We’re pairing 8-bit music thematically, rather than based entirely on series. You can find this track and more Tater-Tot Tunes on YouTube! Stop by and jam to some great tunes.
Normal Happenings is proud to present The Characters That Define Us, a year long collaboration of 52+ incredible bloggers!
When The Well-Red Mage comes to town for a collab contribution, it’s always a special occasion. Today is that day! In case you’ve been living under a rock, Red runs the coolest blog on the block, filled with contributions from many mages, upon which I count myself as one.
Back in March he organized the largest Mario collaboration ever made, the Super Mario Multiverse collaboration! The number of participants dwarfs even The Characters That Define Us, and I was proud to be a part of the festivities.
Also, some have spread wild speculation that Red and I may be plotting something up after Normal Happenings wraps up. What a strange notion…
Please, enjoy today’s piece from a fantastic blogger. Red, take it away!
“Something bothers me. I think it’s your way of life. You don’t get paid. You don’t get praised. Yet, you still risk your lives and continue on your journey. Seeing that makes me… it just makes me think about my life.”
You never forget your first.
For some, that was Atari or C64. For others it was the NES or Genesis. Mario or Sonic. Still for others it was a Call of Duty, a Game Boy, or the floss, these entry-level experiences, and I mean that with zero ill will toward the phrase. Why be ashamed of the very things that were simple and accessible enough to welcome us into gaming with open arms? Just because we’ve “outgrown” some of these games (we cling to adultishness as if “adult” meant “quality”) doesn’t mean they weren’t there for us in our past. How could we have come inside in the first place without the door?
Final Fantasy VII is a game which some folks might be tired of hearing about, but the flat fact of the matter is that it represented a gateway for many young players into the world of RPGs. As we near the release of its remake, a new generation has the opportunity to be welcomed in themselves, just like many of us were in 1997.
I wasn’t a part of that group in ‘97, but I respect what FFVII did for people, and what it will do next year all over again.
In the mid ‘90s, I was already engrossed by RPGs. JRPGs, to be precise. Breath of Fire and Breath of Fire II, EarthBound, Final Fantasy IV and VI, Final Fantasy Adventure and Legend and Pokémon Red/Blue, Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG, and of course Chrono Trigger were my bread and butter. With the PS1 came Final Fantasy Tactics, Grandia, Legend of Dragoon, Vagrant Story, Chrono Cross, Breath of Fire III and IV, and Xenogears…
Sometimes I wonder why I liked RPGs so much. They weren’t my first. Neither Chrono Trigger nor Final Fantasy VII were my first. Yet at the time all I wanted was longer and longer games, with tons of random battles, dialogue to chew through, equipment, treasures, and experience points. Something’s changed in me since then: maybe it’s the amount of time I have now for gaming. I have access to more games than ever but I find myself gravitating to shorter and more manageable experiences. Ah well. That’s what nostalgia writing like this is for.
Where was I?
My then healthy and robust affection for RPGs only deepened with the advent of the PS1. And at the center of this new three-dimensional universe of role-playing games sat the emperor of them all, Final Fantasy VII.
At school, friends and I discussed the game, critics in miniature heatedly debating Aeris vs Tifa, how to get a Gold Chocobo fastest, secret summon materia, and all sorts of hoaxes making their rounds, as well as the social-cultural ramifications of a game which seemed to be in the home of every kid I knew at the time. I spent time at school sketching characters like Sephiroth and Cloud, or custom characters resembling them, on the backs of my math sheets or on the insides of my desk where the skin-headed bully who sat across from me couldn’t see them. After school, I scrawled between sums and word problems: the Buster Sword, the Highwind, the cast, the cities, the scenes, each neatly copied from the pages of my Brady Games strategy guide, all while the first soundtrack I ever purchased pumped “Anxious Heart” and “Cosmo Canyon” into my ears.
Squaresoft’s ecological epic had etched itself into my consciousness, and then deeper into obsession. Few games had bitten me so hard. The world of FFVII seemed alive to me, a refuge I didn’t know I needed from difficult family splits and the oppressive heat of the tropics. My endless summers were spent at the beach at day catching whatever I could for dinner, and in my room at night, lit by the cheesy blue Christmas lights I left strung up to pretend they were black lights while I suffered and triumphed alongside Cloud Strife, Ex-SOLDIER, for the umpteenth time.
But for all the incredible characters that FFVII featured, my favorite was not shared by my classmates. Sephiroth and Cloud had many enamored fans. Tifa was of course a furtive favorite among many a schoolboy I knew. Aeris had her own dedicated club, mostly girls, as I recall. Red XIII and Cid were popular with older kids. Even Vincent was there for the classmates that wore black and didn’t look you in the eye.
My favorite was Cait Sith, named after a Celtic feline spook.
Cait Sith doesn’t get as much spotlight as the other characters. He’s an oddball, a goof, his official description uses the word “dopey”, and the way that he forces himself into the party seemingly without reason makes him seem somewhat irrelevant. He was a mechanical black cat with a gilded diadem and a crimson cape, who used a megaphone as a weapon (somehow), and he rode astride his faithful steed: an oversized moogle brought magically to life that looked constantly at the ready for fisticuffs.
These were actually the reasons why I loved the character. I really can’t wait to see what he’ll look like in the eventual remake (if they include him at all)!
I loved that he was non-human. I loved that he was a cat. I loved that he was a fortune-telling machine. And as I played the game (spoilers), I loved that he was secretly controlled by a member of Shinra named Reeve. Robots, more than ninja or pirates, were near and dear to my heart growing up, and discovering that this adorable, awkward cat character was a spy robot bumped him way up my list.
I learned that Cait Sith had some ulterior motives for joining the party. It’s not that he wanted to see the fortune be told, really. He needed to keep tabs. Nobody knew that he was Judas, the traitor, the wolf in cat and moogle clothing. He later betrays the heroes of the story by stealing their keystone to the Temple of the Ancients and taking Barret’s adopted daughter Marlene hostage (this is when I stopped using him in my party for a bit).
Cait Sith’s story doesn’t end there, though. You’d think, given his cartoonish appearance and apparent irrelevance to the plot upon recruitment, that he wouldn’t get much development in the game. But he does. The thief and the kidnapper later helps Tifa and Barret escape from Shinra in Junon. He even turns on his heel and spies on Shinra, providing information crucial to the team.
“But he’s just a robot”, I hear you say, naysayer.
That’s true, but behind Cait Sith is a man. As the man controls the machine of the cat, so too the cat’s destiny controls the man, and the vulnerable Reeve eventually has his cover blown. It is Reeve, not an algorithm but a human heart who plays Benedict Arnold one last time and betrays Shinra, bites the hand that feeds him. It’s Reeve who in Cait Sith goes to fight Sephiroth at the conclusion of the narrative. In doing so, Reeve turns his back on his future, his career, his peers, and his financial well-being, all for AVALANCHE, the group he was meant to harm.
It’s this working “real hard” that gives the character his redemption: his willingness to make up for or resolve past mistakes, rather than simply feel sorry for his piteousness. That’s exemplary.
Cait Sith represents a mind at conflict, albeit one whose story unfolds partly off-screen. Despite the fact that he is a fortune-telling plushie with a megaphone riding a fat moogle, he is also one of the most human characters in the game: flawed, at odds with himself, daring in the face of tremendous consequences, willing to atone. Certainly, he is less sure of himself than Aeris, less dedicated than Barret, less pure-hearted than Tifa, less loyal than Nanaki, yet less confused about who he is than Cloud. He’s sneakier than all of them. He is a character who knows his part and plays it deliberately, but also knows when it’s time to switch sides when his private denouement arrives.
Cait Sith reminds me of other interesting characters who stand out in their respective, redemptive stories: Sydney Carton deceiving everyone to do something “far greater” by swapping places with a condemned man rather than waste his life away in a bottle; Jean Valjean suffered immensely and couldn’t escape his past, yet he set aside his own life to pour into another’s; Edmund Pevensie chose Turkish Delight and a wintry witch over his own brother and sisters but turned to fight against that great evil in the end; Ebenezer Scrooge learned charity and true happiness through confronting his own hideousness at the hands of apparitions; Darth Vader rebels against the tyranny of his emperor for the life of his son; even Cecil Harvey, to stick within the context of the same series of games, shed the shadowy mantle of the dark knight and took up the role of the paladin. I mentioned Judas earlier, the infamous kissing traitor, but Cait Sith is more the Peter of the story, the one that denied the Christ but was later forgiven, whereas Judas went out in despair and hung himself, barring all chance of absolution.
When skillfully told, the redemption story is a powerful one.
It is, at least to me, something of great interest because I think that characters resonate the more human they are, that is, the more real they are. Literature has been around long enough, or storytelling itself certainly has, that our civilizations have developed methods for scrutinizing and studying literature, and we understand that character development is crucial whereas underdeveloped characters risk harming the narrative they are embedded in. Even worse! A character that’s two-dimensional, a cardboard cutout, a stereotype, a mere cliché, fails the reality and the complexity of what it means to be human so much that such a cast member can bring the whole story down, if they’re central enough. Those sorts of characters aren’t enough like us, aren’t enough like me; they pale in comparison to individual human value and depth.
Creating real characters involves creating human characters, roles which have nuance, internal conflict and confusion, and actual flaws. This affords them things which they need to overcome. Now, you may not like Final Fantasy VII, but from a purely narrative standpoint, Cloud is a more effective protagonist (literately) than the Warrior of Light from the first Final Fantasy. Why is that? Because Cloud grows, learns, adapts through all the personality glitches his creators infused him with: arrogance, uncertainty, rudeness, idol worship. The Warrior of Light didn’t even have much of a personality.
It’s perhaps most natural that we gravitate toward the characters that are most like ourselves, or as we’d like ourselves to be. I’ve reached an age where I play Final Fantasy VII and recognize my youth in Cloud Strife, but my history of mistakes in Cait Sith. I’ve made enough real flubs to feed a regret that keeps me up at night, if I let it. I regret treating people in the past the way that I did, with all of the conceit and self-obsessions of Cloud. But what Cait Sith teaches me is that these mistakes and these regrets don’t need to dominate my life. They don’t define me. Because redemption, atonement, absolution, justification are real things anyone can experience. That defines me, and that’s the story of Cait Sith.
In the end, Reeve controlled the cat. Whatever apparatus he used to communicate with AVALANCHE through Cait Sith at such distances represents potentiality, one of humanity’s greatest gifts: the hope of change. From villain to victor. With a button or a lever or a long-distance walkie-talkie, he could stand beside the heroes of the tale and save the Planet, even after betraying them.
You never forget your first. Cait Sith’s might have been one of the first redemption stories I really got my head around and recognized. I think he’s a wonderful character, despite appearances. He might seem worthless but there’s some real depth there.
After all, you wanna talk permadeath in FFVII? Nobody remembers when Cait Sith gave his life for his friends, just like Aeris. Why does she get all the credit? Where are the tears for the noble cat-creature that set aside his own artificial existence for Cloud and company?
No wonder I’m a cat person.
Adventure Map! *FINISHING UP!*