The Sable Knight

Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Ch. 20.

And now, the most memorable and beloved character from SD&BoL. He’s a prominent figure in the resolution of the fourth act of the game and the fleshing out of the narrative purpose of the Fire Emblem. And this chapter is such a strong example of both good and bad map design that I’ve got to break up the tragedy to mention that, too.

We’re talking about an enemy commander, so the enemy commander fight song is a fitting backdrop for this post, no? It’s an excellent change of pace from the battle song, which you hear ad nauseam in the ordinary course of the game. The pace is slower, though still with motion, and the tone is more ominous. This song does wonders to set apart your fight with the enemy commander from the flow of the rest of a chapter. As with the conventional battle theme, there have certainly been better and more complex tunes in this position in the years since SD&BoL, but this one certainly does the job of making the moment come alive with significance.

The Fall of Grust

Those brown dogs can't even color their nation properly on a map!
This is it. You’re never going to see a simpler arrow on a map in all of Fire Emblem. Enjoy it while it lasts.

The fourth act of SD&BoL is short, spanning only three chapters. In this it’s far from alone; many five-act RPGs feature a fourth act that’s noticeably shorter than the rest (for example, Chrono TriggerEarthbound, the inevitable Final Fantasy VI). The principal action of the act is a single campaign, from Marth’s invasion of Grust to his seizure of its capital.

What I find interesting is that the act is most notable for what doesn’t happen. The rhythm of the game has taught you by now how an act goes: begin in the fields, fighting subdivisions of the enemy far away from your goal; continue to the gates of the objective castle, fighting stronger enemies; conclude with a chapter inside the castle, taking the throne in a big triumphant gesture of conquest. And act IV here looks like it’s going the same way, from the skirmish with the Sable Order on the bridges of Chiasmir up to the gates of the Grustian castle—except there’s no take-the-throne chapter. The big act break you expect never arrives. The act ends with the rug pulled just a bit out from under you.

I’ll suggest that this effect is entirely intentional, but to better prove this point requires me to bring up the guy you’ve been waiting twenty chapters to meet on the battlefield. Next to Marth, he’s maybe the best known figure to emerge out of SD&BoL. His entrance has been teased ever since the last act, and before that in a few oblique words from Nyna of Archanea. He’s the title character of the chapter. He’s:

Camus.

What? This is Camus.
«C’est cela l’amour, tout donner, tout sacrificier sans espoir de retour.»

Camus is, from the moment you first see him in that innocent-looking little house in Gra, a man of integrity. His army stole a magic text from Boah; he returns it. When you meet him in the Grustian valley, his honor and principle are still in evidence. Here’s how the chapter intro goes:

MARTH: General Camus, I don’t wish to fight you. I’m sur[e] you know how useless this is. [Nyna] also wishes to see you. Please lay down your weapon.

CAMUS: It’s too late. [Grust] joined forces with [Dolhr]. I’m a proud knight of [Grust] and I made a vow to fight till the end. Come and fight me to avenge your father.

NYNA: Camus, wait! I can’t stand to see you fight Prince Marth. Please … lend us … no, lend me your strength.

CAMUS: Sorry … If I could, I would do that. But I can’t abandon my homeland as it’s being destroyed. Princess [Nyna], goodbye. Please find happiness.

There are a few things notable about this. Let’s unpack all that this conversation establishes.

  • First, by this point, our view of the Grustian war ethic has been rather reshaped from our initial impression of their troops. Our original encounter with Grustians featured a tyrannical Harmein ordering a dishonorable air strike and threatening the life of Minerva’s hostage little sister if Minerva didn’t obey. Everyone from the lowest commoner to, one assumes, you the tactician could see that Grust was an army of bad people who do wicked things. Now we’ve come onto Grustian soil and the representative of the country is a guy who returns the fruits of dishonest warfare to his enemies and stands for his country even when all circumstance begs him to abandon it. Quite the turnaround in morality.
  • Second, Camus resists virtually the entire library of recruitment tactics we’ve seen work so far against enemy combatants. He refuses a gesture showing the blue army doesn’t want to fight him (this worked to recruit Navarre and Roger), a plea to the inevitability of his defeat (this persuades Lorenz in the same chapter), a promise that he’ll be reunited with someone he cares about (Jake, and, in a way, Castor), and the outright begging of someone who loves him (Matthis and Astram). Camus proves that his love for his country transcends everything the Archanean League has shown it can offer. His is not an allegiance that can be bought. (The only thing missing from Marth’s attempt at persuasion here, of course, is Caeda. No wonder it doesn’t work.)
  • Third, we shouldn’t mistake Camus’s steadfast devotion for blindness to the interest of justice. There’s a clear subtext underneath this exchange suggesting Camus pretty much knows who’s in the right. “If [he] could,” he says, he’d side with the good guys. But “[i]t’s too late” to commit to that course, when his duty as a knight dictates otherwise. He conspicuously avoids any judgment of whether his king made the right choice allying with Dolhr, presumably because he knows how poor a choice that was. We have but to talk to Lorenz to confirm that wisdom. Camus is a good man placed irretrievably on the wrong side.

We’ll turn to what Camus means in just a moment. For now, consider what he means for the character arc of the nation of Grust.

It’s changed a lot since the second act. It begins the story with the mightiest military in the world, led by what seem to be a pack of villains. Then you fight against it, and you watch it crumble in front of you. You rout its occupation force in Archanea. You shatter its artillery division. You defeat its world-famous knightly order, first under the command of its storied general’s lieutenant and then under the command of the general himself for good measure. You loot its most sacred holy site. And at the last, you march on the gates of its castle and slay the most noble man you’ve met in the entire campaign, extinguishing the light of Grust for good. The most formidable opponent on the map falls apart completely, its pride dashed to pieces by your own hands.

If you’re not struck by the inherent sadness of this arc, the words of Lorenz as he attacks you are the icing on the tragic cake:

The [Grustian] Empire is at its end. My king, you’re a weak man.

Lorenz is done with this war, done with his king’s misjudgment, done with the death it’s caused the sons of Grust. He just wants his beloved nation put out of its misery. So when you defeat Camus and take the castle without a triumphant seize-the-throne chapter, it’s the perfect end to Grust’s pitiful arc—the once-proud kingdom dies not with a bang but a whimper.

Once again, the fall of Grust is symptomatic of the latter half of SD&BoL. Where the rising action of the plot was stirring and heroic, we’re entering now on the back side of war, where your acts carry as much sadness as need. You are the one now putting to death the great heroes and destroying the historic nations. It’s not enjoyable, but it’s necessary. There are still five more chapters to go. Puts a bit of a twist in your stomach, doesn’t it?

For what it’s worth, Shadow Dragon puts the littlest touches to this chapter in its retelling several years down the road that make it so much better and more hair-tearingly sad. The best of these? Lorenz guards the castle gates, and Camus rides independently in the valley. If you’re wondering why this is so effective, wait a while for me to get there; I promise it’ll be worth it. (Or you could just drop a note in the comments. I could talk about it there too.)

Not Dying Versus Not Trying

"Wait, sir, is this the play where we fly over them?"
Blue, fifteen! Hike!

Enough sad stuff for a minute. Let’s talk quickly about gameplay.

It’s become a bit vogue in Fire Emblem fan circles to scorn the practice of overly defensive gameplay, which is often derided as “turtling.” The idea is, a map design that accommodates—or worse, encourages—turtling is a boring map, because you can plod through it at very little risk. High time investment, low reward. Blah.

Paradoxically, I think just plain defensive gameplay, not taken too far into turtling territory, is perfectly acceptable among the general Emblemier populace. Which begs the question: Where’s the line between defensive play and turtling?

I think the answer lies not at all in how you’re playing, but rather in the map itself. A map with good pacing discourages turtling, even if you can approach parts of it defensively. A map with bad pacing just lets you be super-defensive with impunity, and you can take as long as you want doing it. Chapter 20, for my money, gives us a great example of both of these in a single map.

Good pacing keeps the player from becoming complacent—it means there’s always a reason to keep moving. The beginning of Chapter 20 shines for its pacing. Right out of the gate, there’s a division of Sable Order paladins that comes charging at you with a couple ballistae for backup. They’re armed to the teeth and really fast, so you can’t just receive them in a loose skirmish formation. The ideal approach is, as pictured above, the dawn of a defensive tactic that will prove useful in Fire Emblem after Fire Emblem. I call it the Fire Emblem Line. Make a wall of characters who can sustain a hit from the enemy, and everyone else can hide behind the line and survive.

The Fire Emblem Line is, of course, premised on stopping and stonewalling—it doesn’t exactly move to meet an opponent aggressively. That makes it defensive. The genius of the opening part of Chapter 20 is that there’s another pressure moving from the first turn: far up in the mountains, there’s a thief, and he starts running southward to sack the only village on the Grustian plains. If you don’t move quickly, the village is lost. So the chapter presents the classic brilliant tactical question of pacing: there’s pressure to both move fast and stop to bunker in. The reaction I had above was to take one turn to Fire Emblem Line up, then eat through the red guys who survived the line and rush as fast as I could towards the village. Timing was tight, but I made it. Pacing kept every single one of those turns interesting.

Then comes the second part of the chapter. A few forts pop out a few units, but not many. Lorenz clanks forward all alone. The rest of the army nestles in the forested Grustian valley and just waits for you. And the most important part of the chapter, Camus, is stuck posted at the castle gates, doomed to watch you approaching without moving to stop you. You can take as much time as you need to make the rest of the chapter happen. If it takes twenty-some turns for you to figure out how you’re going to field Camus, you have it all. There’s no pacing constraint whatsoever. Turtle away.

I don’t mean to hold the second half of Chapter 20 against IS and Mr. Kaga—remember, this is the first-ever time they made a game like this, so it’s not like they had a lot of exemplars to study. What I do imagine is, they learned a lot from playing their finished product. They felt all the pressure in the first half of this, and felt it dissolve in the second half, and they took some notes for the next installment of the series.

Did I tell you there’s a next installment in the series? Spoiler.

The Mystery of the Emblem

"Sire, should I have slain him? He just said something. They never do that."
“Know only this … that I, alone of all the men in the world dressed in red … had anything to say … before … I … fell …”

I said some time back how I considered the eponymous Fire Emblem to reflect a certain something about the theme of the games it appears in. There has to be a good reason why it’s always in the title. And now I’ve come clean about what I think the real lesson of SD&BoL‘s narrative is, so the significance of the Fire Emblem to the War of Shadows story should now be clear, right?

After Chapter 20, yes, absolutely.

The thrust of SD&BoL overall is that war is glorious and war is nightmarish, and it is never one without the other in equal measure. We’ve seen from the Fire Emblem—which, remember, Marth received at a grand old height of triumph in his early campaign—how it marks the presence of a hero who’s bound to ascend to legend. The glory-related half of its function is established. The astute gamer no doubt expects the less positive half to fall right about now.

And at the end of the chapter, there it is. As Marth takes Castle Grust, torn over his defeat of Camus, here’s his (muddled English) exchange with Nyna:

MARTH: I’m sorry … I could not keep our promise.

NYNA: It’s okay … Because of me you’ve suffered. I should apologize. As soon as I gave you the emblem, I knew this would happen. If the Fire Emblem restores the royal family, they’ll lose whom she loves. That’s the sad legend of the Fire Emblem.

As later translations have said rather more intelligibly, Nyna’s saying that, by legend, when an Archanean royal bestows the Fire Emblem on her champion, the champion is destined for victory, but the royal is destined to lose the one she loves most. The Fire Emblem ends love in horrific death. That is the other side of war, and the other side of the Emblem itself.

I see two particularly interesting aspects to this. The first is the distance the Emblem places between the good and the ill of war. The person who wins under the Emblem legend is not the same as the person who loses. If you’re the Altean champion, maybe the suffering necessarily caused by the Emblem (read: if you’re the victor, maybe the suffering necessarily caused by the war you won) passes invisible to you. This too is an uncomfortable aspect of war, that the winners don’t see the full effects of what they’ve done. Future looks at Archanea will mine this concept a bit further.

The second aspect of interest is what this means to the man whose picture’s up at the top of this post. Camus is more than just the latest tragic figure of the back run of SD&BoL. His function in relation to the Fire Emblem makes him ascend to nearly allegorical status. Camus embodies the ultimate tragedy of war: that good people who do great things, fighting for causes they swear to, are bound to die for no good reason. No wonder Camus is so memorable, despite his relatively brief appearance. His is the tragedy of war. His is the completion of the meaning of the Fire Emblem.

Miscellany

"And yet somehow there are four more stories they'll tell about it."
He even wore purple as an act of rebellion. It’s halfway to blue already.
  • Axes are back on the market in the town east of the castle. That’s a dirty rotten trick and the game knows it.
  • Guess who recruits Lorenz? Just the greatest persuader in the history of Fire Emblem, that’s all. She turns a high-ranking enemy general to her side just by describing his ally. Here’s how the exchange goes:

    CAEDA: [Lorenz], I am [Caeda] of [Talys]. I’ve heard about you.
    LORENZ: Ah, [Caeda]! Your father truly helped me long ago.
    CAEDA: You were against alliance between [Dolhr] and [Grust]. Why didn’t you stop it?
    LORENZ: The king of [Grust]’s weak and was frightened by [Dolhr]’s might.
    CAEDA: [Dolhr]’s trying to conquer all humans using their [manaketes]. For [Grust] and all the humans in the world we must crush [Dolhr]’s ambitions. Please, General, join us.
    LORENZ: Although I was ordered to fight you, I’ll not follow that order. It’s hard, but I’ll follow you without regret.

  • The juxtaposition of Lorenz and Camus in this chapter is strikingly effective. On the one hand, you have the warrior for whom all faith in country is lost; on the other, you have the warrior for whom every remaining hope is pinned on the vows he made to that country. Neither one, you have to imagine, makes it out of this battle intact as a man. This once again says something about who the casualties of war are: they are everyone.
  • On the subject of names, notable Fire Emblem wikis suggest that the main man of Grust is named not for a twentieth century French philosopher but rather for a quasi-historical figure who purportedly led the Vikings against the Picts in a medieval invasion of Scotland. This appears to have just as little to do with the character of Grustian Camus as Roman Mars has to do with Altean Marth. (They’re all related to war. That’s the extent of it.) Oh well. At least we know it’s CAM-mus, and not cah-MOO. We’ll see this sort of thing happen again and again in Fire Emblem, where character names reference certain prominent characters in folklore and turn out to mean very little by the reference. It’s a source of fresh disappointment every time.
  • The world-famous Grustian knights, who I know as the Sable Order, are in this translation apparently the Black Knights. Seems the years have changed their color. My immediate take on this is that, knowing the folkloric evil connotation of “black knights,” this is another mechanism by which Grust is built up to be wicked and cruel, before you find out that not all Grustians are like that. In later years they’ve changed to sable, maybe because the impression was pretty effectively made otherwise. (Thanks, General Harmein!)

That’s one tragic death under our belt; let’s cause another! The next respectable person Marth gets to slay in cold blood is across the Grustian sea, where we’ll make our landing on the island of the impending final showdown.

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