Final Fantasy is known for cinematic moments. If I were to say “Opera House” or “The Sending” or “I Want to be Your Canary” you’d likely know which games I’m referencing. These moments are memorable because they feel earned by their characters, and none feel as earnest as Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy VII.
A Japanese poll asked gamers what they would like to see changed in the release of the Final Fantasy VII Remake. Of the 444 responders, 36.2 percent said that they would want a story-line in which Aerith lives. Running parallel to this survey were several articles from prominent media outlets suggesting that a remake is a wasted opportunity if it does not rethink or reinterpret. One went as far as to recommend prematurely killing Cloud in Aerith’s sted, because the moment is “nothing more than a turning point in the story.” While I am in no way a Final Fantasy VII purist, I think the reason for the character’s death needs to be examined a bit more closely.
I believe part of the under-appreciation for this event derives from the myth that Aerith’s death was a reference to Producer Hironobu Sakaguchi’s mother. Some have claimed that she died during the production of Final Fantasy VII and the Lifestream was a way of her son saying that life does not end with death. A sweet notion, but Sakaguchi’s mother died in 1988. This myth of a maternal influence was the result of a misinterpretation of what he said in an interview with PlayStation Underground in 1997.
It was character designer Tetsuya Nomura who suggested killing Aerith, primarily due to how exhausted he was by the way death had been portrayed by the Final Fantasy games up to that point. He and Yoshinori Kitase, the game’s director, wanted Aerith’s death to be realistic — both depressing and final. Aerith may have been a main character but she was not given a heroic or sacrificial death. Her life was stolen.
In that moment, Kitase’s approach to cinematic angles of Sephiroth and his victim had aligned perfectly with the pacing of the scene’s audio and off-beat sound effects to leave a lasting impression. I’m not sure that the production elements of that scene are quite as important as its players though; the significance of that moment has more to do with what Aerith represented in the context of the game’s world (Gaia).
Aerith was bright, thoughtful, and well-meaning. She could defend herself to a point but the player had been groomed over the course of the game to be protective of her because (a) the story says you are her bodyguard, and (b) she’s just not very strong. Her safety is your responsibility and when she dies at the hands of a cold-blooded killer, you’ve failed.
Square Enix tends to pit Cloud and Sephiroth against each other as though they are polar opposites. Hero versus villain. That’s not exactly fair though. If anyone is the antithesis to Final Fantasy VII’s silver-haired antagonist it is Aerith.
Sephiroth was a man-made abomination who was fostered in a depressingly industrial world until he became an entity of pain and violence that sought to destroy all life on the planet. Aerith, however, was a flower girl who spent her days gardening within a church. Her profession was selling flowers for next to nothing within the slums of a oppressive city-state. To bring the people cheer. Unlike Sephiroth, when she becomes aware of her origins she responds by fighting for the future of Gaia and all of its creatures. She is the absolute yin to his yang. Not Cloud.
When Aerith is murdered she dies as the last of her people, the Centra. In killing Aerith, Sephiroth commits genocide. The act itself is horrific by real life standards, but it also echos the environmental theme of the game — industrial interventionism kills the last natural being that has a connection to the energy of Gaia. And where was she murdered? An ancient sanctuary while praying for the holy protection of Gaia and its inhabitants. It feels like a violation because it is on many levels.
Context is important. In the case of Aerith’s death, I’m not sure it’s fair to assert that it was just a plot point with interchangeable variables.
The most most memorable moment in the entire franchise was given gravity by who Aerith was and what she represented in contrast to Sephiroth. It’s important that this event was unexpected. It’s important that an act of ethnic cleansing took place in what was ostensibly a holy city of the Centra.
I empathize with the fan eagerness for Aerith’s life to continue in the Final Fantasy VII Remake. It comes from a place of adoration and in fairness she is worth admiring. But as the emotional core of Final Fantasy VII, not having her death as the linchpin of the story could gut the experience. Moreover, what would she contribute to the later events? What could she do above summoning Holy?
The Final Fantasy Remake offers an opportunity to improve upon an RPG classic. There are plenty of things that should or could change. Aerith’s death at the hands of Sephiroth is one thing that shouldn’t be altered.