header is screenshot from Final Fantasy VII Rebirth
flowers yet bloom in this rotted church
Pao Yumol

This article discusses plot details from throughout Final Fantasy VII Rebirth.

the doomed girl returns to the dirt. the androgynous godboy penetrates the psychogenic chrysalid, announcing his plot to construct a mosaic of shattered worlds. the girl next door never left, but the whole town has, reduced to ash and replaced by artifice. together they conspire to make our heroine, the girlfailure, whole. 

insert the needle and change your life forever—just remember that mood swings are normal, and that it's also normal for the sky to appear cleft apart as if by a blade. constellate fantasies weep from this sizzling wound, followed by torrents of black feathers. you can un-crisis your identity for the right price. side effects include nausea and morning sickness, which might be hard to detect when the world itself is so sick at all hours, its lifeblood oozing from the earth, snaking through the concrete like a gasoline rainbow.  

that's what happened in final fantasy vii: rebirth, at least when i played it. your results may vary. 

for what it’s worth, i choose the doomed girl every time.


since ffvii’s debut in 1997, it’s become clear that the love triangle between aerith, tifa, and cloud+ inflicted a collective head injury on the gaming populace. the doomed girl, the girl next door, and their toy soldier: a match made in some cruel angel’s++ idea of heaven. years later, apropos of nothing, i managed to hurt my own brain in the exact same way. 

like any broken boy, cloud needs girls to disentangle the threads of his knotted self. throughout ffvii’s story, aerith and tifa burrow through his mismatched memories in search of the man they love, the man they each believe him to be. tifa longs, with muted desperation, for the resolution to her lifelong yearning, the lonely years she’s spent carrying the torch for a childhood crush; aerith falls for cloud in the process of trying—but failing—to sculpt him, in her mind, into a surrogate for her dead boyfriend. meanwhile, with both the crust of the earth and the fabric of the universe at stake, there’s also the man the planet needs cloud to be, regardless of the tatters of his soul: a hero capable of bringing armageddon to a halt.      

this is, at least, what i gathered from reading about ffvii on the internet when i was younger. i’m a card-carrying member of the ps2 generation, a millennial-zoomer cusp who was probably learning how to use a staircase when ffvii first planted itself into the gaming public’s consciousness. 

so i admit that i first met aerith as a character in 2002’s kingdom hearts, a game that came to dominate a large part of my childhood. kingdom hearts lifts final fantasy characters from their respective continuities and drops them into disney worlds, assigning characters like ffviii’s squall leonhart lines like “hey, isn’t tron waiting for you guys?”  

bereft of any prior final fantasy knowledge whatsoever, i nevertheless devoted the entirety of my preteen life to kingdom hearts and its follow-up, 2005’s kingdom hearts ii. i lurked in fan forums, begged my parents to purchase figurines, and made a cardboard keyblade. i was especially enamored with kingdom hearts’ imagination of adolescence: sea salt ice cream, interminable sunsets, lovesick odes to intimate friendships, romance relieved of the threat of closure or consummation.

despite having only a bit part in both kingdom hearts and its sequel, aerith made an impression on me. replaying khii over the years that followed, i often looked her up on the internet. i browsed synopses of ffvii and rummaged through forums, absorbing the key plot points: that the game opens with a daring act of eco-terrorism, that the game revolves around cloud’s crisis of self, that aerith dies. at this age, this was somehow the most romantic idea in the world to me, the idea of a girl you lost because she decided to die for the planet.

that’s when i discovered that aerith goes by another name in the west—“aeris,” a bungled romanization that exemplifies the original ffvii’s notoriously shoddy localization. i ran searches on “aeris” instead of “aerith” and found an imageboard named “aerislives,” along with its counterpart, “aerisdies,” which had been created as a second home for wayward aerislives users. 

within, i found lurid hentai hidden within dense image galleries—erotic doujinshi depicting, mostly, aerith and tifa getting fucked. across several pages of porn, they made bargains using sex, begged to be bred, appeared in elaborate negligees and bumblebee costumes and torn stockings. tifa, whose tits are so big they’ve launched culture wars+++, was chief among ffvii’s cast as an object of sexual desire. 2005’s final fantasy vii: advent children—a feature-length film animated in 3D, set after the events of the original game—had recently supplied artists with the most comprehensive renderings of the series’ characters to date, emboldening more finely detailed obscenity. i couldn’t look away.

as they argued and discoursed and swung their bigdicked banhammers at one another, the itinerant gooners of aerislives/dies imparted to me, via unwitting osmosis, an abridged otaku vocabulary: guro, netorare, moe, eroge. this made “aeris” my rosetta stone for interpreting nascent imageboard culture; a window into the erotic miasma that united parts of the internet together in a hallucinogenic haze, upheld by untold numbers of horned-up gamer netizens. 

it didn’t contribute to my desire to actually play ffvii, but it renewed my fixation with aerith. i understood, faintly, that tifa and aerith served as foils to one another, even in the thick fog of this collective desire. but i wanted to understand what made them desirable, to deconstruct the qualities that made them worthy of permanent residences in the gamer pin-up girl hall of fame.

what would it take for a fantasy girl to approach reality—to become so real it’s like she’s right there, in front of you? a part of me hoped, in my dumb broken heart, that reverse-engineering my findings would help me weave my own fantasy. 


aerith and i hop the fence to get to the abandoned railroad tracks. a gentle breeze mingles with the trees flanking the road, sending ripples across the fabric of the twilit darkness. i’m letting her lead because she’s the one who knows where we even are. 

it’s hard to walk on the uneven surfaces of the rocks underfoot, which somehow gets us talking about catgirls, which eventually gets us talking about everything else. “i used to exclusively read low-stakes, fairly sexless manwha where no one ever even touched,” she says, “but at some point i got over that and just started straight-up reading very, like, hot and heavy yuri.” 

my ears perk up in a way that i immediately pray is imperceptible. “i have a soft spot—or, i guess i should say, i, uh, have read some yuri myself,” i stammer. “well, what i mean is, i especially like the older stuff where the relationships are all doomed to fail. like the romances that are ill-fated purely because lesbianism was, i guess, this thing exclusively sequestered to adolescence, a sad but necessary coming-of-age experience designed to bolster some future devotion to heterosexual love…” 

i trail off and allow myself a peek at her facial expression, darting my eyes wildly in her direction in a scattershot gaze that i hope will conceal the fact that i’m searching for her face in the darkness. she’s smirking. i bite down hard on the inside of my lip. okay, okay, put your propeller beanie away, poindexter, i think to myself. don’t fuck this up by geeking the fuck out. like you always do. like you inevitably—    

“huh. you don’t say,” she says. “so you’re a lesbian?”

“well, no,” i say. i can feel the red blossoming in my cheeks. “i mean, i can’t be one. i’m a dude.”

“you could be one of those he/him lesbians.”

“pretty sure there are people out there who would strangle you if they heard you actually say that out loud.” 

“are you one of those people?” we’ve stopped walking. she has her hands on her hips and a wicked grin on her face, the posture she assumes whenever she’s about to launch into another one of her playful interrogations. i’m so flustered that i barely notice her give me a “boop” on the nose while she says this.

“well, um. i’m not a lesbian.” i reflexively bat her finger away, several seconds after she actually touched me. “so i guess i don’t think i’m really allowed to have any input.” 

“uh-huh,” she says. “well, okay, then. what are you? just a straight guy hanging out with a pretty lady?” 

a brief silence. the night sky glitters like a palmful of crushed glass. then, without missing a beat, she starts walking again, as if she knew that this would cause my whole body to seize up where i stood. after a second, she looks back. “come on,” she says.

ever-obedient, i follow.


i didn’t know that i wanted to be a woman when i played kingdom hearts in 2002, and i still didn’t know that when i started ffvii remake in 2020. i just knew that something was compelling me to see aerith again. two years later, i started HRT and finally finished the original ffvii. by the time i played rebirth, i understood with more clarity what i truly wanted from it—though that differed, ultimately, from what i took away.

remake and rebirth function as opulent dollhouses, the cast reimagined within as a menagerie of immaculate, digital action figures. rebirth’s soundtrack is a rich lattice of leitmotifs, careening between bubblegum pop and lavish symphony in its varied interpretations of the original game’s music. rebirth’s palatial recreation of the gold saucer—the luxury resort that serves as the site of cloud’s notorious date^—feels like a ffvii-themed amusement park within a ffvii-themed amusement park.  

as a high-definition retelling of ffvii’s story, remake and rebirth encourage intimate, near-anthropological examinations of its iconic characters, locations, and scenes, transforming us all into ffvii fetishists. as a result, remake and rebirth have reinvigorated the animus behind establishing aerith and tifa as waifu archetypes of the internet’s collective erotic unconscious. in rebirth, you can take them on a date, hold their hands, sneak playful photos of them, dress them up in swimsuits, exchange cryptic, sweet somethings with them during an enchanting skywheel ride. 

the game’s romantic themes coincide heavily with the themes rebirth adds to the original plot. opposing factions of whispers—the ghoulified agents of destiny introduced in remake—are at war in rebirth, personifying an emerging struggle between splintering fates. the concept of split identity also pervades the greater ffvii corpus: red xiii is at once a wizened warrior and a wide-eyed child desperate to do justice to his father’s legacy; cait sith is at once a freewheeling robocat and a drone operated, in secret, by reeves, a conflicted shinra executive sympathetic to cloud and co.’s cause; cloud himself is at once the shyboy tifa grew up with, the deadboy aerith first fell for, and the patchwork frankenboy shinra baked in a lab. this holds true on a metatextual level, as well—e.g., the original story vs. its ongoing retelling, “aeris” vs. “aerith,” low-poly models and pre-rendered backgrounds vs. meticulously crafted digidolls and open world expanses.  

despite such reckless teasing, however, the game still shakes out the way it originally did. at first aerith doesn’t die, then she sort of dies, then she appears decidedly not dead before slipping into a delusory half-death that only cloud can comprehend—because, to everyone else, aerith is unmistakably dead. all of this happens during the game’s climax, regardless of what decisions you make. honestly, i don’t think i would have forgiven square enix if it had ended any other way.  


like any broken boy, my one and only job is to suppress the urge to self-detonate. aerith’s at the wheel, going what feels like twenty or thirty miles over the speed limit, but i’m not supposed to know that: i’ve been instructed, for the duration of the ride, to shut my eyes and take deep slow breaths through alternating nostrils. 

our main goal is for you to not have another panic attack, aerith had said in her usual sing-song voice. do you think you could do that for me? right now, she’s singing along to the radio, layering “hollaback girl” with her own made-up incoherent lyrics, laughing. 

i decide that maybe i’ve been enough of a well-behaved broken boy that i’ve earned the right to open my eyes for just a moment. outside the window, i see: derelict gas stations, barns turned wretched and mossy by neglect, a red-orange horizon pimpled with obstinate silos. i sneak a furtive glance at aerith. she sucks on a fruit-flavored vape, exhales, then—as if sensing my gaze—passes it to me without looking my way. 

“uh,” i say.

“ah, right,” she says, retracting the vape. “that probably wouldn’t help with the panic attacks, huh?” she gently slaps her hand on my thigh in the way you might pat your palm on a dog’s back, takes another pull. “or the nausea.” i don’t have the balls to tell her that, yeah, the saccharine smell is actually definitely making things worse. but even just the sensation of her touch is enough to twist my guts into a cat’s cradle. i can’t hold it in anymore.

a few minutes later, i’m standing on the side of the road, hovering over a mound of my own sick. i’ve lost all the feeling in my left hand. dark shapes blot the sky. i squint and the buzzards overhead turn into storm clouds, then back into buzzards again. i can’t bring myself to move.

get back in the car, shinji,” aerith says. another knee-slapper. she was right behind me a moment ago, but i glance over my shoulder and she somehow already has one leg back in the car, a halo of candied vapor dispersing above her head. i pretend not to detect the mocking tone curling around her voice. it wouldn’t make a difference either way: i’d go to the ends of the earth with this girl. i close my eyes, and then it’s her and the FM radio again, an errant streak of color across a desolate highway. 

i’d probably die for her, though honestly, i’d prefer to die with her. you can be thelma, aerith, if you promise you’ll transform me into your louise


within my first few months of HRT, i found little solace in self-determinism. the vacuous optimism behind the language of self-love, the stuff that verges on pop psychology, has poisoned the well of discourse about gender. TERFs love to claim that one can’t just put on a dress and call themselves a woman, and they’re partly right about that—there also has to be someone in the room who wants to fuck you like one. 

what is a woman? truthfully, this is a meaningless question in the context of ffvii, where everyone’s a woman and there are only two genders: aerith and tifa. between the characters of ffvii, sacrifice is the primordial love language, the way one proves the measure of their devotion.  

as andrea long chu suggests in females: "gender is not just the misogynistic expectations a female internalizes but also the process of internalizing itself, the self's gentle suicide in the name of someone else's desires, someone else's narcissism" (emphasis hers). 

ffvii is, above everything else, an anthology of gentle suicides. the most explicit of these is aerith’s, an act of martyrdom characterized by holiness and boundless altruism. tifa, on the other hand, embodies internal strength, nurturing a steadfast loyalty to cloud even in the face of his wanton hostility and violent outbursts.  

conversely, to foster intimacy with either love interest, cloud must feminize himself in order to allow them opportunities to demonstrate their strength. aerith relishes in assuming a position of kittenish dominance, while tifa is moved to protect cloud whenever he exhibits extreme weakness. their moments of heroism contrast starkly against the other facets of their feminine dispositions—the wistful and playful qualities that grant them dimension and make them even more attractive. they can embrace their womanhood and their strength without fully losing themselves. 

cloud, sulking in the twin shadows of a dark-haired samaritan deadboy and an androgynous archangel godboy, is chained to unattainable visions of manhood. when left to his own devices, he defaults to impenetrable stoicism: his words are sparse yet menacing, his demeanor icy and aloof. on more than one occasion in rebirth, someone emasculates cloud by granting him the epithet “pretty boy.” for someone who displays such little outward emotion, he does a pretty bad job veiling his insecurity.^^

aerith and tifa challenge this facade by encouraging and accommodating his moments of vulnerability. sometimes, they derive a shared pleasure from pressing his buttons; in other moments, they play the role of responsible co-parents^^^. in each case, they aren’t repulsed by cloud’s apparent weakness—on the contrary, it excites them. 

in one particularly notorious sequence, aerith cajoles cloud into dressing as a woman in order to rescue tifa from a den of sex traffickers. underworld kingpin don corneo is in search of a “bride,” but he’s the kind of piece of shit that demands ample options, so aerith and femcloud scheme to give themselves to corneo’s men in a spontaneous trojan horse operation. in remake, this sequence is given the las vegas residency treatment, extended to include a theatrical dance number and three different dresses for cloud to wear.

hentai that focuses on this series of events often involves introducing femme’d-up cloud as an exotic “secret third thing” to contrast against aerith and tifa. in these fantasies, cloud is diminutive, submissive, cheeks rosy with a perpetual blush. it should be of no surprise that there’s also a mountain of yaoi hentai that depicts cloud as sephiroth’s personal roman towel boy. 

is cloud a woman? well, everyone else seems to think so.


i can’t find the right opportunity to tell aerith that she could probably beat the shit out of me if she wanted to. i’m taller than her, scrappier than her, more prone to freakout acts of directionless violence. but she’s stronger than me, in more ways than one, and i can easily see her pushing me to the floor, stepping on my face, kicking me until my ribs cave in, spitting on me, taking two fingers and—

“um, hello?” i snap out of it. she’s back from the bathroom—we’re high at the museum and i’ve been completely spacing out next to an abstract junkyard sculpture of a feminine figure with hubcap breasts. “you’re like a million miles away all of a sudden. what were you thinking about so intensely just now?”

“uh,” i say. “nothing.”


i understand, now, why i always choose the doomed girl, no matter which version or installment of ffvii i’m playing. 

i realize now that it wasn’t ever that i couldn’t relate to cloud; it was that i was scared of how much i did. though he never admits it, cloud yearns to be useful to others in the same effortless way that the women in his life are, but his identity crisis condemns him to a purgatorial memory hole, engendering in him a tumorous sensation of emptiness. sephiroth lords over the negative space around tifa and aerith, imploring cloud to embrace the oblivion of his very self. 

i’ve encountered few other metaphors that so accurately capture my experience of dysphoria. for years, i had resigned myself to a lifetime of failing to be a man, a feeble thing capable only of exhibiting desire instead of attracting it. i’d thought the only options were submitting to this dynamic—donning the duncecap of betamale passivity—or overcoming it by somehow “mastering” manhood, learning just enough survival techniques to maintain an illusory image of masculinity. 

in advent children, cloud abandons a domestic life with tifa—along with the “found family” unit they’ve fostered with two orphaned children—due to his guilt about aerith’s death. then sephiroth comes back, part specter and part tulpa, forcing cloud to once again plumb the depths of his trauma and stitch together the wound in his soul. ultimately, cloud reunites with tifa and their shared family after aerith’s spirit descends from the heavens to relieve him of his grief, revealing that she’s found peace in the afterlife with zack. a wrinkle-free life supposedly awaits cloud after the credits roll.      

but what about the rest of us? what about those of us who would prefer a less prescriptive ending, an ending that honors the stupid tragedy of being, or even just the stupid tragedy of being in love?

aerith flirts with the hauntological, gets messy with fate, thrives in the dissonance between mismatched worlds. she’s a golden hour girl, the kind of lover with whom things are sweetest shortly before never seeing them again. that’s why i like her so much.

choose to romance aerith, and the doomed girl is yours with little friction, a meager compensation for the devastation of losing her. if you end up choosing tifa, however, aerith comes off as a mischievous provocateur, knowingly serving as a catalyst for tifa and cloud’s mutual confession of love—yet, even then, she can’t help herself from scuffing up her own heart in the process.  

regardless of who you choose, rebirth’s penultimate moments see aerith coaxing cloud into a liminal reality that is, for a brief span of time, safe from sephiroth’s omnipresent gaze. she invites cloud on a date through the slums of midgar, goading him into choosing a gift for her. cloud quickly learns there’s a catch: none of his choices matter.

at each vendor, cloud and aerith receive their goods for free because, as it turns out, money becomes completely meaningless when the sky is bleeding. a photographer invites them to participate in an impromptu contest to determine the “cutest couple,” but they end up losing. unfazed, aerith leads cloud to the church where they met, confesses her feelings for him, and then says goodbye forever as sephiroth comes into view over her shoulder.

there was a point in my life when i thought this was the worst feeling in the world—confronting the impending doom of a relationship made toxic by regrettable action or regretful circumstance. but really, that’s what dysphoria can feel like, only constant and localized to your own self-perception. 

i admire aerith because, in spite of everything, she gives it a shot anyway. she drags cloud to this alternate reality without the freedom of choice, a world languishing in the denouement of an irreparable cataclysm, and she still wants nothing else but a single date with the boy that fate itself will not permit her to see. there’s something true and beautiful about that: in spite of the cruelty of your burning world, in spite of your fragile mortality, you might still choose the painful and difficult thing, simply because it feels like a gesture of love.   


like any broken boy, i merely blush when aerith begs me to try her clothes on. it’s the first time i’ve ever set foot in her bedroom. the air is fragrant with the smell of burning incense; elizabeth fraser performs echolalic acrobatics through a bluetooth speaker on her bedside table. there are four different lamps in here. i sit shyly on her bed while she picks out dresses for me to wear from her closet, a glass piece held to my lips. i’m trying to get high enough to be the dress-up doll she wants me to be. 

she supplements each “look” with costume jewelry and frivolous antique store accessories—a pair of long, silken gloves, earrings that dangle off the lobe like miniature chandeliers, brooches adorned with butterflies and flowers. she takes pictures of me using a chunky DSLR camera and pretends to be a fashion photographer, suggesting poses between flashes. 

for one pose, she gets behind me and holds my waist like i’m her prom date. there’s a full-length mirror leaning next to her dresser, and it’s the first time i catch a glance of myself. i’m wearing this long red dress with a slit along the side, an elegant garment clearly intended to accommodate some cleavage. she’s planted little butterfly clips all over my hair.

i realize, suddenly, that i’m crying. i sniffle a bit, and i can feel her body language shift. she’s noticed, and there’s nothing i can do about it. all the cards are on the table. 

“hey, aerith,” i whimper, hoping to beat her in breaking the silence. “would you maybe, only if it’s all right and if you really wanted to—would you just hold me for a moment?” 

she lies me silently on my side, facing away from her. one by one, she turns off the lights. some moments pass, then she presses her body against my back. i can feel, from the warmth radiating through the fabric of my / her dress, that she isn’t wearing anything. we fall asleep like that, over the covers, with her arms cradling me as if i’m some precious secret, this dirty thing that she alone possesses. 

when i wake up, she isn’t there. i survey the scene: lavender curtains taint the morning light with an alien hue. the room has obtained a cavernous mood. the clothes strewn across the floor have been sorted neatly back into the closet; the costume jewelry hangs in tidy rows on a stand atop her dresser. the incense, long since spent, lies in a toppled pillar of ash on a red wooden plank.

i lie on my back and stare at the ceiling until my vision goes blurry. it’s just me, on her bed, wearing her dress, holding myself. 


+ before the events of the game, cloud experiences a traumatic event that results in him hijacking the identity of his friend, zack, a former war buddy who has since vanished from cloud’s memory. cloud later meets aerith, zack’s ex-girlfriend, in a chance encounter that blossoms into a fledgling romance. he also reunites with tifa, a childhood crush who silently harbors feelings for him.    

++ the angel in question is sephiroth, a half-winged harbinger of doom who used to be a “war hero” and cloud’s idol. in the original game, cloud later learns that he is one of many “sephiroth clones,” a genetic complication that explains the grip sephiroth has on his mind.

+++ an early trailer for remake stoked outrage from dedicated masturbators who were offended that square enix reduced the size of her breasts. remake and rebirth director tetsuya nomura later described this as a necessary creative decision that was intended to complement her pugilistic fighting style.   

^ in both rebirth and the original game, the gold saucer date represents one of the few opportunities cloud gets to spend an evening alone with one of his companions. you attend and perform in a play named loveless; afterwards, you board the skywheel, where you spend an intimate moment together in a private gondola. 

^^ sometimes, when cloud is about to unleash a powerful offensive ability during combat, he says “watch this”; sometimes, when cloud dies and the game over screen fades into view, he says “some hero you turned out to be.”

^^^ excuse me, he asked for no cells of an ancient celestial parasite in his mutagenic supersoldier injection therapy—


Pao Yumol writes about games, music, and the internet. More writing—including “DLC” for this piece—will be available at her brand new blog, goose pimple activated. She also co-runs EX, a Substack covering contemporary online culture, and tweets under @b0realdancer. She thanks you for taking the time to read her work.