eath sucks—but chances are you’ll get over it, in the world of video gaming at least.
There’s been plenty a first-year college paper written about how death has no meaning in video games because blah blah extra lives, blah blah respawn points… which of course, are totally appropriate and necessary to creating a game that people will play for more than 90 seconds. So you might say that death in games is necessarily meaningless—with a few notable exceptions.
One example is that of the Fire Emblem series—a strategy-RPG franchise from Nintendo, long confined to the shores of Japan but one that has experienced a surprisingly warm reception in recent years, thanks to its expert storytelling, a large ensemble cast of fleshed-out characters, and its unique permanent death mechanic (provided you’re playing in “Classic” mode).
For those unfamiliar with the series, almost every game involves a different cast of characters in a medieval setting, wherein the player controls the whole entourage on a tactical grid-based battlefield. Party members (all with names and often full backstories, even among the supporting cast) hold varying movement and attack abilities as part of their respective job classes, which, in some games can be changed and customized for the purpose of optimizing special abilities.
While certainly not the only series to go for greater gravitas in the death department, Fire Emblem perhaps stands alone in how seamlessly it merges its strategy mechanics with the reality of permanent death. Losing a character in battle means that that character is dead for keeps. No Phoenix Downs, no 1-ups, and no wishing them back with the Dragon Balls; make the wrong moves on the grid and your buddy gets a one-way ticket to the casket factory—which makes carefully planning your strategy a necessity if you’re the kind of person (like me) who couldn’t bear to leave a pal behind.
Though permanent death is a fixture throughout the Fire Emblem series, it is perhaps best realized in the franchise’s 2013 release, Fire Emblem: Awakening, thanks to the excellent storytelling featured in the game’s “support” conversations between battles.
In Awakening, allied party members can form various support relationships based on their proximity to one another on the battlefield. When two characters join up to take down an opponent, their bonds grow stronger, allowing for a greater on-field chemistry for unlocking combos when teaming up against enemies.
But additionally, building support relationships opens up side conversations, wherein the player is given story elements to accompany the increased support level. It’s even possible for two characters to form an “S-Support” relationship, which unites them as companions in marriage, and is in turn played out with a short scene involving a proposal, acceptance, etc. Certain relationships even provide the possibility of children, something that matchmakers and hopeless romantics have latched onto with great adoration.
Whereas other games might gloss over the death of a playable character or simply give the gamer another chance to collect their fallen comrades at battle’s end, Awakening plays by a different set of rules. Through its focus on character development and commitment to the permanence of death, Awakening challenges the player to hold even their lowliest foot soldiers in close regard. It encourages you see the death of a party member in the same way as if a real person’s life were cut short all too suddenly. Because if Kellam, or Sully, or Vaike, or Stahl, or Miriel, or Olivia, or any other member of your crew fall in battle… that’s it. You never get to hear the rest of their stories. Their support conversations disappear from the narrative going forward. They might never have a chance to get married or to have a family of their own. Or, if they’ve already gotten married and/or started a family, there’s suddenly a spouse and/or child mourning the loss of a loved one—which is some pretty heavy stuff, especially for a Nintendo game, if you think about it.
Fire Emblem: Awakening encourages players to see each and every life as its own separate story, one with importance to friends and family. For a game based around the thrill of medieval combat and tactics, it’s striking to be so actively discouraged from thinking of allies in expendable terms. And while some might argue that the heaviness of death has no place in an escapist medium such as gaming, I think there’s beauty to be found in the attachment to each and every party member—big or small, meek or mighty. Every member has a place, and each person has a life worth living—and fighting to keep, if necessary.
At times, video games can perhaps be guilty of encouraging players to think of allies as interchangeable, especially when it’s “every man for himself.” But Awakening offers what I believe to be a much more grounded perspective on how jarring death can, and should be. In Fire Emblem, there are no nameless allies, only friends. And each time you lose even one, it should be an event of significance, if not one to be avoided at all cost—even the cost of restarting a battle from square one if necessary. ♦