In this chapter of the Digital Lore Compendium, Marcus Mac Dhonnagáin explores the concept of mortality in Fire Emblem: Awakening
The feeling of loss that accompanies the death of a loved one is something that is universally understood. The dead pass into the great unknown, and yet they still remain in the hearts and minds of the living. The tragedy hangs in the air, the mourners dealing with it as best they can. Yet, they know that they’ll never get a chance to interact with that person ever again.
Sometimes a flood of memories returns to us. We go to certain places, do certain things and suddenly choke up, remembering half-forgotten events that only recently had a half-fond value – but now mean so much more. In prosperous nations that aren’t beset by crises we can afford time to grieve, to observe our rituals, to take a break to process the loss, try to move on and pick up the normal routine again.
This is the common experience of the ordinary citizen who is lucky enough to be living in a Western state. We can grow old and die of natural causes. Other times an illness might overtake us, or an accident might befall us. Sometimes the causes may be more sinister. For the soldier, however, death is inseparable from their profession. They enter combat, knowing that they’ll either take life or lose their own.
It is these themes – life and death – that are central to Fire Emblem: Awakening. The player oversees a battlefield ravaged by war, but commands a force comprised of people as opposed to faceless soldiers. By taking risks with their lives, you’re rewarded with further insight about them. As they courageously fight side by side with their comrades and win the day, they might later strike up a conversation. It might be about the most banal of topics: the life in the camp, training – in speaking about these you realize that your warriors have personalities and unique quirks; something endearing that gives them value beyond their attack or defense stats.
This is what makes them more meaningful than chess pieces. Losing a powerful soldier in Fire Emblem: Awakening is a reason to restart a level, but an equally valid reason is the loss of a character that you care about.
By surviving conflicts, your soldiers can live another day. Fire Emblem: Awakening celebrates this; good friends share banter and jokes. Others might fall in love, letting their guards down and revealing their secrets. Perhaps they marry then – all in the hopes that when the war ends, they will be able to live a happy life together. Is this not the purpose of life in all its glory? To make friends, find a mate, and then settle down?
Yet, when they unfortunately perish – whether it is from a stray arrow or a lucky strike – their death seems to matter little to the friends they made. They fall to the ground, splutter a quick eulogy between their ragged breaths, and are then quickly forgotten about. In the heat of battle this can be forgiven; their friends have to finish the fight. As difficult as it is, resisting this grief is vital to ensure their survival. By the time the last foe has been dispatched though, a small reprieve to process the loss would seem to be normal.
The soldiers of Fire Emblem seem to suffer some rather strange inconsistencies, however. While on their journey, a character that is not a comrade-in-arms perishes, then certain personas tied to the plot might voice their grief. It’s rather effective; at a point near the middle of the epic plot, your forces attempt to retreat from the battlefield. A powerful song plays over the combat, expressing the profound loss of a central character in the previous chapter. There’s a palpable sense of sadness as the troupe escapes through the rain, mud; lashing out their grief at any of the enemy forces unfortunate enough to block their path. It’s a moment where the tactics are tinged with sadness, but also a sense of determination that they will not be defeated again.
Yet when their friend is cut to ribbons next to them, they won’t bat an eyelid. Instead they will continue on as if nothing has occurred. We don’t see them bury their friend’s body, attend to their belongings or inform their relatives; they merely act as if nothing has happened. It’s all business as usual.
Fire Emblem fails to respect the real nature of death in war. When watching the excellent television series Band of Brothers, we’re given an insight as to how soldiers balance both their grief with their sense of duty. Set in World War Two, the show portrays American men changing from naïve recruits into emotionally scarred soldiers. They lose their friends to bullets and horrific explosions and we’re spared few details in how traumatic and destructive the whole conflict is. Even as they celebrate their victory and the end of the war, it’s undercut with the sense that they’ve lost far more than they’ve gained.
Fire Emblem: Awakening shows that soldiers are people. The characters that join your militia make friends with others, and may even fall in love. However, we only see their happiness. When a person falls on the battlefield, there is little in the way of a real, meaningful, emotional repercussion among the rest of the cast. This undermines the trust that they build up with one another, and belittles the meaning of the friendships that they forge. If they survive, then they might live to have another chat, but if they die, they’re never mentioned again. This contradicts Fire Emblem: Awakening’s goal of creating a strategy game where you command an army comprised of individuals, as opposed to mere faceless warriors – because in war, real people suffer.