When good characters do bad things…

Final Fantasy VII was my first RPG. At twelve, the most complex storyline I’d followed while gaming was Mario (and dag nabit if that princess wasn’t always in another castle), so I fell in love watching my soon-to-be older step-brother as he taught me how to navigate the rich narrative of an FF game. It was family bonding and storybook glamour all at once. I’ve since played every Final Fantasy game I could get my hands on, but I haven’t played any of them as thoroughly (or replayed them as often) as I played FF7. I have nothing but fond memories of the game.

One thing I’ve found, however, is that books and video games get richer with age. Revisiting them is like revisiting with old friends. I don’t get tired of re-exploring those worlds. Every time I play, I find something new. Only, this time, I didn’t like what I found.

For those who have played the Final Fantasy games, Cid is a welcome, familiar name. Some iteration of him shows up in nearly every game and, for many, VII’s Cid Highwind is the best of all. I’ll admit, Cid’s always had a soft place in my heart, too. Gruff with a heart of gold, his cantankerous attitude and carefully bleeped swearing always fall closer to tough love than anything else. …Except when it comes to his former crew member and current housemate, Shera.

When we first meet Shera, all seems well. She refers to Cid as “the Captain” and tells the party to go and visit him. When they do, Cid tells them the sad tale of his failed dream to be an astronaut. In the flashback, Shera painstakingly does her job trying to ensure the safety of the soon-to-launch rocket. Her work takes longer than Shinra likes, however, and they try to launch anyway, despite the fact that she’s still in the engine room and will most certainly die. Shera, with a work-ethic that’s to be feared, insists on staying anyway so that the flight can succeed, but Cid stops the flight in order to save her life…thus ending his chance to go to space. It’s a sad story, but it only makes us like Cid more for his sacrifice. Or it does until the party goes back to Cid’s house and sees him interact directly with Shera.

He calls her a dumb-ass. He screams at her. He talks over her, insults her competence and her intelligence, and expresses disgust when the characters mistakenly assume that they are married. But what makes it clear that this is different from the earlier gratuitous swearing Cid dished out to his crew is how Shera responds when the other characters express surprise at his behavior:

“He’s always like this…It’s because of my stupid mistake. I was the one who destroyed his dream.”

Cid’s verbal attacks towards this woman are personal. He’s angry and disappointed, yes, but he has her living in his house and working for him, “paying” for her mistake (a mistake that the player and Cid both find out wasn’t a mistake at all. Her dedication actually saved his life). And Shera just accepts it as justified abuse. In her own words, “That’s why… it’s all right. I don’t care what the Captain says, I’ll live my life for him.”

What is most interesting (and disturbing) isn’t necessarily the narrative itself. In the game, all of the characters express disgust at Cid’s behavior. Cait Sith says he couldn’t stand living like that, Aerith (or Aeris, if you prefer) questions why Shera stands for that sort of treatment, Yuffie threatens to “clean his clock,” and even hot-tempered Barret is surprised by his attitude. All of the characters have their flaws, which is part of what makes the game such a fun and worthwhile experience, and it’s clear that this is Cid’s. But as far as the fans are concerned, all is forgiven…because he’s cool and funny and, well, he says he’s sorry once he learns he was wrong. Because this kind of behavior is perfectly acceptable if he was right, right?

As Sarah Nixon pointed out in her post on the lovable pervert, the main-cast position and positive portrayal of certain characters compromises how the audience perceives their flaws. Even though other characters might disapprove of the negative behavior (and I think FF7 does a particularly good job with this scene), it’s easy to excuse because of the sheer amount of good the character does in other parts of the game. Shera’s contribution maybe counts for fifteen to twenty minutes of game-play, if you’re taking your time, in a game whose speed run takes at least 10 hours. (I won’t admit how many hours I’ve actually poured into this game over the years). And Cid’s behavior towards her is similar (on the surface) to his behavior towards any of his other crew members, making it even easier for the abusive nature of his actions to fly below the radar. Never mind that, in this case, those insults are targeted, personal, and meant.

Final Fantasy VII continues to be one of the best stories I’ve played through while gaming. But even excellent stories can show signs of larger problems, and Cid’s treatment of Shera imitates the terrifyingly real arguments found in abusive homes.

“You shouldn’t have made me so mad.”

“If I’d known, I never would have said that.”

Or, just maybe, we should stop excusing the people who choose to dehumanize and victimize targets of their anger. Even if they’re the main characters of our favorite game.