Video games are a relatively new storytelling medium. As a whole, they have been around for barely half a century and have been telling coherent stories for only a fraction of that time. The earliest video games were simply that, games where only the mechanics mattered. Pong was table tennis, Pac-Man was a sort of hide-n-seek, Dig-Dug was pest control. With these simple premises, the developers only needed to worry about making the mechanics not only work but enhance the overall enjoyment of the game: power pellets made the ghosts edible, rocks could be strategically used to crush monsters, you can get a duel ship if you rescue a captured one (Galaga for those you who don’t know). This isn’t the case anymore. As the visual and mechanical capabilities of consoles and video games improved, more became expected of them. No more would gamers be satisfied with high scores and purely mechanic-based games. They demanded story, a reason why they should not only play the game but complete it. As a result, game developers needed to find ways to have the mechanics not only complement the story they wanted to tell but also do some of the narrative work.
The ones that became classics, such as the Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy or Megaman or Megaman X, excellently balanced the two, crafting a memorable experience that fans have and will return to time and again. Many others have been relegated to the clearance bins of history, selling for pocket change on used video game shelves the world over. Others, while good games in their own right, struggled to find the right balance where mechanics and narrative were used to enhance one another. One such game (or, rather, games since it is three different games rolled into one package) is Fire Emblem Fates.
Released in 2016 following the international acclaim of Fire Emblem Awakening and the renewed interest in the series, it was met with critical and commercial success. Because of it, Fire Emblem was able to finally join the ranks of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda as a staple Nintendo franchise. In recent days, however, Fates has been met with some criticism from fans, oftentimes proclaiming that story is lackluster or the characters are boring. I’m not one of those fans. Nevertheless, the game isn’t without its faults, but it mostly stems from a leftover, though popular, mechanic from its predecessor: the relationship system and children characters.
Fire Emblem Awakening and Children Characters
As a heads-up, SPOILER WARNING for both Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates.
To paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson from Jurassic Park, hold onto your butts because we’re going to talk a little bit about time travel in fiction. It’s always a messy topic to deal with, especially when it isn’t the primary focus like in Back to the Future or Dr. Who. With that said, Fire Emblem Awakening does a good job not only handling that mechanic but using it to its advantage when it comes to lore and exploring characters.
The basic premise of Fire Emblem Awakening is that Lucina, the daughter of the male lead Chrom, has traveled from the future to prevent the destruction of humanity at the hands (talons?) of the Fell Dragon Grima. She tries to keep her identity a secret from her parents in order to prevent too much change in the timeline. She’s forced to abandon it, however, when she discovers that events are still playing out as they did in her timeline (known and will now be referred to as the “Future Past”). Lucina, Chrom, the avatar character, and their party then go out to prevent the return of Grima.
A common feature in Fire Emblem games is the “support system” where you can unlock extra conversations between characters after they have fought next to each other a certain number of times. These conversations can range from comedic fluff to serious exploration of a character’s backstory. They are completely optional but they add a texture to the game, making the people you are using as units in your battles more human. Thus, you are less likely to throw them into suicide situations and lose them forever. Fire Emblem Awakening takes this a step further by allowing two characters, once they have had a certain number of support conversations, marry each other. This adds a slew of stat bonuses that are useful in game; however, it’s also narratively important. Lucina is the result of one of these unions, between Chrom and a lucky lady in your army. She inherits the combined stats and skills of her two parents, allowing her in certain regards to surpass them. Furthermore, she is able to have support conversations with both Chrom and her yet-to-be-decided mother, illuminating her experiences in the Future Past and the sorts of trauma she has as well as adding to her personality (she has a penchant for gaudy clothing, btw).
Lucina isn’t the only child character that can join your cause: every single female character has a recruitable child from the Future Past associated with her. Like Lucina, they can interact with their parents in support conversations. However, unlike Lucina, you aren’t required to recruit them, but you have the option to complete side chapters, called “paralogues”, that end with someone’s kid from the Future Past joining your army.
A number of support conversations between the children and their parents often deal with either guilt over not being able to protect their parents from Grima or feelings of abandonment when their parents were killed fighting the Fell Dragon. This colors their interactions with their parents who have to bear the sins of their Future Past counterparts and work to repair whatever damage had been done by the resurrected Grima. Additionally, the children can interact with one another, which gives a glimpse into what their timeline looks like, what relationships they have with one another, and how they all came together to prevent the disasters of the Future Past.
It adds a whole new element to the story because you see firsthand what you are fighting to prevent. Furthermore, you witness the characters you had been leading mature into parental figures, learning from the mistakes their Future Past counterparts had made and doing their best to comfort their traumatized children. It helps make the consequences of failure more real, galvanizing you as the player to ensure everyone a happy ending.
I really enjoyed this mechanic, as you can probably tell, and I made it a point to recruit all the children characters and develop their relationships with their parents. For me, it was an important narrative tool that I owed myself to see to the end.
Too bad it only really works if the narrative allows it.
Fire Emblem Fates: Whatever you can do, I can do better… I think?
Fire Emblem Fates had the same support, marriage, and children mechanics as Fire Emblem Awakening, albeit with some slight tweaks. First, children characters were attached to male characters instead of female ones, making the conversations between father and child the unique one. This gives Fates a slightly different taste than Awakening, but it is certainly a welcome one. Second, instead of the adult children coming from the Future Past to prevent an apocalypse, the parents of Fates put their kids in the relative safety of an “outworld” to protect them from the ravages of war, making it a point to visit them whenever they could. The problem? Time in the outworlds moves much slower than in their normal world; as a result, for their parents, their children grow to adulthood in a matter of weeks. So, if the parent visited their child in the outworld every other day, years could have passed for their child.
This creates a pretty big problem. A number of the children characters feel justifiably abandoned by, saddened because of, or angry with their parents. And who can blame them? Furthermore, these “outworlds” make very little narrative sense and play a minor role at best in the story at large. These characters that you are leading, who you are supposed to believe in and root for, in the end turn out to be pretty terrible parents. It creates a dissonance between what the story is telling you, that these people are inherently good, and what the mechanics say, that they are willing to leave their kids in a time-warping alternate dimension “for their own good”. It doesn’t help that the inclusion of the children characters adds little to no flavor to the rest of story, ultimately being of no consequence. It serves only to make the protagonists, at the very best, distasteful.
Fire Emblem Fates would have been better served if the developers came up with its own spin on the support system instead of lifting it wholesale from Awakening. Fans would have received the game a little bit better if the mechanics and the game were trying to say the same thing, working together to tell a whole story instead of having a series of dissonant parts. It’s a perfect example of just because something worked once, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work all of the time.
Thank you for joining me for another round of “Narrative Nuisance”. Yeah, yeah, it’s another Fire Emblem posting, but I feel that it can serve as a good bad example of using all the elements, features, and mechanics of a game to make a coherent and rich whole.