So Aerith’s just run off to try to stop Sephiroth from summoning Meteor, and we now know that Cloud’s a somewhat unreliable hero (I kind of wish the developers had done more with this concept in gameplay terms, like making Cloud just sporadically do something deliberately harmful to the party in the middle of battle even if it would have had the potential to be really frustrating if Cloud happens to do something really crazy powerful with the wrong target).
It’s time to follow Aerith to the Northern Continent (how did she get there if we still have the Tiny Bronco?) where she’s gone off to the Ancient City (ruins of the capital city of the Ancients) to stop Sephiroth from summoning Meteor somehow.
Getting there’s not terribly interesting, so we’ll rejoin the party when they catch up with Aerith.
Alright, everyone ready?
Cloud and company finally catch up to Aerith in the basement of the Ancient City’s central building, where she appears to be praying. As Cloud approaches, he has another of his psychotic episodes and draws his sword in an attempt to slice Aerith in half. The player can have some fun here trying to make Cloud resist what’s happening, but there’s no way to proceed without letting him make the attempt. Of course, then Cloud comes back to his senses just before he goes through with it, and Aerith’s safe. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
Then Sephiroth drops from the ceiling and runs her through with his sword.
I’m kidding, of course (about being happy that Aerith’s dead, not about Sephiroth killing her; everyone on the internet already knew that was going to happen).
Now, this event has a long history in the gaming community, because when the first players encountered this development, they were rather shocked. There’s very little buildup within the game’s narrative to suggest that Aerith is in any sort of danger of dying, or that her death will be necessary to prevent Sephiroth from achieving his goals. The point of the scene, according to Final Fantasy VII‘s writers, is to reflect how death affects us in the real world, with it happening unexpectedly and without purpose. A lot of work went into making sure this event had a realistic impact on the rest of the main characters, and I think that generally it’s successful.
Small touches like Cloud’s speech box overlapping and interrupting Sephiroth’s during his evil post-murder monologue to say that he doesn’t care about the bigger scheme going on help enhance the feeling of the moment; Aerith’s dead now, and that’s a fact that Cloud and everyone else has to deal with. Right in the midst of everything going on, he doesn’t care what Sephiroth’s motivations are.
And for all my hating on Aerith (oh man, do I dislike her), I still get what the writers were going for here, and I feel it. I’ve watched this scene several times, and I can honestly say that even though leading up to and following it I’m not that bummed about losing a party member that I don’t like using anyway, in the moment I empathize with these characters. They all have a unique way of saying goodbye, which are beautiful bits of character animation, even though they use the low-res map models. Yuffie nearly collapses into Cloud’s arms crying after she says her goodbye, and I remember that even though she’s a deadly ninja, she’s also just a kid who’s probably never experienced a loss like this one before.
Pulling back and looking forward to the remainder of the game (I may not be remembering exactly right, but I estimate that this is about the halfway point), this event sets up a new, much more personal motivation for Cloud and folks to mosey on toward their next confrontation with Sephiroth. Before it was about high-minded ideals and saving the planet; now it’s about paying Sephiroth back for the murder of their friend.
Also, from a character standpoint, Aerith’s death marks the beginning of Cloud’s descent into the melancholy that so dominates his characterization in other entries in the Final Fantasy VII canon. Before now, he’s been a more or less laid-back, confident guy who doesn’t have any trouble kidding around with his friends. Now that he’s both attempted to kill Aerith himself twice and failed to prevent her actual murder, he has a lot of pent up feelings of guilt to work through, on top of all the other stuff that we (and he) will be learning about his past soon. I really like happy Cloud (mostly because I think his angst is overplayed later in the series to the point that it becomes his defining character trait), but here I’m looking forward to seeing him develop and grow into a more nuanced and realistic understanding of himself.
Anyway, once the body’s safely interred at the bottom of a lake, it’s time for everyone to move on further north. Sephiroth awaits past the Great Glacier in the Northern Crater–the location of the last great wound the planet received.