Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Digital Fates: Dealing With Death In Fire Emblem Birthright

            The sound of weapons clashing on the battlefield fills the air. Grunting warriors fighting for the cause they believe in standing opposite of each other with tired eyes yet driven by the will to overcome. A cry sounds out and almost all other sounds seem to cease. It is the sound of Mozu, a young girl who we had recently brought in after saving her and her mother from their village as it was being attacked. He mother did not make it through the journey after being attacked by a Faceless. Now here she lays, a girl who lost everything, dying because of my lack of leadership not soon after all the horrible things that have happened to her. Losing it all maybe she feels a little relief going to her mother so soon. Maybe she wishes she could have fought harder to save people from the same fate. Her story is over, never to be told because of my inadequacy. They may be digital characters with a digital fate that may not have any real consequences on our real lives, but it can still hurt having their blood on your hands. Pixelated or not.

            This is my first dealing with the permadeath system in Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright, a game developed by Intelligent Systems and Nintendo SPD. The only Fire Emblem game I can remember trying was the one for Gameboy Advance that they gave to all the people who bought a 3DS right out the gate before the price super quick. I played for a couple minutes in passing and then put it down. I was drawn to this newer game for the art style mainly. I’m a sucker for an anime look in games, I’ll attribute this to my wife for getting me more into JRPGs, anime and manga. Fire Emblem is a game that almost always has glowing reviews. The difficulty, the character development and relationships, the story all form a nice total package to be had on a handheld system. Given these games are difficult Birthright is supposedly an easier game that is good for newcomers of the series to dive into. So I felt it was time to take the plunge.

            Fire Emblem is Tactical Role Playing Game and a darn good one at that. It has been around since the 1990’s when the first game released for the Famicom. I did not really know of the series until Super Smash Bros. Melee where Marth and Roy made an appearance. All I knew was they were sword fighters, but not better than Link in my opinion who was my main. Never the less Fire Emblem started showing up more in the west and I should have taken notice. Fire Emblem puts you in control of an army on a grid style map. Each unit can move so much and has options to attack, use items etc. per turn. The battle system plays out like a match of rock, paper, scissors so you want to pick your battles. Swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords. You get the idea. Characters have hit points and once they reach zero they are dead, unless they are main characters. A main character will retreat but if you aren’t a main character it’s so long. This is the permadeath system which I will talk about a little later.

            In between these battles you have opportunities to grow with your team. You can have conversations, level up your friendship, marry and start a family. This I feel is where Fire Emblem shines the brightest. They may be just text boxes with some spoken dialog but I was surprised at how quickly in the game you start to care about the people around you. War is already going on and pretty early on there is a big decision to be made. (You don’t necessarily have control over it unless you own both games. So if you own Birthright or Conquest the decision is made for you.) They do a really good job at fleshing these characters out. I am happy to find that this game makes me laugh and smile as much as it does at times. The interactions with your spouse are cute and  the lighthearted moments do make you laugh and grow closer with your team you accumulate through out the campaign. It may get cheesy at times but it is all done really well. Yet beyond this there is a darker side of things: war and its consequences.

            Fire Emblem is known for a couple things. Its permadeth system is one of them. Permadeth means that any character that is usually not a main character can die in battle and never return. Once their HP bar reaches zero in a battle they are dead. Their story completed. No more. Birthright gives you the option to turn this off at the begging of the game. Being stubborn I wanted it on because I wanted that “true” Fire Emblem experience. I was going to let people die and then leave it at that. I wanted to feel the weight and pressure of those situations. Well everything was all good as I cruising along until the scenario above played out. Mozu was the first character I had lost to death. She was level one, but it was my actions as a commander and leader that put her in that position that cost her life itself. This put a stumbling block in my way as I progressed through the game.

            As time would go on any time I made careless mistakes people would lose their lives. I would then reset the game and start the missions over or select a different one. I did not want these people to die, let alone because of my in ability to play the game well. They may be just made up pixels but there was this feeling of guilt or responsibility that weighs on you when you play these kinds of games. Maybe it is because we are in control and our actions have these grave consequences on players. Twenty years ago when Aeris dies in Final Fantasy VII players had to accept it. It was a point in the game they had no control over. Whether she lived or died was not up to them. People were sad when it happened. Who knows, maybe some were happy. But if it was directly caused by the player and could have been avoided would it have hit harder? Would people have gone back to earlier saves to prevent this from happening? Hard to say given that we have had that plot point with us for twenty years so it is just accepted now. It’s an interesting question that one can think about in how other games might resonate with us given this mechanic.

            So feeling that burden I finally decided to turn the permadeath system off, for now. I am still too new to Fire Emblem and have a lot of learning left to do to fully understand the game, its mechanics and best strategies. On later playthroughs or if I jump to other Fire Emblem games I plan to keep it on and let the game play out. I must increase my skill as a commander and leader before putting on the extra task of these characters lives.