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Save Aeris – How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Aeris Gainsborough (Kill Screen)

Everyone has an Aeris story.

You’re fifteen or sixteen years old. Or maybe in your twenties. Or maybe ten. You’re playing your (or your older sibling’s, or your friend’s) PlayStation in a dark room—a basement or a bedroom at night, maybe—bedcovers shoved at the base of the door in a weak attempt to fool your parents (or your roommates, or your significant other) into thinking you’re not playing that game again.

Maybe you’ve been skipping classes. Maybe you’ve called off work. Faked sick to get out of piano or dance or karate lessons. You’ve put hours into Final Fantasy VII and still haven’t finished the first disc.

You’ve just guided your party through the Forgotten Capital to find Aeris, the most innocent member of your party, praying. One of the game’s mind-blowing 3D cut scenes begins. The polygons! The color! The pointy hair!

The camera cuts between Aeris and Cloud. A beam of light shines across his face. Another cut. The camera pushes in on Aeris. She raises her head and smiles at Cloud. The camera tilts up toward the source of the light as the villain Sephiroth falls into view. Two quick camera cuts and a descending tone draw out the moment, giving you enough time to figure out what is about to happen, and to dread it.

One final cut—this time, with a sword. That cut (more of a stab, really). That death that hangs over every videogame death and every conversation about videogames and emotion.

The cinematic is unabashedly histrionic. It slaps you in the face. And you get angry or sad or you roll your eyes and move on. Maybe you figure Aeris will return at the end, and so you continue playing the game with the hope of seeing her again. But it doesn’t happen.

Her death was permanent. In more ways than one: It’s the death that won’t go away.

Not that people haven’t tried to undo it.

There are plenty of urban legends about how to save Aeris. If everyone is level 99 and has never died in battle by that scene, she will not die. If you are nice to her and really mean to Tifa, Tifa will sacrifice herself in Aeris’ place.

The archaeological remains of these conversations, mad with a desperate logic and a desire to right a wrong, are still there. If you know where to look. And the beginnings are a lot more complicated than just, “Some fans fell in love with a digital girl and never wanted her to die.”

It’s early 1997. Aeris’ death hasn’t happened yet.

The Internet of the late 1990s means free homepages (what’s a blog?) hosted on Geocities, Tripod, or Angelfire. <Marquee> and <Blink> tags and Netscape Navigator buttons and white text on star backgrounds. Tiny images, no video, and MIDI songs.

The three-way console arguments are Sony vs. Nintendo vs. Sega. The pending release of SquareSoft’s Final Fantasy VII for the Sony PlayStation has the potential to upset this situation. The Final Fantasy games have, until now, been released on Nintendo consoles. They’re some of the most popular games in Japan, and the ones that made it to North America have been equally well-received.

Though the English-language translation of VII won’t be released until September, dedicated fans have preordered import copies, Japanese-English dictionaries at the ready. They are prepared to work their way through the game, translating as they go, using the social media of 1997 (Usenet and WWWBoards) to crowdsource (though that term hasn’t been coined yet) any problems they run across.

For a moment, it looks like this will be the only way to experience the full version of the game. In early February 1997, a Next Generation article about the English translation mentions the possibility that Sony America would censor certain scenes. The community response is a complex mix of crusading-for-art and fan-entitled-ownership of the company and the game.

Tirades about Puritanical American culture accompany petitions and an attempted rally to stop the censorship of the game. They want to play the game that SquareSoft intended to create, dammit! About two weeks after the initial story, Sony declares it will not cut any content. Some read this as a victory of the community over Sony and, importantly, on behalf of SquareSoft. The upcoming American game is assured to be equivalent to the original Japanese game.

Keep in mind it’s 1997. You can’t go online and watch hours of video or look at screenshot after screenshot. Some folks have played a demo. But mostly the game they’re defending is one they’re imagining. They’ve filled in the blanks between the magazine screenshots and preview articles. Final Fantasy VII for English speakers is, at this point, a mystery. Experiencing it requires special training, decoding of a completely different language and symbolisms both visual and verbal. What it really needs is a translator.

Enter Lansing.

The earliest Aeris-revival hoax was perpetrated by a man who called himself “Lansing.” On March 6, 1997, a month or so after the game’s Japanese release, Lansing shows up in a thread in The Final Fantasy VII Discussion group hosted by The Chocobo Range. He claims to be a “temporary translator” for SquareSoft’s Los Angeles studio, and his arrival on the board is met with excitement and a flurry of questions about the game, its translation, and possible re-releases of the other Final Fantasy games.

Some of the forum members are understandably skeptical of Lansing’s credentials. A few posters, though, appear to take him at his word—and one of the first things they quiz him on is how to resurrect Aeris.

The question had been raised the month before, on February 11, 1997. A user with the handle “Butz Yung” posts to the newsgroup. Subject line: “Must EARISU be killed in FF7?” The message body:

I dont want that to happen(but it has happened…) :( …….is there
any way to save her from being killed????
And where is Vincent(the gun guy)?

This is, as far as I can determine, the first time Aeris’ death is mentioned in English. (Earisu, Aerith, and Aeris are all alternate ways of spelling her name.) People get angry—this is a spoiler! But from the beginning, they also question her death: Maybe it’s something that doesn’t have to happen, that can be avoided.

Lansing suggested it could. Apparently fancying himself a clever trickster, he claims he is legally bound to keep certain information under wraps until the game’s North American release date. He apologizes for this in advance, and uses it to justify the cryptic nature of his hints.

The next few days see a back-and-forth between Lansing and forum posters named Mooncalf, Smear, and Akuma Matata, among others. Mooncalf posts this list of things that needed to be gathered to resurrect Aeris, according to Lansing’s clues:

– 4 huge materia (there is only 4, not a mysterious 5th)
– Masamune Blade (Seph’s sword won at Gold Saucer)

– an “item from Midgar” (?)

– an item which will distract Mr. Fishy at the shell village.

– Aerith’s materia bead

Events which need to be undergone:

– Bugen Hagan’s death (take Red to the old guy in Cosmo Canyon)

– long before his death, the scene where Bugan Hagan does all that stuff at the shell village with Aerith cinemas.

– Lansing said we were pretty close to the mark when we mentioned using Seph’s sword to open the Jenova door ….. any one know?

– The general’s missions which leads to Bakusa, and of course, the fish foood /distractor.

All of this information is being gathered by non-native Japanese speakers playing imported copies of the game. The “shell village” is the Temple of the Ancients, and “Mr. Fishy” is the name they give a giant fish that swims over Aeris’ grave, according to Lansing. One of his original clues even had people searching the game for fish food to distract said Mr. Fishy in order to reach Aeris’ corpse.

Still with me?

The timeline gets murky here, but sometime around the end of March, Lansing apparently gets bored with the trick and writes himself an out. He posts a lengthy description of the Aeris revival process as he claims it was originally intended to work—and an explanation as to why it doesn’t.

There are differences in this account and the previous things Lansing has said. It’s like the conversations over the past month were a hoaxer’s workshop, and he’s incorporated the feedback about what is and isn’t believable.

By the final post, Sephiroth’s sword and the huge materia are gone. “Bakusa,” another rumored hidden character, is no longer part of the quest. Mr. Fishy now transports you to the cavern where Aeris’ life essence (the white materia that falls underwater in her death scene) can be found. Returning this to the village elder Bugenhagen back on the surface allows him to resurrect Aeris.

In order to finish the quest, the player needs a special materia to allow breathing underwater. Fans using the GameShark, a device that allowed them to inspect some of the game’s code as it runs, have discovered that a materia for underwater breathing had been partially coded into the Japanese release of the game. To acquire this underwater-breathing materia, says Lansing, the player must return to Midgar before Aeris dies to speak to a man called the General. Aeris will heal his sick friend, and after her death, if you visit the General, he will repay the favor with the underwater breathing materia. But it turns out that it’s impossible to return to Midgar before Aeris’ death. According to Lansing, the game’s multiple delays finally forced the development team to cut features, and this is one of the casualties.

Back in February (around the time of the Next Generation report that the game may be censored), Square confirmed in a magazine interview that Aeris does not return to the party, and that there is no underwater-breathing materia. Its partial existence in the code fits with Lansing’s story of a quest dismantled halfway through construction. Lansing ends his post claiming that multiple CGI video cut scenes were created for the end of the game that show the party with and without Aeris. Lansing explains that they are on the disc but can only be read by a program that reads “multiple sector files”—and then promptly disappears from the discussion.

In the spirit of the previous month’s “Stop Sony from censoring Final Fantasy VII” petitions, on March 29th, a newsgroup member named James Elkins starts a petition to have the game “completed” before its English release. He calls for the reinstating of the Aeris resurrection quest and the “true” ending of the game. Here, again, business interests are accused of getting in the way of how the game was “intended” to be played. But on May 12, Elkins kills his petition in response to a new fan translation of part of the game and a post by another newsgroup member, Joe Chan, describing the content of the MOV files, and indicating that none of them contained a resurrected Aeris, as Lansing had claimed.

Things are relatively quiet for a few months. But the idea that the game is incomplete even in its Japanese version still pops up, and Sony continues to be the villain who corrupts the pure Final Fantasy VII.

The game releases in English in September, and a new group of players experience Aeris’ death. And so the attempts to resurrect Aeris explode again—not least because the underwater-breathing materia shows up in the U.S. version of the game, and so a not-so-twisted (though certainly stretched) logic suggested that Square may have added a way to save Aeris.

On October 9, Lansing reappears on the newsgroup, in a post with the subject “I HAVE A CONFESSION TO MAKE.” He admits he made everything up, and tells the story from his point of view. He also highlights holes in his story that would have automatically discredited him, had anyone picked up on them (“Heh … multiple sector MOV files. Right. And pink monkeyd fly out of my butt. Get real, people.”).

Two days after Lansing’s confession, Christian Nutt (who would later go on to work at Gamasutra) and Brad Shoemaker (three years before he started working at GameSpot and 11 years before Giant Bomb) start a mock-petition to discourage people from continuing their Save Aeris petitions.

At this point, the Lansing rumor and its reactions stop changing, and a years-long cycle is established. “Lansing” ended up a part of the folklore, a kind of prophet for the “revivalists”—a disparaging term for people who believed it’s possible to resurrect Aeris.

You can still find these questions today, although they’ve migrated from Usenet to Yahoo! Answers. A typical post-Lansing Aeris thread goes something like this: A subject line with some misspelling of “resurrect Aeris???” Body: “I herd there is a way to resurect aeris after she dies can you please tell me how to do it thanks email me because I don’t check this group often.” The first few responses vary between helpful and amused (“Here we go again…”), before the thread explodes into a fit of anti-“newbie” xenophobia and a rant against Lansing and his legacy.

In his confession, Lansing smugly recalls the contributions of others to his hoax: “Some of them even made up little lies themselves in defense of me. I thought that was a bit overboard, but people will be people.”He was playing them, having a little Internet fun, and he fooled them all.

Except he didn’t. In late April 1997, D’ary Greene posted a message on claiming to be forum regular Akuma. According to Greene, the early acceptance of Lansing’s story by several of the forum’s posters was actually an attempt to get Lansing to trap himself in a lie.Their attempts to out the hoax ultimately gave it staying power: Outside of the newsgroup, it can still be found on many websites from the time.

The structure of the original post is also key. First Lansing details how the resurrection was “intended” to happen, then he explains that one small change was made to block off the content. It’s a transformation of the story that people were predisposed to believe—that, artistically, Aeris was supposed to come back, but corporate interests got in the way. In an industry where delays are the norm, where plot and character are features alongside graphics and physics, it’s easy to believe Aeris’ resurrection was killed by a deadline.

In a 2003 interview with Edge magazine, Yoshinori Kitase explains the motivation behind Aeris’ death. “Death comes suddenly and there is no notion of good or bad attached to it. It leaves, not a dramatic feeling but a great emptiness. When you lose someone you loved very much you feel this big empty space and think, ‘If I had known this was coming, I would have done things differently.’ These are the feelings I wanted to arouse in the players with Aerith’s death relatively early in the game.”

The number of people looking for ways to bring her back to life, or to save her from dying, suggests the team was successful. Fans felt loss—but instead of just thinking about the things they would have done differently, they tried them all, and hoped that they would save her from dying.

Looking for a way to stop Aeris’ death or to resurrect her after she’s gone—they’re both ways of dealing with loss. So is blaming Square for killing her, or Sony for keeping Square from seeing its vision to its completion. And so is refusing to give up almost to the point of blindness, the idea that trying anything is better than nothing.

Aeris is far from the only fictional character whose death caused a massive public reaction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in 1893, only to bring the character back, first in a novel set before his death and then in several short stories, one of which contains a fictional account of his return. Doyle, tired of the character, sought to focus on his other writing. According to one popular (but unsubstantiated) story, men in London wore black armbands to mourn the detective’s death. How much of the character’s return can be chalked up to audience request (when you are a good Englishman and the royal family requests you write more stories about the character, you take up your pen and you think of England!), and how much was the need for a guaranteed sell, is hard to say.

Little Nell, a character in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, is another antecedent. She is kind and loving, she takes care of her grandfather, and she is purely concerned for other people. Much like Aeris, she is an uninteresting, insufferable goody-goody.

The story was published in installments in Dickens’s weekly periodical, Master Humphrey’s Clock. Within three days of publishing Chapter 53, in which Nell visits an old church and has a conversation in a graveyard, Dickens had received several letters “recommending poor little Nell to mercy.” Apparently a chapter that begins with a 14-year-old girl watching children play in a graveyard while an infant sleeps on a fresh grave, continues in the chapel near the church where she meditates on death, and ends with her looking “pale but very happy” after she is brought home, led some readers to believe she was not long for the world. But this is a Dickens novel, so she hangs around for another 15 or so chapters.

There’s an anecdotal story about people storming the piers of New York City, demanding to know from people coming from England whether or not Nell has died. Bret Harte’s poem “Dickens in Camp” details an emotional reading of the story amid a group of gold miners in California.

When Nell dies, the blame falls squarely on Dickens’ shoulders. People write angry letters. They weep openly, detailing their emotional response in letters and diaries. They commiserate with one another. Wonder if any of them thought about starting a petition?

Part of the tension arising from Aeris’ death comes from the fact that it doesn’t make sense mechanically. In a game where a spell called “Death” can be undone with a few feathers from a phoenix, the permanent death of a character just doesn’t follow. Lansing’s hoax resolves that tension and places it in the game’s context (not enough money to make it consistent!) rather than in the game itself. It’s very important that a game not contradict itself.

And so we use the logic that we’ve been using to interpret most of the game to respond to Aeris. We blame and we get angry and we bargain and we start looking for the kinds of patterns and strategies that the rest of the game asks from us.

Aeris’ death in a videogame allows you to act out the what-if scenarios of grief. You can try to relive your time with her, do things differently, construct a game experience where things go better and she doesn’t die. You can reject the notion that she is ever coming back and move on with the game and your life. You can get angry at Sephiroth or Square or Sony for killing her or keeping her dead. You can argue with people on the Internet, or share your sadness. You can learn a little bit about loss and how it affects different people, and about what makes other people feel loss.

But you can also pick apart the system. You can dig through the source code and chase down rumors and piece together information. Even when the system is locked down, when it’s completely scripted and your input means little, your interpretation matters. Because it’s not just the game itself—it’s what goes on around the game, between the players and the game, that really matters.

Those letters to Dickens, asking him to spare Nell? They’re from readers, trying to change the fate of a character they love with the tools they have at hand. A century later, their descendants—Aeris’ would-be saviors—with their research and their rituals and their rules and cheats and walkthroughs and hoaxes? Folks working together, asking for help, picking apart the system and breaking the rules and maybe remaking the world—or, in failing to do that, finding out what its true limitations are. Those are players.

Everyone has an Aeris story; the revivalists’ stories are just the most extreme. Their dedication reminds us that imagining the game you want to play is a more personal, unique experience than the actual videogame can be. So why let it get in the way?

This story originally appeared in Kill Screen Issue 3. Many thanks to Chris Dahlen and Ryan Kuo, who edited the piece. If you liked it, buy a copy of the magazine!

Can’t get enough of Aeris? I wrote about researching and writing this story.

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September 2011
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