The Real Reason Aeris's Death Made You Cry

Let me paint you a picture.

You're Cloud, standing in the middle of an ancient city, surrounded by crystals and conch shells and crystallised conch shells. Your hair is irresponsibly spiky. Before you kneels Aeris, that flower girl you're sorta kinda crushing on. Her eyes are closed. She's praying.

Whoosh. Down comes that douchebag Sephiroth, his giant sword pointed directly at Aeris's back and — oh. Oh god. She's dead.

The camera slows down. You watch her body crumple as she falls to the ground. Only thing you can hear is a thumping heartbeat. You're paralysed. She's not really dead, is she? She can't be. You want to cry. Not yet.

A white orb falls from her body and starts soaring up, then arcing down. Camera follows. The orb falls toward one of the nearby pedestals. Slowly. Gently hits the ground with a clink.

And then. Then. Aeris' Theme starts to play.

Break out the tissues. It's bawling time.

While Final Fantasy VII's infamous plot twist is packed with terrifyingly powerful emotions, the crowning moment of Aeris' death is not the second she's unceremoniously stabbed in the heart. That's just setup. The true wallop, the true catharsis comes when her song starts to play, when your ears register what's going on. The slow, soft piano melody that serves as both her introduction and her epitaph. That's the moment when her demise feels real.

Go ahead and watch for yourself. Director Yoshinori Kitase took an economical approach to crafting this wonderful, harrowing scene. There are no shots wasted. You have just enough time to stare at your screen in utter shock before the music starts up. Watch the way the camera closes in tightly on Aeris' utter disbelief, on Sephiroth's smug satisfaction. Listen to how the white materia clinks, slightly out of sync with the music's rhythm, creating an uncomfortable dissonance that sticks with you for the next few hours, weeks, months and years to come.

You didn't cry when Sephiroth stabbed Aeris. You cried when you heard that song.

Final Fantasy VII isn't alone here. When we think about our favourite Japanese role-playing games, we think first and foremost about their musical scores. And even the genre's harshest critics can't deny that the music in JRPGs tends to be nothing short of phenomenal. From the wacky beats of Persona to the grand, oceanic themes in Chrono Cross; from the haunting melodies of Legend of Mana to the triumphant victory themes that can make you feel like you just won the Super Bowl, JRPG music knows how to burrow into your earholes and never come out.

It's sometimes hard to tell whether a song has emotional weight on its own or because it is attached to powerful moments in a game. Take Xenogears's "Faraway Promise" for example. If you've played the game and experienced its stunning story, this song will evoke memories of transcendent love and eternal sorrow. If you haven't, well... it's just another cool song.

But here's the catch-22: would Xenogears's story be nearly as powerful or memorable without tracks like that? If not for Yasunori Mitsuda's beautiful melodies, would you still care about Fei and Elly's struggles? Would you still get as pumped to fight unrelenting battles? Would you even bother playing the game?

When I think about my favourite JRPG moments, my mind immediately jumps to their sounds. The slow walk down the staircase of Daryl's Tomb in Final Fantasy VI, punctuated by a slow rendition of wandering gambler Setzer's airship theme. The melancholy piano transitioning to a drum beat and then sudden silence when a certain character dies in Suikoden II. Beginning your adventure in Final Fantasy IV.

More than any other genre, JRPGs live and die by their soundtracks. Their powerful moments are made even more powerful by the sweeping, haunting, lovely melodies attached. Grand adventures rendered even grander. Frantic battles feel more urgent, more dangerous.

So maybe the most important part of a JRPG isn't its story, or its combat system, or its graphical engine. Maybe the most important part of a JRPG is its soundtrack. After all, that's the part that makes you cry.

This Week In JRPG News

What To Play This Weekend

Lunar: Eternal Blue Complete, a PlayStation game that mastered the art of awesome soundtracks. Comes complete with charming dialogue, an adorable story, and one hell of a sidekick-slash-flying cat thing.

Your Questions Answered

Every week, I post several reader questions about JRPGs.

Reader Alec writes:

I love your columns and i can't wait to read your weekly ruminations on JRPGs over at Kotaku now. One topic i hope you get to cover is the evolution of the series Final Fantasy from VI - XIII-2. I grew up on the prime days of Final Fantasy. 6 - 10 were released in my days of middle school through high school. I Loved the turn-based format, the engrossing stories, and the limitless potential of the games.

The culmination of the battle system coming together in FFX remains one of my favourite battle systems of all time and the rapid change in the series following X is understandable but i'm still holding out hope for a return to the turn-based combat found in earlier Square releases.

XIII's frenetic pace and paradigm system is fun and challenging but after testing the waters of the MMORPG world and settling on the linear direction and fast paced action RPG system in XIII i'm worried we'll never see a return to the classics.

You know, while I don't think very much of Final Fantasy XIII, I do have a lot of respect for Square Enix's willingness to embrace innovation. Every Final Fantasy has brought a host of new mechanics to the table, from IV's real-time turn-based hybrid ATB system to XIII's class shifting chaos.

And we have no idea what Final Fantasy XV will be like. We know nothing about its world, its characters, its setting, its battle system, its summons, its dungeons, or its themes. All we know is that it will have a guy named Cid and maybe some chocobos or cactaur. That's kind of awesome.

So to address your concerns: No, I don't think Final Fantasy will ever return to its "classic form," and I think that's OK. As much as I loved those SNES and PlayStation 1 offerings, I think it's great to see one major video game series that isn't afraid to pursue innovation, even when it doesn't really work.

And if I want a classic RPG, I'll play Dragon Quest.

In contrast, reader David writes:

How's this for a topic: Alternative JRPGs. Any recommendations for a JRPG fan who's tired of the same tired old format of JRPGs that he once loved to death?

My recommendation is The World Ends With You, one of the most unique RPGs I've ever played. How about you guys? What unique JRPGs would you recommend?


Comments

    I prefer the " Suikoden" series than than final fantasy .....plz do a a topic on the underated suikoden games!!! Storywise it is more mature than other games..Ps love your articles

      I am playing FF7 for the first time currently.

      Thanks for the spoiler -_-

        You do realise that the game is now 15 years old, so you can't really bitch about spoilers when you're /that far behind the action, haha.

    I must be a soulless bastard.

    I didn't cry at all. :-/

    The only BAWWWL moment I have ever had in gaming was Mass Effect 3.

    Thane.

    I say no morwe.

      *more

      Damn it.

        Agreed. For all the issues people have with ME3, Thane was handled beautifully. I just stood there for 10 minutes afterwards, trying to process how I felt about it (being deliberately vague here; don't want to spoil it for anyone).

    It was really sad, but I was mainly gutted because I had spent a fair bit of time levelling her, when I could have put that effort in to another character :-/

    SPOILERS!!!!

    Jesus. Not even a warning or a tag. Just blurt it out in the headline.

    So disappointed.

      There's a statute of limitations on this shit. The game is 15 years old.

      BTW, Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's dad.

        Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

      Birdo used to be a gender-confused male, then he got a sex change

    I cried at that point because I'd spent the whole first disc using Aeris in my party and she was OP. Then I had to level Tifa up instead

    JRPG music is the best. At the Distant World's concert last year when Aeris' theme played there wasn't dry eye in sight! My love of JRPG music lead me to discover Final Fantasy Radio, it's awesome, nothing but Square-related music (FF, xenogears, Secret of mana etc etc) non-stop!

    Oh noes, the emo boy's girlfriend who did nothing but annoy you died. What a thing to cry about.

      I wanna be like you when I grow up.

      Cloud was an emo in the game? That's news to me.

        You must have been playing a different game where the main character wasn't constantly whinging about this or that. Perhaps "emo" is overused, but he sure as hell was an annoying little kid. He started the game a dick and though his amazing character arc, ended the game a dick.

          I do remember him being a rather negative "I'll do what I want when I feel like it" type of guy at the start of the game, though I'm trying to remember how constant his whinging was. I haven't played the game in some time, you see and the only thing I can specifically remember him saying at the end of the game is "let's mosey."

          No, I'm afraid YOU are the one who must have been playing a different game where the main character was constantly "whinging about this or that." You must have confused FF VII with a similar-sounding game called FF VIII or a similar-sounding movie called FF VII Advent Children, neither of which have anything to do with FF VII (and no, Advent Children does not exist for most FF VII fans).

          Can you even name one thing that Cloud was ever "whinging" about in FF VII? (Well, besides Aerith's death and Sephiroth's threat to humanity.) No, of course you can't, because he was never the "whinging" type to begin with. There's a difference between being cocky, confident and wise-cracking (Cloud, Solid Snake, Dante, etc.) and emo and jerky (Squall, Lightning, Kratos, etc.). And more importantly, Cloud developed throughout the game, with his persona at the end (optimistic and caring) being very different from his manufactured persona at the start (pessimistic and arrogant)... that is, until Advent Children ruined it by making it seem all that development in the game was for nothing.

            Avid classic FF fan here, and I absolutely love Advent Children. Just sayin'.

        her boyfriend was zack... who was an emo... if i remember correctly.

          Unless emo means "happy joy joy" these days, then you're far off. Zack was a fairly cheerful guy.

    OMG lousy character from garbage game from a never final series that should have RIP long long ago made noobs cry .... Wawawawah!!

    Here have a cookie ....

    is it just me or does Aeriss have massive eyebrows?

    I knew she was going to die ahead of time so I levelled her up until she got her last limit break and she used to thrash the last boss she was allowed the fight with. Absolutely epic!

    Because she had my Ribbon.

    Theres a really interesting book called Philosophy of final fantasy, and it delves really deeply into why we find aerith's death sad.
    It said that not only did the music, which you mentioned, play a huge role, but it also had to do with the fact that you were able to use her as a character, and develop her, and losing all your hard work to the death of a character can be quite depressing.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQiJJ4xNFpI&feature=youtube_gdata_player xenogears ...

    I'm sorry, but that explanation is bullshit. Her theme is used multiple times in the game and that's the only time it's got that emotion attached.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26EtxATwlNM

    I didn't cry, in fact I went, "Oh shoot!, I spend 2 hours training Arieth, and it all gone down the drain. I should have trained Tifa instread".

    I didn't cry. I reset the console assuming that there was probably a way to save her and I'd obviously missed something.

    When I realised that I couldn't save her I reset again because that ball thing that falls out of her hair looks exactly like materia, and I wanted to see where it had landed so that I could find it.

    To be honest I was glad to be rid of her. She was whiny and annoying & a weak team member!

    I agree with what the article's saying about the influence of music. It really does make you wonder where the games would be without the accompanying music that lends a powerful hand in identifying who/what it is portraying. Try thinking of chocobos..I think that music played a big role in impressing on players on the frivolous and playful nature of these iconic creatures.

    The intro to Final Fantasy VI (or 3 if you're nasty).
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDMWp1oLoA0 if you haven't seen/played it. (Ignore the first 40sec)
    The top youtube comment contains a point I happen to agree with. How can this intro make three robots walking across snow for two minutes seem so downright epic? Music.

    Sorry, but those of you who claim this to be a "spoiler," well... You're a couple decades late.

    This game has been out probably longer than you've been alive. And is still considered by some to be the best game ever.
    I must say kudos to the author of this article, you are right on. You nailed it exactly.
    This was the first game I ever cried to, come to think of it, I pretty much stopped playing the game for a few months before picking it back up again because of how depressed I was over Aeris's death.
    I wish they still made games like this. There's no emotion in today's generation of gaming.

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