Back before 1997, I was a completely different gamer. My gamers’ diet typically consisted of a heavy dose of sports games such as Madden and NBA Live, Sonic and other platformers, action-adventure games like Zombies Ate My Neighbors, and Street Fighter II, which I only occasionally pretended to care about . The only RPGs I’d ever really dabbled in were from the Dragon Quest series — at that point still called Dragon Warrior.
Like it did for many other gamers, that changed with the arrival of the Squaresoft title Final Fantasy VII. FFVII’s impact as a genre- and industry-changer has been written countless times. The epic has been rightfully credited for opening the floodgates for Japanese RPGs, if not the RPG genre as a whole, in North America. It’s been given exaggerated credit for saving the original PlayStation. And of course, there’s the eternal debate of whether or not VII is the best Final Fantasy game ever.
Of course at that point, as a teenager, I had no comprehension of all the things to come. I just knew upon hearing those opening strings and bells and seeing the image of Aerith Gainsborough smiling before that sudden pullout to display the vastness of Midgar that I was embarking on something special.
FFVII was the cinematic RPG before Square decided to shove that marketing line down our throats with Parasite Eve. And the way the FMV sequences complimented the story made me care for video game plot like I never had before. Before VII, I just wanted to jump in and play. Sports games by their very nature create their own story. Saving Princess Peach or stopping Dr. Robotnik was enough of a set-up to just run through Mario and Sonic games. Kicking someone else’s butt was enough motivation to beat someone down with Streets of Rage, Mortal Kombat, and Final Fight.
Most video games before that time had serviceable stories at best, so I probably had low expectations for any game at the time. But there was something about figuring out the mystery of Cloud and the triangle between he, Aerith, and Tifa in the midst of the fight between the evil Shinra mega-corporation and noble-principled — not so much in practice — AVALANCHE organization. Even the goofy and quirky cross-dressing episode became a conversation piece with people I knew who didn’t care about games. There was a deep political and environmental conflict, and commentary I never expected from a game. I was hooked and blown away by every set piece and twist.
And this was before the massive visual reveal of the overworld, expansion of the story with Sephiroth, and the one shocking scene that might rank as the biggest “Oh my God!” moment of the game.
The death of Aerith is the game’s defining moment for many reasons. Musically, Final Fantasy VII is my second favorite soundtrack, next to the original Broadway cast recording of Rent. The use of leitmotifs throughout the entire game just added another layer of depth to the storytelling and tone that made the game iconic. “Aerith’s Theme,” to me, is the strongest of the bunch for evoking emotion. But the way it was used in the death scene, nearly synced with the fall of the white materia, was a powerful decision not just in music, but overall game direction. Much like the story, FFVII made me care about music in video games in a way I never imagined before.
Then there was the connection to the characters. I’ve played hundreds of games. I’ve seen a wealth of death scenes. Precious few have rocked me the way Aerith’s death affected me the first time I saw it. Sure, the unexpected nature of the scene played its part; on its own it might be as cheap as some of the pop-out scares in the Resident Evil franchise. But I was invested in Aerith. Where most characters in most games are complete throw-aways, Aerith was not just a love interest for my protagonist, she was a beacon of hope and light in the party that didn’t feel as forced as Tifa’s character. There were expectations and hopes tied to Aerith that were lost in that moment. That’s a success some games even now fail to achieve. The only death scene in a game that’s affected me as much as Aerith’s came in Call of Duty 4, and that was mostly a by-product of the perspective from which the game forced me to experience it.
But it wasn’t just Aerith. I cared about all of my party. Vincent Valentine aside, I felt every character that came into the AVALANCHE fold had their own moment in the spotlight and were complete characters by the end of the game. They had their investments in their world and legitimate reasons to put their lives on the line. As such, I had a reason to care about and be invested in them. Even Sephiroth was developed to the point of being hateable, but still something of a sympathetic character.
People now argue the merits of the convoluted storyline in retrospect, but we often forget that at the time, we didn’t have the luxury of many deep storylines to argue over. This is the moment when my video games stopped being toys and matured into a form of entertainment I could analyze and find meaning in. Now, I could look at them just like I did novels and movies. As such, Final Fantasy VII is the reason I started demanding more for my money from video games.