It’s one of the most infamous moments in Final Fantasy history — the death of Aerith Gainsborough in Final Fantasy VII. Millions of gamers across the world watched in horror as Sephiroth descended from the depths of the Forgotten City. With his Masamune held over his head in a two-handed grip, in a single motion, he impaled and killed the young flower girl who wielded the only power that could stop him.
It’s a scene so shocking that many players refused to accept what they were seeing. In the early days of the internet, rumors persisted of ways to revive Aerith or prevent her death entirely. They have all been thoroughly debunked, but the persistence of players to believe them demonstrates what an impact Aerith’s death had on them. Players commonly hack the game to make her playable after her death, speaking to the desire to pretend it never happened. Dialogue attributed to Aerith in scenes from after her death are pointed to as proof she could be revived, or that developers did not initially intend for her to die.
Despite being almost 20 years old, to this day Aerith, and, of course, Final Fantasy VII, enjoys a solid fan-base. People regularly rank her among the best and most popular heroines in the franchise, her theme is often remixed, and players still argue over the original translation of her name as “Aeris”.
Forums and video comments speak of hating her, but often this hatred comes from adoration. Players mention they hated “wasting” time leveling Aerith up and using her in their party before her death. Players have even dissected the scene itself. From the technical glitch of Sephiroth’s gloves vanishing and reappearing, the lack of blood despite the Masamune clearly impaling her, and the questionable likelihood of Aerith immediately sinking to the bottom of the lake upon being laid in the water.
Fans have also noted that the party makes no attempts to revive Aerith with items or magic and question why such things would not work on her under these circumstances.
With Aerith’s popularity and the impact her death had on gamers, it seems only fair to ask — was it necessary? In regards to narrative structure and the progression of the plot, did Aerith Gainsborough have to die? And if not, why did she?
Aerith was killed by Sephiroth because she wielded the White Materia that could cast Holy. This was the only power that could stop the Meteor that Sephiroth was plotting to summon in his plan to become a god-like being. After Sephiroth had retrieved the Black Materia that cast Meteor, Aerith left the party to journey to the Forgotten City to pray for Holy. When Cloud went to the Forgotten City to find Aerith, Sephiroth attempted to take control of Cloud’s body and force him to kill her. Cloud resisted Sephiroth’s control, and thus Sephiroth descended from on high to kill Aerith himself. The White Materia, shining with the power of Holy that Aerith had succeeded in casting before her death, fell from her hair and into the water around the altar.
After Sephiroth left and sicced Jenova LIFE on the party, Cloud took Aerith’s body to the lake in the city and laid her to rest. Much later, the party killed Sephiroth and watched Meteor’s impact, too close for Holy to stop, and believed their efforts had been for naught. Aerith’s spirit commanded the Lifestream, the blood-like river of life energy that pulsed across the planet, to join Holy and save the planet. The original ending showing this was ambiguous, but creative materials and the expanded universe later confirmed this is what happened.
Why Did Aerith Die?
Speaking purely in regards to narrative structure, Aerith’s death was not needed. Reflecting on Final Fantasy VII’s plot developments after her death, Aerith’s continued presence would not have changed much. Specific conversations would have changed, but Aerith living would not have substantially changed the events themselves. Cloud and his group still would have continued to the Northern Crater to find Sephiroth himself. It is unlikely Aerith could have done much to prevent him from mentally shattering Cloud’s mind, and subsequent events involving Shinra would have progressed just the same. Her death did not advance the plot in any way save for continued foreshadowing of Sephiroth’s influence over Cloud.
It is easy to imagine a scenario in which Aerith survived, and the game was not significantly changed for it. Spared Sephiroth’s blade and unaware of her success in calling Holy, she continues traveling with the party on their adventure. Then, Bugenhagen informs Aerith that Sephiroth’s spirit is holding her Holy back after she cast it. The only major difference is that Aerith could not have commanded the Lifestream in the ending. However, this is easily rewritten to Holy not needing the Lifestream’s power to succeed in stopping Meteor.
A Bond Never Forged
If Aerith’s death did not have to happen for the narrative to continue, we need to examine the development process behind her character. Earlier in development, there was intent for Sephiroth and Aerith to have a stronger connection than they ended up having. In the final product, their connection is more thematic than direct: Sephiroth wields Meteor, Aerith wields Holy; Sephiroth is the son of Professor Hojo, Aerith is the daughter of Hojo’s rival Professor Gast; Sephiroth thinks he is the last Cetra, but Aerith actually is.
During development, the writers toyed with the idea of making them siblings or lovers, and in the latter case, Sephiroth would have been Aerith’s past lover instead of Zack Fair. If Aerith and Sephiroth had been siblings or lovers, her death would have been much more directly impactful, showing how far gone Sephiroth is that he would kill her, destroying any idea of her possibly redeeming him, and adding a sibling rivalry or jilted lover dynamic to the deed.
Was Aerith’s Death Developer Manipulation?
The decision to kill Aerith came fairly early in development. When she, Cloud, and Barret were the only playable characters, they discussed killing one of them off. Developers deemed Barret “too obvious” as in previous Final Fantasy games they had almost a tradition of killing off characters, and they were often like Barret: tough, last-man-standing types. It was also popular for heroes to sacrifice themselves for the good of the world or to save a love interest. The developers found this an annoying cliche.
Director and scenario writer Yoshinori Kitase was going through the loss of his mother during development. This deeply affected his views on life, death, and family. It is apparent throughout Final Fantasy VII with several characters struggling with the deaths of their mothers. Aerith’s White Materia and Cetra heritage come from her mother Ifalna, and Sephiroth thinks the alien Jenova is his mother and aspires to her legacy of planetary destruction.
Kitase has also expressed dislike of how Hollywood depicted deaths. “In the real world, things are very different… People die of disease and accident. Death comes suddenly, and there is no notion of good or bad. It leaves, not a dramatic feeling but great emptiness.” Tetsuya Nomura, responsible for character design and aiding in the development of the story said “death should be something sudden and unexpected.” By killing Aerith before the player’s eyes, the developers’ intention was to purposefully invoke real feelings of loss and pain. Hers was not a noble sacrifice for the good of the planet. Her death was a tragedy that happened due to things the player, and Cloud, could not control.
Meaninglessness Is The Meaning
Perhaps the real power behind Aerith’s death is that there was no meaning to it. The story did not need her to die, but the developers chose to have her die for no reason because they wished to do so. As Kitase said, death in the real world is different. There is no meaning to it beyond the fact that it happens when you least expect it. Even on a meta level, this happened with Aerith. The developers did not need to kill her. But they did. And try as we might to find meaning it in, and while I may protest it was unnecessary, there is one irrefutable fact: it happened. And it cannot be changed. It wasn’t fair, and it didn’t improve the story. But how often is death in real life either of those things?