In the middle of the 1997 role-playing game Final Fantasy VII, a kind, magical, nature-loving woman named Aerith is stabbed through the chest and drops dead. This shocking turn has been a source of sorrow and consternation for players ever since. Legions of Final Fantasy fans still share their experience of Aerith’s death online, to the point that “Did you cry when Aerith died?” has become a standard icebreaker.
It’s one of the most talked-about RPG moments of all time. But Aerith’s dying breaths were surpassed—in emotional impact and in artfulness—by a similar mid-game death in Final Fantasy VII’s 1994 Super NES predecessor, Final Fantasy VI. (This entry in the series was originally released as Final Fantasy III in North America.) One reason the FF6 death scene may be less of a subcultural touchstone than Aerith’s is that, depending on how it’s played, the FF6 moment doesn’t necessarily happen. But that’s also the source of its glory.
About halfway through Final Fantasy VI, the plucky gang of world-saving heroes arrives on the Floating Continent. It’s a mystical place where, by rearranging a few extra-special statues, the game’s main villain gains apocalyptic superpowers and tears the world asunder in the process. As the continents below fall into ruin, the Floating Continent also encounters its share of trouble, splitting apart beneath the player’s feet.
Amid this metastasizing chaos, a ninja-esque ally named Shadow swoops in. Shadow is the Han Solo type in Final Fantasy VI. Before you recruit him, one of your allies says that Shadow would “slit his mama’s throat for a nickel.” But while he’s brooding and independent-minded, prone to wander off on his own, he often shows up at the right moment to play the hero. His well-timed arrival on the Floating Continent is a case in point. Struggling to hold the villain at bay, Shadow tells you to go on without him (but also promises that you’ll see him again). So you fight your way back to your airship with an on-screen countdown clock ticking down the seconds until impending doom.
The timer, a device rarely seen in Final Fantasy beyond side quests and mini-games, sends an important subtextual message. By 1994, players had learned from years of conditioning that when a role-playing game says “hurry!” they probably don’t have to hurry. We had all experienced the phenomenon of the collapsing bridge that will tremble for eternity until you finally make your way to the other side, at which point it gives out. Or the deathly ill sage who urgently needs medicine yet maintains his grasp on life while you harvest treasure from monsters for a couple of hours. Even today, nobody takes “hurry!” seriously unless a game backs it up with a tangible threat. On the Floating Continent, the timer is the threat—the designers’ way of indicating that the suspense is for real.
After a few tense minutes spent countering random attacks by demon jesters, the heroes arrive at the edge of the landmass, poised to hop aboard your airship and return to relative safety. The doom clock keeps ticking as the options are offered to either “Jump!” onto the ship or “Wait.” (The YouTube video above ends right before this choice appears.) Here, again, FF6 plays with genre tropes. The “Do you really want to proceed?” dialog box is a standard RPG check-in at pivotal, no-turning-back decision points. Not only does it keep players from mistakenly moving on before they mean to, but it also serves as a sidelong hint itself. After all, the invitation to wait is a subtle suggestion that there might be something worth waiting for.
Or there might not. Often, the option to wait isn’t indicative of anything at all—rather, it’s just there for the player who wants to stick around and explore a bit more. So the dilemma on the Floating Continent is which subtextual message to obey: the timer, which tells you to jump, or the dialog box, which invites you to wait.
When I first played through Final Fantasy VI, I chose to jump. The godforsaken island in the sky was falling to pieces, and the pressure of the timer was too vivid to resist. I expected Shadow to escape unscathed, as he’s an independent sort. He didn’t. I mourned his loss, as he’s one of the most intriguing and entertaining characters in FF6’s huge cast, but not for long. I moved on and finished this thoroughly delightful game. As far as I knew, the collapse of the Floating Continent was just Shadow’s time to die—a pre-scripted moment of sacrifice at the climactic midpoint of the adventure. Wrong.
A year later, I returned to the game, this time with the aid of a strategy guide (specifically, the Final Fantasy III Player’s Guide by Peter Olafson, which must be among the most literate and entertaining game guides ever written). I once again reached the Floating Continent, and I flipped to the appropriate section in the book. I was stunned at what I learned.
Here’s what the strategy guide told me: If players decide to wait instead of jumping at that critical decision point on the edge of the Floating Continent, nothing happens right away. But the next time you bring up the dialog box, there’s a telling change in your options. Now the choice is between “Jump!” and “Gotta wait for Shadow…” It’s a more forceful hint that you ought to stick around in the interest of rescuing your friend. Indeed, if you choose the “Gotta wait for Shadow…” option, then the ninja with a heart of gold reappears with five seconds to go on the timer. Everyone makes it off the shattered continent, and although the airship breaks up in the air, Shadow can be found again in the post-apocalyptic ruins that serve as the setting for FF6’s second half. And so the strategy guide revealed that my decision to jump had mattered after all. Worse yet, it revealed that I had chosen to abandon a friend.
I’ve never paid much attention to the overarching story in Final Fantasy games—they’re all about saving the world from an existential threat, and they’re all laden with quasi-spiritual hokum for which I have no patience. But over the course of 100-plus hours of play, I do grow attached to the characters. I learn their tendencies in combat; I come to appreciate the quirks of their personalities; I observe the finer points of their visual design. Most of all, I like that when a character is added to my party, it’s the game’s way of saying, “You’re responsible for this person now.” Like most players, I take pride in that. The personal connection to the characters under my stead motivates me to keep playing when Final Fantasy gets tough.
That’s why I was never moved by Aerith’s death. Yes, she, like Shadow, is a member of my party, but her death isn’t my fault. It happens in a maudlin cut scene, out of my control. Far from shedding tears, I was instead annoyed at how presumptuous the Final Fantasy VII designers were to give me responsibility for a character and then abruptly take it away for the sake of a tearjerker moment. This is supposed to be what makes Aerith’s stabbing so dramatic, but it’s a cheap, ham-fisted move that rubs against the grain of what I perceive this “role-playing” game to be.
Conversely, the death of Shadow is amplified by the fact that it happens as the result of the player’s choices. On my repeat play-throughs of FF6, I’ve always waited for Shadow, yet the moment is forever tainted by shame over the decision I made the first time, when the tension was real and I didn’t have the benefit of peeking at the answer key. The death of Shadow had an impact because it said something about me. Specifically, it said that I was a coward. That’s a tough judgment to shake.
The power of the Floating Continent dilemma is fragile. If you choose to give Shadow the extra time he needs, for instance, the effect of the death is lost because it never takes place. Likewise, if you know the consequences of the somewhat cryptic choice to jump or wait, there is no dilemma, as the countdown clock’s threat of doom is rendered toothless. And in the Internet era, such a secret would be almost impossible to contain. If Final Fantasy VI were released today, it would only be hours before GameFAQs threads and Twitter conversations about saving Shadow cropped up.
In 1994, though, at a time when most players had to consult magazines or mass-market guides for in-depth knowledge—when the web was not yet the implicit companion piece to every video game—Shadow’s death had the potential to matter. As a player, I still regret that I didn’t wait to save Shadow the first time. But as a critic, I’m grateful that I once unwittingly made that “wrong” choice; it allowed me to experience a poignance in Final Fantasy VI that’s practically impossible to recreate today.