Spoilers for Final Fantasy 7!
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 they have already spent a decade being on 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 casual and hardcore gamers alike are aware of, is the death of Aerith Gainsborough by 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, 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 back half of the game. How does fridging 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 her death scene was honestly excellent. The unexpectedness of it all is heartbreaking, and the emotions still hit today. It was a turning point in gaming, and it 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 (and her music theme) as one of the most memorable characters in the history of video games.
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 the game’s sulky and broody protagonist, Cloud Strife. 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.