At first glance, one would not think of the Fire Emblem series as narrative games. Most often, the series is remembered as a collection of turn-based strategy games famous for introducing many players to the concept of the permanent death. When we think of narrative games, we most often think of games like Facade or Heavy Rain, where the overall experiences of the game’s story is determined by the player’s interactions. But in Fire Emblem, you do not have that degree of control over the narrative, so how exactly is it a narrative game?
It’s always a little surprising to think about Fire Emblem as being a story-driven game, but when you think about it, how Fire Emblem explores its narrative has been strongly tied to its game mechanics at least since the first western release of the series. Support conversations have been a central mechanic to the game, and is used to represent the bonds two characters forge with each other over the course of the game. The higher the rank two characters have in their support conversations with each other, the more effectively they fight in battles by offering each other small stat boosts when standing next to each other. This is even more true in Fire Emblem: Awakening, the latest in the series, where characters can now attack with and block for each other, with a higher chance of it happening if their relationship is strong.
What makes Fire Emblem a narrative game though? Well, I admit that it’s not like other games we would typically classify as narrative games, it is still undeniable that the way the narrative unfolds, both how the game chooses and how you choose, greatly affects your overall experience. For a game that gives you a ton of characters, the main story of each Fire Emblem game rarely pays much attention to any of them. You could probably get through the entirety of a game like Fire Emblem without once learning a single bit of information about that random swordmaster who said “what the hell, I’ll join your cause”. It’s only by intentionally building up the relationships between two of the characters that you even have a chance of learning about each character’s personality, their backstory, and their personal drive. Story arcs within the main plot can unfold within the support conversations and more information about the world’s history can also be revealed but what probably has caught most people interest is the romantic options available for each character.
This makes the permanent death characters can face all the more gut-wrenching. In fact, you can argue that it is the only reason. Without these narratives or potential for narrative, the characters can just be seen pieces on the game board. The curse of Fire Emblem is that if you play the traditional way of resetting chapters after losing one unit is that by the end you have a ton of characters you haven’t touched. If you think about Fire Emblem as just a strategy game, units are expendable. Did you lose your archer? Don’t worry, just use a second seal and class change that character you weren’t using before and do a bit of grinding to easily replace the one you lost. This is actually a point the game drives into the player quite a few times, that you shouldn’t treat these characters like pieces on a game board. That the best option may not be the most ethical. The narrative provides not just a reason for making sure that every character stays alive, but provides an even stronger reason for not having a character die. When a character dies, their narrative stops. You can’t use them anymore, and like in most cases when someone dies, you can’t talk to them anymore to learn more about them. When you get right down to it, the punishment for losing a character in Fire Emblem isn’t mechanical, but based in the many narratives the game has to offer.
Now a big part of the narrative game is that it requires that your interactions within the game space affects the overall story. Fire Emblem manages to this perfectly by combining its narrative-based mechanics with its turn-based strategy based mechanics. In Fire Emblem: Awakening for example, sometimes you can get the best out of a unit if they are standing next to their spouse, but if the spouse is too far in harm’s way they run the risk of being attacked by too many enemies. Even if they both are capable at taking hits, you have to adjust your units starting positions so that people with high support rankings are near each other in order to maximize their effectiveness. If you are trying to get two characters to have a higher support ranking, then you’ll need to place them near each other or pair them up, but depending on your goal for each character you would want to place them in such a way that one character gains more experience points so that they level up faster. The skills of two characters that are married also have a great impact on their children, who are playable in the later parts of Awakening, leading to some interesting combinations like a non-Lord units with the power Aether skill or a Trickster with lethality and renewal, an assassin and war cleric ability respectively. The narrative aspects of the game are key to just about every strategic decision you make in Fire Emblem, to the point where it really does blur the line between what is a narrative mechanic and what isn’t.
A lot of developers want a better narrative for their games. They want Hollywood like experience where their narrative is controlled, so that it can be better directed by a single person and so that they can give their work a single unified meaning. I’ve once talked about how this was not the only way to make games more meaningful but also the wrong way and games like Fire Emblem have shown us for a very long time now how a game could seamlessly blur the line between game and story and still provide some useful social commentary. There is a kind of simple beauty to Fire Emblem. There is a lot of effort to show you that each warrior on the battlefield is a person, with a life beyond just serving the cause. Fire Emblem does not shove it down your throat but rather simply lets you experience a simulation of a kind of natural world and lets you draw your own conclusions based on your experiences, rather than what is presented to you in very deliberate manner. This is the beauty of the video game narrative.