I don’t think it is an understatement to say that Destiny’s story is bad. A number of videos and articles have popped up criticizing the loose and hollow plot in the week since its release. Having reviewed Destiny myself and being similarly frustrated by its abysmal narrative, I was prompted to revisit Fire Emblem: Awakening, a game that successfully accomplishes the type of storytelling that Destiny so spectacularly lacks.
Destiny is a sci-fi first-person shooter with RPG and MMO elements for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Fire Emblem: Awakening is a turn-based strategy title for the 3DS. Destiny strives for the most impressive graphical qualities possible, while Fire Emblem: Awakening contents itself with strangely styled 3D graphics and an anime aesthetic. Clearly, Fire Emblem and Destiny have very little to do with one another in terms of visual style or gameplay or… much else, really. However, both are games that make an attempt to have a narrative and that is where I’m most interested in comparing the two to illustrate how a great game can successfully tell a story that resonates with its players.
It should tell you something that this is a fairly good approximation of Destiny’s plot.
One of the important things to keep in mind when talking about video game narratives is that writing a video game is completely different than writing a screenplay or a book or an internet article. The main difference stems from player agency, the choices players make as they play. This throws off the traditional format of linear narratives that we’ve grown accustomed to experiencing in movies, songs, and literature. While all of that might seem obvious, the fact of the matter is that there aren’t many places that can properly teach how to write a video game outside of the traditional ideas about story structure. It can be tempting to say, “Just write better,” when you see a game that isn’t very compelling. It turns out that “just write better” isn’t terribly helpful. I’m not going to pretend that I know the ins and outs of how to write a video game, but what has become clear to me over the last few years of writing about video games is that the ones that are loudly praised tend to be games that effectively fuse their gameplay with their narratives. Crafting a game where a player feels like their actions in the moment-to-moment gameplay matter to both the immediate experience and to the larger narrative, imbues everything with additional tension and sense of purpose. Successfully pulling that off makes the game better than the sum of its parts.
Destiny doesn’t ever do this. Its gameplay and story are completely separate. And you know what? That’s fine! Many great games have terrible stories and solid gameplay to fall back on. Look no farther than every Mario Bros. game ever or many of the recent Call of Duty titles. However, would it be fair to assume that games with great gameplay as well as a meaningful narrative are preferable to games with just enjoyable gameplay? I think most of us would answer in the affirmative. Fire Emblem: Awakening does just that.
The Fire Emblem series has been around for almost 25 years. In that time, there have been eleven main entries (thirteen if you count remakes) in the series, though North America has seen less than half of those. The turn-based gameplay takes place on a variety of different maps with varied terrain and enemy placement. As players progress through these maps they’ll have opportunities to recruit new characters with different abilities and skills to their army. If this sounds familiar, that’s because there are a number of game series that offer similar core experiences like Advanced Wars or Final Fantasy Tactics. Secretly, Fire Emblem: Awakening isn’t about the turn-based battles at all. Sure, they make up the core experience of the game, but the battles are a complex and entertaining front for the support conversations between characters. It has been a longstanding tradition in Fire Emblem games that the units players recruit into their armies all have names, motivations, backstories, and freely interact with one another as they spend time together in combat. Support conversations are windows into those character interactions. In addition to unlocking entertaining dialogues, characters that have become friends gain stat bonuses for fighting near one another. This relationship mechanic has been a part of the Fire Emblem experience for a long time, so why did I specifically call out Fire Emblem: Awakening for making support conversations the core of the game?
From the prologue mission and through the opening tutorial missions, Fire Emblem: Awakening makes it clear that fighting together is important to both the gameplay and the narrative. The game tacitly encourages players to seek out support conversations by rewarding with meaningful stat gains in the tactical segments. Whereas previous entries in the series included support conversations as a side activity, Awakening goes out of its way to explicitly point out their importance. As players progress through missions of increasing complexity and difficulty, the relationships between characters mature, but the specter of death is never far away. Fire Emblem has had permadeath ingrained into its code since the very beginning. Once a character falls on the battlefield they are either permanently maimed (if they figured prominently into the narrative) or they die. Though Awakening does give players the option between a permadeath-free mode and classic mode, classic is the way it was intended to be played. I say this not as some elitist snob who thinks that only “real” gamers play with permadeath, but as someone who thinks that the narrative stakes get much higher when you know that any mistake you make could cost you the life of a beloved character. It is the same principle that Jake Solomon, lead designer of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, is encouraging when he suggests that players name their soldiers after friends and family. Furthermore, Fire Emblem: Awakening asks the player to insert themselves into the game by creating an avatar. The avatar is unique in that it can have support conversations with every recruitable character, meaning that the player is virtually guaranteed to have some investment into the characters he or she find interesting.
None of this would work if the support conversations weren’t well written and nuanced, which they are. It is easy to dismiss many of the characters at first glance because they seem to fit rather simple molds, like the cocky warrior Vaike or the clumsy and shy Sumia. However, through their interactions with other characters we get a chance to dig deeper into their characters and perhaps catch a glimpse of why they are the way they are (other than because someone wrote them to be that way). We learn throughout the hours spent on Fire Emblem: Awakening that our army is the opposite of the faceless entities we see in many other games that deal with sweeping conflicts.
If we dig into the actual story of Awakening, we find a work of genre fantasy. Players are meant to be hooked from one battle to the next on an increasingly urgent quest to avoid war and prevent global catastrophe. It isn’t complex and it isn’t something that avid fantasy readers/movie-watchers won’t have seen multiple times before. However, the support conversations flesh out the less interesting elements of the story and make it feel new in a way many of us haven’t experienced before. If the story is the skeleton, the support conversations are the tendons and muscles.
It could be said that I am drastically inflating the importance of support conversations in Fire Emblem: Awakening. However, what I think really seals the deal is that the support conversations are inexorably tied to the ending of Awakening. After defeating hordes of foes and learning the intimate details of your comrades, the avatar is revealed to be the vessel of an evil bent on the destruction of the world. The only thing that keeps the avatar from following through on that motivation is the thought of destroying his or her friends. The relationships formed through the support conversations are what ultimately save the world because those connections have become concrete things as opposed to abstract concepts.
Let’s recap: Awakening’s main plot is a fantasy storyline that would feel right at home in a genre novel page-turner, but it is elevated by the designed focus on the support conversations between the numerous characters who join the player’s army. These relationships are encouraged by tangible gains like stat boosts. Tension and emotional attachment exists due to the ever-present threat of permanent death aimed toward the members of the player’s army. The avatar the player creates helps to invest the player into the relationships they find interesting, further increasing the connection to said characters. Ultimately, the relationships formed throughout Awakening are brought into the story with everything riding on the line.
From the beginning of Awakening until its final moments, players are both tangibly and emotionally involved in the story because the gameplay and narrative are so closely bonded together. It results in a more resonant game than previous Fire Emblems, which is why I’d argue many regard it as the finest entry in the series to date. I compare the storytelling and characterization of Awakening to what I saw in Destiny and I can’t help but think that my time was better spent laughing, smiling, and tearing up on my 3DS.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a third playthrough of Fire Emblem: Awakening to complete.