Fire Emblem is a tactical, turn-based strategy series of games released by Nintendo. The series is over 20 years old and plays like a bigger, more advanced version of Chess. The games contain deep stories and a wide cast of characters. Each character has a different set of abilities, plus a class like Archer, Fighter, Mage, and so forth. Standard RPG mechanics. In each battle you will use anywhere from 9-13 characters on average, though throughout the course of the game you might recruitment 30-50 characters.
One distinctive play mechanic of the Fire Emblem series is permanent death. Once a character dies, they are gone forever. Most video games do not feature permanent death, especially story-centric games like JRPGs. And this play mechanic is quite effective at dividing people into two different camps.
The first group of gamers despises permanent death. These players work so hard at leveling up their characters and get drawn into that particular character’s storyline that they think all of that character development was a waste if the character dies permanently. The only way to “undo” permanent death (excluding the more recent games like Awakening, which let you turn off permanent death) is to reset the game and restart the level. Now, some levels can take 90 minutes to clear, so if a character died an hour into the level, resetting the game carries with it a steep penalty.
The other group of gamers embraces permanent death. This is the camp I am in, and in this post I’ll argue why this is a valuable addiction to the game. To note, most of my experience with Fire Emblem comes from the GameCube release Path of Radiance, though I am familiar with other Fire Emblems as well.
Death is a real consequence
Most action, RPG, and adventure video games feature death. Players kill hundreds, if not thousands, of enemies throughout the course of a game, and in turn are killed by the enemy. Some games, like the Mario and Sonic series, feature a life-based system, wherein a player has a certain number of lives: once they die, they are resurrected near where they left off. Other games, like the Legend of Zelda series, don’t feature lives (other than the oddball Zelda II) per se, but when the player dies, they still come back near where they left off.
In these games, player death is a penalty for playing poorly. You might lose some progress, and you certainly lose time. But death is temporary. Your character is resurrected within seconds. Death has no lasting effects and is more of a nuisance than a punishment.
Fire Emblem’s death system is quite different. Before examining it further, it’s instructional to pull back to examine how death is conveyed throughout the game as a whole.
Fire Emblem’s story revolves around war, and your band of characters travel across the country or continent fighting battle after battle, each battle bringing you closer to ending the war or conflict. While Fire Emblem’s violence isn’t graphic, it is serious. As far as I know, you don’t see blood, dismemberment, disembowelment, or any gore. You see people hit each other with swords, and when a person dies, they fade away and disappear.
Most of the story is conveyed through text-boxes, so be prepared for reading. But in the reading, the characters clearly state that people die, that the enemy is killing off citizens, that the enemy is torturing people. The game doesn’t have to show gore to convey the seriousness of violence.
Most violent video games always seem unbalanced to me. You as the character slaughter hundreds of people through the game, and yet your character is never permanent harmed or killed. How can one person be so effective, and how can enemy armies be so ineffective? It’s baffling and unrealistic.
Not so in Fire Emblem. Death is seriously conveyed not only for the enemy, but the character.
Permanent death adds tension to the game
When I played through Fire Emblem most recently, when my characters died, I let them die. A couple times I cheated and restarted the map because my main healer died, and sometimes I was forced to restart because my main character died, but other than those instances, I treated each death as a consequence of my poor planning.
Because I knew that death would be permanent, I was forced to play more carefully, strategizing every decision, every move. If I left a hole in my defenses, the enemy would rush through and kill a weak character.
Sometimes this happened, and then I would get worried. The enemy would attack, and maybe I would be just so fortunate that my character would survive with 1 hit point. These moments were incredibly stressful, as I had to sidetrack the overall goal of the mission to instead protect and reinforce my party. There were some maps that a certain group of characters spent several turns just running away from the enemy, ever out of their reach, until they got close to a healer.
Permanent death adds challenge
For somebody who’s been playing video games as long as me, over 20 years, not many games are really “challenging” to me. Of course, many games have a “Hard” mode, but Hard modes aren’t more challenging intellectually: they are usually just more tedious. Your characters do less damage; the enemies do more damage; therefore, it takes longer to defeat something. But permanent death adds challenge in several ways.
First, it makes the game more challenging in the short-term. On each battle, I have to think how to best position my soldiers so nobody dies while still accomplishing the mission (sometimes within a certain time limit).
Second, permanent death makes the game more challenging in the long run. What if somebody really important dies? I might still finish the map, but that person’s absence will make future maps more difficult.
For instance, in my most recent playthrough of Path of Radiance, I lost a second healer, Mist, in her first battle. This meant I had to rely on a single healer for almost 10 missions until I finally recruited another . At one point I had no mages, so my distance attacking was severely limited. Another one point I had no thieves, which made one level with tons of chests and doors more difficult than it needed to be. I went a very long time with no axe-wielders. So the deaths I incurred really affected me in the long run.
Even worse, in many levels I couldn’t even bring the maximum number of units on the field. Like I said, in each map you can bring 9-13 or so units onto the battlefield. Any extra units sit the battle out. Many times the map would allow 13 units, let’s say, and I only had 11 to use.
Death forces you to care about your characters
When I lose a character, I’m not just at a tactical disadvantage. Over the course of the game, I start to really care about the characters, especially the ones that have been around for a long time. I develop emotional connections to them, and I’m sad when they go. For instance, I lost Titania, Ike’s adviser and mentor of sorts, midway through the game. Her character was definitely my strongest person, and she was defeated in one blow by a boss. She had been with me since the beginning, and her absence was felt on the battlefield.
Sometimes I lost players as soon as I recruited them. In these cases, I didn’t have time to develop an emotional connection with them, but their loss still affected me. It made me feel like a bad leader, like I was treating my recruits as war fodder.
On the the final level, I lost my main healer, Rhys, halfway through, which made things extremely difficult. He had been with me in every single battle in the game, all 30 missions, and died at the end. He was so close to seeing the end of evil and the return of light to the kingdom, and yet he couldn’t make it. His death made me think about war, and how sometimes soldiers will serve throughout the majority of the war, and yet still die on the edge of victory. How many Revolutionary soldiers died right on the cusp of America winning independence from Britain? They never got to see the fruits of their labor, and that’s a melancholic tragedy.
The only problem with permanent death
While permanent death fundamentally changes not only how Fire Emblem is played, but also how the player relates to the game and the story, it’s not a perfect play mechanic, at least in Path of Radiance, the game with which I am most familiar. The biggest problem is that most deaths are never acknowledged in the story. Whatever dialogue that character was supposed to have just get dropped out. In a few cases, really important characters remain in the story (like Soren, Mist, and Titantia), but are too injured to battle.
The only acknowledge of character death comes from Soren, who gives Ike a summary of each battle. Among other things, Soren will tell Ike which characters were recruited in battle and which were lost. And that’s it. Ike has no reaction to the deaths of anybody, which is a really shame. The designers should’ve at least made a short epilogue for each character when they die, just to provide some closure. In the course of my most recent playthrough, I lost 17 characters. I had 35 people in my party total (out of a possible 46). I lost 50% of my force over the course of the yearlong war, yet deaths were rarely acknowledged in the story.
Other than this minor gripe, permanent death is a play mechanic I really enjoy. Loyal readers, do you know of any other video games that feature permanent death, and if so, how does that play mechanic affect your enjoyment of the game?