Video games have helped me a lot. Growing up as a trans kid, I always felt divorced from my body. Texas in the 90s didn’t exactly have a great LGBT support infrastructure, which left me without any real way to frame my ever growing dysphoria. I never had the vocabulary to say, “I don’t want to be a boy,” because there was no precedent for it. I just knew that something wasn’t quite right, especially in highly gendered situations. Any time in elementary school where we were lined up in an alternating boy/girl pattern, or when boys and girls had separate health check-ups with the nurse, something in me knew I was in the wrong space. The wrong body.
Then puberty hit, and I became outright miserable. Where my childhood dysphoria manifested as a vague, constant discomfort, my tween years were a time of legitimate distress. My body was suddenly moving away from what I knew it was supposed to be. As I felt more and more abstracted from my anatomy, I didn’t have any tools to rationalize my feelings to myself. I felt disgusted at my maleness and I didn’t know why. I just knew that something about me was deeply broken, and I couldn’t talk about it with anyone.
“I just knew that something about me was deeply broken, and I couldn’t talk about it with anyone.”
Video games acted as a sort of hand to hold through my dysphoria. When I turned on my console or handheld of choice, I didn’t have to be myself anymore. Suddenly, I was the one enacting the graceful flying kicks of Chun-li in Marvel vs. Capcom, or the delicate overworld jaunt of Final Fantasy IX’s Dagger. Being able to map my own experience onto bodies that felt more correct helped me navigate my gender identity. Being able to play as girl characters helped me forget my own body’s failure to be beautiful.
One game — well, one part of one game, in particular — helped me more than anything else had up to that point: the infamous Wall Market cross-dressing segment of Final Fantasy VII.
For the uninitiated, Cloud Strife, the main protagonist, is separated from his comrades after they blow up the game world’s analog to a nuclear reactor. With the help of his new friend Aeris, Cloud searches for his group. The two discover that one of the lost team members, Tifa, has been taken to the sleazy Don Corneo’s mansion. Cloud soon discovers that Corneo only allows beautiful women into his mansion, so Aeris suggests Cloud dress like a girl. Thus, a series of small fetch quests ensues where the player explores the slum town of Wall Market trying to gather the requisite items for Cloud’s transformation. If you collect all the best possible clothing and makeup, Corneo even remarks on how attractive a girl Cloud is, and makes advances on him.
Let me be perfectly clear — there are a lot of problems with this part of the game. A while ago, fellow trans gamer Sarah Nyberg wrote an excellent piece on this exact portion of the game. In the quests to retrieve the items, you end up at a brothel wherein you enter one of two rooms, both occupied by muscular men who are coded as gay bara characters. In either scene, the camera shifts or fades out to make the actions more ambiguous, but it is clear that some form of non-consensual touching occurred toward Cloud. Nyberg addresses the very real problem of the portrayal of gay men as predatory, and the supposed use of Cloud’s lack of consent as a punch line.
“Let me be perfectly clear — there are a lot of problems with this part of the game.”
Nyberg also, however addresses how important it was that a triple-A title offered any sort of space to explore gender-nonconformity. Despite the unfortunate scenes described above, no one on your quest for femininity jokes about Cloud wanting to look like a girl. The tailor you commission for a dress is initially surprised at your request, but soon becomes inspired to the point of completely reinvigorating his interest in garment making. The NPC townfolk all seem to find it normal. Aeris, Cloud’s companion throughout the entire thing, is outright excited and doesn’t hide her enthusiasm for his transformation in the slightest.
I bought Final Fantasy VII when I was 12 years old. My voice was dropping. My baby fat was evaporating, revealing a frustratingly masculine bone structure. Body hair was overtaking everything. I legitimately hated my body. And I hated myself for not being normal. Like many trans kids, I turned to self-harm to try and cope with the runaway train of my pubertal body. Every single day brought me closer to the man my pituitary gland was turning me into, further and further from my experienced gender. I felt hopeless. I would look at the men in my life, and feel my anatomy becoming more like theirs. Facing myself in the mirror became an almost physically painful experience.
I jumped into Cloud’s adventure looking for an escape from real life, but found an unexpected sense of solidarity.The cross-dressing segment, for all of its problems, was the first time I saw any part of my gender identity reflected back at me. This was the first time I saw a male character adopting the vestiges of femininity and not being actively derided or treated as a joke. It was transformative for me to see Cloud’s cross-dressing being portrayed as somewhat normal. When Corneo and his bodyguards regarded Cloud as an attractive woman, I gained a visceral sense of hope for my future. If Cloud, the masculine paragon of the game can become a beautiful woman, maybe I wasn’t destined to be a man. Maybe I could be beautiful too.
“If Cloud, the masculine paragon of the game can become a beautiful woman, maybe I wasn’t destined to be a man. Maybe I could be beautiful too.”
This scene doesn’t even pass for a concession to trans gamers by today’s standards, but I cannot overstate how much it helped me upon first playing it through. At a time in my life when I was running out of reasons to keep living, this scene let me know that maybe I wasn’t so messed up. If boys could be girls in a popular video game franchise, maybe it wasn’t such a stretch to think I could escape manhood.
Looking back on the scene now, it’s hardly a focal point in the game. The segment takes up 20–30 minutes of a 50+ hour storyline, and is never referred back to again, that I can remember. But there is a reason so many people were overjoyed to hear that the segment will return in the upcoming remake. This small scene, tucked in the middle of Disc 1 is one of the most iconic and memorable moments of the game not just to me, but to plenty of other players. It offered all of us a fun little space to experiment with identity, and, for some of us, it offered a reason to keep going.
Originally published under Athena Talks on Medium.