Fire Emblem: Awakening is a brilliant game. I’m not going to deny that. The manner in which it combines surprisingly compelling interpersonal mechanics, individual characterization, light strategic gameplay, and JRPG storytelling is certainly unrivaled in today’s handheld market. Nothing comes close to satisfying me the way FE:A does. One of the most moving parts of FE:A — if you play on classic mode, that is — if one of your beloved characters dies, they’re gone for good. This is huge. This makes me sad. It makes me leak.
This emotional response is a product of Digital Satan, a lie told by a devil computer to make me feel stuff. But all games are. My brain, however, knows this nifty little trick called “suspension of disbelief” — or, to some, “becoming stupid so you can be happy for a little while.” The more my brain does that, the more I enjoy a game. The less my brain does that, the more likely it is that a game is failing to completely engage my entertainment receptors. If I’m remembering that characters aren’t real, the writing isn’t hitting the mark. I’m fairly confident that this principle could carry over into almost every fictional medium.
Fire Emblem: Awakening, like I said, has amazing characters that can die almost instantly and disappear forever. In a strategic game like chess, you — normally — don’t have any sort of empathetic connection to the rooks, the bishops, or the pawns. In Awakening, the pawns have faces / lives / one-liners. You grow to love the pawns, and then the pawns are wrenched away from you by Digital Satan. You mis-position an archer? Whoops. You lost Virion, the narcissistic bowman. This hurts. This is designed to hurt. This should hurt you, the viewer. And it should hurt Virion’s friends, loved ones, and distant relations.
This technically works — it achieves a sense of emotional weight — but not in quite as beautiful a manner as it could.
Once the battle is over and the character’s absence is felt — perhaps not until the next battle begins — it is only then that I begin to realize that I’m feeling a tactical loss on top of the narrative loss. This is ludonarrative cohesion at its finest. There is no part of me that does not miss the deceased.
I’m still paying the game compliments. Your eyes are flitting back and forth to your 365 Cutest Cat-Themed Sudoku Challenge Daily Tear-Off Calendar, making sure that you’ve got the date right. Yep. It’s Monday. Yep, this is still the Monday Mourning column. Never fear: like seasonal depression in mid-February Minnesota Winter, the complaints are imminent.
After a death scene, the deceased’s loved ones move on instantly. This is a storytelling issue. An enormous storytelling issue.
All my emotional and statistical investment in the character meant something to me. It meant something to the other characters too, in terms of interpersonal dynamics. Even if Person A thought Person B was an outright buffoon, they were still a trusted ally. There was still a bond, even one as basic as the natural human connection that comes from shared experience. As the player, I’m supposed to be bothered that one of my fake people is gone. This is supposed to shake me. But when the in-game reality starts to subtly deny the fact that the deceased ever even existed, I become less and less filled with appropriate grief or regret.
In fact, at this point, the game almost seems to be gaslighting me. Rather than providing natural mourning dialogue, the game promptly moves on without mention of the party’s recent human loss. Nothing. Not even a montage of mourning. Not even a passing quip from one or two important characters. Just one semi-dramatic death script from the dying one before they are forever swallowed into Unmemory.
Awakening won’t let me connect in the way it suggests I connect. By providing the “Classic” mode, Awakening is setting a stage for the experience of meaningful loss. The game is perfect for such an interactive theme. And yet, the devil on the other shoulder of Awakening has you rubbing your eyes and wondering if you should just move on. This sabotages any possibility of It is for this reason that I am compelled to play on “Normal” mode — the one without permanent character death. I was completely invested in the mechanic. I was ready to fall in love with the characters. I was fully ready to lose some of them. I was ready to be part of a beautiful tragedy.
But the system fails to deliver. I love it, in theory. But in execution? In attempting to deal with death, Awakening is its own downfall.
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