I have a lot of history with Aerith Gainsborough. It sounds strange to say that about a fictional character from a video game, but Aerith is incredibly important to me. I've been playing video games most of my life, mainly RPGs, but I can't think of any other character who has changed my relationship with RPGs, and with female characters in particular, more than Aerith.
When I think back to my first playthrough of Final Fantasy VII and remember those feelings I had, I'm reminded of some of the worst qualities about myself. As kids, we're extremely susceptible to the stereotypes society forces upon us. For girls, we're associated with the colour pink. We're made to feel like we are "suited" to certain jobs and roles because society recommends them to us. And we're told we're less suited to physical work. I hated these stereotypes, and I pushed away a lot of female characters as a kid. If they were what I interpreted as "girly" or they were physically weak, then I wanted nothing to do with them. I gravitated towards characters who were cool and sometimes cold — the ones who didn't let their emotions get in the way. They weren't "girly" or weak.
It wasn't until I picked up Final Fantasy VII again when I was 17 that I began to challenge my feelings.
Properly meeting Aerith for the first time in an abandoned church in the Sector 5 slums is a stark contrast to the first hour of the game. Simply put, her introduction is a breath of fresh air. Cloud, Tifa, and Barret are all fairly well established at this point — all three fight against Shinra and live in the grey and dirty slums. But the first time we see Aerith in the church, the screen fades in like the sunlight breaking through the church roof. The church itself is brightly lit, compared to the browns and greys of the slums and reactors we've seen before, and Aerith's clothes are much brighter and more colourful than anyone else's we've seen at this point.
Watching her run around and tend to the flowers while talking to Cloud, I found myself drawn to her. I felt the playfulness of her words as she teased Cloud, the energetic spring in her step as she moved around, and her enthusiasm for the flowers, and the church, as she spoke about them. I'd found all of this annoying as a kid, but this time, I saw her movements and attitude as something positive and life-affirming. I began to realise something about Aerith: her biggest strengths were her positivity and love of life.
It's these strengths, and her whimsical nature, that make Aerith so memorable, and she continues to stand out like this through most of the game. I can always picture the knowing smile on her face as she stands at the exit to Sector 5, stopping Cloud from heading back to Sector 7 without her as a guide. When they get to the park, Cloud wishes Aerith goodbye, but she doesn't react the way he expects. "Oh no!" she replies with amusement. "'Whatever will I do!?' ...isn't that what you want me to say?" Aerith is teasing Cloud, but she's also confronting him because he's trying to protect her. Despite her appearance, Aerith knows the slums, and she knows how to protect herself. She's playing with notions of gender stereotypes, but she's also challenging Cloud's perception. And he doesn't push either.
There are moments where Aerith shows vulnerability too. The scene at the park, where Cloud and Aerith discuss SOLDIER, is the first time I remember noticing this. With a first playthrough, and Crisis Core, in the back of my mind, Aerith refusing to mention her boyfriend's name was difficult to watch. She's trying to live in the moment and enjoy her life, but this is about the past. Things come to a head again in Gongaga, where Aerith runs out when Cloud comes across Zack's parents. She's not ready to accept what happened before. It's a natural reaction, one that hit me hard back then but still hurts even today.
The first time around, I also failed to realise that, while Aerith is on this journey with the party where she's the key to stopping Sephiroth and finding the Promised Land, she's thrust with so much responsibility. More than most other characters in the game. She's scared to find out more about herself, and the Cetra, but she must in order to save the planet, and not once does she complain or run away from it. Of course, she tries to stay positive and keep morale up, but she's also honest with her feelings.
Her fear at Cosmo Canyon of being the only Cetra, of being alone in the world, hurts. Cloud asks if this means he can't help, and she refuses to answer. This is Aerith trying to process her role in the world and what she has to do in order to save the Planet. Her refusal to tell Cloud more isn't her being stubborn or whining: it is her struggling to acknowledge the gravity of the situation herself. She does this again at the Gold Saucer hotel, but there's something else significant that struck me. Aerith is beginning to understand her role, and her power, as a Cetra. Back in Midgar, she had no idea what the Promised Land was, but here, she explains clearly and says she can feel it. But she still holds something back. Within minutes, she's back to her cheery old self, asking Cloud to take her on a date and pushing him out of his hotel room door.
I truly loved her as a character by this point. Those playful moments where she puts her hands on her hips, or when she says something to wind another character up, lift her and the party's mood when the game needs it most. She made me laugh more than most other characters, and I still smile and chuckle because of her even now. When I think of Aerith, I think of the time she gangs up on Don Corneo with Tifa, or when she whispers to Tifa as she tries to comfort Barret. She brings positivity to the group in the best possible way, while caring for everyone. But what makes her truly special is watching her switch between this playful Aerith and the more conflicted, struggling Aerith.
This is perhaps why her death hit me so much harder the second time around. In my first playthrough, I didn't spend time with her or pay attention to her words. But this time, I understood what she was going through. I saw her strength, her kindness, and how much she enjoyed living. I watched her selflessness as she risked her life to save a child she barely knew. I saw how much she loved travelling around the world. And yet, she had to give everything up. It was her destiny, and she recognised that, so she ran away, hoping she'd be able to summon Holy in time but not expecting to come away unharmed.
The second the White Materia hit the ground and her theme started playing, I choked up. I knew this was coming, but I was so angry and upset this time around. I'd grown so close to her, and I saw what made her such an incredible character. Cloud's own words to Sephiroth summed up my feelings, and my pain, in that moment:
"Aerith will no longer talk, no longer laugh, cry...or get angry..."
The emotional center of the party, and the heart and soul of the group, was gone. Aerith was a person who loved life. She loved feeling those emotions, and she wouldn't get to experience them anymore. That line has stuck with me ever since. The thought that someone valued another's emotional input into the group was a revelation to me. Her absence stung so much as I carried on through Final Fantasy VII. It was evident that the party was struggling without her. I longed for her to just come out and say what she felt or tease Cloud. I used to be angry that the party focused on her not being there, but I realised this time around that it wasn't about the party refusing to move on; it was about her just being alive to love and laugh.
When I finally beat Final Fantasy VII for the second time, I felt as though I'd experienced something entirely different than the game I played when I was a child. I realised two things: first, that I saw Aerith in a totally different light, and I admired her. Second, that this is a game anchored by two incredible women, Tifa and Aerith. Both are strong, kind, and independent, and both have been through difficult times. I've always loved Tifa, from her martial arts expertise, to her maturity, to moments where she cares for Cloud. Replaying the game and understanding Aerith more may have actually helped me like Tifa even more because I could better acknowledge Tifa's emotions. I was also able to see that even though Aerith is different from Tifa — in her mannerisms, abilities, and personality — she is just as strong and important.
Everything has come full circle now that Final Fantasy VII Remake is out. In the lead up to its release, I was worried the game would take those weaker interpretations of Aerith from Kingdom Hearts or the Compilation games, or that it would misinterpret her character and distill her down to stereotypes once again. But I had no reason to worry. The whole rooftop sequence in the Sector 5 slums perfectly captures what makes Aerith, Aerith, and why she's such a special character to me. She flits from asking Cloud questions, to playing around with him, to being demanding, to swearing. The swearing in particular is where it clicked for me. That was the moment I knew that Final Fantasy VII Remake understood what makes Aerith so special.
I've also noticed a decided shift in the discourse surrounding Aerith. Fans of the original who didn't like Aerith have completely changed their opinion of her. Discussions of her character are positive, and they focus on her enthusiasm, her willingness to get her hands dirty, and her relationship with Tifa. It's been really beautiful to watch unfold because I recognise myself and my own change of heart regarding Aerith in these opinions. But it's also frustrating because Aerith was always like this. She was always playful, knowledgeable, and powerful, but she also had faults. Remake really understands her spirit in the original, but it also does one better, giving her more agency and power throughout. If you've beaten Remake, you'll understand, but it's wonderful to see the new game do her character justice and more.
As a child, I let society and the world cloud my opinion of Aerith. To me, she wasn't Tifa. She was physically weak, and her playful attitude rubbed me the wrong way. I imprinted harmful gender stereotypes on Aerith because of other people's perceptions of what a "strong female character" should be like. But now, I think Aerith is one of the strongest female characters I've ever seen. Thrust with the burden of saving the planet, she travels the world with a smile on her face. She's got attitude, but her vulnerability shows that even she is scared of her own destiny. By re-experiencing Final Fantasy VII that second time, I also realised how unfairly I'd treated other female characters for similar reasons. Because I believed them to be weak. Because they were too nice. Because they weren't "strong." Seeing Aerith in a new light taught me to recognise the good in everyone, and to celebrate female characters for who they are.
So thank you, Aerith. You're more than just a flower girl to me.