Dirge of Cerberus: A Gothic, Sexual Melodrama
Dissecting one of Final Fantasy's most divisive titles
A very important thing to understand in fiction, especially in a modern, inclusive context, is that melodrama is a tool like any other. It's not a mistake or a result of misdosing emotion. It is, historically, mainly a female-focused kind of storytelling, as women are predominantly the consumers and creators. As with many other media considered "girly" (i.e. the Twilight book/film series) it has been culturally ingrained in our brains as bad for "obvious" reasons.
Those reasons are basically Western fiction's devices and structures and their not really self-conscious rigidity (as many books of the Western canon break their expected forms very freely) without any regard for why. It's not my place to point out any gender bias about that and I'm sure many female authors (some quoted in this piece) can do a much better job at it than I. So, let's talk about the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, one of its most hated games, Dirge of Cerberus, and how it connects to gothic melodrama.
Dirge of Cerberus would be the poster child for that “psychosexual dramas, nihilistic fever dreams & surrealism with a touch of humour” list that shows up on the movie website letterboxd. There’s the obvious stuff: the bad guys wearing clearly BDSM-inspired clothing (“inspired” is an understatement, especially when you realize that the whole point of their plan is to use pain as fuel for re-creation) and calling our broody hero “Valentine” (it’s his surname, of course, but I can only wonder why that’s the case since his backstory is mostly the same as it was in the original), as well as the whole unreleased sexual tension during the flashbacks with Vincent and Lucrecia.
That is all-important to set a very specific tone to put us in the right mindset. However, there are a bunch of other things that show up time and time again as the game progresses, touching upon a myriad of purposefully Gothic themes during its 9-hour runtime. Maybe not committing explicitly to any of them was one of the reasons it was so maligned for so many years, but they are all surreal, poignant, melodramatic, and sybaritic.
The Origins of Melodrama in Narrative
The Gothic hero becomes a sort of archetype as we find that there is a pattern to their characterization. There is always the protagonist, usually isolated either voluntarily or involuntarily. Then there is the villain, who is the epitome of evil, either by his (usually a man) own fall from grace, or by some implicit malevolence. The Wanderer, found in many Gothic tales, is the epitome of isolation as he wanders the earth in perpetual exile, usually a form of divine punishment. - David De Vore, "The Gothic Novel", 2002
Gothic literature was the precursor of modern melodrama, which was unfortunately rare, although we had a brief and cool spike with the “new sincerity” movement some years ago. Both of them are deeply intertwined, ways of showing pent-up emotions caused by changes in society. One of those ways is that the Industrial Revolution was a big shift that caused a spike in Gothic novels and is often cited as the primary force behind the rise.
Literary melodrama takes a bit from the original Greek tragedies, which were also very pompous and emotionally voluptuous but exists mainly as an offspring of Romanticism, which already had a lot of the characteristics, in a simpler form, mainly in poetry. Every Gothic cry, taking advantage of melodramatic tools, was a scream. Many emotions were so intense they led to characters passing out, tears viciously rolling down their cheeks. That was (and should still be) an accepted way of writing feelings. This is especially important for Theater (by the way: the argument that games are basically plays is a favorite of mine, and I abide by it, but I won’t digress about that today), as we are seeing everyone from a distance, so every movement should be exaggerated to convey the proper emotions to the audience no matter where they sit.
When we reached the cinema era that all became political. Filmmakers needed to address the consumerist culture that was on the rise since the start of the century, and women — who formed a big part in the creation of Gothic and melodramatic fiction — were, of course, also consumers of it:
The idea was that the film screenings would attract not just audiences but also customers. Film, then, was very early identified with consumerism. Because it was seen as an integral part of selling consumer culture, it quickly became evident that it was necessary to address a female audience as much as a male one (...). Because patriarchal culture, in its over-evaluation of virility, is in contradiction with the ideology of the family, the male in the masculine melodrama has to achieve a compromise between the male and female sphere. In female melodramas, there is not necessarily a resolution or reconciliation. Indeed it is ‘as though the fact of having a female point of view dominating the narrative produces an excess that precludes satisfaction’. - Hayward, Susan. "Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts", Melodrama and Women's Films, 2006
Because of that, melodramatic stories that had a higher feminine presence in their literary canon started handling sex and all of the desires and fears that it brings, with a different, more female-centric perspective, in the mainstream. The main characters were often victims of sexual exploitation, and the perpetrators were usually aristocratic wrongdoers. Relating to that, Susan Hayward also writes:
Melodramas are often highly stylized. Elsaesser (1987, 53) points out that this is to do with the effects of censorship and morality codes – very much in effect until the 1960s. In this regard, style becomes used as meaning. In order to convey what could not be said (primarily on the level of sex and repressed desire), décor and mise-en-scène had to stand in for meaning.
During the 2000s, there was both a rise in “edgier” character design and criticism of it, mainly pointing out that it’s “style over substance”, denying the fact that most often than not, style is substance when you look hard enough. Curiously enough, Gothic architecture (full of generally pointy, acute, and aggressive details, composed of dark building materials) was also mocked around the 1600s for being "barbaric" and "fruit of an ignorant age", most famously by Moliére in his poem La Gloire.
The Gothic Heroes
Being also a very stylized, “edgy” game, in Dirge of Cerberus the victim of assault is indeed our main protagonist, Vincent Valentine. Like many melodramatic stories throughout the previous century, this is not sexual assault in the literal sense. He is tortured psychologically with sexual symbols throughout the narrative. Vincent is rendered powerless on numerous occasions, especially during flashbacks that took place in his human years. After losing the woman he loved because she was previously in a relationship with his father, he is forced to watch her choose to be with another man, even after that man shot him for trying to object to human experimentation.
He is then put into a test tube and undergoes genetic manipulation in order to survive the wound, watching the relationship between his beloved and his murderer grow while also having his own body change without his consent. In the present time of the narrative, Vincent is penetrated by hands and swords, by people either trying to kill him or reach for his core to take it away. This is the very same thing that kept him alive during his test tube years, which was also, ironically, forcefully put inside him before. During a couple of especially intense scenes, villains tell Vincent, in very literal words, that he will only be able to watch whatever evil things they were doing, upheaving a voyeuristic approach to the sexual theming of the game and referencing those fetishes directly.
He is not the only one, however, and as is usually the case in Final Fantasy, many characters are trying to heal from trauma in their own way. There are two women who had their bodies, and therefore their agency, taken from them, in different forms and through different means. Shelke Rui has her own development (both emotional and physical) halted through scientific means. She is an anti-Lolita in a sense, being 19 years old, stuck in a much younger body, but having no sexuality at all (and also no young "cuteness" to speak of, something that can be seen as sexualized in a variety of ways). She’s an encyclopedia of concepts but doesn’t know how to show or respond to emotion and spends her years browsing digital data to advance the antagonist’s plans.
On the other hand, her sister, Shalua, lost half of her body in a terrible accident many years prior. Trying to take control of her own agency again, Shalua is shown wearing conventionally attractive (although weirdly - and cleverly - asymmetrical) clothes to camouflage the fact that her body is now half-mechanical, bringing attention to her sexuality and not her disability, even though she doesn’t act upon that sexuality throughout the game.
It’s impossible to separate such serious events (traumatizing previous, current, and future generations in the whole Final Fantasy VII mythos) from the geographical lands where they take place, and these events taint the land forevermore. As pointed out by David De Vore, Gothic literature treats the land itself (with its ruins, deprecated buildings, and whatnot) as a mirror of what the characters are going through:
As Ann B. Tracy writes in her novel The Gothic Novel 1790-1830 Plot Summaries and Index to Motifs, the Gothic novel could be seen as a description of a fallen world. We experience this fallen world through all aspects of the novel: plot, setting, characterization, and theme.
The setting is greatly influential in Gothic novels. It not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once-thriving dwelling. (...) The plot itself mirrors the ruined world in its dealings with a protagonist's fall from grace as she succumbs to temptation from a villain.”
An Ecogothic World
Final Fantasy VII’s original world was already a far cry from a usual “abbey” or “castle”-centric world, but it re-contextualized high-fantasy staples within a contemporary/futuristic setting that was, in itself, already on the verge of ruins. The planet was dying, big companies were killing it, and people were feeding their egos by fighting those big companies. Knights became mercenaries, castles became office buildings, and wells became reactors. Dirge of Cerberus then applies the Gothic logic of using those landmarks as if they fell from grace — the Shin-Ra building was glorious, phallic, and colorful, but now it is completely destroyed, in shambles, in the middle of a barren and flaccid wasteland. Many parts of Midgar are still recognizable (especially now that we have the Remake to see yet another rendition of those in 3D) in Dirge, but they are just the outlines of what they used to be. The city doesn’t bear life anymore, and the only thing that still thrives is darkness, because of the actions that took place there.
It is sad, really, that the nostalgia it evokes is not a gleeful “ohhh, I love seeing that in a higher resolution and from another angle now that we have enough technology to do so”, but in a down-to-earth “nothing is so bad that it can’t get worse” way. They were already corrupt, heavy, and extremely unnatural places in the original, so seeing that it’s even worse now deadens ours, and the character’s, souls.
Ecogothic (...) exhibits a range of characteristic preoccupations. These include a specific interest in the wilderness as, variously, an environment that is sublime, threatening, nurturant and post-apocalyptic. The inhabitants – animal, human and hybridized – that populate that significant space are, likewise, a focus for ecogothic consideration, for example in the guise of zombies, post-apocalyptic cannibals or their potential victims. Such concerns transfer easily, it might be added, to the urban Gothic when that aspect of the genre depicts feral behavior in supposedly civilized space. Human–animal hybridity in terms of the physical body as well as individual and group psychology has likewise developed as a distinct theme within ecogothic, most notably through the werewolf but also through the evocative though sporadic presence of the pagan deity Pan. - William Hughes, "Key Concepts in the Gothic", 2017
Midgar is now used as living quarters for Deepground, an army of genetically engineered Soldiers, disposable because their pain feeds their bosses, as Shin-Ra did before. Also symbolically, Deepground exists exactly below the Shin-Ra building, descending, like a hole, many stories underground, as many as we ascend in the original game. Apart from the obvious Freudian sign, the Hermetic Maxim is something that can be applied beautifully here: “As above, so below”.
A Philosophical Exploration
That is not all — it’s 2006, so this internet thing is kind of catching on. After the turn of the millennium, it became imperative to contextualize stories in a contemporary fashion — not due to cultural pressure, necessarily, but creativity. Many paradigms were shifting at the time (especially because of the internet), so writers all around the world were probably brimming to tackle those changes. Dirge of Cerberus treats the network as an actual place, where you can exist and where people can recreate you if they have enough data. Like a real place, however, it can also be a ground for negativity, pain, and sadness. It too becomes tainted by the things people do in it, influencing others that are inhabiting, however flimsily, the same virtual space. It’s not a stretch to see it as a natural expansion of the original game’s world (that was already shown to store data in the lifestream), so systematizing it is not just possible, but expected.
The only solace we can find, therefore, is in the garden of our minds, and it takes a lot of strength to hold our ground on that. All of the trauma that is being handled by basically all of the characters makes it hard; it creates ghosts, propaganda, and toxic discourses within our own heads. Much like the original game, their arcs’ path is laid by the admittance of truth and life, even amidst the aforementioned conditions. Understanding who we are — with all of the sadness, hurt, pain, and hope — is what we need to do to change the world, because if it is a reflection of the characters' state of mind; as it flourishes, so too will Midgar.
There is no shame in any of the people in this game showing their feelings. Even Vincent, who starts as a stoic and monosyllabic man, much like Cloud, shows that all of it is only a facade to hide his afflictions and agonies, and that it can come off as clumsy and fake. Yuffie points this out in Dirge of Cerberus, and Aerith does the same to Cloud in both the original game and the Remake. With that knowledge in mind, we can catch glimpses of truth beneath the facade, and those become more and more present as the game advances. The scenes before the final boss are extremely melodramatic, gathering all of that torment and using it as fuel to permeate hope. Often looked at as juvenile or “cringe”, the lack of restraint and the euphoria exploding from every character’s mouth in the face of despair both create and deny their humanity.
That is especially important because recovering his humanity without denying his trauma is exactly what allows Vincent to surpass his human body. He becomes a deity and tries to stop another deity, on the same grounds that Cloud, Aerith, Barret, and Tifa did so many years ago. Recreating the most iconic screenshot of the original game (Cloud, reaching for his big sword, facing the Shin-Ra building), but replacing all of the actors with their deific, although humanly flawed counterparts (once again tracing back to the Greek roots of the Gothic melodrama), put a mercenary fighting an electric company on the same metaphysical level of importance as two gods having different ideas about the pain that erupted from the same event.
As above, so below.
Within this space, or a combination of such spaces [a castle, a foreign palace, an abbey, a vast prison, a subterranean crypt, a graveyard, a primeval frontier or island, a large old house or theatre, an aging city or urban underworld, a decaying storehouse, factory, laboratory, public building, or some new recreation of an older venue, such as an office with old filing cabinets, an overworked spaceship, or a computer memory], are hidden some secrets from the past (sometimes the recent past) that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise at the main time of the story.
These hauntings can take many forms, but they frequently assume the features of ghosts, specters, or monsters (mixing features from different realms of being, often life and death) that rise from within the antiquated space, or sometimes invade it from alien realms, to manifest unresolved crimes or conflicts that can no longer be successfully buried from view. It is at this level that Gothic fictions generally play with and oscillate between the earthly laws of conventional reality and the possibilities of the supernatural (...) often siding with one of these over the other in the end, but usually raising the possibility that the boundaries between these may have been crossed, at least psychologically but also physically or both. - "The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction", Edited by Jerrold E. Hogle, 2006
Dirge of Cerberus was the only game of the Compilation (before the Remake) that dared to tackle the same philosophical questions that the original did with a juxtaposing context, often ending up with different conclusions. It reached for the original story with utmost devotion and tried to build something else on its foundation. This transformed the timeless, eternal tale that the original told in a time-constrained, although no less eternal, story.
The original game was a tale about finding your own identity through external forces, finding your own body among many, and having faith that all of the losses along the way were full of hopeful, incredible meaning. Dirge of Cerberus, however, is a much more introspective story, understanding that there are many things, often ugly and treacherous ones, living inside you. You can hurt yourself even when you understand your own mind, and you will need to tend to your own safe space often. There's no "solution" to trauma, and healing can take a long time, or not come at all.
"Ideological contradiction is actually the overt mainspring and specific content of melodrama. . . No ideology can ever pretend to totality: it searches for safety-valves for its own inconsistencies" - Laura Mulvey, "Notes on Sirk and Melodrama", 1987
Every story told in a world is as transient as its inhabitants. That transience is reflected in Vincent's mostly useless double jump, the way that he seems to slide around the battlefield instead of taking actual steps. When he transforms at the end of the game, he is indeed able to fly - maturing the double jump - and slide around with his wings. It is also seen in how some lore-important cutscenes were left only in the Japanese version since we didn't get the multiplayer aspect overseas, although we can check those nowadays because of the internet to better contextualize.
It's been almost twenty years since this game debuted, and almost thirty since the original. We have seen Midgar in a million different ways, with varying degrees of fidelity and importance. This representation remains the most ethereal, showing both heavenly and hellish characteristics, in a dreamlike, surreal narrative, that touches the most carnal and hedonistic of feelings and problems but brings them to the highest theological substratum of consequence and discussion.
It's only appropriate, therefore, that the final confrontation of Dirge of Cerberus is between two characters that had other beings living inside them without their own consent, fighting using their weaponized ideological differences. One of them accepts it as his own strength and uses it to be able to find life again, and the other one lashes out at the world with a gigantic womb overseeing the fight.
It's also extremely fitting that the next game in the series, the second part of the Remake trilogy (coming just after the most recent DLC, which reintroduced Dirge characters), is called Rebirth.
Events come and go, and universally speaking, their importance is mostly set by their audience. It's very clear that Final Fantasy VII is important to the characters of Final Fantasy VII. To them, it's the most important story ever told (a concept that leaks into the real world, sometimes). It's obvious why they see themselves in similar situations, recreating scenes (as actors in a play!) even if unconsciously, or unwillingly. They are bound to that world, that narrative structure, and they'll do everything again once someone hits "New Game", in any of the games of the Compilation - which is a list that's always increasing.
They are going to be perpetually reborn.
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