Aeris’ death. It’s probably the most talked about scene in the history of video games. Still, I just played through it again recently, so it’s been on my mind.
While I was playing, my wife – also an avid gamer and Final Fantasy nerd, perhaps moreso than me – brought up an amusing yet true point. Due to the somewhat fiddly controls of this early 3D outing, I was hopping back and forth on the stepping stones that lead to Aeris, unable to make Cloud move in the right direction to get all the way to the top. As Aeris prayed upon the dais and Cloud hopped ineffectually around, my wife said, “It’s like he wants to postpone the inevitable. As long as he doesn’t get all the way up to the top, she’ll still be alive.”
It’s true. Cloud can stay on the steps forever, watching Aeris pray, and she’ll never die. In fact, it requires a deliberate action by the player (and wrestling with the poor implementation of 3D) to trigger the scene.
This is true of all games, of course. Mario doesn’t have to save the princess: he can bop around between Yoshi’s Island 1 and Yoshi’s Island 2 forever, kicking Koopas and collecting 1-Ups. That’s what makes it a game and not a movie. Yet most times, the events we trigger in games are ones we wanted to happen – such as saving the princess – or ones we didn’t know were coming. Being veteran Final Fantasy fans well aware of the precise moments that lead up to Aeris’ death, we had a rare glimpse into what it feels like when your agency is co-opted: when you know what you want to do and what you intend to do (save the girl), but you also know that the only direction in which you can advance the plot is towards her death. Do nothing – turn the game off, leave it in limbo – or cause her to die.
(Wouldn’t it be interesting if that were the trick? You wait, purposely not advancing, and as a result Sephiroth never attacks, Aeris finishes her prayer, and all is well. If I’d been inventing Aeris-lives rumours back in the days when those were a thing, I think that’s the one I would have chosen, because it says something neat about the mechanics of the whole thing. We experience games as relentless barrages of action, in which we are constantly doing something; but you can choose not to act. This too is a valid choice. It’s a mechanic that was used to excellent effect in Final Fantasy IV; I’d like to see it in more games.)
Actually, this scene does play with choice and inaction a little more deliberately, after you make it up to the dais. There’s a fascinating, and rather less talked about, part just before Aeris’ death, in which you’re controlling Cloud, who in turn is being controlled by Sephiroth. Any button you press makes Cloud struggle against the control, except the confirm button, which moves him to the next stage of his action: first walking towards Aeris, then unsheathing his sword, then raising it, then raising it higher. After a while of messing around with this, it becomes clear that you can’t break Cloud of Sephiroth’s influence completely: you can only struggle in vain, again postponing the inevitable, or you can press the confirm button repeatedly, bringing Cloud one step closer to doing exactly what you don’t want him to do. And yet you will press the confirm button, inevitably, even when it seems obvious that doing so will kill Aeris. Because it’s the only way to advance. You want to advance more than you want not to kill her, and so you are complicit.
At the last moment, though, Cloud is stopped, giving Sephiroth time to swoop in and commit the deed himself, and take the responsibility out of your (the player’s) hands. And it had to be that way, I think, because for all that the moments leading up to Aeris’ death play with agency, the true power of the scene lies elsewhere.
Simply put, I realised while analysing this scene that Aeris’ death is a true tragedy, in the classical sense, which is to say that it isn’t very tragic (in the modern sense) at all; it’s cathartic. It’s a heroic tragedy, a righteous tragedy, in which the game cleverly builds up a relationship between you and Aeris (with Cloud as a proxy, frequently, for the player), then has cruel fate snatch it away. “What about my pain?” Cloud cries as he holds Aeris’ limp body in his arms, because that’s what this is really all about. Aeris’ death isn’t about Aeris: it’s about Cloud’s pain, the players’ pain, a noble and motivating pain that gives you something to rage against. Wrong was done, you lost something you loved, and it wasn’t your fault.
The point of catharsis is to weep, to wail and gnash your teeth, but in a way that feels… almost good. You didn’t want Aeris to die, but it feels good hating that she died; better than it might have to love her, imperfectly, until the end.
That’s why Cloud, even under the control of Sephiroth, couldn’t do the deed. It brings the player too close to the blame; it makes them uncomfortable. For Aeris’ death to be the success it was, in a literary sense, it couldn’t make the players uncomfortable. It’s hard to feel outrage about something you were complicit in.
And that’s why, I think, so many players idealise Aeris in retrospect. It’s obvious throughout the game that’s she’s far from the one-dimensional angel people paint her as: she’s street-smart, worldly, mischievous, clearly knowing things about sex and death and suffering that a “perfect angel” never would. She’s a real person. But in her dying, she becomes the focus of a heroic tragedy, in which there are only three parts: unblemished hero, unblemished victim, and cruel villain.
Quite simply, she becomes an “angel” after her death because that’s what we do to people who have died. It feels better than imagining how their lives with you really would have played out, flawed, full of both good times and bad.
So that’s Aeris; or rather her death, which overshadows her so much that there isn’t really an Aeris at all, in popular conception, but only a mute angel in her place. And I think that’s why, when I first played the game (you all know the game I’m talking about, and I’ve never had to mention it, even once), I didn’t feel much when it happened. It seemed like a heroic fantasy meant for someone who wasn’t me, someone who romanticised things and absolved themselves of blame more than I did. It wasn’t complex or messy, and in its happening everything that was complex and messy about Aeris was wiped away.
I like complex, messy tragedies. I like imperfect tragedies, ones that make you think about how you, and everyone else, might be complicit.
To that end, here are five that have stuck with me: five very different tragedies from Aeris’, unsettling and incomplete.
1. Celes’ suicide attempt, Final Fantasy VI.
Square was definitely going through a “bleak ecological cautionary tale where everything is slums and suffering” phase with the sixth and seventh games in its flagship series. Not that that diminishes either of the games; in fact, it makes it interesting to see how they each treated the theme differently.
Celes’ suicide attempt is, perhaps, a proto-Aeris moment: Square testing how far they could push their boundaries before constructing what they clearly considered at the time to be, and a sizeable fanbase would argue still is, their magnum opus. The feel of this scene, however, is very different from Aeris’.
First and most obvious: Celes doesn’t die. She gathers up her shattered hopes and continues on, in a way more relatable to most and, as such, less cathartic. We don’t want to think about having to pick up our pieces; we want the blaze of glory and self-sacrifice, the loss mourned ’round the world, and our absolution from any involvement in that loss.
Which brings us to the second point: agency. The fish-catching mini-game is so hard you’d be forgiven for not knowing that you actually can save Cid, thus averting Celes’ fall into despair – but on some level you still feel responsible. Even if Cid had only ever been scripted to die, it’s clear that your actions are making some difference in his health; even if you could never be good enough to save him, that itself is a damning judgment. You, personally, are made to feel hopeless and incompetent, rather than righteously angry, in the face of vast ruin.
Third: it’s a solitary moment, a fact underscored by the name of the very island you’re stranded on. Underscored by… well, everything, since Celes’ belief that she may very well be the last person alive is what drives her to her actions. No one will mourn her if she does die, on that island, alone; and we will be unsure who to blame. It’s things like this that make it a distinctly less comfortable tragedy.
2. Yuna’s battle with the aeons, Final Fantasy X.
Did I mention that agency is a thing in determining the feel of tragedies? Because agency is a thing. And the game’s penultimate battle, the last fight before facing the ultimately ineffectual Yu Yevon, is designed to make you feel that agency every step of the way.
You, as Yuna, battle and kill your aeons, the summoned companions (also known as Espers, eidolons, and the like) that have accompanied you through your journey – in fact, have defined that journey, made it possible. Somewhere along the line Yuna finds out that her faith is not all that it seems, and, perhaps in order to hammer home that point like nails into a crucifix, the game now forces you to destroy the beasts who were once symbolic of that fate. (Because “they want to stop dreaming”. Not even being subtle with your We All Have To Grow Up And Move Beyond Childish Things theme there, Square.)
Oh, and you don’t just kill them. You select each one, individually, from a list before fighting and killing them. At the end of each battle, Yuna looks down, shaking her head in sorrow, before you’re returned to the list to pick your next victim.
Oh, and you also can’t die. This game, heavy on its themes of death and immortality, signifies Auto-Life status (i.e. you’ll be revived when you die) by a halo over the character’s head. In your battles with the summoned beasts, all your characters have haloes, and they never go away no matter how many times you fall. No, the game seems to be saying, you can’t just stand there and let Yuna take the beating out of grief. You must act.
My wife turned the game off at this point. Fuck you, Square and your obsession with The Magic Goes Away. Fuck you.
3. Earthbound. All of Earthbound.
Behind Earthbound‘s idealised pot-pourri of small-town American and Japanese sociocultural norms lies a hidden reality of… well, actual small-town American and Japanese sociocultural norms, brilliantly sent up and exposed for how messed-up they are by master storyteller Shigesato Itoi. Abusive cults, bad trips, police brutality, and absent fathers only accessible by telephone are never harped upon, but instead blend seamlessly into the world’s wacky, cartoonish charm, subtly discomfiting the player and preparing the way for the game’s final boss: a bloodied, writhing, psychologically damaged fetus-alien who still tops many people’s lists for Most Terrifying Video Game Moment.
Yes, you get your happy ending, and it would be wrong to say that Earthbound doesn’t feature themes of hope, wonder and togetherness alongside its horrific moments. But you’re still left with the unsettling feeling that evil continues to exist in the world, in much more mundane things than Giygas. Because ultimately, the world of Earthbound is Itoi’s view of our own world – our own homelands, if you’re part of either the Japanese or American audience. (The game wasn’t released in Europe until its 2013 release on the Virtual Console, possibly because Nintendo felt the cultural references wouldn’t affect Europeans the same way – or possibly just due to copyright concerns.)
The very things that make the game so disconcerting are not, by and large, its abstract horrors, but what it says about the world we ourselves live in. No matter how many alien menaces you banish, those things will still be there.
4. Cubone and Marowak, Gen1 Pokémon.
Of all the ultimately minor characters to suffer loss in video games, why did these ones stick with me? I think it’s because Pokémon, like Earthbound, illustrates a world that’s happy and cartoonishly bright on the surface, but with worrying undercurrents beneath. The implications may go largely ignored by players, but the feeling that something just isn’t right still lingers.
Take Lavender Town: the home of Cubone, and a place that’s reached practically mythological status in Pokémon fandom. The music alone is eerie enough to some people’s ears that a popular creepypasta, the Internet Age equivalent of an urban myth, claims it’s driven people to suicide. It didn’t help that right around the time Gen1 was becoming popular, an episode of the Pokémon anime famously caused seizures in Japanese schoolchildren, due to rapidly flashing lights.
It’s easy to say that things like that don’t have relevance to whether a game moment, in itself, is tragic or unsettling. After all, the seizure incident had nothing to do with Lavender Town, and wasn’t even part of the game at all. But fiction, like life, is not experienced in a vacuum, and regardless of how purist one tries to be about it, the fact remains that many people noted the real harm caused to people by a Pokémon property, noted the disturbing nature of Lavender Town, and felt that the whole of Lavender Town was that much more tragic and warped as a result. That may not be a canonically-supported reading of the Gen1 Pokémon games, but it’s a valid one.
So what else is wrong with Lavender Town? Well, try the fact that it’s a mass Pokémon graveyard, an idea that comes all the more out of left field for being in a game where real, serious consequences are rarely threatened. You’re a ten-year-old travelling the world on your own to become a Pokémon Master, for crying out loud. This isn’t a thing that should exist in a world with real death and real loss.
And then there’s Cubone. Hunted for the money made by selling its body parts (another disturbing touch of realism), Cubone was protected by its mother Marowak, who was killed by said poachers and now exists as a vengeful ghost haunting the town’s Pokémon Tower. You can battle her and soothe her spirit, but Cubone will still be branded the Lonely Pokémon, forever after wearing its dead mother’s skull in memory of her.
5. The game over suicides, The Lion King V: Timon and Pumbaa (pirate).
Pirate games have always been inherently creepy to me. It’s that same thing where an otherwise cheerful and child-friendly property gets into the hands (or has always been in the hands) of people who don’t have the child-friendliest of mindsets, and as such put things into the world that are jarring to a young mind. Fittingly, and bringing us almost full circle, this factor was also Itoi’s inspiration for Earthbound Giygas: he famously, as a child, walked into a movie in the middle of a lovemaking scene interspersed with violence, which deeply disturbed him. The “sense of terror having atrocity and eroticism side-by-side”, as Itoi put it, was his inspiration for Giygas’ nonsensical dialogue and general uncanny valley-ness.
In Earthbound, Itoi captures this feeling deliberately, placing bright, almost 8-bit visuals alongside shocking moments and mature themes. Dragon Co., the producers of this bootleg game, undoubtedly had no such genius on their team. Yet through a morbid sense of humour and a quick-buck-maker’s detachment from their audience, they managed to create a moment almost worthy of Itoi in The Lion King V‘s game over screens.
TLKV is, as the name suggests, a rip-off of The Lion King, its sequels, and the various licensed games spawned by the franchise. In it, you can play as Simba, Timon or Pumbaa, which is only relevant to this writeup in so much as they all have their own game over screens.
Now, game overs can in general be pretty horrifying for a little kid (think Donkey Kong Country), but these ones… go to eleven, in ways that would never have been approved by Disney. Namely, all three of our loveable, cuddly mascots commit suicide. Timon digs a hole and jumps in it, which could be taken as comedic, I guess; Pumbaa jumps into a pot suspended over a roaring flame, which… well, you don’t see anything gruesome, so I guess… and Simba hangs himself.
I’m not sure whether the greater tragedy here is in the visuals, or in the fact that someone, at some point, needed money badly enough to hack together a barely playable game, felt inspired (possibly by their living situation) to slap three depictions of suicide onto it, and release it into the wild with the express purpose of making small children buy it by mistake. Either way, it’s troubling. It’s ugly. And it haunts me in a way that Aeris’ death, beautifully choreographed, masterfully scored and so carefully designed to hit all the right spots, never will.