Warning: Major Spoilers for Final Fantasy VII, but, come on, it’s 23 years old.
In my 30+ years of playing video games, many moments have stuck with me. Whether it’s the wonder induced by the first time finding a warp pipe in the OG Super Mario Bros., the shock of traveling forward 7 years to a world of ruin in The Ocarina of Time, or the sheer terror instilled by zombie dogs crashing through windows in Resident Evil, video games have provided a treasure trove of new experiences and complex emotions. No moment, however, has had as significant of an impact on me and my view of what video games can be as the death of Aeris in the greatest JRPG of all-time, Final Fantasy VII. While its importance has remained strong over the past two plus decades, my relationship and reaction to one of video game’s greatest tragedies has evolved.
Back in early 1998, 12 year old me was completely absorbed in the, at the time, massive world of FF7. I had never been on an adventure so grand (3 whole CDs!) and seemingly endless before, and I was loving every minute of it thanks to my intrepid band of environmentally concerned rebels. At the heart of that team was Aeris, a powerful magic user and the last remaining descendant of the Ancients, who might just be the only hope for humanity’s survival. I was finally getting to an age where I could appreciate strategy in games, and Aeris was the key to my success in battles. For the first time ever, I understood the importance of having support characters to boost and heal your party instead of just brute forcing every turn into an all-out offensive onslaught. With her seemingly overpowered magic stats and team-saving limit breaks, Aeris was the most vital part of my fairly unskilled self surviving his biggest gaming challenge yet.
While Aeris played a key role in my battle squad, the true draw was in the character herself. The shy flower girl you have a meet cute with after committing an act of domestic terrorism (as one does) spent the first third of the game blossoming into her own person as she finally leaves the safety of her home to set out on an adventure. She was never afraid to call you out on your bullshit or just say it like it is, but her unflinching spirit is what brought life to the mission. In many ways, she was one of the first, more subdued embodiments of the manic pixie dream girl archetype that 12 year old me could not help but have a crush on – a point only further driven home by some fortune telling soothsaying indicating she and the game’s protagonist Cloud were meant for each other and an utterly adorable date that the game sent the two of us on at this world’s version of Disney, The Gold Saucer, thanks to all of my interactions with the various characters in my party clearly showing favoritism toward the last of the Ancients.
Near the halfway point of the game, Aeris breaks off from the group to attempt to fulfill her destiny and use the power of the Ancients to prevent the end of the world. When you finally find her again, she is seemingly enveloped in peace, praying at a holy altar. Due to weird JRPG reasons, your semi-possessed character is almost forced to strike her down, but your love of Aeris overcomes the struggle, and, for a brief second, you believe you have succeeded and that your party will be whole again. That peace returns, but it is shattered in an instant by the surprise appearance of the game’s villain, Sephiroth, who descends as if from the heavens above and impales Aeris with his sword. It was far more shocking than any surprise death Game of Thrones had to offer, and the full weight of it was even more devastating on the psyche of a pre-teen.
Before you can even fully comprehend the depth of the tragedy that has just transpired you are thrown into a massive boss battle featuring the most somber, and perfectly suited music possible (music that I can hear play as clearly as the first time whenever I think of this moment). There is no joy in victory, however, there is only the melancholy of saying goodbye to your friend as you lay her down in the temple’s waters and return her to the lifestream. As the game shifted from the beauty of the temple to the snowy and solemn surroundings of the mountains, I attempted to recover but was still in shock. I think I even put the game down for a day before deciding to refocus my efforts on finding a way to bring her back. I mean, surely, there must be a way. This was a video game after all, and the heroes always win!
My official BradyGames strategy guide proved to be useless on this front, and sadly my house did not yet have the blazing speeds of a 56k modem at our disposal, so I would steal away to my grandfather’s computer and look up rumors about ways to bring Aeris back or at least see her again. There were rumblings of a way to return to Midgar and see her ghost, but despite spending multiple days searching for the key as described in giant online text files that were devoid of pictures, I was unsuccessful and resigned to spend the rest of the game wondering what if and fueled by a new desire to seek revenge on Sephiroth. The fate of the rest of the planet be damned, all I cared about was making that silver-haired asshole feel my pain.
Thanks to advances in CGI and disc storage spaces, Final Fantasy VII was able to help usher the world of video games into the realm of rarified storytelling typically reserved for movies. Games weren’t simply about some colorful sprites leading to a happy ending where the princess is finally in the right castle and gets saved. They could truly play to all of your emotions and tell tales of both triumph and failure. They could paint characters so vividly that you wouldn’t think twice about spending days trying to earn them the peace they deserve. In the proceeding years, I would play countless video games as they further evolved toward new levels of art, and only the post-apocalyptic gauntlet of tears The Last of Us ever came as close to the emotional gut punch of losing Aeris.
In spite of or perhaps because of this defining childhood tragedy, Final Fantasy VII has endured as one of my all-time favorite games that I have returned to now twice in adulthood, hopefully more emotionally prepared for the devastation I knew awaited me. Upon my first foray back into Midgar about 5 years ago, I made a point to shelter myself from the pain. I tried to keep Aeris out of my party as much as possible and even looked up a strategy guide to confirm my in-game decisions would lead to a that fabled date being with Tifa instead. Sure I avoided some of the impact of the trauma, but the beginning of the game felt oddly disjointed as I knew Aeris was meant to be such an integral part of the experience. Following her death that time around, I even found the key back to Midgar, but I saw no sign of Aeris’s ghost and put away those childish thoughts as a internet rumor-fueled youthful folly.
With a remake on the horizon for later this year and the desire to play a game I was fairly familiar with during the tired times of adjusting to early parenthood, it seemed like an obvious choice to boot up FF7 again, this time on the conveniently handheld Nintendo Switch. This time around there would be no guarding myself. Rather, being fully aware of the impending doom, I decided to embrace my time with Aeris. I had her in my party almost every chance I had and built her stats up to the point where she was was almost as dominant as Cloud himself. I even spent a couple of hours grinding before the predestined conclusion to her journey so that I could unlock her Level 4 Limit Break, Great Gospel, and watched along bittersweetly as the fantastic animation played out, knowing it was probably the only time I would see it. There was no emphasis one way or another toward the Tifa/Aeris/Cloud love triangle, which I allowed to play out organically (it turns out after all these years, I’m a Tifa man). Sure I may have made certain to do a ton of side quests before the pivotal moment to delay the inevitable by a few days, but, just as I knew it would be, I eventually built up the courage and marched to the conclusion of Aeris’s journey – or so I thought…
In the latter stages of our heroes’ quest, I happened again upon that chapel in Midgar where Aeris and Cloud first joined forces, and to my utter shock and delight there stood Aeris, tending to her flowers. I couldn’t believe it. The rumors were true and I was staring at Aeris’s ghost. Just as quickly as she appeared, she was gone, but the joy I felt would last the rest of the evening and into the morning. Over 2 decades and 3 playthroughs later, I had finally seen my emotional ride with Aeris through to its complete end. And just as I had been when I was a kid, I found myself amazed at the power of video games to be so much more than I ever imagined they could be and for a 23 year old masterpiece to still have the ability to surprise me.