Pixelly Friends: Character, Story and Immersion in Video Games

fire emblem

I have a friend. Her name is Sumia. She rides on a pegasus, kills bandits with a lance, falls over much too often and is made of pixels.

As you may have guessed, I’m not talking about the real world. I am in fact talking about Fire Emblem: Awakening, a video game for the Nintendo 3DS in which the player, represented by an avatar, is a master tactician, defending the realm of Ylisse and making lots of pixelly friends.

The core gameplay of Awakening consists of grid-based battle maps. You decide where your soldiers move, who they attack and who they fight alongside. Pairing up two characters not only gives them a boost in combat, but it also improves their relationship with each other. Increase this relationship rating to its max and characters can even get married.

This system could have easily been a pointless distraction to the game’s main story, but becomes so much more when you consider that each member of the large cast of characters is a developed individual with his or her own distinct personality. Conversations that play out between friends feel like genuine exchanges with real people. The fact that your actions directly control these relationships gives a wonderfully natural and non-scripted feel to what is essentially a very linear game.

The simple act of allowing the player to put themselves into the game could have also been a gimmick, but it is amazing how such a small thing can increase the immersion tenfold, allowing you to be a part of the world and interact with the diverse characters as yourself. No, you can’t choose your dialogue Mass Effect-style, but it still works. To all the people who spend hours upon hours playing Angry Birds and Temple Run on their phones, this is games!

I know I am friends with Sumia because I have just been told that our relationship has achieved a level of ‘B’. We just had a conversation about why it’s so great to read novels, as they allow you to escape from the restraints and problems of reality (like games!). With a level of ‘B’, we fight together very well as a team, thus encouraging the relationship to develop further.

There’s also a ‘Hubba Tester’ hidden away in the extras menu, where a wizened old man evaluates characters’ emotions towards each other ‘for entertainment purposes only’. This has no impact on the gameplay whatsoever, but it’s a nice touch, if a little weird.

fire emblem 1
fire emblem 2

This character looks a lot like me. Really. Ahem.

On top of this, randomised events that happen in the barracks while the console is off add to the illusion of a living, breathing world. Come back to the game the next day and you might find that Vaike has been combat training with Kellam, or that Virion, ‘the archest of archers’, has found a special item while out on a morning stroll. The best thing about these events is that they actually affect the game, giving characters boosts in certain skills, a little extra experience or rewarding you with a potentially very useful weapon. Not many single-player games can boast that stuff happens when you’re not playing, another popular example being the acclaimed Animal Crossing series.

Others have likened Fire Emblem: Awakening to a soap opera and I can see where they’re coming from (except unlike Emmerdale this has swords and shit). I have played the game for around 12 hours so far and, aside from the enjoyable battles, it is this aspect that keeps me wanting to come back. I care about each and every character, from Gaius, the sugar-obsessed thief, to Muriel, the incredibly analytical mage who finds it difficult to connect with people emotionally (I paired her up with the brutish Vaike for a laugh; now he’s asked her out for a drink). Well, maybe I don’t care so much about Stahl the cavalier (he’s a bit boring and I’ve left him behind on level 2) and Lon’qu is a bit of a dick at the moment. But I certainly wouldn’t want them dead.

Death! That’s the big thing the Fire Emblem series is known for. As long as you’re playing on ‘Classic’ mode, if a character falls in battle they’re gone forever, speaking their poignant last words as they collapse before their foe. Because the game makes you care about these people, you’ll want to make every effort to keep everyone alive. But whereas a character death should lead to grieving, it will no doubt lead most players to avoid this consequence and simply restart the battle and try again. Tactics become incredibly important, forcing you to plan your moves more carefully and learn from your mistakes rather than charging in willy-nilly. These rich characters, then, not only create an immersive experience, but also serve to make the meat of the game more interesting and, importantly, fun.

Basically, it’s a bloody good game. We’ve got that sorted. Now I need to come to some kind of conclusion, something which I didn’t plan when I started writing (think of this more of an organic writing technique than a lack of preparation, though it was indeed the latter). I guess the point I am trying to make is that Awakening is a prime example of how games can present a story like no other medium can. Take The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for example. I had dabbled in it on the Xbox back in 2011, but only really got into it when I picked it up for about £3 in a Steam sale at the end of last year. I was hooked immediately, like an eager fish (not a great pun, but it makes sense). Although it is very much a different beast to Fire Emblem in terms of gameplay, it similarly gives you access to a detailed world populated with lifelike characters. The player is free to do what they want, when they want, exploring a world made real by changing weather conditions and random encounters. You may get mugged on a mountain footpath, or be approached by a drug dealer (seriously). The huge number of graphics and gameplay modifications available for the PC version can make the game even more realistic and immersive. One even requires you to stay warm and dry, or risk dying of hypothermia.

The feeling of being immersed in a world to such an extent is something that people who don’t play games will never understand until they have experienced it themselves. Yes a film or book can present an engaging story with fantastic characters for us to emotionally invest in, but in games like Fire Emblem: Awakening and Skyrim we are with those characters, living alongside them rather than watching them from behind a lens. We are part of a ‘real’ world in which we can do stuff. We can, of course, do stuff in the actual real world, but seriously screw that shitty place. Cry about life? Nah. Play games.

Now, I’d best be off. Sumia’s fallen over again.

And thus endeth the word of Tom.

PS. I do have real friends.

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