Mila’s Wilds

Today: Fire Emblem Gaiden, Ch. 1: Thieves’ Shrine to the Southern Outpost.

This one’s about Gaiden downsizing, villager upsizing, and recruitment more-or-less-lateral-sizing. Gaiden, it seems, is a game of sizing.

Little Emblems, Big Emblems

Meanwhile, Alm seems to be perfecting his imposing battle stance.
Thanks to Valentian bow technology, the guy with the bow can probably hit every last person in this picture from where he’s standing.

I wrote last time that Gaiden‘s boldest statement comes right out of the starting gate, story-wise. This turns out to be equally true gameplay-wise. The immediate impression this game wants to leave is that, even though it’s a lot like SD&BoL, there are a few ways you need to know in which it wants to be totally different.

One of these ways, from a game design perspective, is the strength of its RPG vibes. In a sense, this goes hand in hand with how its story practically screams Joseph Campbell in its opening scene. The story wants to focus more on individual characters (their journey, their growth as heroes), so it only makes sense that the game would instantly signal its connection to what was by 1992 already a well-established genre of games that focused more on individual characters (their levels, their stats, their weaponry, their menu of techniques in battle). The developments correlate with ease.

The other bold difference that the game quickly draws, though, is less a matter of genre identity and more a matter of degree. Remember how SD&BoL threw you into its opening chapter? On your first turn, you had not only Marth but the entirety of his Altean remnant force to order into combat. Cain, Abel, Draug, and Gordin were on the scene. Jagen was there to provide pinch assistance in case things started to look grim. Even Marth’s first-ever ally Caeda joined him on the first turn of the game. Before you even moved, you had an army to command, and there was a thief in the ruins of the southeastern town threatening you from not too far away.

Gaiden‘s first turn of battle is not that. (Its first moment of gameplay isn’t even battle, although the first fight isn’t far away from the opening.) Comparing strict numbers, the armies aren’t all that different in size: Marth’s starting force was seven strong where Alm’s is five. But compare the kinds of troops between the two lords and the difference is pretty stark. Marth led three cavalry units, a knight, an archer, and an air unit. Not only is Marth’s starting group bigger, but it feels like a miniature army because of all the variety it has to show.

Alm’s first cohort, by comparison, is three country bumpkins and a soldier (whose skill set isn’t all that much more developed than a country bumpkin’s). There’s no archer; there’s no pegasus; there’s not even a horse. The army is smaller than Marth’s, everyone moves equally slowly, and everybody attacks in exactly the same way. The icing on the cake is that, if you’re particularly bad at talking to people in Ram Village, the three villagers won’t even join you, and your army will be all of two people.

Take this impression of smallness and relative disorganization and throw it into the first battle, a little dust-up in the woods just past the town gate with five brigands. If you’re counting, that would be one brigand per soldier in Alm’s party. Unlike SD&BoL‘s first chapter, which scrolled over a map of Talys past a horde of invading pirates, Gaiden‘s first battle is a one-screen affair between two rival armies of equal size. This is not a clash of armies, it’s a scuffle of raiding parties.

That is the overwhelming impression of early Gaiden, and it’s a good indicator of where the game intends to go. Where SD&BoL was about epic battles in the course of a war, Gaiden is more about skirmishes on the smaller scale. Gaiden‘s army caps out at a smaller size, conquers fewer kingdoms, and topples fewer named enemy commanders. It doesn’t quite amount to SD&BoL‘s epic proportions as much as it sets out to portray victories at the closer, more personal level.

What implications does that approach have on the game as a whole? The easiest answer to this is the thematic one: it makes the player’s attention in the story drift, like the gameplay, to the successes and tribulations of the individual characters. We’ll see how that matters as soon as we pick up enough characters that the game is actually interested in exploring. The smaller scope of the game also means that Gaiden‘s individual maps are, or at least can be, much smaller in size. I’m obligated to bring this subject up later, because Gaiden is notorious in Fire Emblem circles for its minimalist approach to mapmaking, so we’ll return to the topic in a bit—just know for now that there’s a method to its littleness.

For the RPG enthusiast, the most interesting consequence of Gaiden‘s narrow scope is that it shrinks the cast size to something almost manageable. You really can train everyone in the army in Gaiden, if you feel like putting in the time. The same could not be said of SD&BoL, whose ballooning cast was designed specifically for the player to blow it, lose a few valued soldiers’ lives on the battlefield, and replace them with a second string. In Gaiden, everyone is first-string, for better or worse. We’ll see what that does to the composition of the army and the game’s approach to improving them as we go.

Oh, and there’s also one more big thing Gaiden changes—not in the very first battle, but no more than a couple battles just afterward.

Graduation Into Warriorhood

Then Mila gives them this messed up job lottery, and nobody wants to be anything she tells them, and it's a mess.
Children of Naga, meanwhile, have to wait until Mom says they’re old enough to appreciate it first.

Wait, what? Promotions? Now? Aren’t those (says the astute gamer) supposed to be the fruit of a long career that reward the player with tableau effects and better stats for keeping people alive a long time? What are we doing getting them in Chapter One, half a mile from the Ram Village gate?

Granted, these three promotions are the exception rather than the rule. Most of Gaiden‘s promotions follow the same principles of time investment and reward for survivial that characterize SD&BoL‘s promotion framework. In fact, Gaiden loves that framework so much it gives everyone in the army a double dip on promotions over the course of the game, further compounding the benefits of class changes.

But that just makes these three oddball early promotions stand out all the more for their timing. What’s up with Gray, Tobin, and Kliff that’s worth this special bit of early attention?

I can think of two reasons for it. As usual, there’s a gameplay side and a storyline side to the coin.

Gameplay first. Gaiden, as a competent Emblemier will see from its first few scenes, deviates from the pattern set by its predecessor in a few important ways. Some of these ways are obvious from the get-go, like walking around maps of towns and caves. Some are less so, like how there aren’t stat booster items to be found in all Valentia (goodbye forever, item that singlehandedly confers 7 resistance points!) and you get little stat bumps from magic fountains instead.

File promotions under that “less so” category. Coming fresh out of SD&BoL, you’d expect to find a drip feed of promotion items starting around the early-to-mid-game that you use, on your own time, to improve a limited set of characters of your choosing. Well, mostly of your choosing, eh Roger? But with this expectation, and without a proper introduction to the shrines of Mila and their function, the Archanean player coming to Valentia would start to get a little panicked in the third act when his units begin to reach the upper levels and no promotion items are forthcoming. If you’re looking in the wrong place for your promotions, you’re in for a bad time.

In response, this Fire Emblem makes a choice that’s more Mario or Zelda and less—I hate to say it—less Fire Emblem. It teaches by demonstration. It’s a matter of course to hear game designers effuse online about how the very first level of the very first Super Mario Bros. elegantly shows you how to play the game without a word of written tutorial language. Extra Credits has made one of the most succinct explanations of this. Other games designed by Shigeru Miyamoto tend to lure players into figuring out what they’re doing in much the same way.

Fire Emblem has no stellar reputation for teaching or accessibility, nor does it much deserve one. But Gaiden‘s placement of the Thieves’ Shrine and its super-early promotion of the villagers is unusually Miyamotoesque. Alm leaves Ram Village with what quickly prove to be two decent party members, one guy who’s OK just because he’s five levels ahead of everyone else, and two allies who can’t go toe-to-toe with a single untrained forest ruffian and reliably live through the encounter. It becomes immediately apparent that something will need to be done about Tobin and Kliff, and the experienced Emblemier will also wonder about Gray’s relevance in the near future once the enemy has caught up to him in levels.

And then, just like that, something is done. Even if you don’t give Tobin or Kliff a single level, you stumble upon Thieves’ Shrine, and Gray is ready to, of all things, promote, right out of the box. To a base class, yes, but he can promote. And then all Tobin needs is a single level and he’s right there too. And then you’ll know that Kliff isn’t far away from his promotion either, and you can really get the party started.

This whole pattern teaches you at once how to develop your team in Gaiden. Not incidentally, the first stat-booster fountains are just a few feet away from the statue of Mila, waiting to teach you how to increase your stats, too. And in learning how to promote, you also figure out that important features of Valentia are hidden deep inside the dungeons of the world, and thus you’re given a little tacit incentive to explore and adventure everywhere you go.

Then there’s the matter of how the villagers promote. This is where we start to slide into storyline and characterization.

The villagers are unusual in that they’re without assigned class. Or, more accurately, their assigned class is the proto-class, able to shift into any of the more conventional starter classes with just a handful of levels and a little prayer to Mila. The villager class is largely helpless and without any redeeming feature, so all three of them will want to leave it as fast as they can. As they do, you get to choose what sort of team you’d like to have. Want to make one a mercenary, one an archer, one a cavalier? Do it! Want some magic instead? Make one a mage! Want a lot of magic? Make all three mages! Gaiden lets you shape the makeup of your starter team as you see fit.

The result of this is a tableau effect: by designing the villagers as you like, you gain a sense of authorship over Alm’s squad. Many battles down the line, when you see them grow into terrifying fighting machines, you’ll be reminded of all the choices you made in getting them there, and feel deeply rewarded for your work.

But story-wise, there’s a little something more going on, too. Remember, this is a game that’s centrally Campbellian, about a hero growing into hero-hood and gaining a fuller actualization of the self. What better way to accentuate that development than by watching his friends go through the same journey? The villagers begin as commonplace units with very little to offer, but by your choices they grow, in parallel to the leads of the story, into thoroughly competent and fully-realized soldiers. Their journey, geographically as well as personally—and written mostly in the play of the game rather than in words—reinforces the journey Mr. Kaga’s driving at with the two leads. Growth is all around us, says Gaiden. Everyone’s on this road together.

And that’s why three green Zofian yokels with a single line of dialogue each get such a unique opportunity in the history of Fire Emblem mechanics.

Sightseeing in Valentia

Spoiler: she dyes her hair blonde for the remake.
A single jail cell, a conference room, and a hallway. Clair could have been kept here for years and still not know what this place was built for.

One more quick word on exploration, before I move on. If Thieves’ Shrine teaches you to explore, the rewards for that exploration have by this point already been tremendous. A foray into Thieves’ Shrine nets not only the promotions I mentioned but some stat booster fountains and the company of Silque. Stopping into the Southern Outpost as Alm on the way north lets you free Clair, gaining another ally. This is a no-duh realization to anyone who’s ever played an RPG, but exploration pays big dividends if you spend a little time doing it.

That’s how Gaiden will do character recruitment: not in the heat of battle, as Marth had to recruit all of his followers in the War of Shadows, but in off-maps, towns, and the far corners of the world. I find this a fresh change.

The main reason I like it is probably that I love exploration and grew up on it as a key mechanic in the games of my childhood. But there’s a perfectly good ludological purpose to it too: it expands the tableau effect to cover more material. I’ve already said how there’s a tableau effect generated when you look at a growing character roster, because you look at each of the names and remember how you recruited them and the battles you’ve fought with them. Tying recruitment to exploration puts another layer on that story. Now you’re reminded of your past authorship of the game not just when you read the character roster but also when you look at the world map. I don’t doubt for a minute that I’ll look back in later chapters and think “oh, hey, that’s the shrine where I rescued Silque, and Kliff and Tobin and Gray were with me all the way from there,” and so on. One more instance of tableau effects, and one more way to forge a player’s connection to the game.

Much as I like this approach to recruitment, I should say it does lose something special even as it adds something special. Forcing recruitment to happen outside of battles, in peacetime maps and interludes, does tend to remove the high stakes that surround your typical Fire Emblem character hire. When Fire Emblem lords make new allies on the battlefield, there’s a pre-loaded narrative and sense of pressure: something has driven them to war, and something has made them choose a side. That sense of pressure allows for immediate characterization (when the series gets around to caring more fully about characterization) and can make for some truly great high-stakes recruitment scenes. Just ask Caeda about those stakes, if you need a lesson. Moving recruitment into the field doesn’t necessarily mean that characterization and writing suffer, but it does eliminate the sense of urgency in recruitment conversations. There can be no Caeda, or at least no Caeda in quite the same way, in Valentia. Take that or leave it.

We’ve crossed the rugged southern peninsula of Zofia in one piece, so now it’s time for Lukas to introduce us to his rebel buddies before we march on the usurper to the throne. Let’s convene an army!

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