Kindness is in short supply these days. That’s partially down to the pandemic, and partially down to people just being bastard-coated-bastards. Every once in a while, there’s a big social media trend for messages like “Be Kind.” These have their heart in the right place but ultimately, they mean nothing. All anyone ever does is change their bio or throw a hashtag on their profile pic instead of, you know, actually being kind. Video games can be a wonderful outlet during these miserable times, but they can also cause that misery and anger to turn toxic, especially in online communities. That’s why I love Aerith Gainsborough so much. In a world full of despair, she reminds everyone that it’s important to be kind.
The characters of Final Fantasy 7 – I’m basing this mostly on the Aerith of the remake, since in isolation that is a perfect video game – are not living through a pandemic, but they do find themselves in the same, dreary state of existence where every day is the same. The sky is being paved over, and they live under the rotten, metallic pizza in the slums, with each day no different from the last. Aerith doesn’t actually hail from the same small village as Tifa, Barrett, and Jessie, but she quickly gets dragged along for the ride, while Cloud is a merc from out of town. Much like all of us in the pandemic, even though they come from different places and lead different lives, most of their days are the same, day after day after day.
They each cope with this struggle in different ways. Barrett focusses on his daughter and on taking down Shinra, while Tifa runs her bar, joins Barrett’s cause, and helps with community initiatives. Jessie mainly tries to jump Cloud’s bones, and generally wants to distract herself with thrills. Cloud is a merc, and so goes wherever he’s asked to go, and kills whatever he’s paid to kill. Aerith copes with it through being kind.
Aerith looks after the children in her village and grows flowers to add a bit of colour to everyone’s bland existence. We only see flowers sprout up occasionally in the game, mainly around Aerith’s home or at the church where she makes her living, fittingly enough, as a florist. These are not just randomly dotted around the game to add variety to the scenery; flowers are deliberately used to build Aerith’s character, and to show the powerful perseverance of being kind.
That her favourite flower is a lily is particularly important. Lilies are typically associated with death, sure, but they’re also incredibly resilient flowers. They can bloom in the most difficult of conditions, and require less clean environments than most flowers do. With Aerith fighting against a capitalist corporation and for climate justice, they suit her to a tee. Aerith does not see herself as a freedom fighter though, nor a green warrior, but as someone simply trying to make the world a better place. When the gang identifies themselves to Shinra in one of the final chapters of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Aerith refers to herself as a ‘local florist’, because that is how she sees herself, and that is how she has chosen to be kind.
Under Shinra’s dome, flowers are very difficult to grow. Sunlight and rainfall, two key requirements for flower growth, cannot be relied upon. And yet, Aerith persits. She works hard on a very tender and meticulous activity, putting in the effort to grow something beautiful; to offer hope to her grey world. Even when she is successful, there is not much call for the fruits of her efforts. Flowers are fleeting, a worthless luxury, and in Midgar’s current state of chaos, buying a flower isn’t particularly high on anyone’s list of priorities. However, Aerith isn’t growing her garden for profit, but for kindness. That it exists, and that people can see that such a wonderful, fragile thing is able to exist in their world of carnage, is enough for Aerith. It’s why she gives her flower to Cloud. It’s not because she thinks he looks like the type to buy her flowers and she wants to make some gil, it’s that he looks the type to need flowers, and she wants to make him smile.
Cloud is quite an angry person, underneath it all. He’s hurting, he’s lost everything, and he has been betrayed. Most of the time this comes out in gruff stoicism rather than bursts of rage, but Cloud has all the ingredients of a very toxic soup. It’s Aerith’s presence in his life – among other things, of course – that provides the antidote. Her kindness makes him kinder, or maybe it just allows him to be vulnerable enough to show kindness. It’s very easy to put ‘Be Kind’ in our bios; it’s hardly a position anyone is going to take up opposition against in principle. Everyone agrees we should all be kind. The problem is that it’s a lot harder to act on it. Especially with the current state of the world, it’s easier to be selfish. It’s cathartic to be hateful. It’s embarrassing and lonely and often difficult to actively be kind. But we all need to be.
I know things are a bit shit these days, and I know it’s easy to boot up your favourite multiplayer shooter and scream obscenities down the mic in an attempt to make yourself feel better, but we’re all in this together, so let’s not make it worse. Think about Aerith Gainsborough, and let’s Be Kind. For real, this time.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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