Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Chs. 4–5.
Continuing down my list of topics I’m obligated to talk about in the first Fire Emblem: permadeath. Or more specifically, why permadeath contributes to making Fire Emblem feel like a whole game. Before we move on, we’ll also take a pit stop at the battle prep screen and get pedantically weirded out by translated names.
Well, I’ll get pedantically weirded out by translated names. You’ll just sit at your computer and laugh at me.
Death and Tactics
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the defining feature of Fire Emblem, at least to a series newcomer, is that people die.
That’s nothing new in video games, mind. People die all the time in video games—it’s part and parcel of making player experiences that so frequently revolve around violence. The difference between Fire Emblem and most other games is that death in Fire Emblem is surprisingly lasting. If your player character dies in an action game, they’ll usually pop right back up, at least a limited number of times, for you to try again. If your characters die in an RPG, they’ll usually lie around on the ground until your resident healer revives them with a miraculous spell or item, chiding them good-naturedly to not die quite so bloodily a second time. (I assume that’s the conversation that occurs.) That’s the system used in Fire Emblem‘s sorta-closest relative, Final Fantasy.
But in Fire Emblem, things are different. Once a character’s HP meter drops to 0, they’re gone for good. The game goes on, and that person no longer exists. No restarts, no revivals—when a person dies, it’s like, y’know, they’re dead. Emblemiers past and present have named this feature “permadeath.”
As with most seemingly unprecedented Fire Emblem features, permadeath was actually a thing before SD&BoL. As best I can tell, the first game implementing permadeath was the 1980 dungeon crawler Rogue, which has since spawned a big long list of “roguelike” progeny. In Rogue, you controlled only one character and could save your progress, but because your saves were erased every time you loaded them, any death effectively made you restart from the beginning as a new character. Death, fittingly, was the end of your character. (This idea in turn comes straight out of D&D, where if the DM and your die rolls saw it fit, your character could die forever, and there was no getting them back.) Fire Emblem just takes this mechanic and applies it to individual characters in a larger army.
So what? If you’re Mr. Kaga, why would you have people just die forever, when the broader trend in games tilts away from making death deathlike? This is a crucial question about the structure of Fire Emblem, but to answer it best, I think I need to drill a little bit into the elements that make up a game.
Yup, any game. I’m aiming big here. I promise it’ll be worth it!
Let’s start with the soul of a game. Told you I was aiming big. I can’t give you an ironclad definition of what makes a game a game, but I can fall back on a rule of thumb that’s useful enough. Sid Meier, designer of Civilization, famously offered that “games are a series of interesting decisions.” There’s been plenty of criticism of that as a definition, but for my limited purposes I think it works brilliantly. I like it so much because it defines the most important parts of a game as moments of problem solving. Let’s assume, then, that the building blocks of a game are decisions, and that the player enjoys a game when those decisions are interesting.
As I see it, the decisions that games can call on players to make can all be classified into three types (borrowing my language here from military history):
- Strategic decisions: big-picture plans. You think things through, you consider how best to approach either a situation before you or the game as a whole, and you decide how you’re going to set things up according to your big concepts of how the game works.
- Tactical decisions: reactions. As soon as the game (or your opponent, in a PvP scenario) starts making choices back at you, you shift from the strategic mode of overarching plans to the tactical mode of figuring out what you’re going to do with the situation in the current moment. Tactics are the on-the-fly decisions you make about how to adapt your strategy to stimuli the game presents.
- Logistical decisions: button pushing. In military terms, logistics is the mundane and nitty-gritty organization of troop movements, maintenance, and supply in support of the broader, thinkier maneuvers. In gaming terms, I consider the logistical decisions to be, similarly, the fine-tuned physical work you do to actually enact your strategies and tactics: for video games, it means actually pushing the buttons. Where strategy and tactics are mental exercises, logistics in gaming is purely physical. And that’s not to cast it negatively—after all, many a great action game and shooter rely on the successful execution of bunches of logistical decisions (read: pushing a lot of buttons accurately) for most of their challenge and reward.
Different games aim for different modes of decision making. Action video games are heavy on logistical challenges, moderate to light on tactical ones, and require virtually no strategy. The first Final Fantasy, by contrast, presents big strategic hurdles that it asks you to navigate by way of a lot of tactical decisions, but is pointedly of very little logistical interest at all. (Later Final Fantasies skew more towards the tactical than the strategic, I think, but that’s a topic for another day.) In that way, Final Fantasy is like a board game: prioritizing tricky questions of strategy and tactics while leaving logistics largely by the wayside. Also, have I told you you should play board games? Because you should play board games.
Anyway, that in mind, let’s turn back to Fire Emblem. SD&BoL is primarily a game of tactics. I know, I know, everybody calls it a “strategy” RPG, but if you look at the meat of what you’re doing, you’re fielding an army and then reacting to the red soldiers’ movements across a series of turns. As the battle evolves, so do your decisions about how to commit your units. That’s tactics, and it’s the vast majority of what you’re doing in Fire Emblem. Logistics, on the other hand, are far out of the spotlight: there’s no time pressure to input your button presses, and most of the time, if you get them wrong, you can back up a menu and reverse them. You can’t avoid making logistical decisions—progress inevitably involves pressing buttons—but the interesting decisions are decidedly not the logistical ones.
So Fire Emblem is heavy on tactics and light on logistics. That leaves one more element of the gameplay, and that’s where permadeath comes in. In most of Fire Emblem, strategic considerations end on Turn 1 of a given chapter. Which characters you pick for the chapter, how you equip them, and where you field them are all strategic decisions, and how you move them on your first turn is too—but after that, the enemy moves, and reaction mode begins. In some cases stuff happens even before your first turn that puts you into tactical gear even earlier. This in mind, there’s not much strategic consideration that occurs during most of a chapter.
But add permadeath to the mix and strategic considerations start to invade your tactical reasoning. In a world where death didn’t last, you might commit troops however you like, without fear that they’d be unavailable in the next chapter if you goof up. In a world with permadeath, you’re suddenly left considering whether certain maneuvers are worth the risk of losing units for good. In other words, long-term considerations of readiness for the rest of the game down the road—strategic considerations if ever there were—appear even in the heat of your tactical process, and force you to think on multiple levels. Because it usually turns out to be the better plan to save lives where you can, these strategic considerations really start to influence and limit the tactical choices you feel comfortable making. And so it is that both the strategic and tactical decisions you make grow more interesting because of permadeath, and the game, as a whole, grows better for them.
No doubt I’ll think of many more reasons for and effects of permadeath as this project continues, but I think the biggest one is to liven up the mix of decisions you have to make.
Chapter 4’s battle in the lea of Aurelis marks the advent of the battle preparations screen in the series. Most Fire Emblems in the future will follow the pattern SD&BoL sets here: you play the opening chapters without any battle prep screen, and then somewhere in the still-early chapters it turns up before a battle and remains a fixture of chapter structure for the rest of the story.
I always take the prep screen as a kind of signal. Functionally, it’s a sign that the army is getting too big to fit all together in a single chapter: from this point forward, you have to pick a selection of units rather than fielding the whole enlisted roster. That in turn means both that the game knows full well it’s giving you more people than you need to win and that the maps are growing bigger and more complicated. And so, correspondingly, when the prep screen shows up, I also take it as a sign that the intro period is over and the real-deal Fire Emblem game is going to pick up steam. As soon as team management becomes an option, you can’t very well choose to ignore it anymore.
That sort of structure, I think, is crucial to the Fire Emblem game feel. The accumulation of tactical considerations needs to be at least a little bit spaced out. Too much dumped on a player at once will wreck the sense of wholeness and balance the game needs to come off as a legitimate test of tactical thought. If you’re a total noob to the series, too much delivered too soon will overwhelm you in the minutiae of the game—not a feeling that makes you want to learn it any better. Conversely, even if you’ve been playing Fire Emblems as long as it took Archanea to become Ylisse, you’ll still want to take in the narrative gradually, like any good telling of a story. Too much too soon makes both story and gameplay feel rushed.
As you might expect, this is more of an issue once Fire Emblem begins to really care about narrative in earnest, so let’s table this topic until some later games come along. For now, before we leave it, let’s make note of what’s weird about SD&BoL‘s prep screen in my future-seeing eyes:
- As in battle, the unit roster lists level and HP, but not experience. It seems it took the developers at least a game or two to realize that you really just as often want to see a unit’s long-term leveling prospects at a glance. (A point of strategy, you might say.)
- You can view the map, but you can’t yet position your units. Query whether the unit-positioning thing has ever made much of a difference outside of battles where the map splits your army into different groups, but be that as it may, it’s another potential strategic feature that’s absent here.
- Frustratingly, you can’t trade items between units or get them out of storage from the battle prep screen. That means that in order to shuffle items to where you want them, you’ll have to field every unit that’s carrying something of interest in the next battle. There’s no good reason, commonsensically speaking, why these people couldn’t give each other their stuff off of the battlefield, but if you’re OK with the arbitrary limitation, it does limit one form of cheesiness. Once you’ve picked a team of units you like, you’ll be recruiting many more down the line, and they’ll often carry interesting items you’d prefer were in the hands of your battle-tested favorites. The limitation on trading outside of battle makes it much harder to scrap incoming units for parts and trade off all their goodies to other people. (That said, it also puts an unnecessary kink in the process of trading between people you do use, so I can see why later Fire Emblems let you trade from here.)
- The cast of SD&BoL, as I’ve already noted, is unusually large throughout the opening chapters. The limits on the numbers of units you can field in these chapters are similarly big—in the above screenshot, you can see me fielding up to 13 units in Chapter 4, which would be practically unheard of in later Fire Emblems. No clue why this one’s early period runs so big, other than maybe the developers not knowing any better. I welcome your thoughts on this, if you have any.
À la Récherche des Noms Perdus
So bear with me here for a moment. You’re playing through a story set in fantasy Archanea, right? And your journey takes you from fantasy island Talys to the shores of fantasy port town Galder. And then from fantasy Galder you battle through the fantasy Samsooth mountain range, which has a super-fantasy second name like the Ghoul’s Teeth. And then you come out of the mountains, straight into …
Orleans. Which is in France. You just went from fantasyland to France.
I can see exactly why Orleans, the intended original name of this country, became Aurelis in the official translation. It’s really jarring when fantasy names coexist with the names of actual places in the real world. Theatre artists from time immemorial (Bertolt Brecht aside) will tell you that good storytelling depends, at least in part, on the willing suspension of disbelief, and man does that suspension break for me when I recognize in a fictional land the name of a place I could jump on an airplane and fly to. Plus, “Aurelis” sounds cooler.
Stranger, though, is that sometimes the translation fantasizes real names and sometimes it doesn’t. Aurelis was saved from bearing the name of a real place, but Macedon, home of its occupying army, wasn’t at all. And we’ll see more of this moving forward: fictional geographies in future Fire Emblems will feature made-up names alongside the likes of Silesia, Lycia, Etruria, Crimea, Gallia, and more.
Why are Fire Emblems peppered with an inconsistent mix of real and original geographical names? Because Japanese writers find real names from halfway around the world just as exotic-sounding as the stuff they come up with off the tops of their heads? (Maybe.) And most critically, am I the only one who’s taken out of the story when I spot real names among the fantasy ones? (Warmer, I’m sure.)
Think about those. Tell me if you have a better answer than I do. I’m moving on to liberate Aurelis Castle, where I’ll finally talk about the story-related stuff that made me want to start blogging in the first place. I promise. Really.