Caution: This article will contain spoilers for Final Fantasy VII.
I used to think I was so smart in middle school — so clever. I would insist certain games were only for idiots and smart people only played another type of title. I started to grow out of this mentality in high school, but it would take a long time before I truly understood what it meant to think critically.
It's been over a decade since my last playthrough of Final Fantasy VII, and I have found myself almost experiencing the game anew. It's like returning to a location you haven't visited since your childhood. Your height literally gives you a new perspective, a new way of seeing things. Everything looks smaller than you remember. Stepping through the environment, you begin to remember the actions of your parents, and suddenly you can relate to them just a little better.
Replaying Final Fantasy VII has been a lesson in perspective, and just how wrong many of my assumptions and perceptions were when I was in middle school. An awfully fitting reaction, too, as this playthrough has revealed to me an underlying theme throughout the entire game.
Final Fantasy VII is about many things, yes, but one of the primary ideas is that nothing is quite what it seems.
This epiphany of mine was triggered, of all things, by the difference in personality between lead female characters Tifa and Aeris. When I first played the game, my twelve-year-old self automatically projected a strong, independent, and confident persona onto Tifa whilst giving Aeris the weaker, quiet, and polite sort of archetype. Tifa was a brawler, looking to be a bit of a tomboy with a much less fashionable ensemble. It made sense to me that she'd be the more assertive one over Aeris, who was dressed in her lovely pink polygons.
More than anything, Aeris' introduction portrays her as being a bit close to helpless. Villainous corporation Shinra closes in on her sanctuary (literally and figuratively), forcing her to try and escape. She turns to the protagonist Cloud, asking him to be her bodyguard, and later calls to him for assistance as soldiers come to take her away. She is portrayed as physically weak and needing help, and as Cloud deftly hops along the ruins of a junkyard behind the Church, Aeris takes her time measuring each leap carefully.
These actions suggest someone lacking in strength, and thus the next assumption is that they'd be lacking in confidence. Already forgotten is that Aeris tempted Cloud into being her bodyguard by offering him a date, an action that doesn't at all fit the interpretation of a more weak and timid character.
At the age of twenty-nine, I suddenly realized how wrong I've been about these two characters during the momentous Gold Saucer date. Depending on how you responded to certain inquiries and certain choices made throughout the game, one of many characters would approach Cloud in an effort to explore the theme park with him. Aeris will bluntly refer to it as a date, but Tifa will pussyfoot around the issue. She'll instead physically force him out the door, unable to call it a proper date. By the end of the sequence, Aeris asks many questions of Cloud, hinting that she realizes there's something wrong with him, and acknowledging how familiar he is compared to her previous boyfriend, a character named Zack. Tifa, though? Tifa trips over her own words, and at one point even mentions "Aeris would just come right out and say it ... ."
[Editor's note: I'm going to insist on proper punctuation even in quotations from an iconic game — genre conventions be damned!]
This playthrough, Tifa was the one to approach Cloud, and it was in reading that line that I realized how off base I was. Throughout the entire game Tifa had been the gentle soul, twice shy and frequently comforting the other party members. Aeris was the blunt agent of tough love, speaking her mind and impulsively leaping into danger.
But in reading that line, I realized that everything I thought about these two characters was wrong. Was it my youth? Was it a poor memory? Was it a little dash of systemic sexism?
It could have been any of those things, but I also believe it was a conscious choice by the developers. There are a lot of Japanese anime and role-playing games where the spell casting archetype is shy, calm, gentle, and perhaps even lacking in confidence, whereas the more tomboyish warrior woman is boisterous and brimming with bluster. On the surface, Aeris and Tifa fit these roles respectively. It is only over time that you discover their personalities are actually the inverse of their archetypes.
Tifa and Aeris are not unique in this regard. All of the characters are, in some way, completely different from how they are first portrayed. Barret comes off as a leader with a clear plan, but as the game progresses it becomes obvious that he doesn't know how to lead nor does he have any clue what he's actually doing. Red XIII speaks eloquently and politely, giving the player a sense that he is a wise adult. In truth, he's still a teenager by his own species' reckoning, and his interactions with his "grandfather" and attitude towards his own father reveal his youthful immaturity. Cait Sith seems to be some goofy comic relief character, but in actuality is a doll controlled by a Shinra Salaryman. Yuffie may seem to be a mere thief, but she is in fact trying to restore her village back to its former glory after it had suffered a major defeat in war.
Likewise, Cloud is not the hero of Final Fantasy VII. True, he is the protagonist, and anyone that has played the game is familiar with his fabricated past. What keeps him from being the hero that I always remembered him as is that he is not actually the one to save the world.
Cloud himself confesses that descending down into the crater is the last resort of a desperate and tired group of adventurers. Stopping the meteor summoned by Sephiroth is out of their hands and capability. The only method in which they can emerge victorious is by defeating Sephiroth himself, who is blocking the spell of Holy from activating.
The player, the remaining characters, merely assisted Aeris by defeating Sephiroth. They themselves did not save the planet.
It was the intent of the writers of Final Fantasy VII to avoid the heroic sacrifice, for the character's death to be sudden and seem without meaning. However, Aeris' demise, intended or not, turned out to be the sacrifice that would save the world. In the ending cinematic of Final Fantasy VII, Midgar begins to crumble as Meteor descends, and the spell Holy is unable to hold the destructive spell at bay. It isn't until Aeris, having returned to the planet after being slain by Sephiroth, lashes out as part of the lifestream to boost the spell of Holy and shatter Meteor to bits. She bore the heroic sacrifice after all.
It's all the little touches that defy expectation that really set the game apart from its peers and caused it to resonate with so many. Not just the sudden and unexpected murder of a key character, but the sad, harrowing death cry of Ultimate Weapon, a beast created by the planet in order to defend it, slain by the player for no greater reason than obtaining a powerful blade. Investing money and time into defending Fort Condor, only for the majestic bird of prey to be slain with ease. To be offered one final fight against Shinra's Turks, only to refuse to fight and watch them walk away, retiring from their job. There are a variety of other such examples of Final Fantasy VII turning expectations on their head.
The plot frequently refuses to give the player clarity as to what is actually happening. Generally, constant plot twists and inexplicable cliffhangers will often ruin a story. Simply wanting to surprise the audience, with no greater intent than to keep their attention, swiftly results in a meaningless and meandering story without direction. Yet Final Fantasy VII uses these many subversions, inversions and surprises to inject new meaning into a series of tropes, to break player expectations just a little bit in order to create a resounding experience.
After over a decade of time spent away from it, I came back to find Final Fantasy VII may have been a bit clunky and flawed, but my new perspective rewarded me with a greater appreciation for all that it did well. All because "Aeris would come right out and say it ... ."