In Final Fantasy VII, Aeris is a 22-year-old woman who joins AVALANCHE. As the story progresses, AVALANCHE begin to pursue the antagonist Sephiroth, and the player learns that Aeris is a Cetra, or "Ancient", the first race to live on the planet. Aerith has also appeared in the later-released Compilation of Final Fantasy VII and Kingdom Hearts series.
Her voice actors are Maaya Sakamoto in the Japanese versions of the Kingdom Hearts series and Final Fantasy VII Advent Children, singer and actress Mandy Moore in the English version of Kingdom Hearts, actress Mena Suvari in the English versions of Kingdom Hearts II and Advent Children, and Andrea Bowen in Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. Aerith and the events surrounding her death in Final Fantasy VII have met with an overall positive reception from critics and fans.
Aerith's original Japanese name is エアリス (Earisu) [eaɺ̠is(ɯ)] . This has been transliterated to "Aeris" in Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy Tactics, but later as "Aerith". Both transliterations have basis, as the Japanese "su" (ス) is used when transcribing "s" (/s/) and "th" (/θ/) to Japanese. However, official Japanese material uses the spelling "Aerith", and developers have stated that "Aerith" is a near-anagram of the English word "Earth".
In early planning stages of Final Fantasy VII, Aerith was to be one of only three protagonists. Before this, Yoshinori Kitase and Tetsuya Nomura decided that one character would have to die, and after creating the three characters, decided on Aerith after a long debate. Nomura stated in a 2005 EGM interview: "Cloud's the main character, so you can't really kill him. And Barrett... [sic] well, that's maybe too obvious". This was not changed after other protagonists were created. While designing Final Fantasy VII, Tetsuya Nomura was frustrated with the "perennial dramatic cliché" where the protagonist must dramatically sacrifice herself to express her love for someone. He found that this appeared in both films and video games from North America and Japan. "Is it right to set such an example to people?" Director and scenario writer Yoshinori Kitase concludes:
While reflecting on the game, Tetsuya Nomura claims that "Death should be something sudden and unexpected, and Aeris' death seemed more natural and realistic," and "When I reflect on Final Fantasy VII, the fact that fans were so offended by her sudden death probably means that we were successful with her character. If fans had simply accepted her death, that would have meant she wasn't an effective character." Rumors have circulated that Aerith can be resurrected in Final Fantasy VII or that the possibility was removed in development. "The world was expecting us to bring her back to life, as this is the classic convention". A lengthy petition asking for Aerith's revival by Japanese players was sent to scenario writer Yoshinori Kitase. However, Kitase states that "there are many meanings in Aerith's death and that could never happen".
After a failed attempt to foil Sephiroth's theft of the Black Materia, Aeris ventures alone into the Forgotten City for an unknown purpose. Cloud and his companions give chase, eventually finding her praying at an altar. As Aeris looks up to smile at Cloud, Sephiroth appears and kills her with a single thrust of his sword. The materia given to her by her mother, which she wore in her hair, falls from the altar into the water. After fighting an incarnation of Jenova, Cloud carries Aeris' body out into a lake in the Forgotten City, and releases her back to the Planet.
The party later learns the reason for Aeris being in the Forgotten City; through her White Materia, Aeris was able to summon Holy, the only force capable of repelling the ultimate destructive magic, Meteor. Though Aeris successfully casts Holy before her death, it is released too late to function as effectively as it should, for Meteor—already summoned by Sephiroth and set on a collision course with the Planet—has come too near the Planet's surface. While Holy clashes with Meteor, attempting to prevent its impact, the gravity of both Meteor and the Planet pulling on the spell in opposite directions weakens it, leaving it with too little room to take effect. The Planet's Lifestream then flows forth from within the planet, acting as a battering ram to push Meteor back, giving Holy enough room to properly destroy it. This scene is followed by a vision of Aeris within the Lifestream's energy, an indication of her final efforts to save the planet, as are detailed in Hoshi o Meguru Otome.
Aerith makes several appearances in the CGI film, Final Fantasy VII Advent Children, as Cloud's spiritual guide, urging him to move on in life and to forgive himself for the tragedies that were beyond his control and that she never blamed him for her death. During their spiritual reunion, Aerith speaks to Cloud in an open meadow laden with flowers, cheerfully and kindheartedly poking fun at how he needlessly burdens himself with the past, but acknowledging his suffering and offering kind words of support. One of Aerith's interactions with Cloud comes when each member of the original game's party helps in Cloud's final attack against Bahamut SIN; she appears as the last party member to assist Cloud. She also appears in the final scene of the movie, along with Zack, where she gives Cloud more words of encouragement before she and Zack walk into the light. Near the end of the film, it is discovered that water mixed with the Lifestream flows beneath the flowerbed in Aerith's church, which manifested as a cure for the Geostigma disease.
Hoshi o Meguru Otome (Maiden who Travels the Planet), a novelization written by Benny Matsuyama and appearing in the Final Fantasy VII Ultimania Ω guide, follows Aerith immediately after her death in Final Fantasy VII. The story reveals that a Cetra's strength of will and understanding of the planet allow their consciousness to exist within the Lifestream. Aerith journeys through the Lifestream, encountering characters that died in Final Fantasy VII. The story confirms that in Final Fantasy VII she used the Lifestream to aid Holy in defeating Meteor, also revealing that the deceased Dyne, Zack and members of AVALANCHE assisted her as well.
Aerith also appears in Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. At the age of 16, Aerith met Zack, for whom she developed feelings during his stay in Midgar. Aerith and Zack developed a romantic relationship, but Zack was killed at the end of Crisis Core after being held in a Mako chamber for four years in the Shinra Mansion basement. During those years, Aerith helped her adopted mother earn a living by growing and selling flowers, a job that results in her meeting Cloud in the beginning of Final Fantasy VII.
Due to the allowances provided by Kingdom Hearts being an alternate universe independent of the continuity of Final Fantasy and Disney, Aerith makes an appearance in the series. She is a member of a group dedicated to defeating the Heartless; the group also includes other Final Fantasy VII characters. The design of Aerith's attire had minor changes from Final Fantasy VII. In the plot of Kingdom Hearts, Aerith suggests and helps with a method for defeating the Heartless to protagonists Donald Duck, Goofy and Sora. Throughout the game she gives advice to the player. In the game's credits, she is shown reuniting with Cloud Strife at the library of Hollow Bastion. She also appears in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories as a perceptive figment of Sora's memories. Aerith returns in Kingdom Hearts II wearing a modified version of her dress in Before Crisis: Final Fantasy VII. Aerith, Leon, and Yuffie run a restoration committee for the town of Hollow Bastion.
Her death in Final Fantasy VII has received a great deal of attention. Players commented on message boards and blogs about the emotional impact the scene held. Fans submitted a petition to Yoshinori Kitase requesting her return. GameSpy numbers her demise as the 10th greatest cinematic moments in video game history. Its readers voted it the second most cinematic moment in video games. GamePro considers her death sequence to be the greatest of all gaming moments. Tom's Games called the scene "one of the most powerful and memorable scenes of the Final Fantasy series - or any other game, for that matter." Edge called her death the "dramatic highpoint" of Final Fantasy VII, and commented reintroducing her through the related Final Fantasy VII titles "arguably undermines this great moment". In 2005, Electronic Gaming Monthly listed Final Fantasy VII number six in their list of "10 Most Important Games", stating without it, "Aeris wouldn’t have died, and gamers wouldn’t have learned how to cry." GamesTM commented her death helped establish the popularity of Final Fantasy VII. ScrewAttack has added Aeris' death in their "Top 10 OMGWTF Moments" referring to it as one of the "touchiest moments in video game history.