Aerith dies. If you know one thing about Final Fantasy 7, it’s probably that Aerith dies. The praying girl gets cut down by the guy with the massive sword. There’s a reason why this pivotal story beat is one of the most well-known spoilers in gaming: it’s a moment that’s continually stunned players since 1997.
Video games had killed off significant characters before Final Fantasy 7, but this was different. The resonance Aerith had with fans is incomparable, and the emotional impact of her death left many players desperate for a resurrection. Over 25 years, rumour became myth, myth became hoax, and eventually hope became a way to genuinely save the flower girl from Midgar. This is the inside story of the players who re-wrote fate and resurrected Aerith Gainsborough.
Aerith Gainsborough is one of the most beloved characters in RPG history. First introduced as little more than a flower merchant in the opening hour of Final Fantasy 7, she soon becomes a significant figure in the story’s central cast. The revelation that she is the last remaining member of an ancient race positions her as vital to the plot, but it is her multi-layered personality that made fans fall in love with her.
“From the moment you meet her she's charming, she's very sweet, but she has a little bit of spunk here and there,” says Ally Tamara, a Final Fantasy fan and cosplayer from Canada. “And she was just one of those characters that immediately I personally fell in love with.”
“I think she's a really, really fantastic character where you can't judge her based on her appearance,” says Aequorinn, a UK-based cosplayer. “I kind of assumed because she dresses really conservatively, and you see the pictures of her praying, I thought she was going to be quite sweet but also kind of serious and boring and sort of self-sacrificial. But then it couldn't be further from the truth.”
“I really like that she's very teasing,” she adds. “That she's someone who doesn't take things too seriously, or rather she's full of life and tries to get everyone else to enjoy it along with her.”
Aerith’s death comes out of nowhere, and happens just as Final Fantasy 7 gears up for its apocalyptic second half. Having learned that villain Sephiroth plans to force a meteor to crash into the planet as part of his attempt to ascend to godhood, protagonist Cloud and his friends head to the Forgotten City. There, Aerith will call upon the ultimate white magic, Holy, which she hopes will protect the world from the impending doom. Tragically, Sephiroth fatally interrupts the ritual at the final moment.
“It was absolutely earth-shattering,” recalls Tamara. “She was always on my team, always. I just loved her, it was just something about her character, she was so sweet and pure. And for whatever reason, maybe it is her personality and just who she is, it's life-changing. I still haven't gotten over her death years later.”
“Aerith does die activating the Holy spell, so there is this temptation to think of it as some noble sacrifice, but it's really not,” explains Aequorinn. “It's just a horrible tragedy that happens. And I think that's quite different to how death is usually handled in video games, certainly at this point in time. I really feel like the tragedy of it is encapsulated by that one key artwork where Aerith is looking up at the Highwind. That becomes really bittersweet for me because she was the most adventurous of the whole party. She would have loved that, but she never gets to ride that airship.”
<section data-transform="image-with-caption" data-image-url="https://assets-prd.ignimgs.com/2023/06/09/ff7-aerith-cosplay-article-1686315339174.jpg" data-image-title="Ally Tamara (L) and Aequorinn (R) in Aerith cosplay. (Image credits: Ally Tamara and Aequorinn)” data-image-class=”article-image-full-size” data-image-link=”https://assets-prd.ignimgs.com/2023/06/09/ff7-aerith-cosplay-article-1686315339174.jpg” data-caption=”%3Cstrong%3EAlly%20Tamara%20(L)%20and%20Aequorinn%20(R)%20in%20Aerith%20cosplay.%20(Image%20credits%3A%20Ally%20Tamara%20and%20Aequorinn)%3C%2Fstrong%3E” />
Aerith’s death is an important and irreversible moment in the story of Final Fantasy 7. But while she may have died in the game, Aerith endures through fan fiction, fan art, and – of course – cosplay.
“I remember saying to myself once I became a cosplayer, I was about 20 years old when I actually started, I said she's a bucket list,” Tamara remembers. “I have to do her, but if I do it I have to do it at least correct or what I feel is good enough for me.”
“I feel like, personality-wise, she's probably the character in Final Fantasy 7 that I see myself the most in,” says Aequorinn. “So I knew as soon as I finished the game that I wanted to cosplay her. Not just to show my appreciation for a game I really enjoyed, but also just because I love the character so much.
“Since then, the Final Fantasy 7 community has become such a massive part of my life, so I feel like it's made the cosplay really special to me.”
The fantastic creations of Final Fantasy fans are just one part of Aerith’s story, though. If you were ever a school kid during the days of the original PlayStation, then you’ll almost certainly know that there was a much bigger mystery around Aerith’s death than just how to create a worthy epitaph.
“I remember when I was in elementary school, because one of my best friends used to play it,” recalls Tamara. “And he said 'My brother told me there's a way that you might be able to bring her back'. And I remember one of the things he said to me, that's stuck with me that I remember trying […], was you had to have the max amount of Phoenix Downs saved up in your inventory, so that way by the time you got to her death you could resurrect her.
“But that's not all,” she continues. “After her death you had to get to the next save point, hit start, and then you hit L1, R1, Circle, and then you'd get the title sequence and it was like ‘Oh, here she is, she's magically on your team’. She'd just plop onto your menu to choose from. And I tried and obviously it never worked.”
Chances are, the rumour you’ve just read isn’t the one you learned about from your school friend or an internet message board. You may have heard that Tifa will sacrifice herself to save Aerith if you max out the right relationship stat. Or perhaps that unlocking Aerith’s final Limit Break before her encounter with Sephiroth will prevent her from dying. Or maybe you heard the one about returning to the Forgotten City and using Underwater materia to dive into the lake where Aerith was laid to rest, where you can then use a fully-upgraded cure materia to revive her. All these claims were different, but in the end they were all the same: bogus. False. Untrue. There is no way to save Aerith.
That’s not to say there wasn’t something strange going on, though. Players who revisited the church in the Sector 5 slums would sometimes catch a brief glimpse of Aerith. Was it a glitch? Or was it a ghost? After two decades of speculation, a video uploaded in 2019 claimed to have worked it all out. According to Oddheader, a YouTuber specialised in video game mysteries, there was actually a grain of truth in one of the longstanding rumours. To resurrect Aerith, he explained, you have to collect three items – the Earth Harp, Desert Rose, and Guide Book – and then fight all opponents at the Gold Saucer’s 3D battle arena (including a secret, invisible fifth enemy). Then you have to give the three items to the old man in Kalm, and then head to the ghost of Aerith in the church. Then you have to switch your controller port, and finally hit L1+R1+Circle together. That is the secret to resurrecting Aerith.
“I remember putting the video up,” recalls Randall Rigdon Jr., the creator of Oddheader. “It was the slower time, it seemed. Videos were doing great, but when I put that video up, suddenly it exploded. It went to a million really quick. On that first day, I got some anxiety about it because I figured it was going to go mostly out to my audience and instead it went out. It went viral and there was people upset. There was definitely people upset.”
Why were people upset? Well, the date the video premiered on is a vital part of the story. April 1st. The whole thing was an April Fools joke.
“Well, honestly, the whole video was actually based on a comment that I got,” explains Rigdon Jr. “I get submissions all the time and they're fake and silly things, but that was the first one where I looked at that and I was like, 'Well, maybe there is a glitch. I haven't heard of that.' Then of course, to find out that it was false, I was like, 'Well, I believed it, so I think I can convince enough people that it's true then.'”
The comment, posted on a previous Oddheader video about Final Fantasy 7 mysteries, theorised that giving the Earth Harp, Desert Rose, and Guide Book to the old man in Kalm would revive Aerith’s glitch ghost in the church. It was another false rumour, of course, but Rigdon Jr. saw an opportunity to blend that myth with plenty of truth to create a video that wasn’t just a prank, but something based on genuinely interesting trivia.
“I mixed a lot of legitimate discoveries with fake discoveries,” he reveals. “It was also an excuse to cover a lot of things that I had been wanting to cover, but really wouldn't fit in a video otherwise. For instance, I make a big deal about all the extra cross-dressing dialogue that was data mined from the game, which was found decades later.
“There's also the hidden opponent that could be found in 3D battler,” he adds. “If you were to beat all four opponents, you get a fifth invisible opponent that always kills you immediately. That's real. I thought that was so cool.”
Fascinatingly, the weirdest part of Oddheader’s video is actually rooted in fact. In his faked footage of the resurrection, the music distorts and visuals warp as Aerith says to Cloud “Silly… Didn’t anyone tell you? This IS Hades.” It’s a line taken directly from Final Fantasy 7, albeit from a scene players were never meant to see.
<section data-transform="image-with-caption" data-image-url="https://assets-prd.ignimgs.com/2023/06/09/resurrecting-aerith-this-is-hades-1686320970906.png" data-image-title="Aerith gives a cryptic message in Final Fantasy 7's debug room. (Image credit: Oddheader)” data-image-class=”article-image-full-size” data-image-link=”https://assets-prd.ignimgs.com/2023/06/09/resurrecting-aerith-this-is-hades-1686320970906.png” data-caption=”%3Cstrong%3EAerith%20gives%20a%20cryptic%20message%20in%20Final%20Fantasy%207%26%2339%3Bs%20debug%20room.%20(Image%20credit%3A%20Oddheader)%3C%2Fstrong%3E” />
“It was largely based on another discovery where if you hack into a debug room, you could talk to her and she had special dialogue and there was a number of options,” reveals Rigdon Jr. “One of the options, I think, was like, 'What is this place?' Something along those lines. Then she's like, ‘Oh, don't you know? This is Hades.’”
“But that line, ‘This is Hades,’ that became a little bit of a meme on the channel,” he says. “It was definitely like, ‘What if that line was supposed to be in the game?’ Because it would make sense that lines that you would find in the debug room were actually intended to be in the game.”
Of course, for every truth in Oddheader’s video there’s a lie.
“I full-on faked a magazine quote to show the magazine,” laughs Rigdon Jr. “I feel bad. I quoted all these fake quotes and attributed them to people. I'm like, I hope they didn't get mad finding out that I faked all this stuff.”
Then there’s the fake Square employee who tipped him off about the L1+R1+Circle code. Anyone suspicious enough to run a quick Google would have found that their name, Honto Janai, translates to “not really” in English. But it wasn’t just emails and magazine evidence that needed to be faked. To create a video, Rigdon Jr. needed gameplay footage of the resurrection in action.
“I have a lot of people coming to me like, ‘Can I get that mod? I want to use it in my video’,” he says. “A lot of the Final Fantasy community, actually. I have to reveal them. That was all basically animation. […] Like Aerith being there in the scene, she's basically cropped in from another scene, so half of the image is cropped.”
“I got all the characters and I literally had to crop each character out of that font-face and manually position them into place on the dialogue box, and then frame by frame, I animate the text, writing in and everything,” he explains. “It was literally done frame by frame. It took me weeks.”
“I had it so that the audio time warps or time stretches,” he says. “Even doing those sound effects and stuff, I was like, I know that PlayStation can't really do this on the fly, in real time, manipulate the audio like that, but that was the fun of the mystery. What if Aerith, you revived her and suddenly she's making your console doing things that you wouldn't expect. So it was definitely inspired largely by the idea of creepypastas.”
The video went live on April 1st, 2019 and quickly became one of Oddheader’s most watched (and most disliked) videos of all time. While many instantly realised the joke and enjoyed the fun, plenty of others were caught up in the hoax.
“I convinced so many people,” Rigdon Jr. says. “I remember when the video went up and I felt bad about it, a journalist, a reporter for Vice tweeted it out and he tagged me. He was like, ‘You did it.’ He's like, ‘All these years, I can't believe it.’ Then immediately all these people replied. They're like, ‘Check the date of the video, dude.’”
“What's so funny to me, I thought it was a dead giveaway when Aerith at the end says, ‘Let's roll, homie.’ I thought to everybody that would be the clear getaway,” he says.
Today, the video has over two million views, and continues to fool people. That doesn’t bother Rigdon Jr., though.
“I'm not upset that I've maybe contributed to the video game mythology out there,” he says. “That's part of the fun of video games, is we love to make up little secrets and stuff, and some of them turn out to be true and that's really exciting. This just happens to be a dud. This is not one of those things, but it's fun to be a part of that. If you're truly a fan of the game, this should not be unfamiliar territory. The legend of reviving Aerith has been [around] since the game has come out. I think literally since the game came out, people were making that legend up.”
<section data-transform="image-with-caption" data-image-url="https://assets-prd.ignimgs.com/2023/06/09/resurrecting-aerith-lets-roll-homie-1686320987912.png" data-image-title="The hoax resurrection. (Image credit: Oddheader)” data-image-class=”article-image-full-size” data-image-link=”https://assets-prd.ignimgs.com/2023/06/09/resurrecting-aerith-lets-roll-homie-1686320987912.png” data-caption=”%3Cstrong%3EThe%20hoax%20resurrection.%20(Image%20credit%3A%20Oddheader)%3C%2Fstrong%3E” />
In its own way, the legend keeps Aerith alive. But while it seems like the book is well and truly closed on any hidden in-game method of saving Aerith, there is some truth in the idea that a glitch could be the secret to defying death.
In 2013, speedrunner Neohart uploaded a video to his YouTube channel revealing a wild discovery in the PC version of Final Fantasy 7. He’d found that the cutscene in which you recruit Yuffie is somehow connected to your previous game over state. That connection can be exploited to ‘warp’ from the Yuffie encounter back to the battle you failed. And that could be almost any battle; even a boss fight from the very end of the game. The potential for speedrunning was obvious, but players soon realised that this ‘Yuffie Warping’ glitch could be used to skip the Forgotten City and prevent Aerith’s death.
But the result of the glitch is purely mechanical. It keeps Aerith in the party, and she can be levelled up and made a vital part of your battle strategy, but she’s nothing more than a voiceless warrior. She’s not in any cutscenes, and has no role in the story. She is soulless.
To truly give Aerith life after death, her story had to be re-written. The code and script of the game needed to be changed to allow you to save her life and fight alongside her to protect the planet. And that’s exactly what happened.
New Threat is an ambitious overhaul for the PC version of Final Fantasy 7. It’s the work of Stewart Melville, a modder better known as SegaChief, and has a completely refreshed approach to battles, bosses, character progression, and artificial intelligence.
“I think what I really wanted to do was just surprise people and just keep them interested,” says Melville. “Add little things in and maybe not document them just so that they can discover them on their own. That's how the Aerith thing came about originally because I was just working on the combat. I didn't really have any intention of doing anything story-wise.”
What started as a mod to remix the game’s combat became increasingly more advanced and complex. The game was split into two pathways – Type A and Type B – with Type B featuring significant changes to not just the game’s mechanics, but its story, too. Near enough every boss is different from those in the original game. There are brand new conversations. Events play out in different ways. Even the Wall Market cross-dressing scenario is replaced with a challenging multi-phase battle in Don Corneo’s dungeon. But the change New Threat is most famous for is the one that finally makes the rumours true. You can save Aerith.
<section data-transform="image-with-caption" data-image-url="https://assets-prd.ignimgs.com/2023/06/09/resurrecting-aerith-breathing-1686321229036.png" data-image-title="Aerith survives her ordeal with Sephiroth in the New Threat 2.0 mod for Final Fantasy 7. ” data-image-class=”article-image-full-size” data-image-link=”https://assets-prd.ignimgs.com/2023/06/09/resurrecting-aerith-breathing-1686321229036.png” data-caption=”%3Cstrong%3EAerith%20survives%20her%20ordeal%20with%20Sephiroth%20in%20the%20New%20Threat%202.0%20mod%20for%20Final%20Fantasy%207.%20%3C%2Fstrong%3E” />
“So originally I just went with that old joke, the Phoenix Down, which was a bit of an eye-roller,” says Melville. “But it was usually quite funny on streams because people in chat would say that beforehand, ‘Just use the Phoenix Down,’ and then they would watch as it actually happened and you'd get a good pop off on it. But later on I decided to try and make it a bit more seamless, just try to incorporate it into the gameplay mechanics a bit more.”
In the current version of New Threat, Aerith is part of the Jenova Life boss battle that immediately follows her death. After a few turns of combat, Jenova will resurrect Aerith and use her as a pawn. Killing Jenova without downing Aerith in the process triggers a whole new alternate route through the final half of the game; one in which Aerith remains a core part of the mission to save the planet.
“I just figured it would be nice to have the gameplay mechanic do it rather than have a dialogue option or something, or some other requirement that you have to go do a fetch quest or something,” says Melville. “I just wanted it to be a bit more interesting.”
But working out how to implement Aerith’s resurrection was just the start. Aerith was now alive for the rest of the game; that’s hours and hours of story. That meant Melville had to rewrite the script to acknowledge her survival.
“So when I initially did it, I tried to keep the footprint of it as little as possible,” he says. “Scenes where all the characters appear, you just add a copy in and repurpose the dialogue and the animations and then you're good to go.
“But there was a scene towards the end of disc two which I knew was going to be problematic,” he recalls. “I think it was Cosmo Canyon, when they start talking about Aerith and what she was maybe doing before she passed away. And I think that was the big problem because you can't have that when she's standing there so you have to think of something. So I think one of the best ways of getting out of a plot hole is to revisit stuff that's gone before and look for something that you can use. And I think one of the things was she wasn't sure what she was going there for and things like that, so there's a bit of ambiguity. So I was able to use that and repurpose that into the scene and then that seemed to work out.”
Melville had studied creative writing at university, and that education helped him put together Aerith’s new script. “I just looked at the dialogue quite a lot, trying to get the patterns and how it was written,” he says. “It's not how I would usually write dialogue for characters, the way the game presents dialogue, and games themselves have a different way of presenting dialogue to, say, a book. So it was just a case of trying to mimic that and get into the rhythm of it so that it would try and fit.”
Not long after the sequence in the Forgotten City, Cloud discovers the home of Professor Ghast; Aerith’s biological father. With Aerith now alive for this moment, Melville had to carefully re-script the scenario in order to strike the right tone.
“It's scenes like that I find a bit more awkward,” he says. “You have to be careful about how you handle it because you can get a bit too sappy, I guess. You can maybe get a bit too melodramatic so I try and find a balancing act if I can or just try and not go to one extreme to the other, try and make it too lighthearted or try and make it too melodramatic. Maybe try and find that middle ground.”
It was also important to keep Aerith’s sense of adventure alive, too, and so not everything could be focussed on her relationship with the planet and plot. You get to see her go a little wild during the siege of Junon when she beats Scarlett over the head with a chair; a fun reference to Final Fantasy 7 Remake. But the best example of New Threat’s approach to writing can be found during the flashback to Zack’s death.
“I needed to find a place to put each character's limit breaks,” says Melville. “So it always starts usually from a gameplay thing, […] But then I also was working on a request that people wanted Aerith to be a bit more involved in the story past disc one, so I was looking for opportunities to do that. I was at Cloud's scene where he's talking about Zack and that's when it clicked that maybe that's a good place for that to be placed.”
With Aerith now in the party, this sequence is not just Cloud putting together the last pieces of his fractured memory, but also Aerith finally discovering the tragic fate of her boyfriend. As the two reflect on the loss of Zack, their final Limit Breaks are unlocked. It’s a poignant way to conclude their personal stories.
<section data-transform="image-with-caption" data-image-url="https://assets-prd.ignimgs.com/2023/06/09/resurrecting-aerith-highwind-1686321253437.png" data-image-title="Aerith and Tifa onboard the Highwind following the siege of Junon in New Threat 2.0.” data-image-class=”article-image-full-size” data-image-link=”https://assets-prd.ignimgs.com/2023/06/09/resurrecting-aerith-highwind-1686321253437.png” data-caption=”%3Cstrong%3EAerith%20and%20Tifa%20onboard%20the%20Highwind%20following%20the%20siege%20of%20Junon%20in%20New%20Threat%202.0.%3C%2Fstrong%3E” />
Thanks to New Threat, Aerith finally gets to ride the Highwind and embrace her love of adventure. But despite the mod’s popularity and success, Melville occasionally wonders if bringing Aerith back from the dead was the right call.
“Sometimes I regret adding the feature in, if that makes sense,” he says. “Say if you're talking about [how] I've made some improvements to how the dialogue's presented, and then somebody fires back, ‘But you did this thing, so how can you say the story's better?’ You can never say it's an objective improvement, really.”
“What I've learned over the years is that people have different expectations of what they want out of it,” he adds. “Some people are replaying it to enjoy the story again, so a feature like that wouldn't be particularly welcome. Other people are looking for something new and interesting, or they've heard about that feature and they want to experience it, things like that. So you have to keep all of that in mind when you're making things like this. But I think for the remake, they have to maybe be careful about doing things like that or they'll get quite a bit of backlash.”
Somewhat similar to New Threat, the ongoing official Final Fantasy 7 Remake series is a complete re-imagining of the original game. Dealing with themes of fate and destiny, the re-written events see Cloud and Aerith choose a very different path. So far, that has already resulted in Zack surviving his encounter with the Shinra guards who killed him in the original game. And so it stands to reason that the upcoming second game in the trilogy – Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth – could go anywhere, including avoiding Aerith’s death. Just the possibility of that is already both exciting and controversial.
<section data-transform="image-with-caption" data-image-url="https://assets-prd.ignimgs.com/2023/06/09/resurrecting-aerith-destinys-crossroads-1686322434628.jpg" data-image-title="Aerith and her friends confront destiny in Final Fantasy 7 Remake.” data-image-class=”article-image-full-size” data-image-link=”https://assets-prd.ignimgs.com/2023/06/09/resurrecting-aerith-destinys-crossroads-1686322434628.jpg” data-caption=”%3Cstrong%3EAerith%20and%20her%20friends%20confront%20destiny%20in%20Final%20Fantasy%207%20Remake.%3C%2Fstrong%3E” />
“As much as I love her and the same with Zack, seeing him come back I was ‘Oh my gosh’, but at the same time both of their deaths were so monumental and had such a huge impact on the series that I don't know if I want them to go that route,” says Ally Tamara. “As much as I'd love to see them alive, it's too much. Everything that happened was meant to happen, and obviously changed many of our lives and many of our gaming experiences. The fact that so many people who talk about Aerith's death have it up there as one of the most monumental deaths in a video game speaks volumes.”
“I think [Aerith’s death] will go ahead but maybe not in the same place,” says Stewart Melville. “Because I think the whole idea of it was, if you have a story like that where everyone is aware of the twists and turns of it, so to speak, you need a way of recreating engagement, just not knowing where things are going to go. And I think they've succeeded in doing that, maybe in a bit of a heavy-handed way, but they have successfully made it so that you're not quite sure what's going to happen next. But I think that things will play out more or less the same.”
“It would be something else,” says Randall Rigdon Jr. about the possibility of Aerith surviving. “I would love to see it. It would definitely be a game changer. I would have to go make another April Fools' video that shows that you can still kill her, I guess.”
Regardless of the remake’s eventual path, one of its enduring legacies will have been providing many, many more hours for players to get to know and appreciate one of Final Fantasy’s most iconic and important characters.
“I think a lot of people do remember her from her death scene in the original game, but because of that there's always this kind of sadness when people talk about Aerith, they kind of don't talk about how she is in the game, but they talk about how they felt when she died,” reflects Aequorinn. “It's true that it's really sad when it happens, but what I really love about especially the remake is that a lot more people are experiencing her as I feel she was intended to be, so you're reminded that she isn't just this kind of sombre character who goes and sacrifices herself in the game. She's not just headed towards this death sentence, but she's really full of life and she just brings this really big sense of adventure to Final Fantasy 7.”
Despite happening over 25 years ago, Aerith’s death remains one of the most memorable and discussed moments in the history of video games. The emotional impact of her loss is revealing; only a truly unforgettable character could be the starting point for one of gaming’s most persistent urban myths, a legion of cosplaying fans, a hoax video with over two million views, and a painstakingly-crafted mod that re-writes her story.
Aerith may have died. But Aerith lives on thanks to the enduring love of the Final Fantasy 7 community.
Matt Purslow is IGN's UK News and Features Editor. Dale Driver is the Executive Producer of Video Programming.
With special thanks to Ally Tamara, Aequorinn, Randall Rigdon Jr., Stewart Melville, @duuken, nalvara, Karasu, Frankie Lollia, HighScore, Jakisaur, Sebbywebz, Jegged.com, Neohart, and Endless.