Heroines of Gaming: Aeris Gainsborough
Throughout the entirety of my history with video games, one thing as stayed fairly consistent for me–I generally gravitate toward my female characters. And it’s not that I don’t appreciate male characters, (who tend to be the “star” of the game in the vast majority of titles) it’s that in most cases, I relate to the heroines more. Though most video games tend to have male writers and creators, I actually find the female characters they’ve created to be infinitely more interesting, and in a lot of cases, better developed than the heroines you’d see whose origins are in television or film. Growing up with a mother who exposed me to soap operas from a young age left me rather traumatized in regards to female imagery in the media. (Sleeping with your friend’s husband, and then throwing her in a pool while ripping her dress off makes you shed a tear of pride at the representation of your gender in an art form.)
Needless to say, I found a great deal of solace when I’d pop Golden Axe into my Sega Genesis and pick Tyris-Flare. It was far more enticing for me to summon a Fire Dragon out of the sky and scorch the crap out of my enemies than to engross myself in a movie or show about a girl who waits around to be rescued by her hero. And they just didn’t make many shows like that for girls when I was growing up. Hence where my intrigue with all these wonderful, limitless female characters I got to play as stemmed from. And that’s why this column was born–to showcase the female video game characters who have inspired me since I was a wee kid with my first clunky, grey GameBoy.
And while my first character of choice is somewhat of a cliché, possibly obvious pick, there’s not many others I could consider putting before her:
Aeris Gainsborough [Final Fantasy VII]
(Yes, I’m spelling it Aeris and not Aerith, as it was in the original, sometimes hilarious translation of the game.)
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. “Vanessa. You’re talking about how you like kick-ass female video game characters, and the first character you come up with is a White Mage in a pink dress!?”
Technically speaking, that’s what she is.
Aeris has the distinction of being an icon in gaming, not only because of the overall success of Final Fantasy VII, but because of her actual role in game, which only amplified its success further. One of the greatest gaming spoilers of the 1990s was “Aeris dies.” And as you may know, previous Final Fantasies have killed off characters before, but what made Aeris’ death so impactful? Galuf died in Final Fantasy V and yet due to his old age, and replaced with a party member it was far less poignant. Shadow’s [optional] death was even less so. He was intentionally written to be a more tragic, loner type character. And on top of that, his penchant for leaving my party as he pleased with the gear I equipped him with made it more difficult for me to miss him if I opted to make the airship depart without waiting for him.
Miss Gainsborough is a bird of another color entirely, however. While most people haven’t replayed Final Fantasy VII as ad nauseum as I have likely consider her your pretty princess, healer type. Really going out of your to replay the game and covering its side content and optional scenes definitely proves otherwise. And while I am a huge fan of Tifa Lockheart also, I greatly enjoyed the dynamic (and eventual friendship) between the two women, I couldn’t help but notice how much more mature and accepting Aeris was before Tifa came around.
When your party is in Don Corneo’s mansion in Wallmarket, a hilarious series of events ensues where, in order to infiltrate his mansion, The Don will select one of your female party members (or Cloud in drag depending on how well you dressed him). The two partymembers he does not choose get left to his subordinates. Having played the game enough times to see all possible outcomes, I was surprised to see VERY different reactions from both female leads. If Tifa is chosen by The Don, Cloud exclaims, “We have to go save Tifa!” Aeris will curtly reply, “Right! Let’s go save her!” However, when Aeris is chosen by The Don, when Cloud exclaims the same thing vice versa, Tifa is not quit as accepting and will reply, “Cloud! Don’t you even care how I am!?”
There are many other scenes in Wallmarket alone that made me grow very attached to Aeris as a character as well. When left outside the Honey Bee Inn to wait for Cloud, when you return to find her, you discover quite a few things ensued while she spent time with men outside. Some of the more perverted men will inform you that according to her, Aeris wouldn’t give them a date for “all the gil in the world.” However, some of the more polite ones she was far gentler with; including Tifa’s friend Johnny, giving him a flower and 5 gil as a token of her appreciation.
Despite Tifa’s reservations about her, Aeris shows no reluctance at all when Tifa asks her to find Barrett’s young daughter, Marlene, and bring her to safety during the assault on Sector 7. In order to fulfill this deed she is finally captured by Shinra (after many unsuccessful attempts on their part). And even while being held hostage in a helicopter by Tseng, she doesn’t whine or cry for help like a damsel in distress, but calmly assures her friends that she got Marlene to safety.
While having never met Cloud previously, Aeris intuitively picks up on Cloud’s various identity issues and mako poisoning almost immediately. During her Gold Saucer date with Cloud, she informs him she’d like to “really” meet him. She also proves to be very supportive and a wildly good sport when the effects of Jenova and mako kick in, causing Cloud to physically assault her outside of the Temple of the Ancients.
Aeris’ level of embellishment and treatment as a full party member (where as many characters intended to die are incomplete and have less abilities/skills than average) made many unsuspecting gamers grow very attached to her, which spring boarded her death as one of the most iconic moments in gaming ever. In addition to that, she is also one of your most solid party members, being the best offensive and healing magic user you get, simultaneously.
She is also one of the earlier video game characters to spawn Urban Legends, most of which about her resurrection during the game. Revival rumors were rampant amongst gamers in the 90s, many of which I admit to attempting myself. Further fanning the flames was that, when Game Sharked back into your party after her death, there are instances when Aeris has dialogue unique to only her.
In your author’s very humble opinion, the Final Fantasy series was one of the first to properly develop and embellish its roster of characters. Final Fantasy VII specifically brought this to an entirely different level in addition to that. Aeris was seemingly designed to take the pink dress-wearing stereotype of female video game characters, and turn it on its head. She’s a fantastically developed character, who breaks a lot of molds through fine tuning and witty dialogue. This “damsel in distress” isn’t afraid to stand up for herself when men are heckling her, or put herself in harm’s way to help out not only friends, but even those who have reservations about her. She can kick a fair amount of ass gameplay-wise, too—that is when you don’t need her to save the rest of your party’s collective asses.
Author’s Note: No, I don’t hate Tifa. Quite the opposite, actually. And she will likely get her own entry in this column at some point!
Heroines of Gaming is a Gaming Angels column that literally celebrates heroines of video games, in case you couldn’t tell, written by our beloved Vanessa Brangi.