A brief war story: Though shy by temperament, Olivia finds confidence dancing in a traveling theater troupe. In order to protect herself on the road, she's learned how to handle a weapon — a skill that serves her in good stead when a neighboring state attacks. She falls in with a group of resistance fighters, among whom she meets a handsome professional soldier named Frederick. They fight alongside one another, companionship steadily growing into love. After the war, they marry. Frederick is promoted to captain. Olivia continues to dance, though now solely for an audience of one.
Olivia's happy marriage to Frederick is a story in which the worst of war happens to someone else. It cannot, of course, be the whole story. Somewhere along the line, someone in command made a choice under severe duress, and so preserved our heroes for another day. Had there not been a long succession of similarly favorable choices, their story might not have ended so well.
Another version: Olivia survives the war, but Frederick does not. His final words concern not their lost love, but rather his unfinished duty to their commander. Olivia returns to the stage, dancing to bring a rare moment of grace to audiences broken by the horrors of war. The flush of her cheeks, so remarked upon by fans, is the mark of a shyness with which she will struggle for the rest of her life.
Or: Olivia joins Frederick's band of soldiers, but is struck down during battle. "I'm no good to anyone now," she tells him in her final moments. "I can barely walk, let alone dance." Frederick goes on to make captain and eventually marries another compatriot. His wife, Miriel, is a lifelong scholar. She often travels when pursuing her researches, leaving Frederick to brood alone for weeks at a time.
Any one of those three stories might make a compelling premise for a novel or movie, but Fire Emblem: Awakening, from which the characters of Olivia, Frederick and Miriel are drawn, is neither. Published earlier this year for Nintendo's handheld 3DS system, it's the latest in a videogame franchise that's produced eleven titles since 1990.
Because it takes place in the context of a videogame, a great many of you will never bother to find out how Olivia and Frederick's story ends. Not that videogames are still, as they once were, the poor stepchild of other narrative forms. Some titles, like this year's Grand Theft Auto V, sell multiple millions of copies in the first few months, and the industry as a whole pulls in profits significant enough to quell the sort of scoffing dismissals that once characterized media coverage.
Nevertheless, a stark divide remains, unlike that which affects other popular media. The relative volume of movies a person takes in may distinguish a cinephile from the population at large, but people who altogether refuse to watch movies are few and far between. Cohort change may be gradually wearing away at the number of holdouts, but videogames still divide the population into those who play and those who abstain.
Yet, because it is a game, Fire Emblem: Awakening does something no other medium could do without a great deal of artifice. It holds all three versions of Olivia's story in reserve, and can tell any of those versions, independently of the other two, to any particular player who's willing to follow along. Make the right series of choices, play with the requisite skill, and you need never face a future where Olivia returns to the stage, or Frederick waits at home for an absent wife to return.
You may, however, have to decide between one happy conclusion and another. Frederick and Olivia are only one pair of characters in a game with hundreds. Many of them are playable, can form bonds of loyalty or love, and may be killed during the course of play. A decision you make in the heat of battle may preserve Frederick and Olivia only at the cost of some other character's life or happiness. Playing the game means making those choices in battle after battle. As a result, the most compelling story in any Fire Emblem title is the one it tells over and over again.
Before we get to that, though, it's worth thinking a bit about how stories have often been told in games. When the earliest videogames bothered having stories at all, they were, as often as not, implicit. Thus, Donkey Kong presents its key elements — a scaffolding, a barrel-flinging ape, a damsel and a mustachioed hero — in rapid order and leaves the player to connect the narrative dots. Some of its contemporaries, like Q*Bert, were even less forthcoming, relying on the weird charm of their iconography to paste over their complete lack of plot.
Arguably, it was the Pac-Man games that first introduced the game-playing masses to a more explicit form of storytelling. Successive mazes were prefaced with interludes, during which the player passively watched the game's sprites act out one of several brief narratives. The intermissions in the original Pac-Man were little more than comedic asides, really, but Ms. Pac-Man raised the narrative stakes by enacting an action-romance story.
From the start, it seemed natural to think of those interstitial scenes in terms of the cinema — Ms. Pac-Man even marked its intermissions with a clapperboard and scene names. They came to be known as cutscenes, a word kluged together from movie industry terms for the connective tissue that bind shots to one another.
As videogame technology grew more sophisticated, so did cutscenes, allowing developers to include plot points that would have been difficult to incorporate otherwise. The convention made it possible to couch a game's central action in dramatic context, give emphasis to radically changing circumstances, or provide characters with the sort of back story at which earlier games could only hint.
So it is with one of this year's most acclaimed games, The Last of Us. A lengthy preamble shows us the game's hero, Joel, twenty years before the game's main action, struggling to transport his daughter to safety as society unhinges around them. Here and there, the player is prompted to guide them through the havoc of a rapidly deteriorating city of Austin, Texas, but the ultimate result is the same no matter what the player does. Nor could it be otherwise, since the sequence is arranged to establish character traits that will determine what happens when the game proper begins. Its purpose is not to draft us into a collaborative process of charting the plot. Rather, it serves to draw us into emotions that the designers need us to feel for narrative reasons.
If (to its tremendous credit) The Last of Us accomplishes that as well as nearly any game hitherto made, it does so largely by relying on the conventions of cinema. Passively viewed cutscenes transition fluidly into playable sequences, often without a discernible cut. At one moment, we're watching a big-budget action movie; in the next, we're magically transported to the set. We can wander to the edges of the sound stage, but are only allowed to go so far off-script.
The appealing conceit that such forays allow us to participate in the defining art form of the 20th century may explain why some sound stage games (as I've sometimes called them) rank among the most popular games of the last fifteen years. By raising that illusion to a high pitch of sophistication, The Last of Us represents the logical conclusion to a form of in-game storytelling that began with Pac-Man's interstitial cutscenes. The gamut of stories told by such games extend far beyond what was possible at the rudimentary origins of the genre, but because they depend so heavily on the cutscene, the players of sound stage games often find themselves ceding agency for long stretches. In exchange, they're given limited bouts of relatively constrained play — albeit in a world constructed with all the imagination and realism that Hollywood-style cinema can muster.
Despite the recent release of more powerful consoles, though, it's difficult to imagine future games making the same strides its contemporaries have made over the cinematic games of previous generations. They may refine its methods, or use those methods to tell other, equally polished stories. Yet, with game development already rivaling movie production for sheer scope, and photo-realistic graphics rapidly giving way to hyper-realism, it's likely that (apropos of its title) The Last of Us will mark the point at which the genre realized something like its full potential.
Which is to say: the potential inherent in movies and high-end television production. In truth, the storytelling in soundstage games rarely achieves what was not already possible in film. Thus, the genre's potential is circumscribed by both the designers' and players' fealty to the narrative mode of a different storytelling medium.
Don't get me wrong. Fire Emblem: Awakening is full of cutscenes — gorgeous ones at that, if you're amenable to the anime style that is practically the national idiom of genre fiction in Japan. The focal point of play is strategy war gaming, the player directing troops toward victory on gridded battlefields scattered across two magic-tinged continents. Between battles, though, the game spins a grandiose yarn of the sort that's common to high fantasy adventure. It's marginally silly stuff — politics and cosmic dragons usually are — but with popular culture coming around to Game of Thrones and The Hobbit, most of us are long past the point of credibly dismissing a game on those counts.
Some of Awakening's narrative breaks are told in fully animated sequences that unfold exactly like scenes from a movie, but those are the least important for our purposes here. They were, at any rate, designed to accommodate only the overarching story's most indispensable characters. Other sequences are rendered more or less "in-engine," the characters appearing in cruder polygonal models similar to those used in battle.
More appealingly — though at an even lower level of technical sophistication — there are scenes of printed dialogue, conducted entirely between static portraits of the characters. These are the most frequent, as well as the most significant, interruption to play. Significant because — for reasons mostly related to the cost and complexity of working variable characters into fully animated sequences — that's the storytelling device that allows Fire Emblem to reverse the priority of narrative. Their dialogues let us familiarize ourselves with each playable character and their multiple subplots. At times, we can even nudge them down different avenues, forging a bond of friendship between Sumia and Kjelle, or sparking a romance between Gregor and Cordelia. Yet, even as we guide them down the paths of human interest, we're preparing to send them back into battle.
That last part may not strike the casual observer as remarkable. After all, isn't war the central theme of some of the most popular videogame franchises? Just so; but what has long distinguished the Fire Emblem franchise is the way that it deals with casualties. If you are willing to play with the safety rails off, the series presents an experience of war that is not only practically impossible in other media, but largely unheard of in any other game.
The key concept here is permadeath. Action and adventure games have traditionally signaled a losing turn with an onscreen death, but videogames are habitually more forgiving than life. Players are routinely granted multiple "lives" or in-game talismans that allow them to revive lost characters. From the start, Fire Emblem set itself apart by making death permanent for all but the most central of its protagonists. Lose a character during the course of battle, and the game records your progress, including the casualty.
Such losses are all the harder to stomach when the casualty is a character you've grown to like. Other games have cannon fodder, of course, but few games devote so much time and art to developing their doomed into likable characters. Usually, they're broadly defined types with randomly applied names; the player laments their passing mostly for the loss of another warm body useful for drawing enemy fire. By comparison, Fire Emblem games devote a remarkable amount of overhead to the task of creating clearly defined characters, each with its own personality and aspirations, only to let you get them killed in a poorly calculated rear-gaurd assault.
Permadeath has long been sold as a heightened degree of challenge, increasing the thrill of play by raising the stakes involved. Combined with the extensive subplots that define (and, to an extent, let the player define) Fire Emblem's characters, though, it does something far more remarkable. It puts us in possession of that fateful moment, all too common in any hot war, where future potential is forever curtailed.
Casualties of Play
A war story told in a traditional narrative medium (think: Saving Private Ryan) may dramatize the waste of war by having a character talk about his sweetheart back home, just moments before a sniper's bullet snuffs him out. Done well, the scene can achieve the pathos of high tragedy, but linear narratives struggle to make lost potential tangible. If we're sufficiently invested in the character, we may be able to imagine some portion of story that might have been told about him, had the movie let him live. Yet, we understand (even if we hold the thought at some remove) that his death serves a narrative purpose — that it was, in a sense, necessitated by the story's logic or the author's intent. The more we return to it, the more we learn to see it as unavoidable, thus mitigating the loss; or else we reject it as cheaply gratuitous, and feel aggrieved at having been shortchanged by the writer.
The death of a character in Fire Emblem, on the other hand, curtails stories that might actually have been told. Played a different way, Frederick might have settled down with Olivia, with no qualifications placed on the reality of their happiness. The mistake that allows one or the other to die in battle interrupts a story that was not only preferable, but also attainable. As such, most in-game deaths (at least those of playable characters) end up serving no purpose that might not have been achieved with more skill or deliberation, and we have no one but ourselves to blame.
It is by that route that, time and time again, the franchise has directed us toward a truth about war that other storytelling media struggle to suggest. It is all too easy to represent the loss of life accrued in battle as a statistic or a score, a monument or a trophy. What's more difficult to grasp is the wealth of stories those lives might have woven had they not been interrupted by violent conflict.
So, for all our talk about the possibilities of the videogame as a narrative medium, it's notable that Fire Emblem's greatest innovation is not how it tells stories, but its willingness to cut them short. While impressively polished, its cutscenes and dialogue do little that hasn't been done just as well in other games. Nor is it so rare for a videogame story to kill off a beloved character — though in sound stage games, those moments are stage-managed to motivate the player with cinematic peaks of stylized drama. What those other games lack is the willingness to let go of narrative, to construct plots that may never get told, to let play determine which of them will end in futility, and to make the player feel the loss of the stories that never got told.
Note that I've dropped the "video" qualifier here. Videogames are particularly good at handling narrative variations, but they're not the only format that make it possible. For example: the Choose Your Own Adventure series and its imitators have shown that the book format can also support the sort of narrative game that Fire Emblem plays — though there are differences in what they achieve with it. ↩
That is, in what is now called "classic mode." Prior to the Nintendo DS remake of Fire Emblem: Monshō no Nazo in 2010, there was no option to disable "permadeath" in any Fire Emblem game. ↩
Recent installments give players the option of playing "casual mode," in which fallen heroes merely retreat until the next battle. Even in "classic mode," it's possible to sidestep death by restarting a battle. The final deterrent is the hassle of investing more time to repeat a battle, but as we shall see, there are thematic reasons for viewing permadeath as a feature rather than a punishment. ↩
A more experimental kind of film might help us out with a digression showing that other story, then leaping back in time to reassert the character's death. As often as not, this has the effect of sweeping the rug out from under the viewer. The result is usually distracting, confusing, or merely laughable. ↩