What’s Fire Emblem Without Death?

I have a friend who’s played pretty much all the Fire Emblem games, which is a weak way of saying I have a friend who’s obsessed with Fire Emblem. This has always been very strange to me, because he doesn’t like drama. He hates gritty, he hates death, he hates sad things.

In short, he hates kind of the main thing fans will paint Fire Emblem as being about. Fire Emblem has always had permanent character death. It’s become the series feature.

You can turn it off in Fire Emblem: Awakening, much to the consternation of fans. And, you know what, I think I’m going to.

My own, personal Fire Emblem history: I’ve played a lion’s share of them. The GBA games—the two American ones, the other with a translation patch—made up a lot of my gaming history. I played the Gamecube ones.

All of these games had permanent character death, and I resented it in all of them. I circumvented it in every case: I’d use save states if I were emulating the GBA ones, and I’d reload if I were playing them on the console.

I never noticed how odd this felt until I played Xcom. In Xcom, I let dead soldiers lie barring something incredibly cheap happening; I’d reload if an elite Muton ran halfway across the map upon being spotted and plastered one of my healthiest guys, but not if they died in the course of the game. Reloading cheapened the experience: if all my soldiers survived, then we felt less like a ragtag opposition and more like super soldiers (which, to be fair, it ended up feeling it anyway).

Fire Emblem, though, never gave me this feeling. In Xcom death was an inevitability; in Fire Emblem, death is a fuck-up, a mistake to be corrected. In Xcom the game improves when someone dies, because it brings out new feelings in you: regret, panic, a sense that you have to redouble and reposition your efforts. It makes things feel dicey. In Fire Emblem, if someone dies the only feeling is frustration: there’s a story you’ll never complete, a limited asset lost forever, and nothing gained.

Death is a mechanic in Xcom; in Fire Emblem it’s always been a thing that sucks.

To compare Fire Emblem: Awakening to an adjacent game, its removal of permanent death reminds me of the Tactics Ogre remake. That remake, one of my favorite games ever, removed permadeath from one of the mechanics’ most famous practitioners because it didn’t make sense. It didn’t add anything to the game. Sure, it made you able to be less careless with your troops, but in a game where every battle already rode the knife edge that wasn’t necessary; it turned into an annoyance, a cheap way for the enemies to “win” the battle.

Fire Emblem falls in the same boat. For a series about mythical heroes and political battles to feature as a mechanic permanent death is silly. Unlike a game like Dark Souls, which oozes intensity and darkness from every pore, when has a death in Fire Emblem ever created more than dissonance in the mind of the player? How many people have ever beaten a game of Fire Emblem where one of their favorite characters died?

So you know what? I’m going to take it out, and I’m not going to feel guilty doing it.

  • http://twitter.com/DrydenGG Mike Barrett

    I have. I just beat Shadow Dragon over the weekend, and during the final chapter a stupid mistake cost me three units. Jake, the ballistician, Maria, the bishop, and Barst, the warrior, were descended upon by a group of Paladins and overrun because I equipped Barst with a silver axe. That axe let him kill several of his attackers instead of just wounding them and filling the narrow hallway. Paladins kept coming, eventually they broke through, and with their protection gone there was little the other two could do.

    Marth exacted personal vengeance.

    Other than that, I only let a few people die, and even then, only people I didn’t plan on using. They didn’t matter to me. But I am willing to let some units die if the battle feels grand enough, like a turning point in the story. Sacrifice a soldier to hold a position and let the main party face an important boss? Yes. Let someone die because a random bandit got a critical hit while I’m passing through some mountains? No.

    • TimPowerGamer

      The ironic thing is, in order to get all of the units in that game, you have to have other units die periodically.

      • http://twitter.com/DrydenGG Mike Barrett

        I know, it’s a very strange system. I suppose it would make more sense if you played through the game on the harder setting and let you units die naturally rather than restarting at every mistake as in the norm for the series. Then you’d probably run into a few of the bonus missions without having to go through any extra measures.

  • Jason Rice

    I think it has to do with the emergent character narratives that drive X-com. The grunts, while mechanically interchangeable, are just different enough. They have different faces, hair styles, names, and countries of origin, all things which fall just short of painting a picture, but instead function as the palette with which we can work. It forces us to tell their stories as we play.

    The little bit of character provided by the game is all it takes. It’s been a while since I’ve played a Fire Emblem game, so if this is different in the latest one let my ignorance be stricken from the record, but there’s a big difference between Capt. Diego ‘Ghost’ Walker and Faceless Centaur Knight 3. Even if FCK3 had proven himself in glorious combat, that seed of character provided by the scant details X-com gives us is missing.

    And, of course, every story needs an end.

    When someone in X-com dies, it’s just that: the end of their story. It fits (unless it’s a cheap death, something not befitting their bravery and courage).

    The units in Fire Emblem? They’re just pawns to be scooted around a battlefield. Even if they’re given pages and pages of exposition, a tragic back story complete with a forlorn love interest and a burning desire for revenge deep in their noble heart. Who gives a shit. That’s the story somebody else wrote.

    But when it’s the story you’ve been writing in your head the conclusion just seems right.

    I’ve been thinking about that ever since I ended up doing the exact same shit with the original X-com.

    • http://www.facebook.com/sean.phillips.9081 Sean Phillips

      I think the opposite is true. Xcom has only that little bit of info to make you attached, but their stories are told by you the player rather than the game, and that story could include a death. the game already has stories for fire emblem characters, they have histories and futures, they build relationships, they are real, fully developed people. if they die, you miss out on parts of the story. Which is not to say permadeath is worse in fire emblem — i adore it.

      • personfellow

        what distinguishes games from the narrative experiences of books or films is the ability of the player to tell his or her own story. that’s something xcom offers, but not FE:A

        • sfphilli

          Fire emblem allows that specifically through permadeath — one player with all the characters still alive has a different story than the player who lost a couple — as well as through the different relationships forged and of course the varying narratives of the individual battles and how they progress.