Major spoilers for Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VII Remake to follow.
I’m 11 years old. I’ve finished playing Kingdom Hearts 2, my introduction to Japanese role-playing games, which would eventually become my favorite video game genre. Alongside Sora, Riku, and Kairi, I’ve seen some more mature-looking characters from a series called Final Fantasy, which is related to Kingdom Hearts — in a way? Or maybe not. I’m not sure.
What I am sure of is the pull I feel toward the beautiful brown-haired girl dressed in pink with vibrant green eyes; with a long braid that resembles the one my mom would get up every morning to style on me. The in-game journal tells me she’s from a game called Final Fantasy VII. I’m drawn to her quiet cadence; the way she’s the only character to elicit any response from the pretty boy named Cloud Strife, with his imposing huge sword and equally imposing reluctance to connect with others. I’m drawn to the way she almost visibly tears down his walls.
I finish the game, and I’m thinking about who Aerith Gainsborough is.
It doesn’t take long after I look her up that I realize Aerith is dead. I look up her death on YouTube, and I cry as the first note of her theme hits; as her materia falls down the structure upon where she dies. As Cloud says, she’ll never talk, laugh, cry, or get angry ever again. I know little about Aerith and even less about what is happening, but her death deeply affects me nonetheless. I rewatch the scene many times to fully process what happens to her. Once I process it, I proceed to do my best to deny that reality and immediately look up ways in which I can still connect to her; in which she still feels alive.
I consume anything I can of her. I watch Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, play Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core, and read essays and forum threads on her. I play Final Fantasy VII long enough to see her happy and lively. I stay far away from the parts of the game in which she ceases to be either of those things. I fall in love with the Final Fantasy series and play almost every game in it while avoiding the rest of Final Fantasy VII — after all, it’s in the rest of the game where she dies. And I’ve never dealt with death well.
Long before I knew Aerith, as a child I would wake up in the middle of the night from constant nightmares in which I would die. I’d scream for help, waking up my poor mother so that she would come to comfort me. To this day, I don’t know the reason as to why this would happen. But that fear of death has stayed with me, growing into a real phobia that plagues me with intrusive thoughts on a daily basis.
In the era of COVID-19, it’s less of a phobia and more of a daily internal war with myself. My mother is a grocery store worker, and every time she walks out the door for work induces an anxiety attack. I am overwhelmed by the fear that that will be the day she comes home ill, or that she’ll come home to our small apartment and my dad or I will get sick despite all our precautions. Every day, I am hyperaware of the reality I desperately try to ignore, that I drive away with mental exercises when I so much as fleetingly think about it: that I will one day die, and so will the people I love most.
And yet, I’m the kind of person who has always watched true-crime documentaries for fun; who, as a kid, would excitedly ask my dad if the movie he rented from Blockbuster for the weekend was a horror movie; who listens to true-crime podcasts while working at the library when I’m at school. I’m most fascinated by what I am most terrified of. In a similar way, all those years ago I became fascinated with Aerith because of her death. In a world in which we lose all definition once we die, her death has defined her for millions.
And so, in my early years of development, I sought to define parts of myself through her. The first figurine I ever bought is of her. The only characters I have more than one figurine of to this day are Yennefer of Vengerberg, my ultimate favorite character, and Aerith. Pink became my favorite color because it is the color of her dress and her ribbon. Even throughout the years in which internalized misogyny affected my self-perception and pushed me to deny femininity for the sake of approval, I knew it was my favorite color. I knew I aspired to be like her — to be feminine, yes, but also curious, witty, brave, and kind.
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I’m 23 years old and playing Final Fantasy VII Remake. I start crying the moment I hear Aerith’s theme as she gives Cloud a flower. I cry when, after several hours, Cloud finally falls into her church and she smiles brightly at the sight. I also laugh at her incredible sense of humor and am filled with joy every time I see her and Cloud banter and flirt with each other. But I do a good amount of crying. I cry because she talks, laughs, cries, and gets angry — because I can see her how I’ve always wanted to: with the realism that Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children offered, but with the vibrancy and life the story could not give her.
I cry as I fall in love with her all over again and realize she is still who I want to be. I am almost envious of her when she says, “People hate the steel sky, the slums… but I don’t. How could I? All that passion, all those dreams… Flowing and blending together into something greater.” I yearn for the positivity she can find in a life of little means, for I am too often overwhelmed by my own bitterness over what I lack. I am amazed by her general lack of hesitance despite her fears and sheltered life — something I always wish I could have more of. Like Aerith, I have grown up as the only child in my home and lived a far more sheltered life than many people. But unlike her, I’m terrified of the world; of change, of adventure, of life and death in equal measure.
And that’s why the ending of Final Fantasy VII Remake is so emotional for me. In the last moments, its title takes on a new meaning, for it seems like it will be remaking Final Fantasy VII‘s story itself. There’s an opportunity for everyone to defy destiny; for Aerith to live longer than fate originally ordained for her. There are many people who are understandably upset with this change; who feel the choice to let her live is one that invalidates not only her character but also the themes of the original. I can’t even say I fully disagree. But I also can’t help being deeply happy.
Aerith delivers the game’s final line — and one of my favorite lines ever — when she says, “I miss it. The steel sky.” At that moment, I immediately know what she means: she misses the comfort of certainty. I know what she means because I feel it, too. It’s now uncertain as to whether she’ll die in this iteration of Final Fantasy VII; as to whether Final Fantasy VII Remake is giving me and many others hope just to take it away in the end. But that’s life, isn’t it? We go through moments of happiness, hope, sadness, and despair over and over again until we die. That’s one of the few certainties of a world in which so little is certain, especially in these horrifying times.
At this moment, I am certain of precious few things — and Aerith is related to many of them. I am certain of how incredibly important Aerith has been to me; of the peace I feel at seeing her alive and well; of how she’s the kind of person I hope to be remembered as after my time comes. I have long defined Aerith through her death, but now I get to define her through how she is bursting with life, too. Final Fantasy VII came out when I was one year old and Aerith’s death was the lens through which I learned most things about her, so I’m grateful for Final Fantasy VII Remake giving me the chance — even if it’s temporary, like most things in life are.