Written by guest contributor Hayley Garden, this post is the fourth in a series that discusses the role of female characters in the Final Fantasy franchise. Check out our recent artist interview with Hayley!
Written by Hayley Garden; edited by Kathryn Cooperman.
Cover image per Wikimedia Commons.
CW: Mention of death. Please note that this post contains spoilers for Final Fantasy VII.
The late 1990s were a major turning point in the history of video games. 3D animation was thriving, and major advances in the technology were being made at a rapid pace. Video game developers were exploring this, and a new generation of consoles that could run 3D games were on the horizon. Naturally, considering that they had already spent a decade being at the forefront of game development, Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team at Squaresoft jumped on this golden opportunity. Final Fantasy VII took the franchise into 3D, and as a result, helped pull the JRPG (Japanese roleplaying game) genre out of being niche and into a global phenomenon. Final Fantasy games have always been groundbreaking in their own ways, but Final Fantasy VII was on another level. The visuals, while dated by today’s standards, were nothing short of revolutionary at the time. The game was so dense, both graphically and narratively, that Squaresoft had to switch from Nintendo cartridges to Sony Playstation discs, a hardware shift that persists to this day. The impact Final Fantasy VII had on the gaming community was truly unparalleled. It was, unquestionably, THE biggest roleplaying game of the era.
One of the most legendary moments in gaming history, one that both casual and hardcore gamers alike are aware of, is the death of Aerith Gainsborough at the hands of the main antagonist Sephiroth, at the end of Disc 1 of Final Fantasy VII. Aerith is one of nine playable characters in Final Fantasy VII, three of whom are female, one of whom is optional. If Yuffie is not recruited, there is one female character left in the party, compared to six male characters (five if Vincent is not recruited) after Aerith’s untimely demise. Yet, her legacy far eclipses the skewed gender makeup of the party in the second half of the game. How does killing off a female character contribute to a legacy like that? Killing off one of your main playable party members was simply unheard of in video games up until this point, and the way Final Fantasy VII executed Aerith’s death scene was honestly excellent. The unexpectedness of it all is heartbreaking, and the emotions still hit today. In the scene, protagonist Cloud Strife and his crew have arrived at the Forgotten City of the Ancients, where Aerith is about to accept her destiny as the one who will help save the world. However, as she is praying, Sephiroth descends after merging with the forces of evil, and impales her with his sword. Not only does Aerith die, but the key item that was required to save the world from evil was lost as well. Cloud and his team suffer a major setback in their attempts to save the world from evil forces, and they have lost a dear friend and party member. It was a turning point in gaming which emboldened other game developers to take narrative risks, despite the consequences. Whether or not the game’s desire to take a risk that large boded well for female characters in JRPGs moving forward, the narrative decision at the time cemented Aerith as one of the most memorable characters in the history of video games. Aerith’s character theme plays during both the cutscene and the boss fight that follows after she dies. The eeriness and sadness of playing through a boss fight with a song as soft and tender as Aerith’s Theme makes for a truly unforgettable gaming experience. It has cemented the piece as one of the most beloved pieces of Final Fantasy music ever written.
In life, Aerith Gainsborough is quirky and fun. Her personality is not what you would expect a character like her to have, but that contributes to her charm. It also makes her a great foil to Cloud, who is sulky and brooding during their interactions. Aerith is upbeat, carefree, and joyful, and has no reservations about flirting with Cloud. She is stubborn and adventurous, but will do anything to protect her friends. Early in the game, the player learns of Aerith’s true identity as a Cetra, an ancient race of people who were said to have spiritual powers and were capable of communicating with the Planet. The Shinra corporation, who serve along with Sephiroth as the antagonists, spend most of Aerith’s life trying to capture her and experiment on her. Aerith’s consistent ability to evade capture by Shinra is what makes her demise at the hands of Sephiroth that much more devastating.
Aerith’s death is sad. It is unexpected, even if the player goes into the game knowing it’s coming. Most importantly, it is a transcendent moment in video game history.