The twist that changed video game history

Just as important, however, is the scene’s visual language. The graphics alternate between the realistic style of the game’s cut scenes and its more rudimentary default. These boxy characters seem dated now – hence the remake. Yet they are also precisely why the death of Aerith is so affecting. There is a disarming idiosyncrasy to their impressionistic bodies. They do not speak out loud, their faces do not emote, but somehow that doesn’t matter. Their simple, evocative gestures are expressive enough; your imagination, along with Nobuo Uematsu’s gentle, mournful score, fills in the rest. Barret looks at Aerith slumped on the ground, and wordlessly shakes his head. Tifa, kneeling, strokes her hair. Cloud, silent, picks up her lifeless little body and carries her to rest. Much as Final Fantasy VII’s twee aesthetic belies the maturity of its themes, so too is there poignancy in the space between innocence and death.  

The impact left 

Yet for Kitase and his team, it was not enough that players experienced the shock of Aerith dying – they also had to be made to feel what comes next. “When people die in stories, it is often some kind of noble sacrifice that comes at the end,” he says. “But that is not a realistic experience of death: the idea that you have lost something and it’s gone now, you can only look back and regret. You have to live with that. And this is something that games are well placed to deal with.”

Emotionally, the death of Aerith splits the world of Final Fantasy VII into before and after. This applies to the plot, too, of course. The fight against Sephiroth intensifies. The characters reflect and grieve. “She always used to talk about the next time,” says Tifa at one point. “She talked about the future more than any of us.” But her loss can also be felt in subtler, more practical ways. It is in the space where her picture used to be in the character select screen. It is in the attacks and weapons particular to her that can no longer be attained or used. It is in all the hours spent levelling her up, which have now passed into nothingness. Grief, like hunger, is absence with presence – and Final Fantasy VII uses the mechanics of the medium to never let you forget it.

“When you lose someone in the real world, you generally don’t realise until after the event what’s actually happened and what you’ve lost,” says Kitase. “You think, ‘If I’d have known, I would have talked to them more when they were alive’. It is the same with Aerith. You think, ‘If I’d have known she died, I could have done this with the character. I wanted to have done that before but now I can’t.’ It was important to get the player into that mental state.”

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