Probably most people’s first memorable sad moment in a game, Aerith’s Death in Final Fantasy 7 sets the tone for the rest of the game as a means of explaining her death, giving it meaning, and having a renewed pursuit in stopping Sephiroth. Aerith’s death aligns everyone’s motivations, opens up character building arcs and allows for a resolution other than “Save the World” when it comes to the end of the game. We have a vested interest in vengeance.
Originally, Sephiroth took control of Cloud to try and kill Aerith at the creation of the Black Materia with the ability to summon Meteor but was knocked out before being able to kill Aerith. When Cloud reawakes, Aerith has already run off to the Forgotten Capital in an attempt to summon Holy from her White Materia that she’s had tied to her ribbon. When Cloud and company reach Aerith, Sephiroth has his way with Aerith using the pointy end of his death stick and everything falls apart from there.
But let’s change some of these bits around.
Aerith’s death might be pivotal to the characters in Final Fantasy 7, but they also change the psychological states of many of them. And given the opportunity to change events, do you think the story would pan out the same way?
I know that having Aerith die has other implications to the story. Her using Holy to defend against Meteor, her being the highest magic stats having it make sense that she would be the Materia horder, her being the love-interest for Cloud and Zach, her heritage of being half-citra, a race connected to the lifestream of the planet, so she was able to hear the cries of the planet. The most innocent of person in your group, the most pure had to be slain by the impure. I get all of those implications to the balance that the story tries to bring, but that doesn’t mean Aerith running off on her own to her demise was the only character focusing experience that could have happened in the story.
From what I’ve been playing around with, there are two ways of changing the story that would keep the general story in-tact but change the motivations of Cloud and the others. Both are ways where we need to choose who would have been the one to die at Sephiroth’s hand.
What if on your travels to the North in pursuit of Sephiroth, you had to make a choice. Cloud, Tifa, Barret, et al are around the fireplace and you needed to split up. Someone from your party is picked to take Aerith’s materia to the alter while the rest of you try and track Sephiroth. The rest of the scenes leading up to the murder are still in-tact but the party-member that you chose to go to the alter is the one sacrificed to the Sephiroth.
Aside from possibly swapping Aerith out for a different party member, there are other effects that this would have to the story, don’t you think? The first was that Aerith took the choice out from your hands because she originally ran off on her own to summon Holy, making any fault in her death taken from away you as much as possible. But if we had to choose who would go to the alter, the fault is now placed squarely on the player’s shoulders. Whether Cloud is a part of the decision and picks who would go, or while Cloud is knocked out someone from the group volunteers to go with Holy to the alter (at the player’s behest), the fault still lies on the player for their death. You might send your favorite character because you think that they’ll get the job done, or the one that you just never touch so you’d rather be rid of them for a few scenes (Cait Sith), but because you, the player, was responsible for their death, then it doesn’t just give the characters of the game aligning motivations but also the player aligning motivations. You don’t want their death to be meaningless, a death that you could’ve prevented, that you might’ve chosen someone otherwise to have died in their place.
Aerith’s death was devastating, but how do you think you would’ve felt if you caused someone from your group, someone that you might’ve favored over others to die. How would Aerith feel knowing that someone died in her place and how would that shift her personality for the rest of the story? Her innocence shattered, blackness clouding her once white aura and materia.
And if Cloud was the one that “decided” who would go, then it completely changes his psychological and social state throughout the game. He becomes at fault in the eyes of the group for the death of a friend so his choices are constantly brought into question, either by the group or by his own self-doubt. He becomes less of a reliable leader to the group and less psychologically balanced because he has to deal with the notion that his choices affect his friends more than he could’ve wanted.
Not something new
Having an unknown choice in the outcome of the game isn’t something new to Final Fantasy games and other RPGs since Aerith’s death, while being the more famous and memorable ones isn’t the first. Final Fantasy 6 had tragic deaths that are even preventable by the player but letting them happen changes the dynamics of the second half of the game.
The one to talk about is Shadow’s death, who chooses to stay behind on Floating Continent to save the group by slowing down Kefka. You can choose to leave Shadow behind and escape the Floating Continent or wait for Shadow just before exiting in hopes of him returning.
Sadly on my first runthrough of the game, I thought that Shadow was meant to play the hero and sacrifice himself so I didn’t know that saving him was an option. Once I found out that saving him was possible and that he died because of my impatience, it completely tainted my whole experience with the game and I had to remedy it by playing through it again.
Shadow’s death was my fault and it changed how I perceived the game from then on. It was no longer just a story about good and evil leading to happy endings because the endings are only as happy as the effort that I put into it. If I want happy endings to happen, then I need to make sure that no-one is left behind and that deaths are always your fault and can be stopped.
And it’s strange that this kind of mechanic wasn’t in any of the later Final Fantasy games. Sure, there were deaths in other Final Fantasy’s, but they were so inconsequential because they were either at the end of the game where the story couldn’t be affected too much by their death and (like Aerith) the death is completely removed from the player’s hands, making it part of the story but with the player not at fault. It’s strange to have this sort of mechanic anymore, but maybe it’s because they didn’t want a few rash choices to completely change how we experience the game, but I liked that aspect of Final Fantasy 6. Based on our actions, we have a completely different experience of the game from other people. As we play through the game, we built up personalities and attachments to the characters and having made a bad choice means that those attachments get severed. Our story, with its preconceptions and emotional investments, becomes a unique story. Something that’s hard to replicate in another person, or even another playthrough.
That’s something that I think is worth changing.