Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fire Emblem and the Moral Meat Grinder

What's the one thing better than an exquisite meal? An exquisite meal with one tiny flaw we can pick at all night.
-Frasier Crane

I bought Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon during my partner's bout with Solidus Mononucleosis last year, and I've been playing it, with varying degrees of obsession, ever since. I've beaten it, of course, backwards and forwards. I've built an impeccable, unkillable squad for online play by exploiting a minor feature the online build guides seem to ignore. It's far from the best game of its genre, nor the best game in my personal possession, and yet I am compelled to continue.

I am so compelled because there are a number of choices in the game design that seem bizarre, that just barely miss the mark labelled "brilliant" and have to settle for "weirdly nonsensical." I find that these are the games that demand the most of my attention: not the ones I enjoy most per se, but the ones that would be perfect but for inexplicable design choice X. Or, in the case of Fire Emblem, design choices X, Y, and Z. (That Oxford comma was for you, Beth-Ann.)

The most unique feature of the Fire Emblem series, and the feature for which it is most famous, is as simple as it is profound. You see, when a character falls in combat--whether felled by sword, impaled by a javelin, or burned with eldritch magick--they die. And they stay dead. And with one very specific, late-game exception, they're of no use in future battles, because they're fucking dead and nothing can ever bring them back. I suggest you pause for a moment and think how interesting it is that this is such a rarity in this medium that we consider it a bold design choice. We even have a term for it: "permadeath." Out here in the really real world, we just call that "death."

Shadow Dragon has about 60 playable characters, all with names, histories, and unique growth statistics, along with a short epilogue describing what happens to them should they survive the game. (These epilogues are neatly sandwiched between the "epilogues" of the dead characters, who are "erased from the pages of history.") The result, from an emotive standpoint, can be quite striking: a particularly costly battle that wipes out ten characters you've spent many hours building up, characters who call out to their friends and families with their dying breaths, can feel a mite traumatic. Given the value placed on the unique and named in the tactical strategy genre, one might expect that the overriding ethic would be to be cautious and avoid gambling with the RNG, to take care to protect each and every soul in your army, accepting only the most modest losses in the most hopeless circumstances. One would not be dissuaded of this opinion if one checked the strategy guide, which suggests more or less this strategy. Nor would one be dissuaded by walkthroughs available online.

One would encounter difficulties later in the game, though, because it turns out that this pious, humanistic strategy is utter bullshit, and will completely fuck you over by around Chapter 20. Because there are around 60 unique playable characters in Shadow Dragon, but there aren't nearly enough enemies around to level all of them up. (The hint guide recommends equipping the weakest weapons possible, and keeping opponents alive for as long as possible so your soldiers can use their living bodies for fencing practice. Try, for a moment, to narrativize this scenario.) So some of your dudes are going to have to go un-leveled. However, when your army drops below a certain number, scabs are brought in--characters without identities, whose experience and abilities are determined by an average of the surviving members of your party. So that poor Lv.3 kid you picked up fleeing the ruins of his hometown? Not only is he not helping, but he's actively making your job harder merely by being alive. In addition, those unique growth stats have a lot of variance: Altea truly is a land of natural masters and natural slaves.

As you've probably figured out by now, the optimal strategy in Shadow Dragon--I cannot, for the moment, speak of other Fire Emblem games--is to identify the heroes in your party, and throw the wretches in front of them should your enemies loose an arrow in that direction. Four hidden levels, each containing a powerful ally and most containing valuable rare items, are only accessible if you keep the total roster from climbing above fifteen. For me, this invariably requires me to intentionally send five or six souls to their gruesome, pointless deaths on the level prior to the check-in. I can think of no narrative reason to fanwank this blood sacrifice, but dammit, I want that sorcerer.

This strategy is, perhaps, more appealing to some than others. On a message board discussing the brilliant Battle for Wesnoth, I read a complaint from a player who found themselves unable to complete most of the campaigns, because they could keep no experienced troops alive for the duration. This player was presumably a devoted adherent to the meat grinder strategy, protecting a hero who could not be arsed to actually engage in combat with a constantly reinforced wall of human bone and sinew. Wesnoth, perhaps, takes its priorities to the other extreme. The more battle experience a unit acquires, the more suicidally risky it becomes to allow them to engage in battle.

But then, I suppose that's not significantly more insane than how these things have worked in real life.