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Friday, 7 August 2015

Editorial: Four Ways to Improve Fire Emblem Romances.

Editorial: Four Ways to Improve
Fire Emblem Romances.

So, I played Fire Emblem: Awakening last week and reviewed it a few days ago, and one of the things that really jumped out at me, but which I didn't have time to talk about in depth in the review, is how absolutely horrendously agonising awful the romance subplots in Fire Emblem are. 

They physically hurt. 

It's like reading the Digimon fanfic of a thirteen year old (not mine, obviously, mine was amazing) whose sole experience with romance is watching the intricate and nuanced courtship behaviours of penguins.

But I am not one to grouse about something and not offer solutions, so here, delivered from on high, are four of about forty possible ways that they could improve their romances.

1) Don't have every romance subplot terminate in marriage.


Here's an idea: Not every romantic subplot has to end in a proposal of marriage. It's true, Fire Emblem writers, and it doesn't even mean that you're implying that the children characters are born out of wedlock (although there wouldn't be anything really wrong with that anyway).

Marriage is, after all, a big step that comes after a prolonged period of courtship, usually, so its sudden and glaring insertion at the end of what tend to be fairly light-on-the-romance support paths tends to feel like it came flying out of the blue.

This goes doubly true when the character proposing does not seem like one who would be particularly inclined to do so. Frederick, Stahl, maybe Ricken, sure - but Vaike? Lon'qu? Henry, of all people? These are not characters who would be inclined towards sudden proposals of marriage.

So here's the alternate suggestion: Instead of having all these support conversations end in marriage (well, engagement), have them end in the commencement of a relationship. It may well head onwards to marriage later, but that can be implied rather than shown.

2) Don't have the romances take place almost entirely in five short conversations.

But we've literally spoken about three times total.

No romance in fiction has ever both happened in five conversations and also seemed remotely engaging. It just hasn't happened. Ever.

I do understand the gameplay purpose of it, though - each conversation is meant to bump you up another support level, and having it be, say, fifteen conversations would add a terrifying amount of work for the player to actually get those precious S-rank supports. I do get that, and I am appreciative of it - and the 'Barracks' function even goes some small way towards rectifying that, having very short conversations between characters take place there between support conversations.

So let's build on that: Let's have characters who you pair up in battle banter with each other, and write a diverse range of dialogue so that that banter is always fresh; let's have, at higher levels of support, those characters reacting with horror in battle when one of their allies falls (on Casual modes) or comes close to falling (on non-Casual modes); let's have more barracks conversations and let's make those conversations slightly longer; let's have sidequests that unlock over the course of that support which focus on those two characters' relationship.

It's extra work, that's certain, and that always presents a problem for video games, where extra work translates to extra money in an industry where going over budget is the norm and failing to break even is startlingly common. There are ways to cut down that work, though - none of those conversations need to be voiced, just to start with.

3) Make every character bisexual.

If you want to say that fans wouldn't be all over this, you are lying, and you have to
stop lying.

This isn't really a problem with the writing - I mean, yes, it is absolutely unrealistic that in a party of twenty to thirty characters, not a single one would be an LGBT person, and we could argue all day about whether it's similarly unrealistic for every character to be interested in both sexes to some degree (I don't think it is that unrealistic, personally, but even if it is I think it's an acceptable breach from realism), but my beef here is a gameplay beef, not a writing one.

Romance, and the resulting S-rank supports, have gameplay benefits - and if you're going to have gameplay benefits attached to your romance mechanics then you need to take steps towards making those gameplay benefits as accessible as possible. 

This goes double when you consider that Fire Emblem games are strategy RPGs where unit placement can be hugely important, and the support system hinges mostly on positioning units near each other so that they'll work together.

This goes triple when you consider that this is a series with permadeath, and improper unit placement can mean losing a character permanently. 

By having only heterosexual romances, you scupper a player's ability to strategically play your games, which happen to be marketed on strategy, because you've forced them to engage in the girl-boy-girl-boy patterns of a primary school teacher. Don't do that.

Fire Emblem Fates has made some steps towards this, having same-sex romances be possible, so long as one party involved is one of two specific units (one who's male and one who's female). That's a pretty token improvement, though, and has come with its own issues that other people have talked about far better than I ever will.

4) Avoid re-using tropes and dialogue. 

This actually isn't re-used dialogue, it's just - I just had to.

I understand the temptation. This is, after all, a considerable amount of writing to be done, and writing consumes time and money, both of which are pretty precious resources to game developers.

That having been said, don't think I haven't noticed that every one of Lon'qu's romances are basically identical, Intelligent Systems. Don't think I've not noticed that every one of Nowi's enormously creepy romances follow basically the same formula. Don't think I've not noticed that Miriel is basically just having the same conversations with search and replace done on various key words. I see all. 

While the wording always changes, at least somewhat (unlike with father-child conversations, which are literally always identical), the ideas tend to remain identical, which just adds to how false these romances feel. These two characters aren't connecting on a human level in a way that feels natural to their characters and that tie in to their character arcs: They're engaging in variations on the same conversations with everyone. 

It's the writing equipment of picking up various different dolls and mashing them together. You can tell me that no, no, these two dolls are meant to be, they mash together in a special, unique way - but I know that's not true, because I was literally there when you said that about every single other doll combination.

That simile got away from me. I can admit that. 

(Many thanks to various players for the screencaps. The difficulty in taking screencaps of 3DS games has not been forgotten.)

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