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It Really, Truly Does Not Matter That The New York Times Spoiled Final Fantasy VII

Spoiler culture makes art -- and people -- worse

Square Enix

Final Fantasy VII is famous for a lot of things: ushering in a new era of cinematic fidelity in video games, helping PlayStation become a powerhouse, the Cloud crossdressing scene. But if you asked a regular person off the street about it, there’s a decent chance that even if they hadn’t played the game, they’d be aware of a specific twist: Aerith’s death. So it was a bit surprising when, earlier this week, a New York Times article about that pivotal scene got a bunch of people talking about spoilers again.

The article itself – a rare acknowledgement of games’ cultural significance from a publication that has beefed up its coverage ever so slightly in the past year but has mostly focused on making games rather than writing about them – is headlined “The Shocking Death That Has Devastated Gamers for Decades.” However, many readers initially encountered it via a push notification that mirrored its subheading: “One of the most consequential scenes in video game history is being remade. Will the creators kill Aerith again?”

It was a matter of minutes before journalists and gamers began arguing over spoilers on Twitter. What, some asked, if this was the way somebody found out about one of Final Fantasy VII’s big twists? What if they were part of the new generation of gamers who weren’t alive in 1997, who’ve probably never played Final Fantasy VII? What if [insert third thing about a person we collectively invented whole cloth]? Sure, said those critical of NYT’s decision, Final Fantasy VII is nearly three decades old, but this subhed/notification still shouldn’t have been approved. In publishing it, NYT was showing – once again – how out of touch it is.

That line of thinking is, frankly, stupid. We should be able to openly discuss a landmark moment in video game history, especially one that occurred almost 30 years ago. Art exists as a means of communication. It aims to say something holistically, not just to generate wide-eyed, short-lived reactions on YouTube, TikTok, or people’s couches. Concern for spoilers should not supersede that. Allowing spoilers to rule our lives makes art – and people – dumber and more boring. 

Where Final Fantasy VII is concerned, let’s start with the obvious: If a random passerby from a generation of youth that’s more game-literate than any other in history is going to learn about a twist they probably already encountered while growing up online, it wouldn’t be from the New York Times, a paper whose audience skews younger than others but which still suffers from – as Vox, of all publications, put it – an “old white Democrats problem.” I mean, sure, maybe a few younger people learned about Aerith’s death from NYT’s push notification, but at that point we’re talking about a vanishingly small percentage of people, which is generally not a good reason to avoid doing something.

Let’s engage with this hypothetical a little further: An easy comparison, which many have made, is Star Wars. If this NYT piece was about Star Wars – another piece of media, but crucially not a game, with a historically resonant twist – nobody would bat an eyelash. We’d just assume that almost everybody knows the twist, or that the small handful of people who don’t will find other things to enjoy in a series of groundbreaking movies. Heck, they might even be intrigued by the twist and its cultural significance and use that as inspiration to finally sit down and watch the movies.

But even if someone learns about a twist The Right Way, there’s no guarantee that they’ll appreciate it. I was a Star Wars kid. I collected every action figure I could get my hands on and rewatched the movies incessantly. That said, I’m a millennial. I grew up decades removed from the original trilogy’s initial release, just as many are doing with Final Fantasy VII now. Still, I managed to find out about the Vader-is-Luke’s-father twist by seeing Empire Strikes Back rather than hearing about it ahead of time. And… it didn’t really land for me! I was young, so the most arresting parts to me were Luke losing his hand and the heroes’ apparent defeat at the end of the movie. I found all of it scary and unpleasant. Despite my Star Wars obsession, I spent years skipping Empire during most rewatches. I preferred to savor the cool battles and heroic victories present in A New Hope and Return Of The Jedi.

I offer this example to emphasize a point that’s been made countless times before by smarter people than myself: There are many ways to experience a piece of media and many axes around which your experience can rotate. A specific moment is not the be-all, end-all of a good story – or a good anything, for that matter. How you get there, where you go from there, and most importantly, what it’s all trying to say are so much more important than the shock and awe of a short-lived surprise. It can be disappointing to encounter a spoiler before its moment is due, but that doesn’t mean you’re having a subpar experience. It just means you’re having a different one. It will probably still be good and interesting in the end, unless you allow yourself to get hung up on the idea that it’s been preemptively ruined.

At this point in the broader arc of Final Fantasy VII, what’s more interesting than the twist itself – which has influenced numerous other, in some cases better twists since – is how it impacted people who experienced it at the time. Why was it so resonant? Why did it leave this massive cultural mark? The New York Times piece tries to engage with that legacy, to varying degrees of success. It quotes developers, players, and even an anthropologist, contextualizing things in the way you’d expect from an article aimed at NYT’s gargantuan mainstream audience. That’s fine! Countless books, shows, and films have received the same treatment. 

More importantly, Final Fantasy VII Remake, the predecessor to Final Fantasy VII Rebirth and the way many people will now play through this story, also puts itself in conversation with the original’s legacy. Remake is not so secretly not a remake at all; instead, it sees the new versions of Cloud, Aerith, and co cast off the weight of destiny and decide to forge their own futures, irrespective of what’s “supposed” to happen next. The game was clearly written with the idea in mind that players would already be aware of the original Final Fantasy VII’s pivotal moments. 

This means big beats land better if you know, for example, that Aerith is doomed to die. There’s a moment in Remake near the end where Aerith – who also seems to know what’s coming – says to Cloud, “Whatever happens, you can’t fall in love with me.” It’s heavy handed, but it made me tear up when I first played Remake back in 2020. You’ve just spent so much time with this new, even more vibrant version of the character, but you can see her execution play out in your mind’s eye. You can picture it so clearly. It haunts you like it seems to haunt her.

I’m glad to see that Final Fantasy VII Rebirth’s creators seem to be inviting discussion of the game’s story more than they’re dissuading it. Today Square Enix published a note from creative director Tetsuya Nomura making the fair request that content creators appropriately label spoilers during this early period – especially before the new game is even out – but adding that "we deliberately did not restrict the 'record' and 'share' functions for any areas in Final Fantasy VII Rebirth as we want you to be able to share and comment on your gameplay experiences."

All of this in mind, the New York Times piece asks a worthwhile question: Will the creators kill Aerith again? But the underlying, implied questions are, to me, more interesting: If the game’s creators decide Aerith should live a different life but still meet the same end, what will it mean this time? And who will be impacted by it in a cultural landscape that’s shifted massively since the original Final Fantasy VII first came out? Is this remake trilogy a pure nostalgia play, or can it speak across generations to people who weren’t there for the big moment the first time around? Conversely, if Aerith survives, what will that mean? And in letting her do so, what will Rebirth try to say? There’s no way to know yet, but I’m looking forward to finding out, however that might occur. 

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