How Aerith’s Death Scene Set the Stage for an Emotional Moment in the Game
Everything about this event was beautifully directed and it showed how Square can create devastating, somber moments in gaming
“Final Fantasy 7: Remake” comes out this Friday, April 10, 2020. I’ve played the original “Final Fantasy 7” game back in 1997 and it stands as one of the greatest games of all time and one of my personal favorites. I’m excited to see what this new remake has in store for a beloved game of my childhood. To celebrate, I’ll be doing an article series tackling on some different aspects of the game that I find interesting and what made it so memorable. Be careful as there are MASSIVE SPOILERS throughout this article series so approach with caution (if you care). Today’s article will focus on the most famous death scene in all of gaming and how exactly it shocked gamers everywhere.
Even if you’ve never played Final Fantasy VII, you’d be hard pressed to not know any gamer who isn’t familiar with the “Death of Aerith.” It’s probably one of the most shocking moments in gaming. Heck, it ranked third on IGN’s Top 100 Gaming Moments. Nowadays it’s something of a “It Was His Sled” trope. Everybody knows about it and it’s not that big of a deal anymore but back in 1997 it was unheard of that a lead character in a video game could be killed by the Big Bad.
Memorable moments in gaming don’t happen by mere chance. They are set up in a way that involves the player and immerses them in the experience. That way the impact is felt and they understand the situation and feel like they are apart of it. There have been plenty of memorable moments in video games where the player is understandably surprised by an event they never anticipated. “Psycho Mantis breaking the fourth wall” in Metal Gear Solid. “No Russians” in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. “Would You Kindly?” in Bioshock. “Your Princess is in another castle” in the original Super Mario Bros. “Pulling out the Master Sword” in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. These are a few of gaming’s most significant moments that are still mentioned in pop culture till this day.
Aerith’s death definitely ranks high on that list.
A lot of decisions were made behind the scenes that factored into ultimately agreeing to kill off Aerith. During Final Fantasy VII’s development, series creator and the game’s producer Hironobu Sakaguchi’s mother passed away. Him learning to deal with that grief parlayed into some of the core themes of the game’s story which highlights spiritualism, reincarnation, and embracing one’s identity after dealing with loss. He also wanted to incorporate that feeling of a “sense of loss” in the game that would make the player feel such a heavy emotion. So Sakaguchi, along with the game’s director Yoshinori Kitase, writer Kazushige Nojima, and artist and co-writer of the story Tetsuya Nomura agreed that the lead heroine would be killed off by the main villain. They also wanted to break away from the Hollywood norm in movies where the leading hero would die in a fight against the villain and have the love interest carry on without them. To them it became a cliche at this point since most video games at the time were mimicking that trope as well. They wanted to drive home the point that nobody was ever safe in a story and if the villain was as cunning and skilled as he says he is, he would eliminate the biggest threat to his goals.
And that is exactly what Sephiroth did.
Let’s breakdown the events leading up to that moment. After Cloud gets manipulated to hand the Black Materia to Sephiroth at the Temple of the Ancients and has a freak out episode where he blacks out, he has a dream where Aerith is speaking to him, letting him know that she’s on her way to the City of the Ancients and is going to face Sephiroth on her own. Cloud worries about her well-being but she assures him that she will be fine and he shouldn’t worry about her. Sephiroth appears in his dreams as well, stating that Aerith is a huge obstacle to his goals of becoming a god. If he’s ever going to succeed, he needs to stop her. Cloud later wakes up in the village Gongaga and is told by Barret and Tifa that Aerith has disappeared and they don’t know where she is. Cloud tells them that she left for the City of the Ancients and Sephiroth is after her. Understandably concerned, they alert Cloud that they must hurry to save her but Cloud, visibly shaken by his last encounter with the villain, is frightened to go. Due to his ability to manipulate Cloud, the spiky-haired hero is terrified of the idea of falling prey to Sephiroth’s power again. After much talk and encouragement from Barret and Tifa, Cloud decides to accompany them and the others to stop Sephiroth and save Aerith.
After going through the Bone Village and the Sleeping Forest they finally arrive at the City of the Ancients. Music composer Nobuo Uematsu does an excellent job of creating a tense yet somber mood with the city’s theme song “You Can Hear the Cry of the Planet.” The game’s director Kitase also does an excellent job of creating the sense that you are in an ancient city that looks like it hasn’t been inhabited for thousands of years. There are no random encounters for the duration of the time you are there which is odd considering that this is a “dungeon level” in a RPG game and normally you would be fighting monsters and leveling up your party. That isn’t happening right now. You are searching for Aerith but something doesn’t feel right about this place. Something big is about to happen here. The game doesn’t even try to hide it. You know it based on the atmosphere. Aerith is here but so is Sephiroth. Anything can happen but as long as your party is with you saving Aerith shouldn’t be a problem and at least you’ll have a chance to get back the Black Materia and stop Meteor from being summoned.
Cloud and the others search for Aerith in the ancient city for what seems like hours within the game’s story timeframe but to no avail. They searched all the old seashell-like houses but haven’t found her. They find a giant crystal in the heart of the city but she isn’t there either. Finally, they reach a house where three beds are available. The party members you chosen for this dungeon ask if you want to take a break. This is a genius moment because the game makes it seem like you have a “choice” in the matter to rest up your party but keep in mind there aren’t any random encounters and your party is likely full of health so you don’t actually NEED to rest. However, the game’s story implies that Cloud is fatigued after searching for Aerith for hours so you need to rest to have the energy to find her again.
Cloud awakens in the night and alerts the party that he feels Aerith’s presence in the city as well as Sephiroth’s. He and the others proceed forward to try to find Aerith again. The scene becomes even more tense when the song “Anxious Heart/Anxiety” starts playing in the background. You know something really doesn’t feel right about this. As Cloud and the others search for Aerith, he hears her voice coming from inside a small cave in the center of the city. They move along and discover a hidden seashell house inside the cave. They find a crystallized staircase leading to the bottom of the city. As they move along downstairs, it leads them to what looks like an ancient church of some kind. There’s a SAVE crystal right at the entrance of the church so that obviously means a big boss battle awaits the player. As they enter the church, they finally find Aerith. She’s praying in solitude. Sephiroth is nowhere in sight.
Cloud decides to go see Aerith alone and as soon as he approaches her the screen flashes red. The music starts playing “Who Am I?” as the tension racks up to eleven. Oh no. It’s happening again! Sephiroth is taking control of Cloud! What’s great about this sequence is that Kitase is making it seem like Sephiroth is actually taking control of the player. You are forced to approach Aerith. Cloud takes out his Buster Sword. During this moment, you are to control Cloud to make him kill Aerith. You can actually struggle with your controller to get him to stop but the game won’t let you leave Aerith alone. You can’t turn back. You can’t call for help. This fourth-wall breaking moment shocked a lot of gamers at the time. You were at the complete mercy of Sephiroth and there was nothing you can do about it.
As Cloud attempts to strike Aerith, his party stops him from committing the atrocity. Cloud snaps out of it at the last minute and is freaked out at what nearly happened but is relieved that Aerith is fine.
Or so he thought.
Aerith opens her eyes after praying and looks at Cloud with a smile on her face. Before these two can reconnect, Sephiroth suddenly drops from the sky above and stabs her with his Masamune sword. Aerith sickeningly limps over from the blow and Sephiroth slowly pulls the sword out of her with a devilish smirk on his face.
As he does, Aerith’s hair comes loose along with a pearl white Materia that was being used as something of a hairpin. As it falls to the ground, her theme song starts playing as the Materia falls into the water below. Cloud immediately rushes over to try to revive her but no avail. She’s dead. The spunky, lively girl from Midgar was no longer with us. Sephiroth begins to tell Cloud about his plans for the Reunion but the distraught hero isn’t interested in hearing any of it. He’s in such turmoil and grief that another person he genuinely cared about is gone. He already lost his home, his mother, and now Aerith. What more can Sephiroth take away from him? Sephiroth sarcastically remarks that Cloud is somebody who shouldn’t be able to process any emotion as he is nothing more than a puppet. He tells Cloud to meet him at the Northern Crater just as soon as he leaves a Jenova monster for Cloud and the others to fight.
After defeating the creature, each of the party members say their goodbyes to Aerith and some can’t even hold back the tears and breakdown crying.
Cloud finally picks up Aerith’s body and proceeds to walk over to the Lifestream. He drops her body into the water below while saying goodbye to her as she sinks downward and “becomes one with the planet.”
Her death serves as the climax to Disc 1 of the game (it came with three discs) and it served as Part 1 of essentially a “three act structure.” There were a lot of things to consider for the player going into Disc 2 that couldn’t be ignored:
- Defeating Sephiroth has now become even more personal and it intensifies the grudge Cloud has for him
- Sephiroth still has the ability to manipulate and control Cloud so who knows what will happen next
- He still possess the Black Materia
- Shinra is still out there so they’re a threat that can’t be forgotten
This was such a brilliant setup and it would be criminal if the Remake tried to change this for any reason. It would have to be done shot by shot. Stuff like this should be left in tact because of how powerful it is and trying to outdo it is either pointless or it won’t resonate the same way it did when it first happened. Aerith’s death is a big moment in gaming history and it should be treated that way in the upcoming Remake Project.