The Fire Emblem

Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Ch. 6.

We’re at a moment of huge importance in the story, so it’s time to remember that, oh yeah, this game has a story. First, let’s consider the importance of story to early games. Once I’ve established why it is that SD&BoL‘s isn’t necessarily up to today’s standards, I’ll take a look at what it does give us storywise. And I can’t leave chapter 6 without mentioning the most important thing in it: the first thematic element that I think comes to define the narrative thrust of any Fire Emblem.

Telling a Story

Altea is blue. Dolhr is red. You know why.
Borrowed from the Fire Emblem anime, because yes, apparently there’s a Fire Emblem anime. Props to my graphic artist, MS Paint.

Well, this is embarrassing. I’ve made it some twenty percent of the way through SD&BoL and I haven’t once mentioned the storyline. One of the things that made me fall in love with Fire Emblem was the presence of an interesting, epic story that was written well. What gives this time around? Shouldn’t I be all over the tale that started it all?

The unfortunate truth is that there isn’t much of a there there. Like many an NES game, SD&BoL touches at storytelling a little bit, but it never quite arrives at a true story you’d turn to just to read.

There are numerous trappings of something literary, of course. It has characters—a whole big cast of characters, with names and faces! It styles itself as a collection of “chapters” rather than the more gamey-sounding “stages” or “levels”—like a book, more than a game! Its plot is mostly told in between moments of action, through dialogue and narration—again, just like a book! It’s pretty clear what the developers want you to think about the experience as you play it.

But as much as the game tries to evoke the literary mode, it doesn’t really deliver on the features that make literary experiences interesting—plots you want to follow, driven by characters who are complex, expressed in language worth reading. SD&BoL tells a cookie-cutter epic save-the-world adventure, marked by little characterization, by way of terse NES-era text blurbs. Out of an abundance of caution, I’ll blame the last of those problems on me playing the game in a never-authorized fan translation. The other two, I’m afraid, are problems with the original. IS just never gave the storytelling the storyteller’s touch that it needed, and as a result SD&BoL is decidedly more game than story.

And who’s to blame it, really? For starters, remember who the IS personnel were on this project: programmers and engineers all doing a little bit of everything, including the creative stuff. They were Renaissance men and women enough without the expectation that they’d deliver an instant classic work of fiction alongside their already audaciously big project.

For another maybe-more-important thing, I don’t think games were particularly considered to be storytelling media when SD&BoL was published. Nowadays, say, you could probably make some crude distinction if I asked you to differentiate between what you consider a “story game” and a “gameplay game.” The terms are nebulous, but it’s pretty clear anymore that some games are released primarily to tell a story where others are released to engage you via the three kinds of interesting decisions. And virtually every large-scale game released today does at least a little of both: even the densest entries in the “visual novel” genre require you to make some choices, and even the most traditional of new Mario games feature short cutscenes that lend a light narrative arc to the disparate action levels.

Not so in 1990. It’s probably fruitless to try to pinpoint just where developers began to realize that storytelling could be a major focus of a game, but I think that point came after the age of the NES. Consider, for example, Final Fantasy: the first three entries, though they increasingly involved characters with names, were far more about examining the differences in leveling and class systems than about making people out of those characters. Then the SNES dropped and IV came along, and the series opened up to whole new concepts of narrative in a blink. It’s no accident that the change in narrative angle occurred with the change in technology. Recall that this Fire Emblem had to scrape memory from non-traditional places just to fit on an NES cartridge, and you can imagine that there was likely little room on the system to include the sprawling maps, long dialogue, and intricately blocked scenes that better characterization and plotting tend to demand.

So while SD&BoL is no pinnacle of tale-telling, it’s probably just that Archanea was bound to a simplistic story by virtue of its hardware. We’ll see how the series grows in ambition as its platform grows in technical capacity. Pretty soon, it’ll be serving up stories that, I think, do stand out as excellent narrative stuff.

And before you dismiss Archanea in its entirety, stay tuned for Shadow Dragon. Its decision to tell this story over by making it mostly about Marth’s coming of age is the best possible thematic direction it could have taken. It’s no secret how much I love the reboot, is it?

So What Actually Is the Story?

Warm colors vs. cool colors: because the heroes are cool people.
Now with high-tech arrows! Definitely something the NES couldn’t have done.

It’s probably worth a quick recap to catch you up on the story, I suppose.

The above map represents troop movements that happen prior to the first chapter, and prior to anybody saying anything about the state of the world in-game. This is gleaned entirely from my playthrough of Shadow Dragon, which is the same story on re-release. None of this would be at all clear to me without my having played that later game. I assume at least some of this was explained in the SD&BoL instruction manual, but I don’t have that and it would be in Japanese anyway, so you’re stuck with me and MS Paint, you lucky devil.

For reasons not entirely clear in the game, the kingdom of Dolhr (red above) has forged an alliance with the Dark Pontifex Gharnef, who rules the independent mage fiefdom of Khadein (pink) by fiat. Dolhr is led by its king Medeus, the eponymous Shadow Dragon of the title. More on him to come.

Medeus and Gharnef unite three other nations under their banner: military powerhouse Grust (brown), air power Macedon (orange, Dolhr’s neighbor), and, secretly, the less-developed island of Gra (yellow, to represent cowardly backstabbers). Together, the nations organize a surprise attack on the greatest powers who oppose them. Dolhr and Grust seize the ancient empire of Archanea (purple) with plans to exterminate its entire royal line. Macedon occupies Aurelis (green), where a loyalist army holds out in a protracted defense because the Macedonian royalty is divided over the decision to commit its deadly air cavalry.

Hearing the ill news, little island power Altea ships to war with its ally Gra to bolster its friends’ defenses—and Gra promptly turns the tables in a surprise maneuver, slaying Altea’s King Anri and marching to capture Altea itself. Anri’s daughter Elice is taken hostage, leaving his son Marth the only known survivor of the attack.

Brave Sir Marth bravely runs away.
History never records how this got past the combined navies of Gra, Dolhr, and Grust.

Marth escapes with a skeleton crew of royal guardsmen—guardsmen, as in yes, all dudes—to the only ally left untaken in the Dolhran blitzkrieg: faraway Talys, a nation greatly removed from the military campaigns of the world.

Years pass, Marth grows up, and the Dolhran alliance strengthens its siege on its new territories. Archanea is all but fallen, although a strange act of mercy on behalf of her Grustian steward allows one last scion of the imperial family, the princess Nyna, to escape to Aurelis. Aurelis too is captured, though a contingent of her knights fights the Macedonian occupation under the direction of Aurelian captain Hardin the Coyote, who shelters Nyna of Archanea. (He shelters a little something else for Nyna, too, but that’s another story.) Altea suffers under the reign of a brutal Dolhran governor.

Blue = you; red = dead.
The first squiggly line you’ll see in Fire Emblem, but most certainly not the last.

And so, after a pirate assault that exposes how ludicrously unprepared the nation of Talys is for war, Marth leaves his protectors in the east to unite his nation’s fallen allies, retake Altea, and take the fight to Dolhran soil. His first priority is to assist the Aurelian survivors, who still put up a fight against the Macedonian occupation. There, I assume, Marth understands that he can make contact with Nyna of Archanea to forge an alliance of more lasting power. The first six chapters take us from Talys to the throne of Aurelis, where we free the nation from Macedonian control and meet Nyna.

OK. That’s a decent amount of plot, and it’s a credit to Mr. Kaga that it all makes a certain degree of military sense. A couple things about the map before we move on.

First, that big pink blob to the northwest. The structure of Khadein has never been too clear to me. There is a city of Khadein proper, in the desert but near-ish to the coast, that is undoubtedly the cultural and governmental center of the territory. This is the city from which Gotoh taught as White Sage, and Merric notes that he studied magic there under Wendell—so there’s likely some sort of magic academy in the city. In the chapters we spend there, you even see that its military consists largely of powerful mages. But Khadein, despite its mass of territory and its control by one of the main antagonists in the game, never actually makes a military move anywhere. This may be because Khadein is more city-state than nation, or more religious territory than either. But its expanse belies those classifications: for a city-state, we’re going to see in one of the last chapters that its geographic reach extends waaaaaaaaay far into the hinterlands. The alternative, more practical explanation is that, on a Fire Emblem battlefield, an army of nothing but mages will get you nowhere fast, and so Gharnef knows better than to field his proprietary troops anywhere other than in his own defense.

Second, the map above is notable for how much of it I didn’t color at all. Chapters 2 and 3 take place on ground (1) colonized by people but (2) claimed by no world power, and most maps agree that the land past some northern reaches of the main continent isn’t anyone’s to own, either. For a European-style fantasy, this is not a remotely European approach to border-drawing. If this were really patterned on medieval Europe, as long as you could see an inch of land on the map, at least one nation would have staked a claim to it. The incredible restraint with which the Archanean nations have drawn their borders bodes well for the balance of power in the era after the War of Shadows concludes. (…Or does it?)

And finally, Fire Emblem has always had a sort of longing fondness for the integrity of the city-state, and the Archanean world has that in spades. There’s a whole set of island poleis that dot the map; Marth hails from one himself. Khadein may or may not be one. The same spirit even shows in the free-city atmosphere around the port of Galder in the unclaimed lands of chapter 2. Shouzou Kaga does seem to enjoy his independent cities in the creation of his worlds. The Archanean world is but the first of many examples of this to come.

The Fire Emblem!

No pressure, though. I’m just giving it to you here.

Whatever you think about the narrative content of SD&BoL, there are a few elements of its plot that will recur across all the stories to come, and I’d like to pay close attention to how each of those stories use those elements. To be up-front about it, I think that the way in which a given Fire Emblem uses these elements is a big tell about the underlying message its story wants to get across.

The first such element appears right now: it’s the namesake of the game. After Marth reclaims the Aurelian throne, Nyna bestows a regal, um, crest-shield-thingy upon him to signify his station. That’s right, it’s the one and only Fire Emblem!

This first of Fire Emblems is a royal, um, thing with a legendary insignia, passed down by generations of royalty in the Archanean empire. No, I’m not totally sure what form it actually takes. But it’s a big deal. According to Nyna here:

It’s the symbol of [Archanea]’s royal family. It’s a symbol of a champion that’s given to who will save the world.

Legends tell that it’s the rightful possession of great leaders who will save the world in time of crisis, and in those times it changes hands from Archanea to those leaders as a sign of renewed hope for every nation. (Legend has a few less positive things to say about it, too, but we’ll cover those later.)

Its function is to connote alliance. It marks the moment when Archanea—the oldest and most storied nation in the world—places all of its trust in one man. In other words, it’s a sign that empowers the same old feeling that has fueled JRPGs from time immemorial: the idea that the world is in danger and you, the player, are the only one who can bring it peace. When Marth receives the Fire Emblem in Aurelis, he knows not only that he fights for fallen Altea and faraway Talys, but newly liberated Aurelis and, in spirit if not in body quite yet, the entire ancient empire of Archanea. This is the moment at which Marth’s shoes grow several sizes and the stakes for the player jump up substantially. Once you have the Fire Emblem, this game isn’t about retaking your fallen homeland anymore. It’s about leading the free world to topple tyranny.

So the first face the Fire Emblem shows is an empowering one. Wage a war, it says. You’re on the right side of history, and you have destiny and friends both on your side. Conquest is noble and your struggle will in the end be a long road to triumph. All this is promised in the little Fire Emblem legend Nyna gives you.

We’ll soon see that there’s a flip side to the Emblem, a side that ties into the other half of the most central theme any Fire Emblem will explore. That’s coming up later.

I hope that puts you on the edge of your seat. For now, it’s off from Aurelis to get Nyna her throne back. Archanea is just the neighboring country to the south, but there’s a lot of territory between here and there. Anything could happen on the way…

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