The Aeris Syndrome

Here there be spoilers.

A young woman is in your motley crew. She is descended from a mixed heritage, but one parent belongs to a line that offers hope to the world–a world that has been stricken with hardships. A large organization desires her skills for bringing about this hope, though the organization itself is corrupt and seeks to use her for their own gain. She carries a staff, is fairly demure but strong in conviction, and can be seen in boots and a dress. She is known for her healing ability and magical prowess. You know that her fate is to die.

Did I just describe Yuna from Final Fantasy X or Aeris from Final Fantasy VII? If I subtract two sentences from the above paragraph, I could also use this to describe Terra from VI. Final Fantasy likes giving us archetypal characters, adding quirks as the game progresses, but not really molding a particularly unique framework. For a series that does not have a consistent narrative between the Roman numerals, this becomes a method of making a player feel that they know these characters–they’ve played these archetypes before.

In fact, this is of use to the designers and writers, especially in FFX. It is fairly obvious early on that Yuna’s quest to defeat Sin by summoning the Final Aeon will result in her own death. We are served this piece of irony as Tidus continues on his own quest to help lead her to Zanarkand, somehow oblivious to the hints and silences that follow any talk of Yuna’s pilgrimage among his fellow guardians. We are marching forward a character we know has to die.

Contrast this with the earlier game, FFVII, which managed to create a scene that resides quite resolutely in gaming history. The first time we played this game, unless we’d had it spoiled for us by friends, there was no way of knowing that Aeris, that great healer (with whom I’d spent a considerable amount of time working on gaining her Limit Breaks), would be murdered by Sephiroth and unable to be resurrected by a Phoenix Down, following the great Final Fantasy theory that a character who dies completely out of the battle screen is gone for good. DEVASTATION!

For years, rumors persisted in methods of finding a way to resurrect Aeris. She became a symbol, and many a gamer will whisper in awed tones that he or she let a tear or many flow down the cheeks sometime between Sephiroth’s descending blade and Cloud releasing her corpse into the water. She had become a martyr–a saint, if you will.

Yuna plays on the St. Aeris prototype, except we know what is supposed to happen to her in this game. On their journey, Tidus and Rikku work on trying to find out some method of defeating Sin without requiring Yuna’s sacrifice. The player, in a very linear game, pushes forward, knowing what will happen if Yuna finishes her pilgrimage and confronts Sin. Despite the fact that everybody in Spira knows what sacrifice Yuna is making, they celebrate–she is their hope for a better life personified. She can bring the Calm.

The death of one against that of many becomes a desirable symbol in a world where the threat of obliteration persists. Aeris, using her White Materia before her death, casts the final spell to stop destruction from being visited upon the planet and life to which she dedicated herself. Following in step, Yuna must perform one final summoning, or casting. While she is no Cetra, her own father sacrificed himself in a similar manner ten years prior. It’s in both their heritages to be able to bestow this boon upon the people.

Women as peacemakers. Against the destructive male force, they are to bring forth life and a new future. Females birth new life, males destroy it. In both Yuna and Aeris’s worlds, the way they bring about peace is by no direct violence on their part. They will not bathe their own hands in blood (at least, in the action required to bring said peace).

Except Yuna does not die at the end of FFX; in fact, she goes on to star in the first true Final Fantasy sequel. Upon learning that one of her friends has to make the sacrifice to even become her Final Aeon, she refuses to continue the charade placed forth by the Church of Yevon. She refuses to be a false hope, endeavoring to forge a path not even her father before her could accomplish.

Instead, Tidus is the one whose world is undone as Yu Yevon, the corrupt deity behind Sin, is defeated and the Fayths are released, Dream Zanarkand evaporates, and he himself is the one who vanishes. The character who has been narrating the story to us and has been hinting at some end that spelled a future apart from Yuna, the one who serves as the protagonist, is the one whose story ends. Tidus has been a dream summoned by the Fayths the whole time, meaning he has been striving for his own demise, unwittingly.

For people who had played FFVII, this is quite the switch. Cloud, as the main protagonist, is the one who must continue on to fight Sephiroth and stop Meteor from destroying the planet. Basing a model of Aeris in Yuna allowed the creators to then play with the formula and play up the expectations.

In subsequent play-throughs of FFVII I am of two minds: play Aeris sparingly, because she’ll be gone anyway; or play her while I have her, using her healing Limit Breaks to bolster the party. Either way, I find myself further removed from Aeris’s plight, the shock of the initial play-through no longer able to phase me in quite the same way. Due to our supposed knowledge of what is to happen to Yuna, any guards we may set in place due to this expectation, are fully thwarted in the face of this bait and switch.

The trope that still remains strong is the romantic bond both plots place between this male/female duo, and the expectation that part of what we are mourning is the loss of a future together.

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About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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