June 8, 2008

Aeris University

My personal history with Final Fantasy VII is a powerful one. I saw the commercials when they originally aired on TV and thought the game looked amazing. And that's about it for my powerful personal history.

I've never played the game and really don't know much about it. But apparently that didn't stop me from saying something mean about the character Aeris and her fans on this very blog. I believe I used the word "contempt". Well, I hold myself in contempt in the court of human kindness.

I felt bad. Because this isn't just anyone. Aeris has to be one of the most famous and fondly-remembered female characters in video game history, and clearly she touched many players' hearts. Who am I to demean that? Look at this face:

Is any character better with that "come hither and write erotic fan fiction about me" look? If there is one, please don't tell me about it because I really can't be writing erotic fiction all day.

My point is I didn't treat Aerith-san with the proper respect. I just did it again with the erotic fiction remark. I want to apologise. My insult was made in ignorance and so that's how I decided to make amends: I would learn all about this mysterious Aeris, so I could hopefully understand and empathise with her and her fans. I went to school. . .

Aerith (or Aeris, or [][][][][]) Gainsborough is a 22-year old woman. Her height is 5'3", her birthday is February 7 and her blood type is O. I can't even imagine how this game would make her blood type necessary information, but there it is. Everything I read about Aeris seemed to gravitate very quickly to a) her personality and b) her looks. Please refer to the picture below for what I found out regarding her looks.

Important elements of Aeris' design, to summarise: nature, femininity and a whole lot of pink. "Aerith" is evidently the proper spelling (and not indicative of a lisping condition) because it's an anagram of the English word "earth." Well, almost. Five out of six letters isn't bad; give her a break. Her most prominent character traits are her empathy and compassion. She is "independent, outgoing and kind" and "displays a stark understanding of others." She stands for everything pure and good. When she meets FFVII protagonist Cloud, she crushes on him instantly but they don't seal the deal.

Here's where I think we're going with this. Correct me if I'm wrong. Everything I read online (except maybe the erotic fiction) affirms the notion of Aeris as this demure, immaculate, virginal princess who players can fall for because she doesn't intimidate them. If she's sexualised at all it's done so innocuously that the romance is able to stay safe and platonic. It sounds like I'm being insulting again but this is the game where Cloud's hairstyle was changed for fears that the original design's masculinity might have alienated players.

Let's get into some personal history. Aeris sold flowers at a church to support her adoptive mother -- see, look, what a goddamn princess. Wait. I'm sorry. I'll try that again.

Let's get into some personal history. Aeris sold flowers at a church to support her adoptive mother, which makes her a real hero in my book. This church is in the polluted, moribund city of Midgar (Joke: Where do pirates live? Midgarr!) and that, coupled with the flower-selling thing, makes the innocence metaphor plain enough.

At age 16 she goes out with a guy called Zack. Zack is a soldier in a paramilitary group called SOLDIER, who terrify Aeris. One day Zack crashes through her church, doesn't pay for the damage, freaks her out when he says he's a SOLDIER, and then just by giving her a lousy pink ribbon makes her his girlfriend. Nice going. Aeris got steamrolled by the Zack Attack.

I now present a scene from the courtship of Zack and Aeris: "Aerith says that his eyes are pretty. Zack then lets her have a closer look, and as they draw nearer, Aerith becomes aware of their close proximity and pushes him for teasing her. He then comments that his mako eyes are like the sky. Aerith smiles and says: "If that's the sky I'm looking at then I'm not scared"." What does that mean? And what is a mako eye? It works for them, though.

Or does it? Zack leaves one day, and that day becomes four years. In that time Aeris writes him 89 letters and never once takes the hint. Turns out for those four years Zack was being held in a basement dungeon and was eventually killed. Hey, Aeris and I actually have a lot in common.

Aeris later meets Cloud while running from "the Turks." As in, what, the Ottoman Empire? Just when I thought I was beginning to understand this shit. Cloud agrees to act as Aeris' bodyguard in exchange for a date. Oh, Aeris. You can do better than that. For a while she's in a love triangle with Cloud and a guy named Tifa, and then she dies.

"In the real world things are very different. You just need to look around you. Nobody wants to die that way. People die of disease and accident. Death comes suddenly and there is no notion of good or bad. It leaves, not a dramatic feeling but great emptiness. When you lose someone you loved very much you feel this big empty space and think, 'If I had known this was coming I would have done things differently.' These are the feelings I wanted to arouse in the players with Aerith's death relatively early in the game. Feelings of reality and not Hollywood." - Yoshinori Kitase

That's the rationale behind the death and it's admirable enough. But Final Fantasy's brief excursion into realism is self-evidently compromised when the fairy tale comes crashing back down around it. Aeris' death allows her to be together forever with Zack in heaven, which clears the way for Cloud and Tifa to hook up. Perfect! Feeling pretty Hollywood to me.

When someone's "gone", they're supposed to be gone and for a dead person Aeris is a fairly regular fixture in the rapidly expanding Final Fantasy VII universe. Prequels get players used to having Aeris around and in sequels she appears as Cloud's spirit guide. There's much less trauma involved when the dead are allowed to stick around as personal grief counselors. Not to mention the "death of innocence" theme is undermined a little by having Aeris team up with Disney characters. I think it's like if Princess Diana were brought back to life for a Celebrity Boxing tournament.

This is one of those subtle apologies.

However cheapened or melodramatic I think it might have been, Aeris' death -- Aeris, period -- really has affected a lot of people. Final Fantasy VII has a tremendous following and while some of those fans are psychotic, I choose to believe that they are the minority. I choose to believe that there are psychologically stable people for whom Aeris and her death mean something genuine and I respect that.

The whole game was blessed and cursed with being part of a super-specific zeitgeist: as much as the game is derided and overexposed and emotionally means nothing today, it was entirely the opposite in 1997. In 2008 it's an anachronism. It's a link to the past. Fans have sewn time capsules all across the internet, from poetry to Geocities fanpages to animated cursors. Nothing says "internet in 1997" quite like animated cursors of Sephiroth killing Aeris.

I've learned about as much as I'm comfortable with and of course I still don't care. Nothing would do it except being right back at the beginning with everybody else and that's never going to happen. But it did mean something once. And to some, it still does. It was a special moment that was shared by millions and which has now become a sincere cultural identifier for those that took it seriously. For missing that, from the bottom of my heart, I'm sorry.


Anonymous said...

This is the funniest thing I've read all week.

Duncan said...

Then my work here is done