Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Chs. 16–17.
This is it: the part where I tell you the message I think SD&BoL is trying to communicate. I think it requires a little grounding in the structure of the five-act RPG and the course of the third act so far to get there, but then I hope you see what I mean. Because this same message is going to recur in every single Fire Emblem yet to come, and if you miss it you’re missing what I consider the key motif of the series.
This is a climactic moment in the plot, so it deserves a background tune any Emblemier worth their salt should recognize. Its workaday name “Dialogue Theme 2” has since been replaced, upon its reappearance and reappearance and reappearance in later entries, with the more grandiose “Together We Ride.” It’s what you hear when you’re recruiting someone. It’s freakin’ awesome. Part of why Dialogue Theme 2 caught on where Dialogue Theme 1 didn’t so much must be the mood it sets—it has all the tension and momentum of 1, but instead of creating apprehension, 2 makes you want to get up and crash on through those enemy forces. Tie it to some moment of player achievement like recruiting new characters, and you’ve got yourself an instant Fire Emblem classic.
The Five-Act RPG
OK, buckle in. We’ve hit the climax of the plot, and this is my chance to tell you what I feel SD&BoL, and pretty much every single Fire Emblem thereafter, is trying to communicate through its story. I think the best way to get there is, first, to delve just a wee little bit into dirt-simple literary theory.
I’m going to have to ask you to think back to your ninth grade literature class for a moment. (If you’d rather not, here’s a quick primer on pretty much everything you need to know.) You may recognize the chart above. It’s a plot diagram after the design of Gustav Freytag, who famously noticed that effective stories regularly divide into five narrative pieces:
- Exposition. The narrative establishes the setting, background information, and anything else you need to know about the state of the world. Once the action’s ready to get started in earnest, there’s an inciting action in the plot, and conflict begins to build.
- Rising action. Over a series of events, conflict thickens, and plot tensions develop.
- Crisis. The conflict grows quickly, and tensions come to a head. At the moment when they’re at their highest, the plot hits its climax, the focal point of the conflict that drives the entire piece.
- Falling action. Over another series of events, the conflicts begin to unravel, pointing towards a final resolution.
- Dénouement. The conflict reaches a resolution, and the journey ends.
Students of the Freytag model have long recognized that the plays of William Shakespeare, written a couple hundred years before Freytag’s work, fit this plot structure with pitch-perfect accuracy. The five acts of each of Shakespeare’s plays correspond pretty much unerringly to the five narrative stages Freytag outlined: act I is expository, act II presents rising actions, act III presents a crisis that leads to a climax, act IV shows falling actions, and act V resolves the play in a dénouement.
But Shakespearean drama isn’t the only kind of narrative that’s broken into acts. Modern plays are broken into two or three acts instead of five, but the same five-part structure tends to flow through them. And there may not be clear act breaks between the parts of, say, a movie or a TV show, but they’re there all the same.
So here’s the point I’m getting at: video game narratives can also be broken into acts. In fact, if you look closely, the plots of some all-time classic games break into five identifiable pieces, as clearly as good students of Shakespeare might have broken them.
Consider (you knew I’d go here) Final Fantasy VI. The five acts are pretty transparent. Act I explains the political state of the world, and the action begins to pick up at the Battle of Narshe. Act II reveals the conflicts based on the lives of the Espers through the heroes’ trip to the Empire, and concludes with Terra’s awakening as an Esper herself. Act III builds the impending crisis all the way up to the confrontation on the Floating Continent high above the world, which acts as the climactic crux of the whole piece—one in which the heroes lose. Act IV, relatively short, follows Celes as she pieces together both her team and a reason to live. And act V, which is as long or short as you want it to be, is the road from the spark of hope that comes with the flight of the Falcon to the final resolution brought by Kefka’s defeat. Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, dénouement. Shakespearean to the core.
VI is just one example, of course. For fear of going on too long about this, you’ll have to take my word for it here, but plenty of other RPGs—the most narrative-focused of game genres—carefully follow the same five-act structure. Let’s call this common phenomenon the structure of the five-act RPG.
Ready for the big reveal? Here it is: SD&BoL is a perfectly precise five-act RPG. What do I mean?
- Exposition. Act I begins in Talys. In Marth’s early campaign we learn the state of the world after the Dolhran blitzkrieg, and we learn that Marth is the last known survivor of the Altean line. His course is set. The act ends with the liberation of Aurelis, and the widening of Marth’s aims to a true path of reconquest against the invaders.
- Rising action. Act II is the campaign from Aurelis to Archanea. We meet the Grustian occupation force and a few manaketes; we make some allies from Macedon, who reveal a tension in the ranks across the sea as well. The conquest of the Ageless Palace sets Marth squarely in the sights of his homeland, and the crisis begins.
- Crisis to climax. In act III, Marth defeats the traitor that slew his dad, meets the chessmaster who’s orchestrating the whole war, learns that he can’t win against Gharnef, and—in the moment you’ve been led to anticipate since the very first commands you gave as a tactician—retakes Altea, winning his crown back from the enemy. The battle for Altea is the climax of the piece. At the end of it, Marth’s rule is restored, and the goal he set out to accomplish at the beginning is won. What’s more, the climb for him is no longer uphill: now he’s going into enemy territory to bring his opponent to heel for good, and the advantage from here to the end is firmly his. Any direction the tension goes from here is down.
- Falling action. After the reclamation of Altea, act IV begins, and Marth carries the campaign into Grust. He loots the country of its sacred artifacts and defeats the enemy alliance’s most feared commander. Grust folds with much less of a fight than you might expect.
- Dénouement. Act V sees Marth arrive on the shores of the heart of the enemy alliance, recapture the holy weapon to which he was born, and vanquish the enemy for good. From the moment you see Marth come to Macedon, there’s a feeling that the end has already been written. All that’s left is for the conflict to play out to the final resolution of the War of Shadows.
So this in mind, when I talk about Marth retaking Altea, I’m talking about the climactic turning point of the whole narrative of the five-act RPG that is SD&BoL. I think that context might help me establish what I think that turning point is trying to say deeper down.
Act Three on the Map
Quickly now, let’s recap the moments that lead up to the climax.
From Archanea, Marth turns his focus to home. This part of the story is all about Marth’s desire to set right the betrayal of Altea. First, he heads to Gra, where he punches through the artillery garrison left by Gra’s ally and storms Gra Bastion to defeat the man that killed his father. Marth doesn’t find his dad’s sword in the treasury, but Malledus figures out—using his peerless intuition—that Gharnef took it to Khadein. Marth, feeling that he can’t go on without it, orders the army to march on Khadein. The city is taken, but Gharnef taunts Marth from behind the invincible cloak of his magic, beckoning him on to Thabes in the far north where he’s stored Falchion. A magical missive from Gotoh confirms Marth’s fears that such a mission would be suicide, and promises Marth a way he might beat Gharnef even so. Resigned, Marth returns to his original course, lands on Altea, and retakes the throne of his father. In the process, however, the Dolhran governor reveals some grim developments. Here’s Morzas when Marth enters the Altean castle:
Haha … You came back just to die? I’m the most powerful servant of [Medeus]: [Morzas] of the Basilisk Tribe. But you’re too late. I already killed your mother and gave your sister to [Gharnef]. If you are angry, face me!
The important part is that the path of SD&BoL‘s third act is entirely about Marth settling his personal grudges, and he’s only partly successful. One by one Marth attempts to check all the boxes that upset his world in the game’s backstory. He slays Jiol of Gra with total success; attempts to reclaim Falchion, learning where it is, but can’t get it back now; and then takes his father’s throne, learning in the process that his sister is nowhere to be found and his mother is gone forever. The seizure of the Altean throne is a worthy climax to the game, but it’s tied up in a number of failings and losses even in Marth’s own personal quest. We don’t see much of what this means to Marth as a person (in this telling of the War of Shadows), but it certainly establishes precisely the mood to fit the theme evinced in the back half of the story.
What is that theme? So glad you asked! This next point is the most important one I’ll make in the discussion of this whole game.
War Is Hell, In Part
Compare the following, if you will. I swear I’m going to relate this back to Fire Emblem.
Battle is the most significant competition in which a man can indulge. It brings out all that is best and it removes all that is base.
— George S. Patton
There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower
These are two men who know a thing or two about the battlefield, certainly, but they’re reaching apparently different conclusions. Is war fundamentally a thing of glory, or fundamentally a nightmare? Who’s right?
The story of SD&BoL, much as I’ve knocked on the bareness of its bones so far, is a surprisingly sober shot at answering that question. And that answer will be echoed in one form or another througout every single Fire Emblem to come, again and again over decades of storytelling.
This is the answer: Both. Both of them are right. War is the height of glory and the depth of horror, and it’s never one without the other.
If that answer is disappointingly complex, well, welcome to the human condition. But Fire Emblem then and now invests a great deal of effort into telling us how this can be the case and what that means, and that’s one of the reasons why I’ve always considered the aim of its storytelling (if not necessarily its execution) to be something unusually mature for a game. It has something to tell the most gung-ho veteran and the most peacenik civilian. It’s both sides of one of the most important questions we can ask about what it means to be us.
How does SD&BoL present this thesis? To me, it’s all in the plot structure, which is why I’ve spent so much time on high school literary theory in this post, thank you very much.
The first half of the game, comprising the three acts from Talys to the climactic triumph in Altea, is a comedy. It’s filled with no small part of heroism and glory. Marth assembles victory after victory against steep odds, his army swelling to massive proportions. He rescues the conquered nations of the world one by one. The villains who oppose him either have no lines or are at once recognizable for their wickedness. The morality of the path Marth takes is straightforward, and it culminates in the recapture of his homeland from forces everyone knows are the bad guys. It has its perfect end in the character of Morzas, a cruel and sadistic usurper who murders Marth’s mom just for kicks, sells his sister down the river, and smears this all in Marth’s face with a taunt when he comes to retake his throne. There is no question but that Marth’s in the right, and there’s hardly an ounce of regret for anything you’ve done up to this point.
But the climax is only the end of the first (slightly more than) half of the narrative. From here on out, the story is going to take a turn for the less morally certain, and the game is made much richer for it. The story from here to the end has more of a tragic feel to it than anything we’ve seen so far. There are characters we’re soon to meet about whose deaths you might have, if not regrets, at least second thoughts. There are whole nations whose response to Marth’s attack will be profoundly sad. Marth’s goal in this half is not the recapture of something that was stolen from him, but the slaying of someone he’s never met. This isn’t to say that Marth’s not unquestionably in the right, but it does shade the falling action of the plot in a rather darker tone.
And that right there is what SD&BoL is telling you about war. The game presents both sides of war seriatim. In the first half of Marth’s story we see the glorious, victorious, grand aspect of it; in the second we see its darker, murkier underbelly. The story of the War of Shadows entire isn’t over until both parts are seen out to completion. The narrative pointedly doesn’t end in Chapter 17 when you think it should; it keeps going to show you that the other side of the story is, unfortunately, still very relevant.
We can be of different minds as to whether SD&BoL skillfully handles the narrative goal it sets for itself, but one thing’s certain: this is not the last Fire Emblem to try to communicate the point. Every other entry in the series—every one—in some way expresses the same sentiments. That should tell you something about how important the message is, and how hard it is to truly come to terms with this most fearful aspect of the nature of our race.
All right. I don’t want to end this part on anything but a positive note, so here’s another take on war with which I think many a future Fire Emblem will also agree:
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.
- The inclusion of the choice of either Arran or Samson, but not both, is an interesting bit of strategy. It means you can’t just play the whole game once and meet everyone in the cast. This is a somewhat transparent ploy to give the game replay value, and it kinda works, except it’s less effective because neither of the two is really all that good at their job compared to other options.
- I’ve spilled enough ink in this post already to talk about some other big concept, so you’ll just have to remember the appearance of Xane for a future post. For now, suffice it to say that his character class is yet another series first-and-last for SD&BoL, although I think its function has stuck more permanently than the class.
- The Grustian cavalry charge in Chapter 16 is a solid point of mapmaking skill, in that it makes you feel time pressure while giving you the time to respond to that pressure before its threat is imminent. When Hollstadt’s cavalry begins rumbling up the archipelago, it presents a very clear danger that will take two or three turns to hit the body of your army. This makes you scramble to (1) identify the choke points at which you can challenge the division and (2) hold those choke points at the right times. As with much of SD&BoL, the developers haven’t gotten the timing of this stuff down to an exact science yet, so your mileage on this pressure may vary depending on who you send which way at the top of the chapter.
- I really like how the conquest of the Altean castle is set up as a straightforwardly achievable objective with the treasury off to the side. You could unlock the door and rush Morzas right away, if you like, but you could also spend more time on the chapter looting the treasury before you move on the throne for a little extra reward. The choice is yours, although this first of Fire Emblems hasn’t yet figured out how to present a really valid disincentive for chasing the side objective.
- What the #%&!, SD&BoL. Remember when I got all worried that axes wouldn’t be on the market for the later chapters? Well, the game kinda just resolved that worry, by #%&!ing up something different even worse. Some classes can promote—some classes, but apparently not all of them! Among the surprise non-promotes are fighters and hunters. I’ve been training Cord and Castor since I got them, but now it’s apparent that they’ll become obsolete by the time their army buddies get ten levels more than they’ll ever achieve, so I guess it’s off to the bench with them. And, I mean, I might have seen this coming at least for Cord, in that I haven’t seen a single class that looks like it might be a promoted fighter yet on the enemy side. But horsemen? How could they be anything but promoted hunters? Guess I should have been training Gordin this whole time. Even though nobody said a thing about it. This kind of mean surprise is just bad, and infuriating, design.
- Not gonna lie, I was looking forward to the end of Chapter 17 ever since I jumped into SD&BoL. And not to bring up Shadow Dragon again, but—it’s because of Shadow Dragon. The way that game handles this moment is Fire Emblem storytelling at its best. To be perfectly frank, it made me shed a tear or two. In Shadow Dragon, Marth discovers that Morzas has murdered his mom and sold off Elice not at the beginning of the chapter but all the way at the end, when Marth faces the dragon on the throne. The immediate aftermath of the battle, which you’d thought the whole time would be the joyful culmination of everything you’d been trying to do in the story so far, becomes deadly somber as Marth mourns the loss of his whole family and the emptiness of the castle he’s saved. And then Malledus encourages him to speak to the Altean people even in his grief, and Marth reluctantly proceeds to the balcony with a heavy heart—only to find a cheering crowd of people that stretches as far as he can see, proclaiming their joy and admiration for their victorious prince, and reassuring him that maybe there’s still a purpose for him after all. That moment is one of the most poignant expressions of the two sides of war in the series, and it really puts a powerful lump in my throat to see that outpouring of love follow so soon after Marth’s grief. SD&BoL lacks the hardware resources to do quite what Shadow Dragon will with this moment years later, but it’s still touching to hear Malledus tell Marth how he can hear the people of Altea assembling outside, chanting in praise of “starlord Marth.” Moments like this remind me that Mr. Kaga, in many a surprising case, always knew what he was doing.
So I’ve promised you tragic undertones in the chapters to come. Let’s get cracking on those. Next time, we’re invading Grust.