephiroth discovers that he was genetically engineered using DNA collected from Jenova, an ancient alien that preyed on other organisms by taking on their own memories and forms, acting like a two way genetic conduit. This revelation (as well as the massive amounts of Mako and Jenova cells within him) cause Sephiroth to go mad, believing he is the last of the Ancients, with the sole purpose to destroy mankind for what he believes was the annihilation of the Ancients 2,000 years prior. When he subsequently assaults Nibelheim, Cloud and Zach defend it, eventually chasing off Sephiroth. However, as a result both are seriously injured and are captured by Shinra for the purpose of experimentation. When the two escape, Zach is killed, although Cloud is left since he is considered to be too weak. The mixture of anger, despair, and experimentation on Cloud has warped his mind, and he eventually takes on much of the personality and memories of his former companion, Zach. Honestly believing he is an ex-SOLDIER First Class who fought alongside Sephiroth, he joins an anti-Shinra eco-terrorist group known as AVALANCHE as a mercenary. Here he meets up with his old friend Tifa Lockheart—who has also joined the movement—who is somewhat confused as to the behavior and memories of Cloud, but decides not to question him. Instead, she convinces him to stay with AVALANCHE longer, although in reality she wants to keep her eyes on her old friend out of concern.
What neither Cloud nor the group knows is that Sephiroth did not die; he is waiting out his days to summon a large meteor to destroy humanity. Additionally, since the lifestream flows towards all “wounds” in the planet to heal it Sephiroth plans to soak up all of this energy, making himself a god. To make matters worse, he can control any other individual who underwent experiments similar to his, making instant drones willing to do his bidding while he rests safely away. Unfortunately for our heroes Cloud is one of these drones, however he is rarely used by Sephiroth and it seems like he only has a limited power over Cloud. Sephiroth used the bond between them to force cloud to give him the “black material,” which resulted in Sephiroth being able to summon meteor and generally raise havoc.
As Cloud progresses through the game, his fake persona reaches some critical roadbumps. Between blacking out of consciousness, sporadic regurgitation of both real and fake memories, and mind control by Sephiroth, it becomes clear that no one—not even Cloud—knows who he really is. This internal tension meets a breaking point when Professor Hojo (who did all of the experiments) lies to Cloud, telling him that none of his memories are real, and that he was actually created by Hojo. Cloud and Tifa fall into the lifestream shortly after and emerge in Cloud’s subconscious. Here, Tifa walks through Cloud’s real memories, piece by piece, until Cloud finally realizes his true self. Shortly after, Cloud emerges from the lifestream with Tifa, no longer an incoherent comatose mess. He apologizes to his comrades for the pain brought by his instability, as well as for giving Sephiroth the black material. Cloud vows to fight alongside his friends, not for money this time but for the good of the planet.
Here Cloud embraces the factity of his being: his past, his persona, his failure to be a soldier, and finally his involvement in AVALANCHE. He establishes himself as a being in the world. He used to be “just a mercenary,” with little to no regard for others, not even the world itself. When a comrade is frustrated by Cloud’s indifference, he says, “The planet’s dyin’, Cloud!” Cloud responds: “The only thing I care about is finishing this job before security and the Robogaurds come.” He immerses himself in his role as mercenary, consuming himself in the quest for monetary gain while at the same time using his position to absolve himself of responsibility. Cloud is acting in bad faith; instead of defining himself and his own goals, he allows himself to be defined by his uniform. Even worse, Cloud never was a SOLDIER nor a mercenary! His entire being is a lie, and in living like this, he is denying himself both of the freedom to live as a being in itself as well as the responsibility that such freedom entails.
His denial of authenticity begins in his youth, where he strives to be accepted by the other children. This pattern follows him into adulthood, as he decides to join SOLDIER so that he can be seen as a hero and approved of by his townspeople and Tifa. When this falls through and Cloud endures mental and physical anguish, he does not climb out of the ashes but instead subconsciously creates a new persona—that of his deceased friend Zach. The death of Cloud’s dreams, as well as the malevolence of his hero, Sephiroth, act as the death of his God, and when Cloud awakes from his coma he finally comes to terms that he is condemned to be free and that he is a being in the world. He admits to his friends that he was inauthentic, and he chooses to not only fight for himself and the planet, but accept responsibility for his actions throughout the game:
“I’m…Cloud…the master of my own illusionary world. But I can’t remain trapped in an illusion anymore….I’m going to live my life without pretending…..I’m the reason why Meteor is falling towards us. That’s why I have to do everything in my power to fight this thing….It’s like you always told me, Barret…There ain’t no getting offa this train we on!”
Cloud understands that he alone is responsible for the consequences of his choices, whether or not he knew he was making them. Now, however, he becomes a truly conscious being, aware of the possibilities before him, opening up his freedom to choose and define himself. He also embraces greater virtues than money. He finally learns to not only appreciate himself, but his friends as well as the planet, too. He chooses not only to atone for his poor decisions, he chooses to define himself as a crusader against evil, and although seemingly hopeless, he chooses to save the world—or die trying. He becomes almost like Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith: he no longer is worried about his own weakness, nor is he concerned only with money. Cloud finally chooses to be passionate and dedicate himself to the cause of saving the planet and destroying evil. He ultimately has faith not only in himself, but his friends as well; that they will somehow be able to defeat Sephiroth and Meteor. In the end their faith is rewarded, although their victory is less than ideal (some damage is sustained by the planet).
It would seem as if Cloud finally accepted the conditions of his “thrownness:” the world within which he lives is absurd, scary, even evil. At first he was living a lie, deciding to reject value in his own world (all values except money perhaps). He is not alone, as a train man says in the Midgar station:
"When you've been a train man as long as I have, you see a lot of people meeting, parting, joy, sadness... After a while, it doesn't even get to you anymore. I wonder how long it's been... There's an invisible rail between me and the passengers. I could never live their lives. I'm just a train man plain and simple. It's easier that way.”
He is “just a train man,” much like Cloud is “just a mercenary,” who cares solely about financial gain. At this point we may deny that he actually exists in and for himself. He is en soi, or, just living as himself—no more alive in an existential sense than any other lifeless entity such as a pebble. However, at the revelation of his past, he realizes that he cannot reject value as he was, nor can he get value from others (i.e., when he was seeking appreciation and acceptance from others). He decides to create value in the world and live in it for himself, or pour soi. Our heroes also act outside of any definitive political or religious system. While the lifestream has some mystical properties in it, there does not seem to be any concrete foundation of religion, and most people are concerned with materialistic anxieties. Instead, Cloud and AVALANCHE are radically opposing the system that exists and impose their own sense of justice and value on the world, even if done violently. Cloud becomes the embodiment of justice and value, a veritable Ubermensch.
The entire evolution of Cloud as a character is a story of internal despair, torment, and angst. It is a tumultuous battle against his own nature, which results in a couple different manifestations of his being. The first: a boy who strives to be accepted by others and their value systems, the second: a man who values nothing, perhaps even his own life, and the third: a man who is at peace with himself since he realizes that he is the sole creator of value in his world; he redeems himself as an individual in and for himself. He chooses what his values will be and defends them vigorously, while at the same time rejecting worldly material gains and the approval of others who are slaves to their passions. At the same time, Cloud accepts responsibility for the consequences of his actions, while also embracing the inevitable:
“There ain’t no stoppin’ this train we on!”
He understands his options and not only accepts the impending war for survival, he makes it his own and chooses to be a hero, embodying his own justice and value—not fighting for his own sake but for something greater than himself.
Tifa: “Cloud…do you think the stars can hear us? Do you think they see how hard we’re fighting for them?”
Cloud: “I dunno…but…Whether they are or not, we still have to do what we can. And believe in ourselves.”