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Off The Edge of Despair (listen)
It’s so hard to listen to this music without the characteristic “wheeze” that accompanies it in the game. It’s not even clear what the sound is supposed to be. Is Cloud’s wheelchair rhythmically creaking and squeaking? He isn’t even moving. Is he wheezing? Respiratory problems? Nobody ever makes direct reference to that being the case. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it’s just a part of the music track, but people have clearly ripped the music without the repetitive, harsh, mechanical .wav representation of either a wheelchair creak or the most unsettling and inhuman asthma attack in the history of fiction.
When your party loses Cloud in the Northern Crater, it seems like a foregone conclusion that he’ll be joining back up real soon. You’ve already lost one party member for good, they wouldn’t dare take away the main character as well. Considering the circumstances, it’s weirdly exciting to have Cid serving as the temporary team leader– as previously noted, he’s practically the unspoken glue keeping your party together in the face of rapidly-mounting opposition. Since Cloud’s gonna be back with us any minute now, may as well let Cid have his moment, right?
Then you go to Mideel. Cloud’s not gonna be back with us any minute now. The wheeze says it all. He’s not okay. I mean, let’s be real– he’s still probably coming back eventually, but it might take a while. To make matters worse, Tifa’s gonna bench herself for Cloud’s sake, as well. Your motley crew of seven (Yuffie and/or Vincent notwithstanding) has been whittled down to a far-less-motley crew of four. Aeris is dead, Cloud’s braindead and in a wheelchair, and Tifa can’t bear to go on while things are the way they are. Meteor looms, and the team you have to work with consists of a maniac mechanic, a man with a gun for a hand, a weird panther-dog thing and a stuffed animal mech being operated by a smaller cat thing that you’re sure as hell not going to use because he’s the worst. If you’ve been doing your sidequests, you can count among your ranks a ninja girl who cannot buy cigarettes and a brooding vampire guy. Great.
The journey has been getting more and more complicated. Each step of the way, you’ve acquired a deeper understanding of just how far over your head this is all flying. Your team has felt increasingly ill-suited to the job, and it’s begun to seem more and more like maybe nobody can stop Sephiroth or Shinra. But you’ve kept on truckin’, because it’s never seemed completely hopeless… until you hear that horrible wheeze, and you’re not so sure anymore.
Aeris’ Theme (listen)
It’s a cliche. Let’s get it out of the way. People who’ve never played Final Fantasy VII have heard it. It’s hard to imagine the word “spoiler” without having a big string of text that reads “AERIS DIES” appear in your mind’s eye. It’s the most ubiquitous spoiler in video game history. If people haven’t heard the theme, they at least know the context.
But let’s talk about that context. The context is interesting! Aeris’ death marks, roughly, the halfway point of the game. You meet her within the first two hours of the game. You spend nearly half the game with her. In life, Aeris is all over the place– most scenes feature her in some capacity– and that’s part of why her death is such a significant moment. She has a presence that the other party members do not. Aeris gets a lot of screen time out of her life, is what I’m saying.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget, then, that as her body goes limp and her materia bounces in slow-motion into the water below, it’s only the second time you’ve ever heard this piece of music. It’s the second of three times that it plays, at all. There’s another arrangement of her theme, “Flowers Blooming in the Church,” that plays more often. “Flowers” is a relaxing and calm piece of music. “Aeris’ Theme” can only really be described as mournful. When the instrumentation kicks in, it’s such an impenetrable wall of sadness that it’s hard to imagine the music being used anywhere without feeling offensively incongruent.
There’s an admirable amount of reservation put into that moment, that they’ve essentially held on to a character’s theme music until her death, and made it as mournful as it needs to be, to boot. It’s disarmingly simple. It gives the impression that Aeris exists only to die. You’ve played enough to know that’s not true, but to see the game treat her that way makes it feel like it’s already beginning to undo her, to invalidate her. The game is robbing you of Aeris, and it’s making you feel bad for getting attached. She was a character tailor-made to die, that’s it.
Sephiroth even attempts to downplay her death, moments after stabbing her, mirroring the game. Cloud’s having none of it. “Aeris is gone. Aeris will no longer talk, no longer laugh, cry… or get angry…”
It’s telling that he hesitates at “get angry.” Aeris never got angry. It’s a sub-vocal monument to her legacy, a constant reminder that she existed outside her fated end. If you let the game trick you into thinking she exists solely to die, some two-bit cardboard cutout character with a big ol’ “Hey I’m Going To Die Later” scribbled over her face, well, it’s your loss.
Final Fantasy VII’s cast of playable characters is frightfully normal compared to previous games in the series. There’s no royalty, no dramatically-reformed villains, no destined heroes, nothing of the sort. Your party is just a group of regular, unremarkable sentient beings who have banded together to do the right thing– except for Aeris. She’s irregular, she’s remarkable. She’s the final survivor of a progenitor race that once ruled your planet, and because of that she’s deeply in-tune with the planet’s cycle of life in a way normal beings are not. She should stand out like a sore thumb, and yet she’s most easily remembered for how disarmingly normal she is. One might even call her the most-human party member you get. She was an interesting paradox of a character who always managed to keep things light, and then Sephiroth stabbed her.
It’s always disappointing to see people try and spin this scene’s memeticism as having something to do with being the “first” time a game killed off a party member. That’s almost insulting in its falsity. Tons of RPGs had killed off party members before. None of them had so thoroughly-committed themselves to that singular moment of loss. I mean, you fight a fucking boss right after she dies and her theme keeps playing. This is the saddest boss music in the history of video games.
The North Cave (listen)
Let’s talk world map themes. No, not that one– that’ll be coming later. I’m talking about Final Fantasy VII’s second and final world map theme. All the usual calling cards of a stereotypical JRPG World Map theme song– senses of whimsy, adventure, the world’s vastness– all bled dry. In their place, impermeable dread. A piano’s approximation of a rapidly-ticking clock. A busted-up, downtrodden melody trying and failing to cut its way through tense, buzzing drones.
Incidentally, the past few tracks you’ve read about are all from the same general portion of the game. Things have changed. It isn’t “Where in the World is Sephiroth Sandiego?” anymore. You know where Sephiroth is, you saw him and everything. He murdered Aeris, you went to the Northern Crater, you heard your future world map theme, he robbed you of Cloud and by extension Tifa. This has been the past few hours of your life. Things have not gone as planned. Things are bad. If you weren’t yet sure that things were bad, try leaving town for once. Hear the music. This isn’t an adventure anymore. There’s a meteor in the sky. There’s a meteor in the sky. You’ve failed. You can hear your failure.
It takes a long time, between finding Sephiroth’s hiding place and rallying your crew enough that you can actually go there and kill him. Little by little, you work your way back from the edge of the abyss. After each step you take, you return to the world map and start to wonder if it’ll really be enough.
Interrupted by Fireworks (listen)
Despite what I might have you believe, Final Fantasy VII isn’t all doom and gloom. More often than not, it’s goofy as heck. A lot of the times it’s charming. Sometime’s it’s just straight sad. Sometimes still, it’s sweet. Do you remember the time you realized Final Fantasy VII is a dating sim?
Maybe you didn’t realize it. If you’ve only played the game once, you’d be forgiven for failing to realize that a scene you watched was one of four possibilities. Maybe you spent a night out and about at the Gold Saucer with Aeris. Maybe you spent that night with Tifa. Think for a second about how critical that difference is. The last-possible moment of genuine levity that you get to share with Aeris, and maybe you spent it with Tifa instead. Maybe you spent it with Yuffie. Maybe you spent it with Barret.
From the moment you get back from your first bombing mission, the game has been silently keeping track of several dialogue choices you’ve made. Somewhere in the neighborhood of forty decisions you’ve made have been manipulating a set of four variables to determine who you get to spend that night with.
You’re on a gondola. Through a window, the sights are passing you by. Fireworks go off. Maybe Aeris will start to figure out some of Cloud’s problems and voice her concerns. Maybe Tifa will try to say the same thing, but be too nervous. Maybe Yuffie will kiss Cloud and immediately regret falling for the densest mass in the known universe. Maybe you’ll be sharing an impossibly-awkward evening with Barret.
It’s a small moment, but in hindsight it’s so much larger than it seems. It comes back to the idea of small, simple people caught up in something much larger than themselves. They all wish every night could be like this. In a few short days, the girl who wanted to find “the real you” will be killed before she gets the chance. Another will have to pick through the wreckage of your psyche, wishing she’d spoken up sooner. The other two dates will have to try carry on their fight without you. Innocence needs to be established before it can be stolen. Final Fantasy VII loves to take a few minutes every now and then to have small character moments like these, so it can do just that.
Final Fantasy VII is a weird game. Sometimes you’re watching fireworks from within a gondola with that special someone. Sometimes you’re visiting someone’s hometown and finding out their tragic past. Sometimes you’re racing atop a big dumb yellow bird in the hopes of earning clemency from a messed-up prison colony in the desert. Sometimes you’re watching your friend die. Sometimes you’re dressing up as a woman so some perverted mob boss will try to sleep with you and you can threaten to cut his balls off if he doesn’t give you the information you need.
Other times, you’re fighting an alien life-form that travels the stars draining all the life force it can out of each planet it comes to. Other times, you’re fighting a horribly-mutated mad scientist who has injected himself with that alien’s cells. Other times, you’re descending into the core of your very own planet in a last-ditch effort to save it. All of these times, the game’s usual check-out-this-sweet-guitar-riff boss music isn’t going to cut it. You’re going to need pulsing synths, a rapid-fire string section, and occasional barrages of MIDI trumpets to really set the mood.
There’s not much else to say. It’s a banger. It’s a wonderfully-distinct boss battle tune that fits like a glove whenever its used. Final Fantasy VII is a game with many, many hands– it’s no small feat that it’s got so many unique and memorable gloves to fit each one.
Only five to go! Click here for writings on my top five favorite Final Fantasy VII tracks.