In the final battle of Final Fantasy VII: Remake we defeat Sephiroth and cast aside the shadows that swirl around. We’re standing in a familiar place: the edge of Midgar. Looking out on the horizon, you’re presented with a terrifying and hopeful world. For players returning to this place from the original Final Fantasy VII, the developers have managed to revive that feeling of grandeur because now, you may be able to change this story…

This piece includes spoilers for Final Fantasy VII, including plot points within and past where the story gets in Remake.

Like many of you patiently awaiting Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth, my childhood was deeply informed by Final Fantasy VII. It was my first RPG, and opened my eyes to the possibilities of gaming as storytelling. The adventures of our rag-tag crew, making their way through a world facing the threat of environmental catastrophe, were enthralling. Cloud, the mercenary protagonist tracking the villain Sephiroth, who was responsible for burning Cloud’s hometown to the ground and was now aiming to raze the planet. Tifa, Cloud’s fist-fighting childhood friend, just trying to keep together the few people in her life still alive. Barret, head of eco-terrorist group Avalanche, trying to save the planet and pave a future for his daughter Marlene. Every character and their story was precious to me.

A screen shot of Aerith inside a church. She's framed from the bust up, her body turned slightly right. Her hair is down and she looks concerned. Final Fantasy VII: Remake; Square Enix; 2020.

One of our main characters, and arguably the one at the centre of the story, is Aerith. We meet her in the slums of Midgar. She’s clever, plucky, and optimistic despite what life has thrown at her. It’s quickly revealed that she’s the last remaining Cetra—a long extinct race of people who cared for the planet—and that Shinra, the villainous mega-corporation, wants to possess her to monopolize the Mako energy that has enabled them to become the world’s major military power.

Aerith joins the player’s party to see more of the world and understand her place in it—at least, that’s how I interpret it. Well after Remake‘s final battle, when the party reaches the City of the Ancients, Aerith becomes almost entranced, hearing the voices of all her ancestors. It’s here she takes it upon herself to protect the planet against Sephiroth’s threat. She must pray using an Ancient Materia magic called Holy to stand against Sephiroth’s apocalyptically destructive Meteor—something only a Cetra can do. In the midst of her prayers, Sephiroth stabs her from above and we watch her slowly fall to the floor.

Much of Final Fantasy VII is influenced by Aerith’s death. Our characters steel themselves within their grief to carry on. Aerith’s left the planet a final shard of hope and our party is desperately trying to pick up the pieces. Even after the penultimate battle in the original FFVII, her presence is felt and fissures of Lifestream push out of the Earth to aid and protect the party and the planet. I refuse to call her death a sacrifice. Like Tifa, I believe she didn’t think she was going to die there. She was the one who looked forward to the future the most.

So here we are at Remake, and what does this mean for our flower girl? She’s acting a little down and less forward-thinking than I remember her to be. With her acknowledgement of what my partner and I dub the canon ghosts—grey-hooded spectres called ‘Whispers’ that haunt important plot points and attempt to keep the narrative from changing—it seems she’s gotten a look at the script of the game, and her imminent demise on the horizon. She half-heartedly goes through the paces of the original adventure.

A screenshot of FFVII. A Whisper ghost flies out of Barret, who is lying on the ground and looking agonized. Final Fantasy VII: Remake; Square Enix; 2020.

But holy shit, Barret gets stabbed by Sephiroth instead!! Oh wait, a Whisper immediately fixes him up… no trauma from that, I guess. While I wasn’t thrilled watching Barret die, the shock and his subsequent revival is our biggest hint that something is very strange here. The path laid out is strictly held together by the swirling of these phantom Whispers. Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie—our Avalanche crew-mates—died at the Sector 7 pillar earlier in the game. And the canon ghosts pushed us away from taking any action to change this. So who are they helping? Well, in a weird way, they’re us.

Once it became common knowledge that the story of Remake (and its upcoming sequel, Rebirth) would differ, possibly drastically, from the original, the discourse was intense. Podcasts, articles, and essays, oh my! One question consistently came up: will Aerith die again? We don’t know that answer yet, but we do know there’s a good chance our Avalanche friends survived, with both Biggs and Wedge confirmed alive before the end of Remake‘s credits. It may be possible to save Aerith and others too! So why does it seem like some fans really don’t want that to happen?

I’ve heard the argument for “narrative meaning” more times than I can count. “Her dying is integral to the plot, she did it for the world.” But this rings false to me, as Aerith really didn’t need to die for Holy to work (not that that would make it OK either). Sephiroth was blocking Holy from moving to protect the planet. And I don’t think Aerith needed to be in the Earth to create the lifestream assist at the end of the original game. I’m also very suspicious of any insistence for a woman to die in a story. Like, “oh no, if we don’t fridge her we won’t have the same feelings!” We’ve already gone through that grief, why do we need to relive it? Quit being a canon ghost!

A screenshot from FFVII Remake. Dyne's blurry face is in the top right corner, looking down and anguished. In focus, Barret reaches forward to place a reassuring hand on Dyne's shoulder. Final Fantasy VII: Remake; Square Enix; 2020.

These characters have been with us for years. Do we need to watch them suffer again? They’ve already been trotted out several times in increasingly convoluted ways (I’m looking at you Dirge of Cerberus and Crisis Core). The theory floating around that this game is “for the characters” is something that I wholeheartedly endorse. Much like in Into the Spider-verse or Scott Pilgrim, we can look at the story as a reconstruction. The meta of not just examining a story but conversing with it directly is exciting. All those who scoured forums for rumours of bringing the 1/35 Soldier and 99 tissues to Aerith’s grave, where are you now? The chance has come almost two decades later.

When looking at a piece of art again, years later, you can glean different meanings from it. And if it’s your own piece of work you can see what you may want to change, and how you’ve changed. I have my criticisms of Remake, but it’s a refreshing move from Square Enix to stray from the beaten path. The new Final Fantasy VII is a product, and one Square Enix hopes to be wildly successful, but it’s also a major artistic endeavour. The new game is built by people who grew up with the original. Asking them to just do it again but shinier seems dismissive of their talent as storytellers… though I do have some notes on their storytelling.

Remake had me thinking of the story beats of the original Final Fantasy VII: how do you go on after someone dear has left you? Death is empty. We can try to attach whatever meaning to it to satisfy our need for reason but the truth is, no one has to die, death just happens regardless. Death can happen through cruelty, like President Shinra ordering the Sector 7 plate to come down. It can happen through self-destruction, like Dyne’s nihilism. And it can happen because a person does what they can to protect another. Final Fantasy VII’s primary characters are the ones left over, the ones who have to carry on. Didn’t you want to save them? Tell me, was there a meaning to letting them all perish?

Despite death and grief tugging at our heels, the theme of FFVII was always life. At the time of its creation Square Enix mentioned that in films and television, there was a big show of someone sacrificing themselves to save the world or to protect someone. This lionised sacrifice made death almost something to aspire to. You could prove your life worthwhile by going out in a blaze of glory. But FFVII baulks at this. Aerith heard the spirits of the dead—even her own late mother—and yet held fast to life, cultivating flowers in a dilapidated church where little grew.

It’s very easy to just let Final Fantasy VII‘s tragedy happen again. How many games or books are there where the main character is conveniently orphaned? It’s a cop-out. It’s much harder to imagine how a person would live. I suspect that Aerith won’t die in Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth, and I’ll get to see her live her life. Maybe she still has a crush on Cloud, but graciously steps aside knowing full well Tifa likes him (or polycules it, come on!). She could reunite with her mother and rebuild Midgar with everyone, and Cid could finally show her the Highwind! Life’s full of mundane, silly shit that makes it worth living.

Despite my impassioned reasons for thinking Aerith will live, and my criticisms of those who believe her fate should stay as it is, I’ll be honest with you: I’m just selfish. In Rebirth, I’m saving all of them, come hell or high water. If it fucks up the narrative, I don’t care—there’s plenty more big-budget fiction that justifies death. We’ll save her, Dyne… hell, I’d like to save Zack and Sephiroth if I can! For this reunion, let’s bring them all home!