Written by Whistler 8th November 2016

The year is 1998 and one little Whistler had finally figured out how to press the button on the elevator, achieving victory over his first hurdle on a title by the name of Final Fantasy VII. From then on it was his first grand adventure, only stopping to occasionally rescue dragons on Spyro, or let his father take the reigns on Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil (Whistler would conquer these later).

Whistler and his digital companions had traversed the world of Gaia in search of Sephiroth, the title’s leading antagonist. They had vanquished giant robots, bio weapons, dragons, and even a demonic wall. No matter what hardship was set in front of them (or what homework was due the next day) they pressed on, in fact after every trial little Whistler grew quite attached to them. Then it happened, but what resulted in the death of one flower girl?

Ultimately in any epic adventure or quest, there’s always some sacrifices down the line as our heroes eked out every last drop of their very essence to stop the villains, vanquish evil, and of course, save the world.

Though when the stakes are high, so too are the costs.

Narrative this complex was still rare and the most death we had seen was probably only in platformers, where the loss of a continue was about as dramatic as it got. But even considering this, back in 1997 and even beforehand, death of a main character wasn’t exactly new. Some we had the chance to save like the legendary Shadow from FFVI,  then some died to save our heroes such as Galuf and Tellah (from V and IV respectively).

Yet I felt the impact from losing Aerith Gainsborough one hundred fold compared to them. Perhaps it was because she was the first playable character I had seen die in a video game’s narrative, but her death is still one of the most memorable moments in Final Fantasy’s almost 30 year legacy.

For the few uninitiated who who haven’t or won’t play FFVII, Aerith is one of the first few characters to join your party, in fact she’s the first who isn’t already associated with your group, Avalanche. While your party could ultimately be set up to play however you wish, Aerith stats and weapons often made her suited for magic use. Combined with her healing orientated Limit Breaks Aerith was effectively FF VII’s White Mage. She’s a cheerful and kind soul who sells flowers in Midgar, a city with little to no plant life due to the mass of industrial and metropolization. Aerith is also the most important character to our protagonist. Cloud’s growth is a result of her actions, who starts off as the lone mercenary taking jobs and only caring about the money. After a chance encounter as he literally falls from the skies right in front of her, she gradually sways him one kind word at a time. As the story progresses, the former Soldier Cloud is gone, trying to do what is right and save the world from the machinations of Sephiroth. The flower girl was Cloud’s anchor, grounding him in a world he almost became detached from; it wasn’t just another job anymore, he was on a quest.

But then it happens, that tragic moment.

Aerith goes missing and the party searches for her leading them to the city of the ancients. All seems well enough but then Cloud begins to feel Sephiroth’s control taking over again and he raises his weapon to cut Aerith down as she prays for a way to stop the villain. Up until the point Cloud had been at the mercy of Sephiroth’s ability to take over, he even handed over the Black Materia to him, practically handing the planet to him on a silver platter. But this time, this time he fights against it, he regains control only to watch helplessly as the silver haired villain enters center stage. Sephiroth descends from the skies and skewers her, it all happens so fast that you can’t believe it. Silence.

Then as it finally hits you, it plays.

As her ribbon comes undone and the pearl-like white orb clinks on the marble floor, Aerith’s theme plays. What once sounded so hopeful and light, suddenly bears such a heart-rending weight to it.

“The cycle of nature and your stupid plan don't mean a thing! Aerith is gone. Aerith will no longer talk, no longer laugh, cry or get angry” Cloud painfully cries out as he holds the lifeless flower girl in his arms.

As the antagonist soars into the sky he leaves behind a boss to fight while her song continues to play. Jenova-LIFE is easily dispatch, but during the fight it makes the realization wrench slower and harder in your gut. You become so much more attuned to the tragedy that has been struck, followed by the crowning moment as Cloud lays Aerith to rest within the pool of water in the center of the city. There is little time to mourn and after vowing to avenge her death, the team sets out and Disc 1 of 3 ends.

I still remember being incredibly shocked, roughly a third into the game and she was gone. She wasn’t much of a mainstay in my party as I heeded my father’s ominous sage advice to not bother leveling her, but even then I never thought a party member could be permanently killed off. I like many others hoped there was something we could’ve done to save her, a choice somewhere, a secret item, perhaps the correct button presses? Some even went on to sign a petition demanding she be brought back which prompted Tetsuya Normura to comment that the outrage meant they were successful in creating a memorable character.

Aerith’s theme and epitaph produced by Nobuo Uematsu, draws out so much raw emotion to this very day. It is a heartfelt tune conjuring both soothing calmness and equally sobering anguish. But best of all, it taught me something. Sure Aerith’s death is nothing more than a digital character biting the dust to most, but to me, it taught me how to deal with tragedy. After losing her, while still suffering, the party moves on, their goal is reinforced and they go on to fight harder than ever before. Upon reflection director Yoshinori Kitase (director of FF VI, VIII and VIII) commented:

“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.”

To many this rings all too true; death is sudden, and death does not carry notions of good or evil, right and wrong. But thanks to the death of Aerith, the death of one flower girl, we can learn how to move on, and remember the joy others brought us.

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