Narrative video games provide the perfect platform to examine narrative framing and the viewing experience. The player moves the hero character, their in-game avatar, through the game world via a series of maps, each of which is shown from a different camera angle that the player may or may not be able to change or control. These camera angles, particularly those which the player is not allowed to control, help to shape how players feel about the heroes they embody. Camera angles used in in-game cinematics play much the same role in narrative video games as they do in films, provoking emotion and awe in the audience member. When players can no longer control the game’s camera, at the moment of the cutscene, they lose the authority and autonomy they held as the player/hero and becomes merely a player/viewer.
Released in 1997, Square’s Final Fantasy VII puts players in control of Cloud Strife, a mercenary hired as a bodyguard for flower seller Aerith Gainsborough, who is wanted by the corporatocratic government entity known as Shinra, and is murdered in the final scene of the game’s first act.
The party has escorted her to the Forgotten Capital, where she will pray for the Planet’s help to stave off Sephiroth’s villainy. As Aerith begins to pray, Cloud—suddenly controlled by Final Fantasy VII’s event programming—approaches her and draws his sword, before backing away and demanding to know, “what are you making me do.” This is the moment that Aerith’s death scene begins, and the player/hero becomes the player/viewer—forced to watch helplessly as Cloud wrestles for control of his body from Sephiroth, who appears on-screen only as he kills Aerith. Sephiroth taunts Cloud, telling him he has no reason to pretend to experience an emotional response to Aerith’s death, because, as another villain soon points out, Cloud is merely a “puppet.” Although both the game’s programming and the player’s actions puppeteer Cloud, his emotional response to Aerith’s death, and the emotional responses of players who experience the game through him, prove Sephiroth wrong. Since 1997, players have responded to Aerith’s death sequence by going to whatever lengths necessary, even breaking the game itself, in order to save her.
The scene remains an iconic video game moment within both the Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) genre and the mid-1990s period. It has affected not only Final Fantasy VII players, but the game’s developers, as well. In his “Oral History” of the game, Matt Leone reveals that Square “still requests that media outlets not use certain imagery of the scene in articles for fear of spoiling the surprise,” even though more than twenty years have passed since the game’s release. It’s difficult for me—both as someone who experienced Aerith’s death within five years of the game’s U.S. debut, and as someone who has consumed much of its ancillary media—to imagine a gamer coming to the game green on this spoiler. Still, the fact that Square would consider the sequence worthy of protection after all these years serves as a testament to its impact on the video game community as a whole. The scene spawned a series of message board discussions, rumor logs, and web hoaxes that revolved around how, exactly, players might bring Aerith back to life. Although the Final Fantasy VII community has long since proven that there is no way to revive her while keeping the game’s coding intact, pro-revival endeavors continue today, with fans rooting for Final Fantasy VII: Remake to add a storyline in which Aerith lives.
My interest in Aerith’s death scene concerns both the cinematics of the scene itself and the web artifacts that recount its impact on the game community. No matter how many times she dies on screen, Aerith will always be alive again whenever someone begins a new playthrough of Final Fantasy VII. She has the slim chance to live, permanently, in Final Fantasy VII: Remake. Gamers know that this is true, and they respond with repeated attempts to save Aerith from certain doom, even if they are unable to articulate their experiences and reactions as emotional ones. The game evokes emotion by forcing players to watch the young woman that they have promised to protect—as player/hero Cloud—die during an unskippable, cinematic cutscene. What articulations of gamers’ feelings have been left behind, in the form of online conversations and rumor-aggregators, provide an aperture through which we can analyze the impact of Aerith’s death and answer one, all-important question: Why do we all care so much about saving Aerith?
As in all games, play in Final Fantasy VII proceeds according to a predetermined ruleset. Players not only learn to abide by these rules, but they also discover the ways in which the game allows them to use its restrictions to their advantage. Aerith’s death breaks the laws by which its gameworld functions, however. No other playable characters die permanently in Final Fantasy VII, and any party members who fall in combat may be revived by using a Phoenix Down item. The player/hero does not have the option to use this item on Aerith, and the game’s cinematics force the player/viewer to watch helplessly as Cloud lays her to rest out of reach of their valiant efforts.
Final Fantasy VII flouts not only its own in-game rules, but also the conventions of the JRPG genre, by killing Aerith at the end of its first act. When a character dies in a JRPG, designers typically include another character with a similar skillset to take the fallen hero’s place—a convention that appears on Project Apollo’s “Grand List of Console Role-Playing Game Clichés” as the “Pinch Hitter Rule.” No such replacement exists for Aerith. Unable to accept this rule-breaking for what it is—creative license on the part of Final Fantasy VII’s designers to orchestrate tragedy outside of the player’s control—gamers attempt to force the game to return to its established order.
Because there is no way to replace Aerith with another character, many of Final Fantasy VII’s earliest players believed that there was some way to prevent or reverse her death. The Turk Alliance’s catalog of related rumors, titled simply “Aeris,” contains a list of possibilities, which include everything from playing a musical theme in-game to raising all characters to level ninety-nine before the scene begins. But ultimately, the only way to circumvent Aerith’s perma-death is to cheat. A player must go so far as to alter the game’s code in order to add Aerith to the party after her death. In the same way that Final Fantasy VII breaks JRPG logic and its own in-game rules to kill Aerith off, players must break the game itself in order to restore her.
The player’s physical and virtual proximity to the tragic events on-screen no doubt influences their response to this scene. The suspension of disbelief required to immerse oneself within the game creates a new identity for the player: the player/hero. To become the player/hero, the player/viewer must compress the space and time that separates them from the virtual character, erasing both the distance between their eyes and the game screen, and the time between their controller inputs and the onscreen result of those button-presses. Aerith’s death scene wrests control of the game’s spacetime from the player, kicking them out of Final Fantasy VII’s interior space and forcing them to become the player/viewer. These two identities—player/hero and player/viewer—are the result of spatiotemporal play in interactive media, and they define the ways in which players interact with, and are emotionally impacted by, a particular game’s events.
Until the moment of Aerith’s death, the player’s spatiotemporal experience has been so immersive that they have lost themselves to it in order to embody Cloud. The player has pushed aside reality—the awareness of their body in a chair, their hands on a controller, their eyes on a screen—to put themselves inside the action of the game. Yet despite this immersion in the on-screen action, where Cloud resides, and despite Cloud’s close proximity to Aerith at the time of her death, both the player and the hero are powerless to keep her alive. At this moment, players must pull themselves away from the game to find assistance and wisdom from outside both the game’s borders and the borders of their gaming space, in order to save Aerith. Players seek out and counsel one another outside the confines of both software and playing area, leaving behind myriad discussion boards and webpages dedicated to the question: Can Aerith be saved, and if so, how?
By the time of Aerith’s death, gamers have already constructed several spatial frames to contain Final Fantasy VII’s narrative: the frame of the software, contained within the frame of the console/controller/monitor/player, contained within the frame of the gaming environment, contained within the frame of the JRPG fandom. These frames also work in reverse. The JRPG fandom sees the player in their gaming environment, who sees the console/controller/monitor/player, who sees the software. Because Cloud is both the subject and object of Final Fantasy VII and is an extension of the player’s own self, the game’s presentation of its protagonist—who is, at the moment of Aerith’s death, a failed hero, having done nothing to save an innocent friend—creates a tension between the discrete spaces on both sides of the screen: between seeing and being, between playing and acting, and between the player-as-hero and the player-as-viewer.
Final Fantasy VII uses players’ prior knowledge regarding the rhetoric of cutscenes and in-game animations to create the false hope that the player/viewer may again become the player/hero after the cinematic ends. The game teaches players early on that full motion videos (FMVs) will be sandwiched between pre-programmed scenes that play out in the same lower-grade, “playable” graphics used for the bulk of gameplay. Players also know that a playable-graphics animation does not always indicate the arrival of a cutscene. When Cloud resists being Sephiroth’s puppet in the moments before Aerith’s death, there is still hope that the player may regain control of him. The subsequent change-over to FMV signals that another playable-graphics animation will follow, however. Final Fantasy VII is pushing the player out and turning them into the player/viewer.
This fight with Jenova-LIFE, who appears as Sephiroth exits the scene, is the only portion of the sequence in which the player controls Cloud. This is no normal fight, however. Aerith’s theme replaces the game’s traditional battle music, and even Final Fantasy’s signature victory jingle does not play when Jenova-LIFE dies. The screen goes black and displays Jenova’s words: “Beacause, you are……a puppet [sic].” The fight gives way to a two-part sequence—one part in playable graphics, the other an FMV scene—in which Cloud lowers Aerith’s body into the water to rejoin her lost Holy materia. The only time that Final Fantasy VII allows the player to control Cloud during Aerith’s death sequence is when he must use violence. The protagonist—and, by extension, the player—is a failed hero: a person who cannot save a life, who can only kill. The realization of this failure drives gamers to find some way of restoring the player/hero’s lost honor.
Excluding the boss fight, Aerith’s death sequence lasts for five minutes and thirty-five seconds. Cloud spends roughly half of that time rooted to the spot, one step away from Aerith, but unable to move closer until it is too late. The player/viewer spends this time similarly frozen in front of their monitor, and just as powerless. The game has revoked all control of the protagonist, separated the player from the hero, and manipulated its spatiotemporal confines to provoke an emotional response. Players who first experienced Final Fantasy VII in 1997 would soon be forced to reckon with the frustrating truth that there was no way to save Aerith.
The deep disconnect caused by killing Final Fantasy VII’s healer character at a time when the player/hero had been forcibly downgraded to player/viewer resulted in a large and long-lived mythos surrounding Aerith’s death. The earliest known “revivalist” hoaxer, Lansing, appeared on discussion forums in the months preceding the game’s English-language release. Months of Lansing’s lies and misdirection convinced gamers to petition Square to restore to the North American release a non-existent plotline in which Aerith lives. By the time Lansing recanted, the damage had been done. Writing in 2011, Brian Taylor claims that any new posts to online forums requesting information on how to save Aerith are met with “rant[s] against Lansing and his legacy.” That credit may not be wholly due, however. The nature of the scene, both in relation to the game’s implied rule structure and to the player, ripened Final Fantasy VII for the formation of a subculture around the collective goal of saving Aerith.
It stands to reason that the spatiotemporal confines of Aerith’s death scene must be walled off by some final, all-encompassing fence or umbrella. In “Building the Culture of Contingency,” published in The Role-Playing Society: Essays on the Cultural Influence of RPGs, Tim Bryant quotes Johan Huizinga, who says that: “The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen…are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” According to Bryant, the wide field which contains all of a game’s players and discussion may rightly be referred to using Huizinga’s term, the “magic circle.” Although Final Fantasy VII contains many other compelling mysteries in addition to the problem of Aerith’s death, the magic circle that cropped up around players in the mid-1990s concerned itself primarily with her revival. As Ian Bogost points out in How to Talk About Video Games, “We gripe when a game doesn’t do what we expect, rather than ask what such an unexpected demand means in the context of the game.” Players labelled Aerith’s permanent death a problem that needed solving, based almost exclusively on a set of unwritten rules by which they expected the game’s developers to abide.
In spite of Lansing’s confessions, revivalist efforts have not waned in the two decades following Final Fantasy VII’s release, a testament to the fact that the game’s presentation of its most tragic moment impacted players’ lives outside its confines. With Final Fantasy VII: Remake looming on the horizon, fans have redoubled their efforts to win justice for Aerith. A 2015 Kotaku report by Brian Ashcraft showed that nearly one-third of gamers surveyed wanted Final Fantasy VII: Remake to include “an Aeris lives ‘route’ (or storyline),” outpacing the “full voice acting” (13.5 percent) and “enhancing or improving the game’s ending” (11.2 percent) options by a wide margin. Whether Final Fantasy VII: Remake will rectify the “problem” of Aerith’s death, more than twenty years after the fact, remains to be seen.
Aerith’s death left a lasting mark on video game culture. Any well-composed narrative video game may provide a vehicle for player’s soul searching, particularly when it allows, in The Ethics of Computer Games author Miguel Sicart’s words, “the player to face ethical dilemmas, or…the rules themselves raise ethical issues.” Preventing players from resurrecting Aerith without cheating creates an ethical dilemma: Is it worse to do digital violence in an attempt to force a game to do justice by its slain characters, or to accept that injustice as part and parcel to the video gaming experience? That question, much more so than any debate over whether or not Square’s Final Fantasy VII: Remake “should” include a narrative path in which Aerith lives, is the driving force behind gamer responses to the visual death of one of the mid-1990s’ most iconic video game characters.
Originally published April 2020.
Kristian Wilson Colyard writes fiction and poetry, reads, and does nerdy stuff at her home in the rural American South, where she lives with her husband and their clowder of cats. She’s on Twitter @kristianwriting, and you can find more of her work online at kristianwriting.com.