Part five in our ongoing retrospective letter series. An index of all letters can be found here.
From: Leigh Alexander
To: Kirk Hamilton
Subject: AERIS DIES
So you mentioned to me the other day that you saw Aeris die. Oops, was that a spoiler? Ha, only the biggest joke of a spoiler ever in fanboy/girl-ism, right? You said you were surprised it happened so soon—like I said in our side-chats, it’s only the first third of the game you’ve just completed, maybe even less if you do all the sidequests and raise a Gold Chocobo (I’m expecting that you do so, by the way). But did you see it coming, the sudden black-and-silver fluttering descent of Sephiroth and his wicked, body-length Masamune sword? Dying (ha ha) to know what that moment was like for you. Did knowing about it ahead of time diminish the impact of that sonorous orb pinging gently down the “steps”, the piquant introduction of Aeris’ iconic theme just as the shock began to set in? Of Cloud setting her body softly on the water, watching it slip peacefully beneath? Did you notice the odd bloodlessness?
God, that was a manipulative scene, and has it ever become clichéd since then. And yet I cannot hear this, nor picture it, without all my hair standing up. I haven’t got words for the feeling in my gut, nor my heart. There are many times I’ve dismissed my feelings about the game as immutably nostalgic, irrelevantly personal relics. Half the reason I wanted to start this series with you is so that you could help me answer the question: Does this really mean something, or was it just that I was a child? I mean, watch it again. Look at how he smiles so cold; look at how her eyes loll open, like a real corpse.
This is the answer to your question of what I remember. How the people were real. One thing that struck me on the recent playthrough is how little we were given to characterize these sprites—and yet they were so important to me anyway. I knew who they were: Tseng, Vincent, the Turks, Rufus, Scarlett, Heidegger, Reeve.
They were real, fascinating, gorgeous adults to me. I think as regarded my own experience til then with RPGs, “adult” characters were presented as dolls. But these guys existed in a dark “steampunk” world; they wore suits and were part of the government. The willingness to portray them like that -- not stereotypical “kindly old wizard” or “evil queen”, but people who each played a role in a larger, colder human machine (The ShinRa Electric Power Company! How cool is that?!) and were in turn victimized by it—I think that was what led me to admire them and attach to them, even though in hindsight they gave us precious little to work with in terms of characterizing people like Elena or Rude.
Actually, we’ve been talking about how the world’s immersive because it’s non-literal, but I think the same is true for the characters, too. They were halting constructs, but in context there were just enough small clues to make me daydream about them during high school science class and draw pictures of them in my notebook. As we’ve said already, there are reams of fanfiction—that’s because they gave us spaces compelling enough to want to expend energy filling them in, owning them. The dialog in the game itself is not much better than child-like, but there’s something about knowing Tseng knew Aeris for a long time and loved her that makes him more dimensional than “evil CIA dude.”
Yeah, so Vincent. Not only is he incredibly haunting -- he has the most elegant theme music, I think -- but he’s so tragic. We’re shown these scenes from his memory about whom he loved and what happened as a result, and while it’s nothing really more drastic than an episode of Fringe, we were given a point of empathy more elaborate than the “he killed my brother!” type RPG narratives we’ve had in the past. Tall, dark, silent and tragic, and though he was victimized, he ruminates only on his loss and the sin of failing to prevent it. Sigh. Do I really need to go on?
So from there originates the community you mentioned: People were inspired to imagine and explore these characters. They were close enough to real, or there were enough touchstones to believability that it made people want to draw, write about -- or as them -- and even dress up like them. And nobody does that kind of stuff in a vacuum; they want to show others.
Lucky for FFVII, young people were flocking to the internet and normalizing interaction online to a wide degree right about the same time it launched. You didn’t have to be that one lonely gamer in school who had only a handful of fellow dorks who even knew what FFVII was; you could go online and talk to millions of them and visit their fansites and browse their art. I think for a lot-a lot of people in our generation, FFVII was really one of the first console games that drove that kind of internet community in such a huge way. To this day I’m Facebook friends with many of the people I met online as a teenager around FFVII, and while these days I see more of their wedding photos than I do of their fanart, we still feel connected over those Good Old Days. Once in a blue moon someone will round us all up on AIM and we’ll go in a chat room and make fun of each other and argue about FFVII just like we did almost fifteen years ago. I’m sure it’s hilarious to them that this is my job now, that I’m still talking about it.
Alongside that, the tedium of, say, grinding in the Gold Saucer’s Battle Arena for weeks to get the W-Summon materia and Cloud’s Omnislash Limit (don’t miss those) never felt tedious for me back then. It just let me stay in the world a little longer with those characters I love, and the stuff that felt like long, hard work was worth it to me then—it was like an intrinsic, social Achievement system. You didn’t show your face around those message boards if you couldn’t even get the Omnislash limit, gawd.
You’re right; I’m a hardcore FFVII player by now, and fortunately this time around the things that used to take me forever can be accomplished in only a couple days’ focused play sessions. That’s one thing that’s standing out to me on this playthrough; how I’ve mastered the systems. I had an easy time of that Gi Nattak. You probably need to grind a little more or buy some HP Plus materia if you can find them yet. Fortunately you can multitask; level-grinding seems to happen naturally when you’re being terribly thorough about capturing the right types of chocobo, learning Enemy Skills or exploring everything in the snowfield. You got the Alexander summon while you were there, right? I’m really worried about you missing stuff. It’s okay. I’ll help you out.
Another thing that stands out to me is that this is the first time in years it’s felt like it’s “okay” for me to love FFVII. There was a big backlash—maybe why you stayed away from it? I remember as I grew out of my teens the internet communities I’d haunted began to be disenfranchised with it. The game became the whipping post for overly-long cutscenes and just about every other dated yet persistent Japanese design convention for which it had served as the mainstream accelerant. Everyone started making fun of “emo” Cloud—“AERIS DIES”, pretty much the biggest meme associated with the game, is mocking the sentimentality people once felt about her death. FFVII became hugely uncool, and then discredited, and then just a cliché.
Yet as we’ve been writing this we’ve both seen an outpouring from people on Twitter or via email saying how reading our letters has inspired them to revisit the game. It’s like thinking back on high school; while you’re in it it feels like the most intense, important time in your life and nothing will ever be that emotional again. When you go to college you feel embarrassed and you’re glad to have left that confused little person behind, excising them in favor of a newer, smarter you. And then as you reach adulthood you sort of come to peace with that part of your past, treasure your most vivid memories of formative events, and can even come to appreciate everything you learned then and how resilient you actually were.
You might have even learned that the independent adulthood to which you looked forward with such impatience is actually not necessarily better than hanging around the strip mall with your friends, playing video games after school in the peaceful quietude of a house where you’re the first one home and the fridge is always full of snacks, or having nothing to do but draw pictures of Sephiroth in your room with Nirvana turned all the way up. Um, like, not that I did any of that.
We’ve already begun to touch on what we think might’ve been “left behind” in FFVII’s era; this playthrough is making me think about what’s missing from games today that they can’t inspire (as of this writing) 34,806 stories (!!) on Fanfiction.net (FF VIII, by comparison, has 12,126 stories, and FFXIII has just 1,486. And as much as some purists will say that Final Fantasy was better before VII, numbers I through VI have collectively inspired only 2,481 stories in total through all of the years.
Which characters would you want to write fanfiction about? Are you going to miss Aeris? Hey, at least they didn’t bury her materia with her, eh?
PS: Sending old fanart I made circa 2000ish