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Why This ‘Final Fantasy’ Twist From 27 Years Ago Can Still Move Grown Gamers to Tears

If you were looking for a mascot for the special place Final Fantasy VII holds in the hearts of a generation of gamers, you could hardly do better than Robert Pattinson. In a 2022 interview on the French talk show Clique, Pattinson and the interviewer veered away from The Batman and turned, for reasons that are still impossible to parse, to the big love triangle in the 1997 PlayStation role-playing game.

“I was in love with Aerith. And Tifa. It’s the two options of girls,” said Pattinson, who had previously revealed that Final Fantasy VII had sparked one of the only times he’d cried in his entire life. (More on that later.) He describes Aerith as “a really kind girl who has superpowers” and Tifa as “this sexy little thing” in a short skirt. “This is how every guy who plays figures out what love is,” he concludes.

There’s a lot of novelty in watching a Hollywood heartthrob get so earnest about a video game character that looked like this, which is probably part of why the clip went viral. But it’s not like Pattinson is the only gamer who gave his heart to Final Fantasy VII back in middle school. The game—which puts the player in control of a group of heroes fighting an evil, climate-destroying corporation and a terrifyingly powerful super-soldier with mommy issues and a plan to become a god—has become a reliable touchstone for the PlayStation generation. Maybe you had a crush on Aerith or Tifa. Maybe you were a goth kid who gravitated to Sephiroth the psychopath or Vincent the vampire. Maybe you got swept up in the story’s themes of grief and environmentalism, or maybe you just liked optimizing battle strategies or breeding chocobos.

But you can find those things, or versions of those things, in pretty much every Final Fantasy, which makes the unique love for the seventh game in this series an anomaly among its fellow long-running franchises. No one says Diamonds Are Forever is the best James Bond movie, or thinks Policy Academy improved when the gang took a mission to Moscow. What is it about Final Fantasy VII?

To date, 16 Final Fantasy games have been released—not including the franchise’s sequels, prequels, and spinoffs, which raises the number to dozens. But while the latest mainline entry, Final Fantasy XVI, dropped less than a year ago, it’s Final Fantasy VII that’s once again having a moment. And that’s not exactly unusual: By sales, impact, and cultural footprint, it seems unlikely that Final Fantasy VII will ever be equaled. It’s the one with the video game spinoffs (both good and bad, bad, bad). It’s the one with the movie sequel that just got a limited theatrical re-release. And it’s the one that’s currently the subject of an elaborate, extremely expensive three-part remake stretched across multiple generations of video game consoles—whose second installment, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, dropped to rave reviews just a couple of weeks ago.

None of that would have happened if the original game hadn’t made such an explosive first impression on its release some 27 years ago. An oral history of Final Fantasy VII by Polygon’s Matt Leone describes the game as “a perfect storm, when Square still acted like a small company but had the resources of a big one.” Though the global appetite for RPGs had clearly been growing, the company’s entry into the western market had, until then, been characterized by a lot of bet-hedging. When Final Fantasy VII arrived in the United States, only three of the game’s previous entries had preceded it: First the Nintendo original, then the Super Nintendo’s Final Fantasy IV (rechristened Final Fantasy II) and Final Fantasy VI (rechristened Final Fantasy III).

The decision to release Final Fantasy VII under its correct title across the globe was a statement of confidence. So were the TV commercials that played on a loop on MTV around the game’s release. Designed to show off the power of the PlayStation, the commercials were incredibly misleading, compiled entirely from the game’s pre-rendered cutscenes and containing no footage of the actual, blocky graphics. Luckily, Final Fantasy VII was good enough that no one who bought it really cared.

Chris Melissinos has been a Final Fantasy VII fan from the very beginning. He has the T-shirt to prove it—a preorder bonus for those who purchased the game in its first month of release from the “Funtronics Dept.” at Sears. (If you want one of your own, it’ll run you a mere $1,000.00 on eBay today.)

In 2012, Melissinos curated The Art of Video Games, the Smithsonian’s first-ever exhibition devoted to gaming. The video games in the exhibition were selected, in part, by a popular vote open to any gamers, and there were plenty of Final Fantasy games in the mix: the 1985 Nintendo original; the PlayStation 2’s groundbreaking 2001 game Final Fantasy X, which was also the first Final Fantasy to get a direct sequel; and the franchise’s most recent single-player entry, Final Fantasy XIII. Final Fantasy VII was the one that made the cut. “Final Fantasy VII was going to win. You knew, when that was in there,” says Melissinos.

Melissinos points to a number of reasons why Final Fantasy VII made such a splash. Its debut on the PlayStation, which used CD-ROMs that allowed for bigger games with splashier graphics, made it especially appealing to a generation that had grown up playing games and were ready for something that felt like a step forward. It borrowed techniques from Hollywood—particularly in the cutscenes showcased in those ubiquitous commercials—to sell the idea that a truly cinematic game experience was finally possible. And the game was relentlessly hyped by then-influential print magazines like GamePro and Electronic Gaming Monthly, ensuring it would reach the medium’s biggest champions and early adopters. Everything, he says, was engineered to convey the same message: That Final Fantasy VII was “a more adult experience” in a medium newly equipped to tell complex, mature stories. From a historical perspective, he says, “it’s definitely one of the most important games of the era.”

I reached out to Melissinos to get the perspective of a seasoned industry expert. But it wasn’t long before we started geeking out about our favorite moments in the game. He was hooked, he says, from the opening scene, which offers a sweeping view of an industrial city before giving the player control of the game’s hero, the spiky-haired, big-sworded mercenary Cloud, as he somersaults off a train.

I remember feeling the same sense of awe he describes. There’s a reason a non-playable version of that same scene, created merely as a technical demo to show off the PlayStation 3 twelve years ago, stirred up so much demand among fans that Square finally relented and greenlit the Final Fantasy VII remake project a few years later. The groundbreaking technology may have facilitated the game’s storytelling, but it’s the story, and the characters that populate it, that really solidified Final Fantasy VII’s place in games history.

Take Rahul Kohli, star of Hulu’s Death and Other Details and loud-and-proud Tifa stan. Though Kohli’s first game in the franchise was Final Fantasy VIII, and he tells me his “real love affair” was with Final Fantasy X, he was aware of Final Fantasy VII’s vaunted reputation and knew he’d play it at some point. “It's like being a Star Wars fan and never seeing Empire Strikes Back, you know what I mean?” he says.

By the time he actually picked up the controller, Final Fantasy VII felt dated. “I think with games like that, there is a degree of ‘you had to be there,’” he says. “It aged pretty badly and I just don't want to look at it.” As a result, he says, “the remake was like a gift from the heavens for me,” he says. There was just one problem: Final Fantasy VII Remake ended before the original game’s most iconic moment. “You know. The big thing,” he says.

I do know. Everybody who knows anything about Final Fantasy VII knows. There’s a part of this game’s mythology I’ve been dancing around—in part because I’d like to avoid spoilers (even though the statute of limitations expired some 20-odd years ago), and in part because I’ve always been a little baffled by the outpouring of emotion surrounding it. But here we go: This is your last chance to avoid what might be the most-spoiled moment in video game history.

Yes, Aerith—the “really kind girl” in Pattinson’s really kind girl vs. sexy thing in a miniskirt dichotomy—dies. At the end of the first disc in the three-disc game, Aerith has briefly left the group to embark on a solo mission. When you finally encounter her again she’s kneeling and praying.

And then this happens:

Cards on the table: I, like Rahul Kohli, am a Tifa guy. My own emotional reaction to this scene is the emotional equivalent of the cadence with which John Travolta says, “Oh man—I shot Marvin in the face.” But I’m an outlier. In a 2019 episode of This American Life, video game journalist Mike Fahey chokes up just rewatching a clip of the scene. Robert Pattinson happily admits he cried too. When I reached out to Mega Ran—a rapper who built an entire album around Final Fantasy VII—he singled out Aerith’s death as the moment that stuck with him most. “My jaw dropped. I dropped my controller. No moment hit me like that since,” he says. “I ran to school yelling at my friends for not telling me it was happening. We searched every video game code book for some way to reverse it, avoid it or to reenact it so that it didn’t happen. We really thought that it wasn’t permanent—and then it was.”

This wasn’t even the first time Final Fantasy had played this trick. Party member Galuf dies heroically in Final Fantasy V, and feverish, inaccurate rumors circulated about reviving Final Fantasy VI’s General Leo, which foreshadowed many gamers’ desperate, fruitless quest to find a secret method to revive Aerith in Final Fantasy VII. (There was a whole thing about a glitch—maybe you had to be there.)

But Aerith’s death instantly cemented itself as a go-to example for what video game storytelling could really do—a rebuttal, in the eyes of many who played it, to critics like Roger Ebert, who once scoffed that games couldn’t be art.

Even for an Aerith skeptic like me, there are ways this original death scene still hits today. Revisiting the original game, what strikes me as truly daring about Aerith’s death is its cruelty on a mechanical level. In modern gaming, “permadeath” is a particularly unfriendly and punishing mechanic prized by a subset of hardcore gamers. In a game with permadeath, a single loss is a punishing and irreversible setback: Where most games allow you to restart after a game over and give it another try, permadeath takes a character off the board for good.

Aerith’s murder is a version of permadeath—but one that is mandated by the story, and not by the failing of any individual player. You can’t do anything to avoid it, and her loss is keenly felt by those who invested time and attention in developing her character over the game’s many battles. Aerith’s ultimate ability is a spell that fully heals the party and temporarily makes them invincible—a tactic that could have been essential to a player’s overall strategy in some of the game’s toughest battles. When she dies, it’s locked away forever. If she had valuable armor equipped, too bad! It sank to the bottom of that pool with her. Aerith is dead.

Except, what the Final Fantasy VII Remake project presupposes is… maybe she isn’t? The great twist of 2020’s Final Fantasy Remake was that it wasn’t a remake at all. Throughout that game, Cloud and company are occasionally swarmed by “Whispers”— nazgûl-like ghosts that pop in to hassle you while you’re running around the game’s dystopian cityscape.

Though the appearances and disappearances of the Whispers initially seems random, it eventually becomes clear that their purpose is to steer the story back onto the track whenever Remake threatens to break the continuity of the original game. They are basically the in-game avatars of a very vocal subset of weird nerds on the internet who insist that they—and they alone—should be the final word on where this story can go.

The game is ultimately about breaking that story; after a series of events too convoluted to explain here, Remake ends by implying that Final Fantasy VII’s characters have broken out of the original story’s template to forge a new trail in an uncertain future. For the first time in decades, it feels like Final Fantasy VII’s story could actually go anywhere.

Naoki Hamaguchi grew up playing Final Fantasy and loved it so much that he eventually decided to pursue a career in video games. “As the series progressed from V, VI, and VII, I felt the expressions within the games evolving, and I remember really sensing the promising future of the game industry,” he tells me. “I think it was around this time that I started to look up to game creators.”

That worked out pretty well for Hamaguchi—after joining Square Enix and working on 2006’s Final Fantasy XII, he worked his way up the company’s ranks and ended up codirecting Final Fantasy VII Remake with series veteran Tetsuya Nomura. As the sole director on Rebirth, he was tasked with remaking the second act of Final Fantasy VII’s original story, modernizing it while painstakingly aiming to retain what he, and other fans, loved the first time around. “In Japan, there is a word called ‘kishōtenketsu,’ which is a four-act structure common in Japanese storytelling,” he says. “I try to structure both humor and seriousness as a kind of inflection throughout the game.” In practice, that means Rebirth squeezes in playful detours—a ride on a dolphin here, a date on a Ferris wheel there—in what turns out to be a pretty sprawling game.

But the team behind Rebirth never hid where this chapter of the story would climax: That iconic death scene—which, in this new continuity, could either double down on the tragedy of Aerith’s unavoidable death or set the stage for a radically different third act when the third and final chapter of the Final Fantasy VII Remake project finally arrives.

Hamaguchi, too, was troubled by Aerith’s death as a teenager. “The theme of the game dealt with ‘life and death,’ and it expressed a deep worldview that was quite rare in video games at the time,” he says. “I found myself very much fascinated by the heart-wrenching storyline. As a child, I always wondered if there was a way to change this destiny.”

It must have been daunting, after so much time, to have the power to actually make that call. I’m not going to spoil what happens with Aerith in Rebirth; unlike the original game, that statute of limitations won’t expire anytime soon. But Rebirth’s willingness to revisit that question is radical enough. It’s a good test case for what gaming’s postmodernist era might look like: a video game that’s ultimately about the tension between honoring and challenging its own history.

Originally Appeared on GQ