One could easily make the mistake that Fire Emblem Awakening is a game about war.
Nobody would blame them for making that assumption. After all, the player leads an army against enemy forces on a campaign across the continents. At your disposal are knights, archers, and mages. But Fire Emblem Awakening is not a game about war. Fire Emblem Awakening is a game about family, friendship, and the unshakable bonds that develop between comrades. It also happens to be a fantastic, forward-thinking role-playing game thanks to the way the theme extends beyond the narrative and is tied directly into the game’s core mechanics.
Fire Emblem comes from a long line of strategy games that have always had a strong focus on character interactions tied to their performance on the battlefield. Awakening in particular expands the scope of this system. In the world of Fire Emblem every unit you lead into battle is an individual. Each one has an individual personality, goals, and relationships. While this means there is a greater sense of loss if a unit is (permanently) killed in battle, this also comes into account when placing them on the battlefield, directly effecting combat strategy. You could simply set up the heavily armored Kellam at a choke-point by himself to hold back some enemy forces. However if you were to place his friend Stahl directly behind him he will support him in battle, yielding greater combat results and possibly even offering extra attacks each turn.
What makes this system work so well is how the narrative ties directly into gameplay. By utilizing the same soldiers frequently, you unlock character interaction scenes where you learn more about them. In turn, as you see more of these character scenes their relationship builds with comrades giving them greater bonuses in battle when fight next to a character they have a strong relationship with. It is a seamless way for the storytelling to have a direct influence on gameplay.
Sega’s 2008 action, strategy, role-playing fusion, Valkyria Chronicles, on the PlayStation 3 seems to draw direct influence from the Fire Emblem franchise. Like Awakening, the units that comprise the player’s army have unique personalities, skills and relationships that make certain characters work well with one another. As an interesting wrinkle to the system, while friendships develop between soldiers, they will also have preferences to not fight alongside certain characters. Be it bigotry, sociopolitical views or just personality incompatibility, each unit will have a list of people they would prefer not associate with and will take combat penalties if they are teamed up.
The system in place in Valkyria Chronicles makes it so player’s choice of unit placement on the battlefield is equally important as it is in Awakening, but with the unique twist of keeping certain battle participants separated to fuel an efficient war machine. But Awakening has an additional twist lacking in Valkyria Chronicles, the player’s custom character.
When starting a new game in Fire Emblem Awakening, the player is asked to create a custom avatar within some parameters. They may choose the age, sex and have limited control over the appearance of the vessel they will use to interact with the game. What makes this feature stand out though is that the character the player creates is the only one in the game who has the potential to forge a relationship with any other character. Even Valkyria Chronicle’s charismatic protagonist Welkin was not that agreeable on the battlefield. Of course, forging relationships with every character would be impossible without copious amounts of grinding, so the player character must be selective with who they decided to associate with and how they wanted to go about developing their relationships.
Last year Atlus released Person 4 Golden on the PlayStation Vita and, while not a strategy game like Awakening, it shared a few of these relationship building elements. The player could not customize the appearance or sex of the protagonist of Golden, but the relationships they chose to forge would largely decide what kind of person they would be.
Golden is a mash-up of a dungeon crawler with turn-based combat and a social simulation where the player takes the role of a transfer student at a rural Japanese high school. While attending classes the player is free to choose what relationships they will forge. Just like Awakening, completing a relationship arc with every character is impossible, largely because Golden has a calendar governing the events in the game. The player has one school year to wrap up the supernatural murder mystery surrounding the town, meaning that time management is just as important as equipping the right gear and skills for combat. This means that to see every character arc through in Golden, the player would need to play the game through multiple times.
Relationships in Golden results in improved combat performance. Each character that you interact with corresponds to a different tarot symbol. The Personas, equipable supernatural alter egos that grant combat bonuses and skills, also have a corresponding tarot symbol. By developing a relationship with a person of the Magician arcane, for example, any Persona of the Magician symbol will be powered up.
The reason these systems are effective is because they make character interactions matter to the game. The part that is a storytelling tool and the part that is a game blend together into a consistent whole. Too many games now are quick to keep the storytelling and the gameplay safely segregated, not by choice but because it is difficult to find an effective way to mesh the two. Fire Emblem Awakening, Valkyria Chronicles and Persona 4 Golden are three shining examples that story and gameplay can directly interact and creates a better product as a result.