It’s cold, and snow falls in flurries. You run, like you always do, because time is of the essence. You’re on the Northern continent, beneath the forgotten capital of the Ancients—a long-lost culture who understood mako energy as the Shinra Electric Power Company never will. The Ancients possessed profound wisdom about the life force of the planet… but you’re not here for ancient wisdom. You’re here for personal reasons. You’re here because of her.
You enter a large, underground temple… and there she is, kneeling b
eside a pond, as beautiful as the day you met. Her pink dress, her stylish hair, her sweet smile, her heart full of love. Is she praying? Of course she is. What a beauty. You slowly approach, eager to reunite with her once more. But you are not yourself today. Your hands are not your own.
is here. Trying to control you. He wants you to kill her. You know who I mean.
You know her as Aeris, or Aerith, or perhaps by another name (in my version of this story, she is Flosh). She is young, beautiful, and descended from the Ancients, connected to their wisdom by a bond of the spirit. Aeris was supposed to be under your protection, but she left in the night. She might be in danger. You mean to get her back.
Sephiroth dresses in black and carries a wicked scimitar. He has awaited this moment with frightening sobriety, despite his burning madness. When you resist him, he decides to do the deed himself—and drops from the ceiling, that wicked blade in hand. What happens next will scar you for life—for the shocking crime that Sephiroth commits can never be forgiven.
If you’ve played
Final Fantasy 7
, you may still be reeling from the death of Aeris Gainsborough. Her murder, halfway through the game, ranks as one of the most stunning moments in video game history, a pivotal scene in what some would call the greatest RPG ever made. Even now, sixteen years later, I still get chills when I remember Aeris (well, Flosh) collapsing in my arms and dying. Her death resonates in my cells, like… well, like mako energy.
How to Time Travel (Without Destroying the Universe), Part 2
Let’s put this event in context. When
hit the PlayStation in 1997, video games were nowhere near the storytelling sophistication of modern titles. (Even caring about a video game character was rare in the 1990s.) The closest thing to a Final Fantasy experience was TV—but modern serialized television had yet to be invented, and shows like
Game of Thrones
The Walking Dead
—in which the deaths of main characters are standard fare—were on nobody’s radar yet.
Final Fantasy 7
came along. The previous game in the series had been fairly complex from a storytelling point of view, but as the first RPG with 3D graphics and an enhanced soundtrack,
Final Fantasy 7
set a new bar. The game pulled you in like no game ever had. How could you not get caught up in a game this beautiful, this intricate, this long? (When I finally escaped Midgar after infiltrating Shinra headquarters, I was certain the game was over. In truth I had finished the prologue.) Aeris was the last person I expected to lose along the way. Cloud (the game’s spikey-haired protagonist) had a number of sidekicks, but Aeris was the most special. She was an Ancient. She had powers. She and Cloud had a unique relationship. And right from the beginning of the game, she had been introduced in a way that made players fall in love with her.
Sure, Tifa was the sexy one. She had the long brown hair, the generous curves, the skimpy outfit that left little to the imagination. Tifa was sexy and tough yet emotionally vulnerable—a nice role model for a growing audience of female gamers, and a drool-worthy sidekick for the inevitable fanboys. But Aeris… Aeris was different. She was sweet and pretty, an angel made flesh. She sold
for a living, and went to
. Aeris wasn’t the kind of girl you pinned up on your wall. She was the kind of girl you took home and married, and spent your life holding hands with by a pond. Aeris was the one you were supposed to love. She captured your heart one gentle word at a time.
And it worked. I really did love that girl. Until Sephiroth murdered her.
Aeris’ death occurred less than halfway through the game (though by that point it felt like a lifetime.) In the weeks that followed, I went on to complete many important tasks: bringing down Shinra, defeating the Emerald and Ruby Weapons, saving the world from destruction. But none of these was quite as epic as my pursuit of the game’s most rare and powerful item: the materia known as Knights of the Round.
For those who haven’t played the game, it’s hard to overstate the work involved in obtaining Knights of the Round. First you have to breed Chocobos. (For the uninitiated: think giant chickens.) The way this works is, you run around the planet looking for the beasts; when you find one, you chase it, capture it, feed it special food, and take it to the race track at the Gold Saucer (an amusement park.) If you win enough races, your Chocobo’s ranking improves, at which point you take it to a farm that specializes in Chocobo-raising and breeding.
Breeding Chocobos is a science and an art. The goal is to breed a blue Chocobo with a green Chocobo to create a black Chocobo, which can then be bred (after being raced and fed and raced again) with a so-called “amazing Chocobo,” to eventually produce the coveted Golden Chocobo. Describing the process like this, it sounds like it might take an hour. If memory serves, I skipped class for nearly a week to make it happen. Because only on the Golden Chocobo could you reach the most remote spot on the planet: a rugged island in the northern sea.
On that island, inside a cave, awaited Knights of the Round. Equipping this materia allowed you to summon
thirteen consecutive medieval knights
to slash your enemy to bits, one awesome 3D graphic at a time. In an era long before YouTube, the only way to even witness this amazing feat of magic was to breed a Golden Chocobo and obtain the materia yourself. Why did I invest so much time in this mind-numbing quest? The answer is simple: because I
Sephiroth. He had killed my Flower Girl, and I was going to do whatever it took to kick his heartless ass. Even if it meant getting up early. Even if it meant skipping a few meals. Raising those Chocobos wasn’t easy, but love never is. Such was the strange allure of
Final Fantasy 7
Eventually, I descended into the Northern Cave and unleashed my medieval knights on the evil man-in-black, and he was destroyed. Sephiroth died, vengeance was mine, and the game was over. But in the final moments of the final sequence, Aeris returned. Not in the flesh, but in the spirit, watching over my characters as if her life force had merged with the life stream of the planet itself. In this moment—witnessing the gorgeous ending to a perfect game—I finally cried. And as the credits rolled, I uttered the words that millions of other gamers uttered that year: “That was the best video game I’ve ever played.”