Aerith Lives: Ruminations on Life, Hope, and Eucatastrophe in Final Fantasy VII

DISCLAIMER: This essay involves MAJOR SPOILERS for Final Fantasy VII, and goes beyond the scope of the first part of the Remake. You probably know which spoiler I’m talking about; if not, do yourself a favor and go play the game.

Away despair! my gracious Lord doth heare.
Though windes and waves assault my keel,
He doth preserve it: he doth steer,
Ev’n when the boat seems most to reel.
Storms are the triumph of his art:
Well may he close his eyes, but not his heart.

George Herbert, The Bag (1633)

t’s been a hard year. The coronavirus rages beyond anything most of us have seen in our lives. Hundreds die every day as the economy spirals downwards and fear surges. More than that, even the great hero of the modern age, Kobe Bryant, is dead. I sometimes think to myself that if Kobe were here it’d all be okay. But it’s not. Kobe’s gone, and I’ve made the exact same noodle dish for lunch three out of four days. Nothing’s okay. But life goes on. It must.

I first played Final Fantasy VII (1997) three and a half years ago, and I’ve played it once every year since. If my math is right, that means I’ve played the game four times now; every time, it hits home a little more. And especially with the remake out now (which seems amazing, by the way) the game is at the forefront of my mind — I can’t help but think of what it can teach us 23 years later. As anyone who has both read a book and played Final Fantasy VII will tell you, the game is more than a game. It is a story — one full of meaning in the same way as Shakespeare or Jane Eyre. Even if the English translation (the game was originally written in Japanese) sometimes reads like the translator needs either more sleep or more grammar lessons, the game remains engaging, relevant, and extremely compelling.

It is especially so in this time of crisis. In the game, you as the player take control of Cloud Strife, government super-soldier turned mercenary eco-terrorist. Life is going good, just blowing up the evil megacorporation Shinra’s Mako reactors — think nuclear reactors but far worse for the environment — until you meet Aerith Gainsborough, the flower girl. She is kind, strong, funny, and beautiful, and Cloud instantly develops an attachment to her. This meeting kicks off an epic tale in which Cloud and co. chase after the semi-mythical uber-soldier Sephiroth to stop him from summoning the Meteor which will end the world.

Funnily enough, Cloud is not the main character for most of his own game. Though the player sees the story from his perspective, and he loves to set himself up as Sephiroth’s number one enemy, he really doesn’t do that much to stop him. Aerith, instead, takes the lead in the battle against Sephiroth. As the last remaining Cetra — the original inhabitant race of the Planet — she alone has the power to stop him, as Cloud comes to recognize. But halfway through the game, Aerith dies at Sephiroth’s hands. (Yup, there’s the spoiler. I bet you don’t know who Luke’s father is.) Sephiroth has won the battle. Nothing can stop him anymore. He summons Meteor. The end is nigh —

— or so it seems. Aerith is gone and the world will never be the same. Even so, in the face of overbearing death as embodied in Sephiroth and the meteor he summons that looms over the Planet, the force of life repulses and overcomes the darkness — in large part due to Aerith. The character of Aerith thus reveals that even when the very foundations of the world are shaken and the presence of death seems overwhelming — likely how many of us feel right now — there is still hope. The world can and will be redeemed by the power of life itself.

A Battle Between Life and Death

These universal issues of life and death which only seem bigger today define Final Fantasy VII much as they define our lives. The producer of the game and creator of the Final Fantasy series, Hironobu Sakaguchi, said as much when asked about the theme of the game:

“Ever since my mother passed away…I have been thinking about the theme ‘life.’ ‘Life’ dwells in many things, and I was curious what will happen if I attempt to analyse ‘Life’ (sic) in a mathematical and logical way.”

The expressed intent of Final Fantasy VII is to understand life. But to treat life in a “mathematical and logical way,” as Sakaguchi proposes his game does, means to view it in light of its also scientific end of death. The question thus becomes how life and its rational end are related. And as death denotes a lack of life, the two must oppose each other by nature.

This conflict between life and death manifests itself in many ways throughout the game. For instance: the Shinra use Mako — life energy — to power their Planet-killing reactors; bright and glamorous Gold Saucer thrives above a desert wasteland of a prison; flowers bloom in a church amidst the oppressive pall of Midgar’s slums. In each case, either life or death seeks to dominate while the other resists.

Aerith’s flowers grow in a wrecked church.

Aerith versus Sephiroth

The conflict between Aerith and Sephiroth encapsulates this boxing-match between life and death: while Sephiroth embodies the presence of death, Aerith fights against him as a representative of life. Aerith is the last Cetra, a mythical race whose members “were born from the Planet, speak with the Planet, and unlock the Planet.” In other words, Aerith holds a unique relationship to the Planet: she is intertwined with its life like no other. This relationship is embodied by her ability to summon Holy, an incredibly powerful magic that only the Cetra can use. It’s a simple spell really, with a simple effect, as the wise sage Bugenhagen describes: “All that is bad [for the Planet] will disappear. That is all.” Aerith is the Planet’s protector: because she can wield Holy, she stands on the side of the Planet and of all life itself.

This conflict is right there in the logo! Holy fights against the falling Meteor.

Her opposition? Sephiroth, who is “festerin’ inside [the Planet] like a sickness” according to the airship pilot Cid. Sephiroth is the Planet’s natural enemy. His goal makes this clear: he wants to transcend into godhood by destroying the Planet and all life on it. Aerith and Sephiroth are thus set in natural opposition to each other. Sephiroth rages against Aerith; Meteor against Holy; death against life.

Though not as dramatically as Aerith and Sephiroth, the real world is always caught up in this battle as well. You can see it in medicine, environmentalism, even anti-aging skincare — life battles against death. At times, perhaps, when we discovered the cure for polio or man landed on the moon, life seemed on the winning side. Maybe life can win! we thought. Maybe death isn’t so powerful after all. But in other times — the atomic bomb or 9/11 or Granny finally calling it quits after battling cancer for three years — life seems defeated, overpowered by the unavoidable presence of death. So far, to me at least, 2020 has seemed like a big 1–2 to life’s face. Kobe — bam. COVID — bam. Death has pushed life to its corner. Maybe this time it will finally win and Aerith’s flowers will bloom no longer.

The Moment of Utter Defeat

Sephiroth you frickin jerk :’(

There is a point in the game as well when life seems irrevocably defeated: Aerith’s death. It’s an unforgettable scene. Aerith had left the party shortly before, spouting some mumbo-jumbo to Cloud in a dream about being the only one who can stop Sephiroth. Cloud finally catches up to her. He finds her praying on an altar. He walks up to her.

Then Sephiroth flies out of nowhere and runs her through. Aerith’s Theme begins to play. She keels over, and Cloud catches her in his arms. He starts to cry.

Wow, I hate Sephiroth.

This moment breaks Cloud. By the time of her death, Aerith had become his source of comfort and sanity. For example, after Sephiroth possesses Cloud at the Temple of the Ancients and forces him to attack Aerith, he instantly turns back to her. She reassures him, saying “Cloud, you haven’t done anything. It’s not your fault,” which breaks Sephiroths hold over him. Cloud depends on Aerith to free him from Sephiroth’s power; without her, Sephiroth begins to dominate him. On their next encounter, Cloud completely succumbs and freely gifts Sephiroth his end goal: the Black Materia, which enables him to summon Meteor and end the world. Due to this utter defeat, Cloud comes to understand the real reason behind his journey: “I was being summoned by Sephiroth.” Cloud has been subject to Sephiroth the entire time; he could only resist him at all because of Aerith. Without her, Sephiroth’s power overtakes him and he fully amalgamates to the side of death. Cloud has lost all hope of life.

But it’s not just Cloud who feels hopeless in this moment; the player experiences Aerith’s death just as thoroughly. Do not underestimate the impact of this scene, whether in the game or out of it. Losing Aerith was devastating, not only for Cloud but for gamers worldwide. Call them nerds, call them wussies, but there’s a reason why this scene ranks #3 on IGN’s Top 100 Video Game Moments of All Time list — it made an entire generation cry, most of them probably for the first time at a video game. I swear I went through the five stages of grief for her the first time I played the game. Even now, just the first three notes of her theme can get the eye sweating a bit. Aerith’s death hurts. A lot.

The reason why it hurts so much is because it’s just so wrong. The scene completely upsets the supposed order of the game; it takes away someone who should not be taken away. In most games, the player takes the role of a hero. Through the character they play as, they exert a massive influence in the game’s world. But during Aerith’s death scene, K. W. Colyard writes that “the game has revoked all control of the protagonist, separated the player from the hero, and manipulated its spatiotemporal confines to provoke an emotional response.” In some sense, the game socially distances itself from the player. You are completely separated from the previously set-up rules of the game. You cannot move as you usually do. You cannot fight as you usually do. You cannot even use a Phoenix Down; all you can do is sit there and press A as Sephiroth gloats.

It is this complete, unprecedented lack of control — not only during the scene, but after it as well — which creates the painful “emotional response” within the player that Colyard mentions. Again, games typically give complete control of gameplay to the player. This is no different in Final Fantasy VII; you as the player can freely decide how your party performs in battle, from customizing materia set-ups to choosing actions from the battle menu. But when Aerith dies, the game takes away some of this control. A playable character who you probably spent hours leveling up and spending time with as the only true healer of the party is suddenly no more. Thus, as Nathan Randall of With a Terrible Fate observes, “The game doesn’t just tell you that there is loss — the game makes you feel loss. When she dies, your ability to act in the game world decreases.” Randall implies that Aerith’s death goes beyond the usual death of a character, like Hektor, or Dumbledore. To some extent, her death is also the death of control — when Aerith dies, the player cannot play the game in the same way as they once did. This lack of control thus “makes you feel loss.” The game forces you to realize that, like Cloud, a crucial and beloved part of your life is now gone. The natural response is grief.

Rest in peace, flower girl…

Life Will Win

It’s hard to imagine a more hopeless moment. The woman Cloud loves is dead; he couldn’t do anything to stop it; and his mortal enemy has absolute control of him. Oh, and there’s a huge meteor in the sky that will end the world in two weeks. Death is overbearing; there is no way life can go on. The Planet’s defender is no more. Its enemy has triumphed. It’s over! The player, thrust into Cloud’s shoes, cannot help but agree. Aerith — our healer, our flower girl, our hope — is dead, unsavable even in a video game. It sure as hell seems like the end.

But of course it’s not. After all, Aerith’s death comes only two-thirds of the way through the game. The story goes on, even after this hopeless moment; there remains life to live. For though she has died, Aerith continues to provide life and hope to the Planet she protects.

Don’t crash rockets into meteors, kids

At first it doesn’t seem like it. Soon after her death, Cloud undergoes a severe identity crisis and the player must take control of other party members to help him. Once he resolves his delusion and realizes the truth, Cloud and co. try to stop Meteor in whatever way they can. This culminates in them partnering with the Shinra to launch a materia-powered rocket at Meteor; it doesn’t work and a nightmarish half-Meteor remains. The power of science has failed to stop death, so they realize that only one thing can stop Meteor: Holy. But Aerith alone could wield it, and she’s dead. So the quadrupedal warrior Red XIII naturally wonders: “Is it impossible for us to carry on what Aerith tried to accomplish?” Is what we’re doing pointless? It’s a sobering question. None of them are Cetra; they are all human (in essence) and they have learned that human means are insignificant to Meteor. It seems more and more certain that whatever Cloud and co. do does not matter in the face of overbearing Meteor. The world will end, and they cannot stop it.

But Aerith can, and more importantly — she has. Visiting Aerith’s resting place again, the party learns that Aerith, foreseeing Meteor, had already prayed for Holy. The sense of relief for Cloud and co. is palpable. They might actually live! But they also remember Aerith’s death and are freshly grieved by it. As Cloud sums up: “Aerith has left us great hope. But, it cost her life… her future…” Cloud presents Aerith’s death almost as a sacrifice. The price for the “great hope” that she granted was her life — she died so that the Planet could live.

“I wonder which we humans are?” Uh-oh.

Yet not only does the Planet live — the ending cutscene of the game reveals that, in some way, Aerith does too. Remember Holy’s effect? “All that is bad will disappear. That is all.” But Bugenhagen follows that up with: “I wonder which we humans are?” So once Holy takes effect in the epilogue, Red XIII realizes that it’s “having the opposite effect” — that is, Holy is destroying human life rather than saving it, because humans are bad for the Planet. (Okay, this hits a little too close to home. Take care of your planet, everyone!) But suddenly, a great green wave floods out of the earth and combines with Holy to repulse Meteor and save humanity. What caused that saving grace? The last scene of the game reveals it: it is Aerith. She defends life and overcomes death, even by dying herself ; she has somehow conquered death.

Aerith, the Flower Girl
Aerith, the Flower Girl
The first and last scene of Final Fantasy VII. Aerith lives!

Fairy Stories and Flower Girls

By giving hope to her Planet even in its most hopeless moment, Aerith reveals to us how to approach our own impending doom: with the consolation of hope. The story of Final Fantasy VII (a fantasy, of course) strikes me as a perfect example of what the great fantasist J.R.R. Tolkien, in his On Fairy Stories, calls “Eucatastrophe”. He can speak better than I:

Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it… I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

Eucatastrophe refers to the consolation that fairy tales and fantasies provide: that of a “Happy Ending,” or of, as he says later, the pure joy that comes of this ending. He goes on:

…[Eucatastrophe] does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

Not even a fool would think this world is perfect or devoid of suffering. Neither, of course, is the Planet. But the happy ending of Final Fantasy VII does not deny “dyscatastrophe”; Aerith dies, after all, to bring it about. Yet it does deny something else: the apparent supremacy of “universal final defeat” as embodied by Meteor. It is proper to grieve Aerith (I know I still do), but grief is not the point of her character. Rather, as the Planet continues to live despite Meteor because of her, she creates hope — and through that hope, the inexpressible “Joy beyond the walls of the world” which Tolkien speaks of. To Tolkien once more:

…If [the fantasist] indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.

(You know, I seriously considered just plopping down the last three pages of On Fairy Stories here and calling it a day. They’re that relevant, and that good. Read them.)

To Tolkien, every good fantasy must maintain the appearance of reality so that the reader, or player, can suspend their disbelief and enter fully into the fantasy’s world. To accomplish this, Tolkien states that the fantasy must “in some way partake of reality” — it must, to some extent, reflect the actual world. Thus, the eucatastrophic joy which fantasy provokes must be present in the real world as well, for good fantasy to evoke it.

Final Fantasy VII, I think, is good fantasy; it successfully suspends the player’s disbelief, inviting them into its world and evoking intense emotion within them. Extrapolating Tolkien, then, we can say that what is in the game is also in reality to some degree. We know that Meteor is in our world. It can take the form of coronavirus, injustice, the knowledge of our own mortality, or many other things — regardless, the presence of death is certainly as present here as in Final Fantasy VII. But more importantly — Aerith is here too, and Final Fantasy VII argues that she is victorious. We need only to search for her, and we will find the hope and true joy of which fantasy gives only a glimpse. And with that hope, we can live out our lives with far more courage and impact than if we remained huddled under the fear of death.

This is quite the crazy week. First, Final Fantasy VII Remake was released on Friday, which is relevant for obvious reasons. Not only has it been a hotly anticipated game for literally 15 years, it also seems to have gotten the original right. It is faithful, creative, and lovingly made — everything you would want in a remake of such a classic game. (Why am I writing this? Probably to release some of my bitterness at not being able to play the remake.)

And Easter is this Sunday. Usually this is one of the most hopeful times of the year. It’s not just a season of Easter bunnies hiding Easter eggs; in the Christian community, it’s a time to look forward to the promise of resurrection — of death being conquered. This should be a week of overabundant life. But obviously, this year, it’s not; instead of the hope of life, all I hear about and all I see is the presence of death as the coronavirus hits a peak and I’m locked inside, losing control. If there was any time to feel hopeless, it’d probably be now.

But Aerith, as a symbol of life, reminds us that there is always hope. However poor our situation may be, at least there isn’t a deformed meteor looming over our heads when we go out for a (socially-distanced, of course) walk. But even if there was, Aerith beat it. She overcame the Meteor of Final Fantasy VII’s world; she can overcome ours as well.

Look at Midgar even before Meteor:

Then look at Midgar 500 years later.

Which one’s more alive?

In the end, Final Fantasy VII is a story of redemption. Out of the first Midgar — seemingly utter destruction — comes the second: an overabundance of life. The same thing will happen to our world. So believe in Aerith, or her real-world reflection. Believe that life, through her, knocks out death and gives us hope. And live with the power of that hope — the hope of Easter. For in her was life, and the life was the light of man. Well may she close her eyes — but not her heart, and never her life.

I read books and play games. Sometimes I do both!

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