For many video game fans of a certain age, the world changed 23 years ago when Final Fantasy VII was released on the PlayStation. Its impact on games and the culture around them is burned into the hearts and minds of millions, and it’s about to explode this week with the release of Final Fantasy VII Remake. It’s an impact that’s not lost on two of the game’s heroines.
While gamers might have primarily experienced Final Fantasy VII through the lens of its spiky-haired, impossibly-giant-sword-wielding hero, Cloud Strife, they also fell in love with the cast of characters that joined him on his evolution from uncaring mercenary to savior of the planet. From the trigger-happy Barrett to the kooky Cait Sith, from mysterious vampire Vincent Valentine to the spiritual lab experiment Red XIII, VII is filled with memorable heroes.
But for many, Final Fantasy VII’s party can be defined by two of its primary female protagonists: the brawling eco-terrorist bruiser Tifa Lockhart, and the magically destined Aeris (now Aerith, in line with the original Japanese after VII’s infamous English translation) Gainsborough.
While Cloud and his relationship with the sinister archvillain of VII, Sephiroth, have spun out of the game’s original legacy into myriad spinoff games, movies, and other crossovers, Tifa and Aerith are perhaps the other two members of the original game’s cast that have drawn the most love and attention in the decades since—especially the latter, whose emotional sacrifice partway into the game has become so iconic a “spoiler,” on the same level as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader’s familial connection, that for many fans it is the character death that taught them how to grieve someone fictional. So when voice actresses Britt Baron (Tifa) and Briana White (Aerith) spoke with io9 over the phone recently to talk about Remake and the long, three-decade-plus legacy of Final Fantasy, a lot of what they had to say was about embracing that legacy, and the great pressure that inevitably comes with it.
“I did not have much experience with Final Fantasy, unfortunately. My parents weren’t really encouraging us to play video games when we were growing up. So, I didn’t really know much,” Baron admitted of her familiarity with the franchise. “Obviously, I knew about it, I’d heard of it. But, I kind of came into the remake as a rookie, really. It was kind of intimidating because it felt like I had missed out on years of understanding. It’s a big task to try and understand the world because there’s been so many Final Fantasies, and so many iterations of these characters across fifteen [mainline] games.”
Likewise, White had not played VII when it originally released but as a Youtube streamer, when she’s not dabbling in voice acting (Remake marks her first major voiceover project), she was aware of the franchise’s legacy thanks to familiarity with other entries in the three-decade-old saga. “My very first Final Fantasy of the series that I ever played was XIV, which is the MMO,” she said. “And I love it. I’m obsessed with it. I’ve put way too many hours into it. And then, because I’m also a content creator, I had recorded [a Let’s Play of] Final Fantasy XV on my channel. Because people were really excited about it when it came out. And it was in the genre of other games I’ve played my audience really liked. [I] really enjoyed that. [FFVII Remake] was just an apple in my eye, not even a thought.”
That vague familiarity with the series’ legacy emboldened White when she came aboard Remake because she could connect with themes and series staples in the games she had played, back into the history of Final Fantasy VII. “There’s a lot of similar themes in a lot of the games, and a lot of similar character archetypes,” which sounded really interesting to me,” White continued. “So, even with just my limited experience, I’ve been able to connect some dots and say, ‘Oh, this is a very common theme in the series.’”
Baron meanwhile, embraced the unknown to inform her own view of Tifa. “I really had to rely a lot on our director, the creatives during our session to guide me. But, in a way...I felt like once we started recording, I think it was nice for me to be able to let go of expectations for Tifa and make her my own,” Baron noted, “and work with our directors to kind of craft a new version. I could never be who other actresses have been [playing Tifa].”
In the game, Tifa is a childhood friend of Cloud’s who reconnects with him when she asks the former corporate soldier turned mercenary to assist her eco-friendly resistance group, Avalanche, in their fight against the Shinra Power Company draining the planet of its natural life energies. That unfamiliarity with Tifa meant that when confronted with her legacy as one of Final Fantasy’s most beloved female characters, Baron did begin to feel the pressure of being part of such a vast cultural legacy. “It was intimidating, but also really exciting as an actress,” Baron said of the eyes of a whole new fandom watching her take on Tifa. “I think there’s only a certain amount of iconic female characters on this level...and to get the opportunity and the honor to perform one of them was really exciting. Scary, intimidating definitely—there’s a lot of pressure and I know there’s been years where fans have fallen in love with her. But I tried to embrace that.”
Tifa’s rough and tumble personality in VII—instead of a more traditionally female-coded role like spellcasting or healing, she was a front line fighter, an expert in hand-to-hand combat—helped Baron quickly acclimatize to why people had loved the character for so long. “She is such an incredible character and so dynamic,” she effused. “[Tifa’s] strong, and this incredible fighter—and she wants revenge—but at the same time she’s super empathetic, and kind, and level-headed in a lot of ways. As an actress, it’s a really exciting character to get to play.”
“I enjoyed every minute of it. When we wrapped, I started crying,” Baron continued. “I had fallen in love with her—you spend so many hours alone in a recording booth, so...she felt really, really precious to me. Out of any video game I’ve ever done. Even onscreen characters I’ve played, Tifa is by far one of my most favorite characters and one I feel closest to. Because there were so many hours alone in a booth recording her and I know she means so much to people, but...I mean, she means so much to me now. She’s so iconic, she really is.”
White meanwhile, faced a similar but altogether different kind of pressure taking on the role of Aerith. She—a young flower girl living in the slums of the futuristic city-state Midgar, that Cloud happens upon while escaping the destructive fallout of his first job with Avalanche—is, like Tifa, an iconic member of Final Fantasy VII’s sprawling cast. But while Baron had to reckon with the legion of fans that loved Tifa as a gung-ho action heroine, White had to face the surprise of dealing with Aerith’s infamous legacy.
“She is a character I have known of, she’s a very popular character in fan art and has a lot of guest appearances in other games. So, I have known of her and her importance—similar to how I’d known of Cloud,” White said of what she knew of Aerith’s reputation. “But I didn’t really know much else about her until I got the audition. The first thing you do is Google ‘Who is this character?’ And there are various things that pop up. What happens to her in Final Fantasy VII. You can’t avoid it. The very, very first thing that pops up [about the game] is about her and immediately there’s articles and videos of what that moment did to gamers, collectively, when it first happened.”
What White is referring to is something you might have heard even if you’ve never touched Final Fantasy in your life: Aerith is basically known for the fact that she dies. At the climax of the game’s first disc—the original was so expansive for the technology of the time that it stretched across three of them—Aerith is tragically killed by the aforementioned antagonist of VII, Sephiroth, right before her friends’ eyes. It is burned into the hearts and minds of millions as one of the most iconic moments in video game history.
“There are t-shirts that say something like, ‘Aerith Lives,’ or the Wreck-It Ralph Easter egg,” White laughed of Aerith’s infamy. “Immediately you’re confronted with this character as part of our gamer heart. She has a legacy that a lot of other characters don’t get. Immediately I’m going ‘This character means so much to so many people. How am I going to bring something exciting and unique while also honoring where she’s come from? How can I find that balance?’ “
“I just did my best, didn’t really think anything would come from it because this is my first ever voiceover gig—my first big one,” White said of her audition process. “So I thought I might as well go in and have fun with it, because this is the coolest audition I’ve ever gotten, and that’s going to be the end of the journey. And I’m very fortunate that it wasn’t.”
While this first entry in the Remake series won’t get to that moment in the narrative, it is still such a defining, unflinching root in Final Fantasy VII’s legacy that it still helped inform White of how to approach Aerith as a character, while she was still alive and kicking. “I think one of the facets of her character that comes to life in the original game is that she chooses that [end],” White continued. “She sacrifices herself. She does that out of love. And that’s something that is a core part of who she is—and that can come through in every single line of dialogue. That can come through in every scene of anything she’s in with every other character. That’s a core part of who she is. That’s kind of what I tried to take from it. Because, you know, just knowing that she does die is one thing, but the context and circumstances surrounding it can inform all the work that I’ve done [before that]. Even though you’re not going to get that moment in Remake [yet]...it still does inform the story.”
That so many people are already intimately aware of Aerith’s fate is something that White thought aided her own acclimatization into bringing the character to life. “I think that’s what’s so interesting about making a remake of a game that came out in 1997—you have to kind of play with the fact that everyone has already played the game,” White concluded. “You do have to be aware of that when you’re making it. It’s an interesting, meta experience. But I really, really enjoyed it, and I hope people are going to as well.”
That hope is something both actors felt while bringing Tifa and Aerith to live, as is the overwhelming love—and a little bit of pressure that comes with that—from Final Fantasy VII’s legions of fans. “I feel so honored and lucky, and it feels very surreal to get to be a part of something that’s so massive and just so iconic in pop culture...and that means so much to so many people, around the world,” Baron said of the game’s impact, before noting that even before they’ve gotten to play the game, she feels like her take on Tifa has been embraced. “I think the more I realized that—the fans of Final Fantasy are amazing,” she continued. “They’re by far the most passionate fans of anything I’ve ever done, ever. They want to engage on social media, they’ve been so supportive.”
In the end, Baron felt that Final Fantasy VII’s legacy was something that inspired her, more than it did intimidate her via the weight of expectation. “This is, by far, the most iconic story I’ve ever gotten to be a part of, in any way. I think it obviously can be very scary and intimidating, because how can you please all these different people who have had ideas of this game and these characters for so many years?” she noted. “But I mean...you kind of, as an actor, have to let that go and do the absolute best you can to honor the characters, bring yourself to the characters and do the best work you can. I think, overall, the reception I’ve gotten from fans face-to-face and also online has been so supportive. Everyone seems really, really excited. This is kind of a surreal thing—to get to remake a game from so many years ago. This is why you become an actor. To get to play these massive characters in these sweeping, epic stories. It’s such an epic story and I’m really happy I get to be a part of this universe.”
White likewise felt that strange mix of intimidation and support that Final Fantasy VII’s reputation brings with it. “For the first...for quite a while, I had [first] been part of the project, it was very overwhelming. And there was very much a sense of, ‘Who am I? To be here amongst these legends?’,” White said of her initial experience. “Both the legends of voice actors I’m castmates with, but also the legends of characters that I get to be a part of making. There was very much a sense of ‘What am I doing here? I’m in way over my head. They picked the wrong person. I don’t know if I am right for this.’”
But like Baron, she too felt inspiration from Final Fantasy’s legacy and channeled Aerith’s own strengths into hers to embrace it. “A lot of the really beautiful things about Aerith’s character, specifically, is that she doesn’t deal with that. She is very big picture, and a lot of the times she is the person where she’s like, ‘This is where we are here and now. How are we going to move forward?’” White continued. “I’ve sort of had this beautiful moment of connection with her in this process, and it’s been so life-changing for me. Because now I get to come into this and say—‘Let’s say I was picked for this for a reason. And there is a reason I, specifically, am in this role. How can I make the most of it and help people enjoy this game more? How can I have her story reach more people?’ Because I think it is really, really inspiring.”
“I think all these characters have something really beautiful to say, and if I can be a conduit to the fandom via social media, or content creation, then I think I can bring something more to this,” she concluded. “That’s kind of been my journey through this. Understanding that there is such a legacy to this game and just a passion amongst the people who love this game and saying, ‘OK, then let’s embrace it.’ And here we are. It’s been a transformation.”
The first part of Final Fantasy VII Remake releases on PlayStation 4 on April 10. Stay tuned to io9 later this week for more from our chat with Baron and White.
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