Spoilers for a 19-year-old hugely popular video game follow….
There’s an argument to be made for Homer Simpson as the single greatest character in any and all literature.
Consider this; Homer is a poor husband, an irresponsible father, a questionable friend and a dreadful employee. Yet he is able to elicit pure empathy with just a simple expression. That takes some doing. He can be highly insensitive and downright destructive and somehow, through it all, you never want to see him hurt. When Homer Simpson falls on hard times, it’s genuinely quite devastating. Take perhaps the greatest, most affecting example of his childlike innocence:
It’s the cut that does it – dusk turning to night as Homer, abandoned by his mother once again, sits alone atop his car gazing at the stars above. That singular image is both an astonishing punch to the chest and an expert illustration of audience manipulation, thanks to the decision to eschew the traditional cut-to-black for the credits in favour of letting the scene – and its delicate score – play out for an elegant albeit gut-wrenching amount of time.
Utilised correctly, such breaks from the norm lead to iconic moments. A year and change after the airing of ‘Mother Simpson’, Final Fantasy VII emerged, quickly ensnaring hearts and minds thanks to a compelling storyline, intriguing characters, an ambitious evolving environment and, crucially, an exceptional soundtrack.
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu, the MIDI-style music of Final Fantasy VII is its own living and breathing entity. Each section of the game has a unique theme, whilst characters received added depth due to their own signature sonic motifs. Arguably the single most iconic moment of FFVII comes early on in the adventure when Aerith (or Aeris) Gainsborough is coldly struck down by the story’s arch-villain, Sephiroth. A generation of gamers, casual and hardcore, will never forget such a genuinely shocking turn in the narrative.
This was, and arguably still is, something of a rarity in video games; a truly emotional and transcendent moment. Director Yoshinori Kitase was extremely deliberate in constructing this scene, noting that:
“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”.
For this particular shock to the system to fully work, Kitase required two things. The first, naturally enough, was for the player to be so invested in Aerith that her sudden death has considerable impact. That it does indeed register so resolutely is rather interesting, especially when you weigh up the fact that her characterisation is somewhat problematic. Character designer Tetsuya Nomura, frustrated with the ‘hero sacrifices himself to show how much he loves the girl’ cliché, felt that a spin on this trope would carry weight and while it absolutely does, the argument that Aerith is more of a plot device designed to give a male protagonist his agency via tragic death is one worth listening to.
And yet, despite such refrigerated reservations, despite Aerith being written a touch unrealistically (she’s not a million miles away from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, though there is touching depth to her) and despite her ultimate role as something of a Deus Ex Machina, Aerith’s demise connects in spectacular and poignant fashion.
“When I reflect on Final Fantasy VII, the fact that fans were so offended by her sudden death probably means that we were successful with her character. If fans had simply accepted her death, that would have meant she wasn’t an effective character.” – Tetsuya Nomura, speaking to Electronic Gaming Monthly in 2005
Nomura’s rationale may be awkward, but it’s not exactly incorrect. We care, quite deeply, when Aerith is taken away, with the second thing that Kitase needed to make it all sing landing the most important blow of all.
Cue Nobuo Uematsu.
Heard at three key intervals over the course of the game, ‘Aerith’s Theme’ is most effectively realised when tragedy strikes. That might seem obvious, but it’s more than a mere grace note. As noted, the music in Final Fantasy VII is a character all of its own, with specific sections evoking a considered atmosphere almost exclusively due to the sounds that dominate. The themes that play during battle are a shining example of this approach – busy, fast-paced movements that amplify the experience by injecting a sense of menace to proceedings.
One recurring boss in particular, Jenova, has a distinct – and excellent – soundtrack that lends additional heft to your encounters. The second time you face a version of this creature – sporting the rather cruel moniker of ‘Jenova LIFE’, given the circumstances – Kitase changes the game, wielding a beautiful, subtle arrangement like one of the many ostentatiously-designed weapons found throughout Final Fantasy VII.
The real genius of the Jenova LIFE battle is how remarkably straightforward it is. Equipped with the right accessory, your character can come through the fight entirely unscathed. And that’s the point. This isn’t a pulsating contest, it’s an insult. Jenova is a barrier that appears to halt the player from grieving, only Kitase seizes his moment to optimum effect. The decision to switch out the kick-ass fun of the established audio in favour of playing ‘Aerith’s Theme’ for the duration acts as the definitive hammer-blow to the soul, while also affording the player the opportunity to go through the requisite emotions before Aerith is laid to rest.
As The A.V. Club pointed out this week, sometimes you need to lose in order to win. That’s the art of good storytelling, but good storytelling only becomes great when key components are married together. Homer searching for meaning in the heavens above connects because the character’s pain is deeply human, and so extending the scene and confronting the audience in such a way is truly heartbreaking.
In the case of Aerith Gainsborough, all the stops were pulled out to ensure that a slight depiction lives long in the memory. Without that score and its sporadic, note-perfect placement, it is highly unlikely that she would be recalled quite as fondly as Tetsuya Nomura suggests.