Thursday, 6 June 2013

Fire Emblem and Player Choice

So I've been on a bit of a Fire Emblem kick for a while now. A couple of months ago I finally played through Path of Radiance, and following that I made my way through Awakening. More recently, I'm in the middle of re-playing plain old Fire Emblem, the GBA game from 2003. I've found it kind of interesting to look at how the series has evolved over the past 10 years. Of course the series didn't ever leave Japan until 2003, but since then it has picked up significantly more widespread appeal. I can't help but feel like several of the changes made to the series since then were made in the interest of appealing to the new fans rather than the old. So with that said, today I wanted to talk a bit about choosing characters, and why it was better back in the day.

So if you aren't familiar with the Fire Emblem series, here is the quick and dirty of it. It's a series of SRPGs which are largely character-driven. Throughout the span of the game you tend to get a large number of playable characters (say, 30+) while you typically can't use more than about 10-12 of them in a single battle. As a result, you have to choose who to use and who to pass up. This effect is compounded by the fact that the games are very linear, and there are essentially a pre-determined number of enemies which you can defeat, and thus get experience from. In other words, you have to be careful how you distribute that experience. If you were to have a character kill a bunch of enemies and then never use that character ever again, you are essentially making all of your other characters worse by depriving them of experience. As a result, the practical response is to choose a party of characters to use, and then use them exclusively.

This process is further complicated by the fact that, obviously, every character is different. When a character levels up they will have a certain percentile chance that each of their stats increase. So different characters have different growth rates, and while stat growth is ultimately random, some characters will pretty much always be better than others. This is ultimately the source of what I'm discussing here today. The issue I have is that, in more recent titles there really aren't any "bad" characters. Some characters will certainly still end up worse than others, but they will be mediocre at worst. They will be at least usable in the end game. Compare this to the earlier games, where some characters would just be terrible no matter what you did.

So you would be forgiven for thinking that I'm crazy to see this change as a bad thing. Certainly the more modern model is much more user friendly. After all, there isn't really any indication which characters will end up being bad. In fact, the worst characters long term almost always have really good stats early on. So why punish  a player for making a blind choice? It's a fair point, but hear me out. 

To me, bad characters are important because they add contrast. Choices are not interesting unless the possibility of making a bad one exists. There is no weight behind a choice if you win (or lose) regardless of which choice you made. It's like asking someone to pick between two boxes, one of which contains $10, the other containing $10.50. It doesn't make that big a difference which one you pick. You can bet you care which box you pick if one had $50 and the other had $5, though. Similarly, bad characters makes the good ones look that much better in contrast, and thus the player ultimately feels more attached to them. If every character is amazing, then none of them really stands out from the crowd, they all run the risk of becoming generic bad guy killers rather than characters you care about. If everyone is amazing, the no one is.

So with all of this said, the question becomes: is it more important to create that divide between characters, or is it more important to create a more user friendly experience? There isn't really a good way to do both. You could try and include some indication as to how a character will turn out long term, but nobody in the right mind is going to choose the lesser character. If you know what is in each box, you are going to choose the one with $50 in it every time; it's not really a choice any more.

 As you may imagine, I lean towards all characters not being made equal. It's less friendly towards players who aren't already familiar with the game, but at the same time, that's where Fire Emblem came from. Long before the west even knew the series existed, Fire Emblem was about crushing difficulty. Maybe that formula doesn't really work when working on the the scale that Fire Emblem is today, but I feel like it would result in a better game, and I feel like it's a disservice to deviate so far from the series' roots.


  1. Great post! Please keep it up :)

  2. Interesting thoughts. I agree to an extent - having bad characters makes the good ones stand out more, and really gets you pumped up when someone like Ike rolls through entire battalions, while the rest of your crew is struggling to dispatch three or four guys.

    But at the same time, I feel like "bad character" should only go so far. If a character is completely unusable, I always feel ripped off. I always like to take these characters that aren't that good, and try to align my strategy so that they still can have their place in my party. Just because you aren't fielding awful characters doesn't mean the game can't still present a high difficulty level.