BBC 2024-03-01 04:31:41

Israel-Gaza war: More than 100 reported killed in crowd near Gaza aid convoy

At least 112 Palestinians are said to have been killed and 760 injured trying to get desperately needed aid in Gaza.

Crowds descended on a convoy of lorries on the coastal road south-west of Gaza City, in the presence of Israeli tanks.

Israel’s military say tanks fired warning shots but did not strike the convoy. Some Palestinians say troops fired directly at them.

A Palestinian witness told the BBC most of those who died had been run over as lorry drivers tried to move forward.

Israeli aerial footage shows hundreds of people on and around lorries, while graphic videos posted online show bodies loaded on to emptied aid lorries and a donkey cart.

Giving the figures of 112 dead and 760 injured, Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry accused Israel of a “massacre”.

The UN Security Council has scheduled a closed-door emergency meeting to discuss the incident.

France said “fire by Israeli soldiers against civilians trying to access food” was “unjustifiable” and US President Joe Biden expressed concern the incident would complicate efforts by mediators to broker a temporary ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas.

The medical charity MSF said it was “horrified” and called for an “immediate and sustained ceasefire”.

The incident came hours before Gaza’s health ministry announced that more than 30,000 people, including 21,000 children and women, had been killed in Gaza since the start of the current conflict on 7 October. Some 7,000 were missing and 70,450 were injured, it said.

The UN is warning of a looming famine in the north of the territory, where an estimated 300,000 people are living with little food or clean water.

The Israeli military launched a large-scale air and ground campaign to destroy Hamas – which is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the UK and others – after its gunmen killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel and took 253 hostages.

  • More than 30,000 killed in Gaza, Hamas-run health ministry says
  • Checking Israel’s claim to have killed 10,000 Hamas fighters

Thursday’s incident took place shortly after 04:45 (02:45 GMT) at the Nabulsi roundabout, on the south-western edge of Gaza City.

A convoy of 30 lorries carrying Egyptian aid was making its way north along what the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) described as a “humanitarian corridor” when it was surrounded by civilians, with people climbing on to the trucks.

“Some began violently pushing and even trampling other Gazans to death, looting the humanitarian supplies,” said the IDF’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm Daniel Hagari. “The unfortunate incident resulted in dozens of Gazans killed and injured.”

Israeli tanks, he said, “cautiously tried to disperse the mob with a few warning shots” but pulled back “when the hundreds became thousands and things got out of hand”.

“No IDF strike was conducted towards the aid convoy,” he said, insisting the Israeli military had been trying to help the aid convoy reach its destination.

Another IDF spokesman said some civilians had approached Israeli soldiers at a nearby checkpoint, ignoring warning shots. Fearing a threat, the soldiers fired at them in a “limited response”, he said.

A Palestinian witness, speaking to the BBC, described panic in the crowd and among the drivers, who tried to move forward. Most of those who died were run over, the witness added.

Hamas rejected the IDF’s account, citing “undeniable” evidence of “direct firing at citizens, including headshots aimed at immediate killing”.

Dozens of casualties in a critical or severe condition were brought to the nearby al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, where medics were unable to cope with the sheer volume and severity of cases.

One man at the hospital who was cradling the body of this dead friend, Tamer Shinbari, told the BBC he had gone to the Nabulsi roundabout hoping to get a bag of flour for his family. He said Israeli soldiers had opened fire “and the aid lorry ran over the bodies”.

All or most of the casualties being treated at two other hospitals, Kamal Adwan and al-Awda, were said by officials there to have bullet or shrapnel wounds.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a rival of Hamas based in the occupied West Bank, accused Israeli forces of a “heinous massacre”.

A spokesman for UN Secretary General António Guterres said he condemned the incident and called again for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire and the unconditional release of all hostages”.

The north of Gaza suffered widespread devastation after being the focus of the first phase of the Israeli ground offensive and has been largely cut off from humanitarian assistance for several months.

Last week, the World Food Programme said it had been forced to suspend aid deliveries to the area after its first convoy in three weeks had been surrounded by crowds of hungry people close to an Israeli checkpoint and had then faced gunfire in Gaza City.

On Tuesday, a senior UN aid official warned that at least 576,000 people across the Gaza Strip – one quarter of the population – faced catastrophic levels of food insecurity and one in six children under the age of two in the north were suffering from acute malnutrition and wasting.

Ten children died from dehydration and malnutrition at hospitals in northern Gaza in recent days, the health ministry said.

White Island volcano: Tour operators ordered to pay millions to victims

A New Zealand court has ordered NZ$10m (£4.8m; $6m) in compensation to the victims of the White Island volcano disaster, where 22 people died.

In December 2019, 47 people were touring the volcano when it erupted, killing nearly half of the group and gravely injuring everyone else.

The firms which owned the island and operated tours were found guilty last year of negligence and safety breaches.

Their failure to provide proper checks had ruined many lives, the court said.

The volcano had been showing signs of heightened activity in the weeks leading up to the eruption but operators ignored these, the court said.

On Friday, the Auckland District Court ordered the company which owned the island, Whakaari Management Limited, to pay NZ$4.57m in damages to victims.

Whakaari Management – named after the Maori name for the island – licenced tour groups to visit the volcano.

The court also ordered White Island Tours, the company which had brought the tourists to the island for a walking tour, to pay NZ$4.68m in reparations.

Three other tour companies, Volcanic Air Safaris, Aerius Limited and Kahu NZ Limited, were also ordered to pay damages.

  • The privately owned volcano that is always active

Seventeen of the tourists who died were from Australia, with the others from the US, New Zealand and Germany. Affected visitors on the day had also come the UK, China and Malaysia.

Judge Evangelos Thomas said in his judgement on Friday that the compensation was “no more than a token recognition” of the victims’ suffering.

Families were broken after the death of loved ones, he acknowledged. Many of the survivors suffered terrible burns and were still enduring a painful toll.

“The treatment was often painful, arduous, disheartening. For many it remains ongoing,” he said.

“Many people grapple with disfigurement of one kind or another. It’s not just simply the physical injury that has caused such harm… the emotional consequences deepen the suffering. We acknowledge that harm.”

Payments will be divided among the victims, with greater amounts to the families of the 22 people who were killed.

In testimonies earlier this week, relatives of those who died told the court the “grief never goes away”.

The mother of Hayden Marshall-Inman, a 40-year-old tour guide killed in the eruption, said: “When Hayds died on White Island, a part of me died. My heart carries the loss of him day and night.”

The owners of the island, Whakaari Management, were also fined NZ$978,000 for breaching workplace safety laws.

The firm’s owners previously faced individual criminal prosecutions over the deaths, but the charges were dropped last year.

The disaster prompted the most extensive and complex investigation ever undertaken by WorkSafe NZ, which was also criticised for failing to monitor activities on the island between 2014 and 2019.

Tourism activities on White Island have not resumed since the eruption.

Some of the tourists who bought their tour ticket to Whakaari through Royal Caribbean Cruises have already reached settlements after suing the Florida-based company in the US.

Suicide poison seller tracked down by BBC

A Ukrainian man selling a poison thought to be linked to at least 130 UK deaths has been identified by the BBC.

Leonid Zakutenko advertised his services on a website promoting suicide and he told an undercover reporter he sends five parcels a week to the UK.

He has been supplying the same substance as Canadian Kenneth Law, who was arrested last year and is now facing 14 murder charges.

Mr Zakutenko denied the claims when challenged by the BBC.

He was tracked down to his home in Kyiv and denied that he sold the deadly chemical, which the BBC is choosing not to name.

However, our investigation found that he has been supplying the substance for years.

The chemical can legally be sold in the UK, but only to companies using it for a legitimate purpose.

Suppliers must not sell to customers unless they have carried out basic checks on what the substance is to be used for.

It can prove fatal if ingested in even small doses.


Zakutenko was described as a “contemptible and evil human being” by the family of twin sisters Linda and Sarah, who died in London last year after the Ukranian supplied them with poison.

Linda was given “easy access to a ‘death kit’ for a few pounds” after finding out about the seller on a well-known suicide forum, according to sister Helen Kite.

She described her sisters, 54, as “intelligent, caring and articulate”.

If you’ve been affected by the issues in this story, help and support is available via the BBC Action Line

Ms Kite said that the lack of action by the authorities to prevent her sisters and many others getting access to the chemical was “a national disgrace”.

The chemical Zakutenko sells is openly discussed on the forum used by Linda, with members advising one another on how to buy and then use it.

The chemical may be linked to more than 130 UK deaths since 2019, according to scientist Prof Amrita Ahluwalia, an expert in vascular pharmacology at Queen Mary University of London.

She analysed blood and other samples from people who had died, which were sent to her from pathologists and police around the UK.

Of 187 tests she found 71% showed high traces of the chemical, indicating that at least 133 people may have died as a result of ingesting it.

“Something needs to be done,” Prof Ahluwalia said.

“With what it’s being used for, there has to be a full investigation of the issues. It has to be regulated so that its use is for its intended purposes.”

Murder charges

Chef Kenneth Law was arrested in Canada in May 2023 and has now been charged with 14 counts of murder and of aiding suicide..

He is thought to have sold the chemical more than 1,200 times to buyers in 40 countries around the world and is linked to at least 93 deaths in the UK.

Our investigation found that Zakutenko has been selling the same chemical since at least November 2020.

He also offers three different prescription medicines, referred to in online suicide guides.

He even briefly promoted his service on the same suicide forum as Mr Law.

Since then, users have passed on his contact details through direct messages.

We traced Zakutenko to a small flat in a Soviet-era tower block in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

We challenged him outside his local post office where he had been posting more parcels.

We asked him why he was sending a poisonous chemical to people who wanted to end their lives.

“That is a lie,” he told us, before putting his hand over our camera and trying to walk away.

We know that at least one of the parcels contained the chemical because we placed an order that day and received a tracking number shortly after Zakuetenko left the post office.

When asked what he had to say to the families of the dead, he replied: “I don’t understand what you are talking about”.

Firmer action

David Parfett’s son Tom, 22, bought the same chemical from Kenneth Law, and used it to end his life in October 2021.

Mr Parfett now campaigns to shut down the suicide forum and stop sellers like Zakutenko.

The British authorities have known about the chemical and the online trade since at least September 2020, when they were alerted by a coroner who examined the death of 23 year-old Joe Nihill.

The coroner wrote to police, the chief coroner and a chemical supplier warning them about the lethal trade in the substance.

  • Suicide website linked to 50 UK deaths still active despite warnings

Since then, coroners across England have written to different government departments on at least five occasions recommending action be taken about the chemical and the suicide forum.

Mr Parfett bought a consignment from Zakutenko in December 2023 because he wanted to test the system to see if the authorities would intercept the parcel.

He had a “welfare check” from police a few days after placing the order, but he still received the chemical within weeks and did not receive another police visit.

“I still can’t believe that was happening today, with everything we know now about the number of deaths,” said Mr Parfett.

Similar welfare checks on UK buyers were carried out after Kenneth Law was arrested in Canada.

The National Crime Agency has confirmed that there are cases of people – who bought the substance from Law – dying after police had carried out welfare checks.

“Such cases are addressed by police forces in line with their policies and national guidelines,” a spokesperson said.

Mr Parfett and Ms Kite are both calling for firmer action to be taken against the forum where their loved ones Tom and Linda found out about the chemical.

Ms Kite described the site as “an abomination, preying, unimpeded by the authorities, on the most vulnerable and causing untold misery and suffering for those left behind”.

The government says the new Online Safety Act, which became law last year should help restrict access to this kind of forum.

Climate change is altering this Arctic language

North Sami, a language spoken in the Arctic, has more than 300 words for snow and a special word for “frightened reindeer”. Can it survive in a warmer world?

Pentti Pieski, a translator and tourism entrepreneur from Utsjoki in the far north of Finland, loves going out in his boat to fish for wild Atlantic salmon. For the past three years, however, he hasn’t been able to go, as Finland and Norway have banned salmon fishing on River Teno to protect depleted stocks. For Pieski, there is a double loss. He misses the fishing trips, and he also misses the conversations he has on those trips, held in an ancient language uniquely suited to salmon fishing in the Arctic: North Sami.

The Sami languages are intricately tied to the way of life of the Sami indigenous people in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The Sami have coped with the extreme Arctic environment for thousands of years and today number around 50,000 to 100,000. Their languages range from the relatively widely spoken North Sami, estimated to have more than 20,000 speakers, to the exceedingly rare Ume Sami, spoken by only 25 people, and the near-extinct Ter Sami in Russia. But those overall figures don’t capture just how important these highly specialised languages are to traditional Sami activities such as fishing and reindeer herding, as well as observing and describing Arctic weather patterns. In the Sami languages, for example, there are more than 300 words for snow, eight words for different seasons, and six different words to describe reindeer wandering by themselves. There are also several words for “frightened reindeer”, depending on their sex and age.

As climate change is threatening the Sami people’s traditional way of life, Pieski and others fear that their language is also changing.

“Traditional salmon fishing is a lot more than catching the fish. It starts with the planning: who you go with, do you need to buy or make new nets, or repair the old ones,” says Pieski. “Next you’re on the river, waiting for your turn. Then there’s the stories around the fire [told in North Sami]. But these conversations are not happening now and some of the language is fading away.”

Aged 52, Pieski is one of the youngest in a group of fishermen using traditional driftnets on one of Europe’s biggest salmon rivers, Teno, that flows through pristine Arctic landscapes along the border between Finland and Norway. For him, the language is part of the community’s ancient bond with the land and water.

Pieski says one endangered Sami word is jiekŋaguolli. It refers to salmon in the spring, immediately after the ice on the river breaks up. According to him, there’s no need to use that word anymore. Due to the declining stocks, even before the ban, the official fishing season was shortened and started on June 1. By then, the river was clear of ice – and fishermen did not have any chance to see any jiekŋaguolli, or “early springtime salmon”.

Jiekŋaguolli is a word that is going to disappear,” predicts Pieski.

He and Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi, president of Sami Climate Council and researcher at the University of Helsinki and the University of Oulu, both see these vulnerable words as symptoms of a much wider problem: climate change.

“Climate change is a new word in North Sami: it’s dálkkádatrievdan. It has become commonly used nowadays,” says Näkkäläjärvi. “Sami people speak about climate change quite a lot, especially reindeer herders.”

The Sami language is intertwined with a traditional way of life that has sustained Sami communities in the Arctic for thousands of years (Credit: Getty Images)

Climate change has had a profound impact on Sápmi, as the Sami refer to their border-crossing traditional Arctic homeland, a region that’s warming four times faster than the rest of the Earth. Rising temperatures have changed Arctic ecosystems that Sami livelihoods such as reindeer herding and fishing depend on.

“There’s a problem in the ocean that’s caused a massive decrease in the number of salmon returning from the sea to the Teno river,” says Jaakko Erkinaro, research professor of Natural Resources Institute Finland. “The entire north-east Atlantic and Barents Sea ecosystem is changing. The sea water temperature is increasing. The ocean currents are changing. The acidification of the ocean is increasing. The distribution of food items used by the salmon has become different. It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly has caused the decline in salmon stocks but climate change is definitely the key driver.”

Certainly, some of the declines in salmon numbers are in line with what scientists have predicted will happen with climate change.

Pieski says these days, jiekŋaguolli, the springtime-salmon word, is only used when talking about the past, when the fish were still abundant.

The vanishing salmon word comes at the end of a complex chain of events: lower stocks, missed fishing trips, lost conversations. But there are also words affected in a much more direct way. Among them are a range of very nuanced, specific words for snow, and for certain types of cold weather. One study of traditional Sami snow words found that they reveal important information relevant to reindeer herding and reindeer ecology. For example, a word for a certain kind of snow cover may also reveal whether this type of snow makes it easier for reindeer to find food, whether it allows the herders to easily spot tracks in it, whether it is easy to move across, and other information related to herding and survival, according to the study.

However, some of those words around snow and weather conditions are no longer needed, as the snow and weather they refer to are becoming rarer or disappearing altogether due to climate change, Näkkäläjärvi says.

Sami reindeer herders use a highly specialised vocabulary related to reindeer, snow and weather conditions (Credit: Getty Images)

“It’s likely that the North Sami term ealát will disappear. It refers to conditions where reindeer find nutrition easily underneath the snow.  It’s disappearing because we haven’t had such conditions in the 21st Century,” says Näkkäläjärvi. “In general, all the terminology that refers to good nutritional conditions for reindeer in winter is rarely used these days.”

Ealát and other highly specialised terms have the advantages of neatly capturing a wide range of facts and nuances, he says. Ealát for example refers to the snow being loose so the reindeer can dig for nutritious lichen, without an ice layer getting in the way. It also implies that the lichen is of good quality and not mouldy, as reindeer don’t eat mouldy lichen. “[The word] refers to snow, ice and nutritional condition,” says Näkkäläjärvi. “So, this word explains quite well the connection of culture and language: you need one word in Sami to explain the condition, but three or more sentences in English.”

Reindeer herding is of huge importance to the Sami people. It’s an important source of livelihood that’s deeply connected to Sami cultural identity, traditions and heritage – a way of life that’s been passed down through generations. According to Näkkäläjärvi, there are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 reindeer owners in Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Climate change has created serious challenges for reindeer herding in recent years. Warmer temperatures have led to more rain-on-snow events, often followed by a freezing cold spell, which creates hard-packed snow with ice on top and icy layers inside. The ice locks away the lichen that reindeer feed on: the animals can dig through the snow, but they can’t dig through the ice to get to the lichen.

More than 300 words for snow

Researchers have studied the Sami reindeer herders knowledge of snow and ice, and have found more than 300 words in Sami languages that capture different kinds of snow, ice and snow conditions. Some of these words combine snow and weather conditions, such as snow blown by the wind, or bad weather with snow and wind. According to Näkkäläjärvi, the North Sami language has 360 words that describe snow. Some are becoming more commonly used, he says, thanks to the mild winters with fluctuating temperatures in the last few years: “Suttádat or njáhcu or sievlladat refer to warm weather winter when the snow starts to melt – these three words are now increasingly in use.”

But other snow words reflecting colder weather are disappearing from use. “Jassa means lingering snow in the fells or highlands in the summer. In Finnish Sápmi there are only few places left that have jassa,” says Näkkäläjärvi.

Pentti Pieski says he has noticed the Sami vocabulary around snow shrinking in the last 20 years. In fact, he says, entire seasons are starting to disappear from the language.

“In northern Lapland, 20 years ago we talked about having eight seasons. One of them, spring-summer, doesn’t happen every year now so people might stop referencing, and it will probably disappear in the future.”

Pieski has observed many profound changes to the seasonal pattern: autumns are getting longer, the snow season is getting shorter, the snow is melting earlier, ice breakups on the river are less dramatic as the ice is thinner, summers are warmer and there are more rainy days in June and July, he says.

Some fear that traditional knowledge to do with reindeer herding, fishing and the Arctic landscape will vanish along with certain words (Credit: Getty Images)

Mountain confusion

The changes in the ecosystem present another problem: as the landscape changes, Pieski and others say, places don’t match their traditional Sami names anymore.

In Sami languages, most place names are derived from nature, with many reflecting the shape of the terrain or the predominant vegetation. This gives Sami speakers a crucial advantage in navigating the landscape, drawing on the knowledge of many generations before them, who passed on important information about places through their names.

Climate change is changing the landscape in many ways. It is accelerating the shrubification of the Arctic, as the warmer, longer growing seasons speed up plant growth. Forests and shrubs are moving to more north and higher in the mountain region.

“In North Sami, duottar refers to a mountain that has no high vegetation. Várri is a small mountain with high vegetation. Many of the duottars in Sápmi are actually becoming várri. So the place name does not correlate with the description anymore,” says Näkkäläjärvi.

As with the mismatched place names, there are fears that other traditional knowledge such as practices and skills to do with reindeer herding and fishing will also vanish along with certain words. “I’m worried about losing the traditional Sami knowledge of salmon fishing,” says Pieski. “We’ve lost a lot of the language already.”

Reindeer herders have told Näkkäläjärvi that the knowledge to identify animal footprints in the snow is already fading in some areas. “They could be of reindeer that has run away from the herd (ruvggáldat), frightened reindeer (hiras), or reindeer that tends to wander alone (duoddil, jáđas, liŋka, hilbesboazu, meahcehas or loavsku),” he says. In fact, even for something as specific as “frightened reindeer”, there is a range of words: cohcas, várgu, árgi, biltu, čuosku, dirboges, eaidanas, menodahkes. “These all refer to frightened reindeer. Some are only used for a reindeer of certain sex or age,” Näkkäläjärvi says.

He adds that those words are typically learned while herding reindeer, and their survival is tied to that way of life: “If the need for using a certain terms disappears, or people stop using them because they can’t identify such tracks, words can disappear with people not even noticing that they’re gone.”

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Final Fantasy VII’s plot twist changed video game history

Classic 90s adventure game Final Fantasy VII is being remade in three parts – and the second instalment, released today, includes a brutal, tragic character death that left players of the original game stunned. How will it play this time round?

The Japanese video game Final Fantasy VII, a sweeping cyberpunk epic generally considered one of the greatest role-playing games ever made, is a miraculous feat of alchemy. As sombre as it is silly, as futuristic as it is fantastical, its international release in 1997 established the Final Fantasy brand – a long-running anthology series of Role Playing Games (RPGs), developed by a studio called Square – as a force to be reckoned with in the West.

Predecessor Final Fantasy VI, for instance, has sold 3.8 million copies worldwide; to date, Final Fantasy VII has sold 14.4 million. It has inspired a CGI-animated feature film sequel; a range of middling spin-off games; and most recently, a long-anticipated project to remake the original title as a trilogy, using the full high-fidelity might of modern video game technology. The second of that trilogy, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, is released today.

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You could attribute this enduring reverence to the original Final Fantasy VII’s technical achievements. By today’s standards, of course, its blocky graphics and text-based dialogue could be considered crude, but for its time the use of 3D polygonal character models – deftly spliced against painterly pre-rendered backgrounds, interspersed with cinematic cut-scenes – served as an impressive showcase for the cutting-edge power of the PlayStation 1. You could also cite its elegant game mechanics: its intuitive magic system, its dynamic turn-based combat; its atmospheric score, its evocative setting, its rich, textured aesthetic and colourful character designs. Yet undoubtedly the reason why Final Fantasy VII endures is its story: a compellingly plotted, thematically bold tale of a broken mind and a dying planet, immortalised by the most famous twist in video game history. 

You play Cloud Strife, a cynical spiky-haired mercenary who has been hired by an insurgent group called Avalanche to infiltrate and bomb a reactor. In this world a fascistic megacorporation called Shinra has pioneered a way to suck the lifeforce out of the planet and convert it into an energy called Mako. The discovery has given rise to marvels like Midgar, a vast circular metropolis, built upon a base of polluted slums, which provides the setting for the first act of the game. For Avalanche’s leader, Barret, a burly zealot with a gun for an arm, ridding society of Shinra’s reactors – a mission not without collateral damage – is the only way to save the planet from environmental collapse.

The game’s moral complexities

Back in 1997, such morally complex computer game protagonists were a challenging prospect: Final Fantasy VII invited the player to be complicit in the actions of characters who could easily be described as eco-terrorists. But they were born out of challenging times for Japan, which during the mid-90s was reeling from a series of economic and environmental disasters.

An inspired Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the Final Fantasy series, wanted to use its seventh instalment to explore the big metaphysical questions: humanity’s relationship with nature, the cycle of life and death. It is surely not a coincidence that the thematically similar animation Princess Mononoke, Studio Ghibli‘s dark, pensive eco-parable, premiered in the same year. In the age of climate change, where the ethics of direct action are a hot topic of debate, Final Fantasy VII’s portrayal of a planet being destroyed in the pursuit of profit, and those fighting against that, has only grown more resonant. 

The beauty of Final Fantasy VII’s storytelling is how deftly it marries the personal drama of its characters with tightly paced plotting and steadily escalating stakes

The first instalment in the remake trilogy, released in 2020, covered events in Midgar, where Cloud, having taken on another job for Avalanche, finds himself caught up in the fight against Shinra. He blows up another reactor. He falls from a great height, crashing through the church of a flirty flower girl called Aerith. He becomes her bodyguard. He dresses up as a woman to rescue his shy childhood friend Tifa. He witnesses an atrocity. He storms Shinra’s headquarters to save a captured Aerith, revealed to be the last of an ancient race with powerful magical abilities. He discovers that a man from his past, the legendary supersoldier Sephiroth, is somehow still alive.

The second part of the trilogy, titled Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth, follows Cloud and his ragtag crew of companions (Barret, Tifa, Aerith and a four-legged lab experiment called Red XIII) as they leave behind the suffocating concrete of Midgar and step into a wide, open world. The original game portrayed this vast landscape as an abstract miniature, with its various towns and cities resembling toy models. For Rebirth, however, it has been recreated as a living, breathing ecosystem. “The sheer scale of the world was the most difficult thing about this game,” says Rebirth’s director Naoki Hamaguchi. “We had to rethink the original’s geography, dig deeper into what these places are, the people who live there. We had to make it feel like a planet, like a journey.”

The original Final Fantasy VII game may look dated now, but its intricate world-building and storytelling were pioneering (Credit: Square Enix)

Rebirth adapts what is arguably the most significant segment of the original game: in which Cloud, now on the run from Shinra, travels in search of Sephiroth, a former friend who has become a threat to the planet. The world our heroes find is as magical as it is melancholy. For every sunny seaside resort or glitzy amusement park, there is a polluted fishing village or a town traumatised by a tragic reactor accident. In classic RPG-style, you visit these places, learn their stories, fight monsters, invest time into making your characters stronger (levelling up), meet new companions (including a precocious ninja and a talking cat) and bond as a fellowship.

The beauty of Final Fantasy VII’s storytelling is how deftly it marries the personal drama of these characters (the identity crisis of Cloud; the romantic rivalry of Tifa and Aerith; the destroyed coal mining village that inspired Barret’s activism) with tightly paced plotting and steadily escalating stakes. The fight against an evil corporation becomes the fight against an aspiring god, Sephiroth; the fight against an aspiring god becomes the fight against an ancient extraterrestrial evil, against enormous Kaiju-esque monsters, against a meteor called forth to end the world. And then, suddenly, in the midst of it all, it happens: Sephiroth descends from the heavens and plunges his sword through Aerith’s back.

An unbelievable moment

When this happened in the original game, players were dumbstruck. Surely she couldn’t actually be dead? There was nothing new about a story unexpectedly killing off a main character. George RR Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones, for instance, was published a year before. Yet for video games – a medium hardly known at the time for its sophisticated storytelling, where characters were ultimately invincible, and you could always reload and try again – the death of Aerith was groundbreaking. So much so in fact that many players, the majority of them children, simply refused to believe it. Rumours blazed through internet forums and school playgrounds about ways to bring her back. But there was no secret resurrection yet to be discovered. The permanence was the point. 

When people die in stories, it is often some kind of noble sacrifice that comes at the end. But that is not a realistic experience of death – Yoshinori Kitase

“There was something that bothered me about the idea of characters coming back from the dead,” explains Kitase, who oversaw the scene alongside artist Tetsuya Nomura (the originator of the twist) and writer Kazushige Nojima. “The princess who dies and the prince who brings her back to life using some kind of gimmick – those kinds of stories were prevalent in games. There was even a survey done in Japan at the time that asked ‘when people die, will they come back again?’ and the majority of the children who answered said ‘yes’! I felt a sense of responsibility over that. I wanted to avoid using death as a cheap dramatic device. I wanted to treat it in that very frank sense of a character dying and that being something that just happens, that the player has to react to.”

The scene itself has become fabled for making players cry. Aerith, her face a picture of shock, the sword withdrawn from her back, collapses lifelessly into Cloud’s arms. There are no last words, no tearful goodbyes; she is already dead. “This can’t be real,” Cloud says, shaking. “Aerith is gone. Aerith will no longer talk, no longer laugh, cry or get angry… What is this pain? My fingers are tingling. My mouth is dry. My eyes are burning!” The English translation of the Japanese script is notoriously flawed (Aerith was mistranslated as Aeris in the West, for example), but this dialogue at least is largely faithful to Nojima’s wrenching melodrama.

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth once again focuses on mercenary hero Cloud Strife (Credit: Square Enix)

Just as important, however, is the scene’s visual language. The graphics alternate between the realistic style of the game’s cut scenes and its more rudimentary default. These boxy characters seem dated now – hence the remake. Yet they are also precisely why the death of Aerith is so affecting. There is a disarming idiosyncrasy to their impressionistic bodies. They do not speak out loud, their faces do not emote, but somehow that doesn’t matter. Their simple, evocative gestures are expressive enough; your imagination, along with Nobuo Uematsu’s gentle, mournful score, fills in the rest. Barret looks at Aerith slumped on the ground, and wordlessly shakes his head. Tifa, kneeling, strokes her hair. Cloud, silent, picks up her lifeless little body and carries her to rest. Much as Final Fantasy VII’s twee aesthetic belies the maturity of its themes, so too is there poignancy in the space between innocence and death.  

The impact left 

Yet for Kitase and his team, it was not enough that players experienced the shock of Aerith dying – they also had to be made to feel what comes next. “When people die in stories, it is often some kind of noble sacrifice that comes at the end,” he says. “But that is not a realistic experience of death: the idea that you have lost something and it’s gone now, you can only look back and regret. You have to live with that. And this is something that games are well placed to deal with.”

Emotionally, the death of Aerith splits the world of Final Fantasy VII into before and after. This applies to the plot, too, of course. The fight against Sephiroth intensifies. The characters reflect and grieve. “She always used to talk about the next time,” says Tifa at one point. “She talked about the future more than any of us.” But her loss can also be felt in subtler, more practical ways. It is in the space where her picture used to be in the character select screen. It is in the attacks and weapons particular to her that can no longer be attained or used. It is in all the hours spent levelling her up, which have now passed into nothingness. Grief, like hunger, is absence with presence – and Final Fantasy VII uses the mechanics of the medium to never let you forget it.

“When you lose someone in the real world, you generally don’t realise until after the event what’s actually happened and what you’ve lost,” says Kitase. “You think, ‘If I’d have known, I would have talked to them more when they were alive’. It is the same with Aerith. You think, ‘If I’d have known she died, I could have done this with the character. I wanted to have done that before but now I can’t.’ It was important to get the player into that mental state.”

I am confident that when the climactic event happens in the new remake, people will react in exactly the kind of strong way the writers want them to – Naoki Hamaguchi

Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth promises to be a different experience, however. Most players – either through experience or osmosis – know what is coming at the game’s end. “This is why the bonds and relationships between the characters are so important,” explains Hamaguchi, who cites Rebirth’s wealth of character-focussed side-quests. “It is all leading up to that. It has to mean something.” For Kitase, revisiting and recreating the scene was a daunting task, not too unlike the modern trend of adapting animation into live-action. “We had a lot of work to do,” he says. “The original version of that scene, with the low polygon count and over-emphasised acting, had to be completely reworked with super modern, really detailed, really in-depth and subtle depictions. There’s a lot more nuance and movement. It really has changed the impact of the scene.

The Final Fantasy VII Rebirth creators are not revealing exactly what Aerith’s fate is this time around (Credit: Square Enix)

There is also the intriguing possibility that this time, Aerith does not die at all. The first instalment of the remake trilogy introduced the idea of Whispers: spectral beings that try to intervene whenever the storyline of the new game is in danger of deviating from that of the original. Some have theorised that they represent the fans who do not want anything other than a direct scene-for-scene recreation. Yet their apparent defeat at the end of the first part suggested two things. The first is that this trilogy is something of a meta-sequel: a remake commenting on the challenges of remaking an iconic game. The second is that Kitase, Hamaguchi and their team are now free to take big creative risks.

Could Aerith living be one of them? Understandably, neither will say.

“I am confident that when the climactic event happens, whatever happens, people will react in exactly the kind of strong way the writers want them to,” says Hamaguchi, laughing.

“It is a story where about half the audience are expecting a different ending,” adds Kitase. “I really am looking forward to fans seeing it. I am almost certain that it is going to have a much more direct emotional impact than it did the first time around.”

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth is available now for the PlayStation 5.

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