Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Death By Fire (Emblem)

I'm playing through Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones. As you know, Bob, it's a GBA strategy game similar to Final Fantasy Tactics.

I'm not sure exactly how I feel about the game: I love it, but it's extremely infuriating. Why?

Because when someone dies, they stay dead.

I like the theory. There's a huge amount that can be done with that. But I don't care for the execution.

From strictly a gameplay perspective, it's terrible because the only thing that really threatens you are bosses, which are only found at the end of a fight. Since you can't save partway through a fight, this means that you're basically stuck restarting from the beginning after you've finished getting all the way to the end.

Of course, it's also a positive feedback loop, which is generally a bad thing: if you start losing characters, you get weaker.

However, even if all that wasn't the case, it's still something I can't really bring myself to like. The reason is that it's treated like a standalone event. Someone dies? They spout a line of dialog and vanish from the roster. There are no other repercussions... even their loved ones seem to instantly forget about them.

The drama of death isn't in the dying, it's in the loss it causes everyone. That's why we can kill a million goblins and thousands of people named "mercenary" without a twinge of grief or guilt, but why we feel really bad for an assassin robot in Terminator 2.

They have a unique "talk" system in this game, where various people can talk to each other during battle. This is often used very well - you have to talk to specific enemies with specific people to get them to join you - but is, in general, underutilized. I had two warriors, father and son. The father is dead. The son? Doesn't care. Merely doesn't have anyone to talk to anymore.

I might have done it differently.

I think what I would have done is changed a secondary relationship.

For example, if his father dies, maybe he'll suddenly get the ability to talk to a younger boy in the party, essentially taking on a father role. If his father was alive, maybe the two of them only become friends. Maybe they have no significant relationship at all.

It could also be done via "lonely cut-scenes" where he gets all emo or whatever, but that kind of goes against the mood of the game. Instead, I would have liked to have seen more (optional?) "large" talks - five or six people all talking about things. It's possible to change what individuals would say in such a meeting without changing what others would say (keep scripting to a minimum on that front, at least).

The reason I'm so disappointed in their death mechanic is specifically because they have the loss mechanic in place already. The "talk" mechanic is perfectly suited to dramatize death. It's like someone handing you peanut butter and chocolate, but refusing to mix them. Currrrrses.

What are your thoughts on the matter?


Matthew said...

I can see how this would create an interesting dynamic - especially considering how rare it is to have game characters who can develop as characters - rather than as game pieces - in more than one direction - but it would be a weird thing to implement in Fire Emblem, where keeping your characters alive is such a crucial part of the game, and losing them is not usually an option.

I also think that, if I were writing for the game, it would suck to have to script conversations that require such specific sets of circumstances (this character dead, those two characters alive) that most players wouldn't encounter them.

That said, though, I'd really like to see some incentive to let things just happen however they happen. If a character dies, I'd like to see that played out in a way that is meaningful enough that I don't feel I have to hit the reset button. But for that to happen, I'd have to see the holes in my party filled better than the Fire Emblem games do it. If I lose my Mage, or whoever, I'd need the game to give me another one before too long.

Craig Perko said...

Oh, sure, this assumes that the gameplay problems are worked out. What you're talking about is the positive feedback loop I was talking about: lose a mage, you don't have a mage to kick ass with any more.

There are lots of ways to fix it, and obviously one of them would have to be implemented.

Patrick said...

I agree its a missed opportunity. All it takes is a half-decent writer (and you only really need to be half-decent to write convincing dialogue in a fantasy setting) churnout out at lot of context-appropriate text. If they're already got the programming in there, just fill in three or four the amount of text and you'd get a fleshed out net. Text is cheap, it boggles the mind. The way I'd solve the feedback loop issue is have the characters affected by the death gain bonuses after talking about it and finding a new resolve. The bonuses would complement the powers lost with the dead character - so the Hunter son of the Mage, who could never please his dad's desire for him to study, would gain a range bonus, so he could in his own way play the ranged support role his father served, but more usefully than he was before.

An even better way is to have new synergies between the characters that the bereaved froms secondary relationships with. The hunter is comforted by the druid woman, and they form a burgeoning romance, kind of letting one family go for a new one, and she encourages him, which gives him the range bonus, and in the text its suggested that the range of her entangle spell can compliment his marksmanship. For example.

All of this stuff could be written in a text editor parsed by the program, or maybe Lua scripted or something.

Craig Perko said...

That's pretty much what I was thinking, yeah. An alternative is that you meet more characters of very similar roles. Which is preferred depends on whether you feel like making more, shallower characters or fewer, deeper characters. Personally, I prefer fewer, deeper characters.

Patrick said...

Me too. I wonder if the non-gamer audience would feel that way, probably depends on the framing verbs. For instance, a casual puzzle game with some kind of dynamic where characters are appropraite would do better for social archetypes than deep characters.