So, at this point, it is well known in the gaming world (it has been nearly 26 years), that Aeris (now known as Aerith) died (was murdered really) in Final Fantasy VII. Gamers born after the fact, or near it, will not quite appreciate the shock and awe factor, of watching a heroine, or better yet, a “video game” princess, being murdered in cold blood right in front of our eyes.
Keep in mind, that I was born in the mid 1980s. I grew up saving helpless Princesses from evil Nintendo villains. It was, unthinkable, for a princess to die while in my gaming watch. Happy endings were the expected reward for finishing games.
Truly, Final Fantasy (and other less popular JRPGs), prior to FFVII, did feature tragic moments, and hardships. It is why Final Fantasy VI remains a beloved SNES title to this day. The series was the closest thing to a mainstream (if FF could be considered ‘mainstream’ before the PlayStation days) “mature” gaming experience, in terms of storytelling, for video gaming fans during the medium’s early days.
And yet, FFVI didn’t cross the daring line that Final Fantasy VII would shatter in 1997.
Final Fantasy VI was Dark and Mature… Final Fantasy VII Followed in its Footsteps and Went Further…
So, Final Fantasy VI had some genuine shocking moments. Scenes, such as Celes attempting suicide, and miraculously failing, still manage to standout in our memories. Yes, when you think about how restrictive Nintendo was in those days, that particular suicide attempt scene was shocking, but it served to showcase Squaresoft’s desire to explore deeper, and more serious themes within its flagship series.
For all the good that Hironobu Sakaguchi and company managed to do in FFVI, they did not kill off one of its “princess” characters in the game. Final Fantasy VII introduced us to the possibility of a beloved main character dying, violently, for the first time in a mainstream video game. It could be that other more obscure games, pulled off a similar feat before FFVII did, but I can’t recall any of them being nearly as impactful.
Again, at the time, in 1997, Aeris’ tragic destiny would shift the very foundations of video game storytelling.
One would think that the decision to kill Aeris was one rooted in deep thought and planning in relation to the overall plot. It wasn’t. The necessity of her death, at least conceptually, was not a must for the overall plot to develop in the way that it did. Meaning, that with some slight changes, she could have survived, and meteor would have been stopped either way.
In reality, in early FFVII pre-production writings, many concepts were thrown around and discussed, including the idea that Sephiroth had been her lover (Zack was a last minute addition), was played around with, as well. Had the final story adapted the Sephiroth lover angle, the murder scene would have had an even deeper meaning, but as I mentioned, Aeris’ death wasn’t exactly rooted in deep storytelling, at least at first.
Final Fantasy VII, originally, would only have three main characters: Cloud, Barret and Aeris. It was decided early on that one of them would die, but it couldn’t be Barret, as his tough guy, “I will save the world” persona would make him too obvious of a choice. Final Fantasy had killed secondary tough guy characters like him before, so it had to be shocking death, one that would resonate with gamers around the world; it had to be Aeris.
Aeris (I will keep calling her Aeris here for old time’s sake) was a beautifully designed character, both in writing, and physical appearance. She was the angelic girl of Final Fantasy VII. The type of girl most teens (I know that at 13 years old I did) would have wanted to date. She had beautiful green eyes, and despite her playful and, at times, upbeat nature; she had lived a life full of tragedy (though that’s a common theme with most of the game’s cast). She was also pure and innocent; a ‘flower girl’ from the slums.
By contrast, Tifa (Cloud’s other love interest) was the tough bartender, martial arts cute ‘next door’ girl who (unlike most ‘girls next door’) could walk through concrete walls. Surprisingly, she would turn out to be quite the most loyal and caring girl in the world (she did stick with Cloud during his vegetative state, and even through his “I can’t let go of the past *cough* Aeris” issues).
At first glance, however, my impression was that Aeris was the game’s heroine, and more importantly, the love interest ‘to be’ for our spiky haired protagonist. The story certainly made her seem like the most important female character in the game. Aeris had an important past with Shinra, and with the Planet itself. She was the last of her Cetra kind. She was ‘special’ and unique; it just seemed like she was the one character that Cloud had to protect at all costs. Quite simply, from a story standpoint even, Aeris was a necessary element to the tale (as she was one of the original main three characters) while Tifa was not.
To make the character even more endearing, I did end up going on a date with her (as opposed to Tifa) at the Gold Saucer. So yes, her sudden, violent, and tragic death/murder at the end of Disc one, shook me to my very teen core. I even cried; I admit it. The musical score that accompanied the scene was just too perfect. It was Final Fantasy’s shining cinematic moment of the 1990s (and of all time) for me.
It turns out that I wasn’t alone on that account, and that fateful scene would help to turn Final Fantasy VII into the most fan fiction ridden video game work of the 1990s, and perhaps, ever.
Aeris/Aerith Death Changed Some of Us… Forever
In the early internet days, her death inspired rumors, controversies, conspiracy theories, and fan fictions in a way that no game had done before. Most of these rumors spun around theories of her character being able to be “brought back” or “revived”. A level 4 limit break which is extremely hard to get was available for her, which further fueled the fan flames of the “Aeris can be revived” firestorm. In short, many of us refused to believe that she could ‘die just like that’. After all, video game princesses didn’t die…right?
Within the grand scheme of things, her death wasn’t exactly necessary, though Squaresoft made it seem that way (at the end when she summons Holy from the Lifestream) in order to destroy the planet ending Meteor that Sephiroth had summoned. It possible that a living Aeris could have summoned Holy either way. But her death was more about Yoshinori Kitase (FFVII’s director) making a strong thematic point than one of deep storytelling importance.
Now, don’t get me wrong, her death augmented Sephiroth’s forthcoming legacy as a villain. Kefka did destroy the world in Final Fantasy VI, but Sephiroth’s exploits were far more personal. For all intents and purposes, he killed all of the important women (mother, love interest) in Cloud’s life except for Tifa. Aeris’ demise also helped in furthering Cloud’s mental degradation during the game’s run time.
So yes, there was purpose and meaning in her death, despite the fact that it might not have been necessary in order to ‘save the world’ from Sephiroth’s schemes. Her death added a dramatic plot point to a storyline that otherwise might not have had the same everlasting impact that it did across the industry.
Final Fantasy VII’s director, Yoshinori Kitase, suffered the loss of his mother during FFVII’s development. Hironobu Sakaguchi had lost his own mother as well during the late 1980’s. The game’s creators were not oblivious to the finality of death, and its relevance as a theme to explore. Kitase, and his team, felt that Hollywood, and even Japanese film making, were not treating, or presenting, ‘death’ as it should have been showcased for audiences.
“In the real world things are very different. You just need to look around you. Nobody wants to die that way. People die of disease and accident. Death comes suddenly and there is no notion of good or bad. It leaves, not a dramatic feeling but great emptiness. When you lose someone you loved very much you feel this big empty space and think, ‘If I had known this was coming I would have done things differently. These are the feelings I wanted to arouse in the players with Aerith’s death relatively early in the game. Feelings of reality and not Hollywood.” – Kitase
The above quote from Kitase, further illustrates that Aeris’ death had a deep, and thematically driven meaning. One that video games seldom touched before Final Fantasy VII ‘went there’. Aeris had to die in order for the writers to present the theme of the finality, suddenness of death, and the lasting impact of such a tragic event.
Indeed, Aeris’ death left an emptiness, and a desire for revenge, but also, a sense of disbelief, as many gamers didn’t want the character to end in that ‘tragic way’. Thus, Final Fantasy VII’s numerous Fan Fictions were born.
Before I reminisce about FFVII’s impact on the fan fiction community, I must note that Final Fantasy VII was gritty and dirty. It is ironic, that Squaresoft treated the theme of death in FFVII as something that was ‘sudden, and unexpected’, and there was nothing necessarily glorious about it (dying).
Death is a sad and empty thing, no matter what your religious beliefs are, all of us dread, and hope that none of our loved ones die, even if we all must walk the path of death at some point in the (hopefully, very far) future. Final Fantasy VII, as a whole, tried to showcase a ‘realistic’ depiction of death. The compilation that would later follow in the 2000s (and currently, with FFVII’s Remake project), would treat death in a different manner.
In the original work, Zack was shot to death, unceremoniously I might add, by two grunts and an officer in Midgar’s lifeless outskirts. He died in the gutter, like most who are shot down do. The human body isn’t impervious to bullets, and neither was Zack’s. It was a gritty, and realistic death. Violent death is usually gritty and senseless. In that way, Zack’s FFVII demise was, as I said before, more in tune with Final Fantasy VII’s overall atmosphere.
In Crisis Core, however, Zack fights an Army of Shinra soldiers, in near Dragon Ball style fashion before succumbing to his wounds and dying in dramatic J-Pop (music and all) glory. This is exactly what Kitase had criticized and had tried to avoid a decade earlier when depicting death. It is one of the reasons why I have always felt that the original work is far superior to any post 1997 ‘FFVII related’ work that has come after it.
Fan Fictions Brought Aeris/Aerith Back, and Fan Reaction to Her Death Influenced Final Fantasy VIII
I don’t know how many individuals have made a career or have worked in writing related jobs thanks to Final Fantasy VII. I have to assume that it must be a substantial number of people that were influenced by the title in someway or another. Final Fantasy VII certainly ignited my passion for writing. A ‘fan fiction’ short story in which I revived Aeris’ was my very first piece of fictional writing. Final Fantasy VII did not only inspire me to write, but to read books as well.
So, the narrative that video games negatively influence kids is not necessarily a true one in many cases. Certain games, especially ones with deep themes that encourage critical thinking, can inspire children and young teens to pursue good and involved themselves in productive tasks as well.
The early Internet forums were filled with FFVII related Fan Fiction. More than any other game before it, Final Fantasy’s open-ended finale, and its complex character backgrounds, left plenty for the imagination of those of us who wanted a ‘happier’ ending. Consequently, most of said fiction was about Aeris being resurrected. Frank Verderosa’s series comes to mind as an early example of a quality take on ‘post-FFVII’ events.
Squaresoft set out to break our hearts and it succeeded. It created a wonderful character, and then killed it, not even halfway through the game’s storyline. It was a brilliant twist of fate for the game, the series, and gaming in general. I found it funny when The Last of Us: Part II killed off a certain character, and fans of the series boycotted the game, and review bombed it. The game wanted to evoke certain emotions from its players, and the writers succeeded at doing so. I loved it, the game drew powerful emotional responses from within me that no other form of media entertainment had succeed at doing prior to it.
This generation of gamers, however, did not seem to take it as well as the previous generation took Aeris’ death; even though main characters dying wasn’t as a common thing two decades ago, as it is today. Even as a teen, I understood that (her) death was necessary in order to achieve the experience that the game’s writers intended the players to have. Sure, there was anger, and yes, disappointment at Aeris’ death back in 1997. But I don’t recall someone ever saying that the game’s writing was ‘weak’ or that Final Fantasy VII ’sucked’ because Aeris was killed.
No main cast party members would die in Final Fantasy VIII, as a direct result of initial complaints by fans about Aeris/Aerith’s death. Clearly, Square didn’t want to overplay its hand, but in retrospective, most of us feel that Final Fantasy VII’s story was made better, and its legacy much more enduring, by Aeris’ death.
The fact, that I am talking about this scene 26 years after the fact is all the proof that’s needed of the importance and relevance of that moment.
Will Aeris/Aerith Survive the Remake?
It is likely that she does (survive). The Remake is more of a sequel in an alternate timeline, where the focus is pretty much to keep the same (original Final Fantasy VII) chain of events, particularly Aerith’s (her original Japanese name) death, from happening. It looks like through some Kingdom Heart’s time traveling, alternate timeline reality shenanigans, our cast will finally be able to save the princess.
With the Arbiters of Time defeated, there is nothing to stop our heroes now from embarking on a totally different quest, which I guess will bring some freshness to the storyline for us ‘old heads’ and will finally allow us to pursue a fraction of our wild fan fiction dreams of decades past.
Still, Aeris’ death is one of the most important, and unforgettable moments that I have had with any form of entertainment media. It was the first time that I cried in a game, and in my opinion, it opened the possibilities for what video game narratives could be in the future. The importance of designing and developing a likable character was on full display in Final Fantasy VII. After all, there is no emotional impact to be achieved in killing a bland under developed character.
I still remember the living room, TV model, and black old couch where I sat at when I first witnessed Aeris’ death. The melody of her theme (which was promptly played in her death scene) is forever engrained in my brain. By today’s standards, Final Fantasy VII marked the early period in gaming where ‘writing’ began to take the forefront in the interactive experience, so the game’s writing is a bit primitive in some aspects. However, in 1997, I cannot imagine a better product than what FFVII turned out to be, and Aeris’ death had a big impact on FFVII’s monumental critical success.
To end things on this rather lengthy Throwback Bit Thursday edition, Final Fantasy VII’s Aeris, holds the distinction of being the one video game Princess I couldn’t save, and perhaps, because she was the one that got away, she is also the one fictional princess that I hold dearest in my heart.
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