Writing about Aeris – Video game history and historiography

There are, I think, resources that those of us who write about video games have yet to really dig into. Archives of websites, discussion boards, newsgroups can help reconstruct a social context in which games were made and received. Textbooks and journal articles about arcades and games from the late 1970s and 1980s. Connections to literature and history that go beyond the content of the texts and look at their reception.

This is the story of how I used some of these resources in my article about Aeris for Kill Screen Magazine. Maybe it will give you some ideas. And if you ever need any help researching or need to find resources or a specific article, let me know. That “freelance librarian” thing in my bio isn’t a joke.

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I wrote the Aeris story in the Kill Screen magazine intimacy issue. The topic that was discouraged in the call for pitches. The topic that has become shorthand for so many things: crazy fan behavior, the power (or emptiness) of video game images, overrated bloat and underrated melodrama. It’s a game event that lost its context, used as needed to make any argument involving games and emotion.

I hope that by the end of the article, I gave it back some of that context. Or, really, several contexts. That moment is so enduring is because it really does represent many different things.

The piece evolved as it was written. I probably wrote close to 12000 words over the course of the two months or so we worked on it. The longest draft came in around 7500 words. The final, around 5000 – with maybe around a 3000 word overlap.

I had to get it right. To put Aeris in context, to back everything up with historical evidence and not just offhandedly crack jokes about it. The way I saw it, this could support one of two stories: either the people who played FF7 back in the day were crazy, or there was something more interesting going on. If they were crazy, I thought maybe I could at least show that they were REALLY crazy and not just unsophisticated rubes who were dazzled by bright colors into thinking they were sad about a dead mass of pixels. If there was something more interesting going on (hint: 5000 words suggests there was/is), I’d figure something out as I went along.

(I’m going to write quite a bit here in the first person, but throughout all of this I was soliciting feedback from friends and colleagues, not the least important of whom was Chris Dahlen, the Kill Screen editor whose feedback was absolutely integral to finding the connections in my jumble of observations that my gut said were all part of the bigger story.)

That story changed quite a bit from my original pitch, a survey of Aeris rumors. I was thinking of a folkloric study, where I’d gather a bunch of stories and look for patterns and see what kind of classification system they suggested. I wanted to get as close to the original sources as possible, which meant taking advantage of the Wayback Machine and abandoned websites hosted on Geocities, Angelfire, and Tripod (the big three of late 90s free web hosting).

Lycos bought Angelfire and Tripod, and the sites are still online. Yahoo shut down Geocities in 2009. I thought I was screwed – but fortunately, right around the time I was ramping up my research, ArchiveTeam announced they were releasing a torrent of all of the Geocities content they had archived. This led me to online Geocities mirrors which proved to be an amazing resource.

There were plenty of rumor sites, some dedicated to debunking Aeris’s resurrection, some to proselytising it. Most of the rumors were a few paragraphs (though at least one, The Equinox, came with several doctored screenshots), structured like an urban legend (“I heard that a friend of a friend said…”). They were all crazy. The explanations were insane. The amount of time people would have had to put into the game to test everything out was mind-boggling.

I had hit the jackpot. I’d write about obsession, fiction, and grief.

So I started a second line of research, this time into academic studies of grief in relation to fictional characters. Convoluted logic and philosophy obsessing over whether or not an emotional response to a fictional character’s death was rational or not. Most of these articles were written by men about the death of fictional women – especially Anna Karenina.

Take that as you will.

Back on the Aeris front, I split my research in two: on one hand, I was trying to find a way to establish some kind of timeline for the different rumors, to see if placing them in chronological order showed any patterns. My other focus was the one rumor that was attributed to a source, a man who called himself “Lansing” and who had posted something somewhere on the Internet very shortly after the game’s Japan release.

Websites may tell you when they were last updated, but those dates were, at their most specific, for the page level. I needed something more precise. Something that was timestamped and (preferably) fixed once it was created. So I looked to Usenet, a service where people would have discussed the game and its making, leaving behind a log already chronologically ordered. I planned to rebuild the order of events from this public correspondence.

Despite wonkiness in the search algorithms, Google’s database of Usenet postings (acquired from DejaNews earlier this century) was incredibly useful. I did a bunch of searches, but relevance ranking was useless in this situation, and I ran into problems where after the first page or so, the results would just be a repeat of the same ten newsgroup posts over and over again.

So I manually combed through about eleven months’ of posts (January-November 1997) from alt.games.final-fantasy (Lansing’s post from this group about how he made up the elaborate Aeris resurrection story was archived on the Final Fantasy VII Citadel). But I needed to understand the group better before I wrote about them and this archtroll Lansing.

I started doing the kind of work that anthropologists call ethnography (well, technically it was “ethnohistory” because I was using the historic record rather than immersing myself in the culture being studied). I wanted to understand the culture of the newsgroup because I thought that would help me interpret what was going on. I looked for patterns of behavior, traditions and rituals on a very small scale.

One of the important things about doing ethnography is paying close attention to word choice – how people describe is just as important as what they describe. And, of course, what they don’t describe is often the most telling. Reading people’s explanations of how Aeris could be brought back, or how they argued that she should or shouldn’t be able to, revealed underlying assumptions about games, the industry, stories.

Of course, I made my own assumptions, focused on certain stories. I tried to represent the different points of view, the different reactions and explanations for her death.

I tried to look into other, more official reactions to the game as well. I was hoping to find articles from around the time of the game’s release detailing attempts to resurrect Aeris in order to establish a latest-possible-date for these stories to have started (if the newsgroup fell through). Jason Killingsworth provided me with a scan of an Edge article from 2003 or so that contained an interview with the game developers.

While I was trying to construct the media landscape and a newsgroup in 1997, I was also digging through writings on Little Nell and Sherlock Holmes, having jettisoned the fiction/emotion psychology/philosophy at Chris’s suggestion. Because when you’re writing about game characters, what is more relevant than Victorian serial fiction? But it IS relevant – stories of the reactions these characters’ deaths anticipate what happened with Aeris: Londoners wearing armbands in memory of the detecive, New Yorkers demanding to know from passengers on British ships whether or not Nell survived.

I tried to substantiate these claims: biographies and books of Dickens’s and Conan Doyle’s letters were helpful in confirming individual reactions to the deaths. Using databases available from the library (as well as resources like the US Library of Congress’s Chronicling America project. I was unable to find any primary accounts of those events. Veracity is irrelevant: these stories continue to exist because they tell us that fiction is emotionally powerful and can affect us. The reaction to these Holmes’s and Nell’s deaths (passive mourning, letter writing) slots into the model of the serial fiction audience-text-reader. Just like the reaction to Aeris (passive mourning, letter writing, Internet ranting, obtuse rituals and in-game experimentation) works within the player-game-developer model. Juxtaposing them showed just how similar the reactions are. It made this crazy reaction to a video game death not less crazy, but not unprecedented.

Jumping between historical documents and biographies of dead white dudes, Usenet discussions from the late 1990s, and archives and still-extant websites from the same era gave me the eerie feeling of being unstuck. There were the moments (especially my first time reading about The Equinox) where I began to question whether or not it actually was possible to resurrect Aeris. What if, after nearly fifteen years, I was the one to discover that it WAS true? How awesome an article would that have made?

And that’s when I realized that there really was something special about this story. It was about a lot of different things: a puzzle to solve, emotion to deal with, a topic to discuss. It was about different aspects of gaming, personal and social. It was sprawling and messy and mad. It was life. It was going to take all of my librarian training to research, all of my anthropology training to observe and analyze, and its scope was terrifying and on more than one occasion I was certain I couldn’t pull it off.

But I’m pretty sure we did.

I hope you enjoy it.