Gaming Stories: Why I Couldn’t Emotionally Invest in Fire Emblem

It’s been almost a month since I last loaded Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon on my Nintendo DS. When my warriors last saw me, Marth had just received the Fire Emblem, and they were in the middle of a pitched battle against a band of pirates who really should have known better. My army was growing, and we had avoided casualties so far. Perhaps I was heart sick and heavy with worry about my warriors falling through the course of our righteous war to gather allies and reclaim my birthright. Perhaps I despaired at how selfish this quest was; we only had anecdotal evidence that the people lived in fear and despair the last time the Shadow Dragon Medeus conquered Archanea. Perhaps I just couldn’t muster the energy to invest in this army when I had already fought so many other wars in other lands and other times. No matter the reason, I turned to my troops and said, “Go now; you are forgiven.”

I tried to avoid the accusing reflective glare that emanated from Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon‘s box’s shiny plastic wrap when I swapped that game’s cartridge for Radiant Historia‘s cartridge. “I’m a game from a storied franchise and one of the best games on the DS. Why wouldn’t you finish me?” Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon asked me. After playing more than 40 hours of Radiant Historia, I avoided the same glare from Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon‘s box when I swapped Radiant Historia for Picross 3D and again when I swapped Picross 3D after 2 weeks for Tetris DS. Thankfully, I was able to avoid the glare from Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, Picross 3D, and Tetris DS when I brought Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia out of storage and into my DS.

I’m a good game! Why won’t you play me?

Still, the accusatory question remained. Picross 3D, Tetris DS, and Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon are all good games that are frequently on lists of the best games on the DS. Radiant Historia is a good game that is rarely on those same lists, but I invested more time into Radiant Historia than my time with Picross 3DTetris DS, and Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon combined. Why did this happen?

The answers are parts of the the root reason why I have such difficulty finding games to play on the DS.

Let’s start with Tetris DS first. It’s a great version of Tetris, and it has a number of interesting modes. I spent countless hours playing Tetris on my Windows 95 PC in my youth, and Tetris is almost built for the pick-up and play philosophy behind mobile gaming devices like the DS. But Tetris DS lasted barely 2 hours in my DS before I was bored with it and moved on to a different game. The problem was familiarity; despite the new game modes in Tetris DS, it was still Tetris, and my quick trigger to pull Tetris DS proved that I may have played enough Tetris in my youth to last me a lifetime. I thought I could recapture at least the same level of satisfaction that I had gotten from Tetris in the past. I knew how well I could play Tetris, at least in the past. There didn’t seem to be a point to revisiting this challenge anymore. In this case, familiarity was the enemy of emotional investment.

Six different game modes, 84 on Metacritic, barely 2 weeks in my DS.

Familiarity shouldn’t have been a problem with Picross 3D. I was never a fan of Minesweeper, and I hadn’t played any other Picross games in the past. Picross 3D seemed like the perfect puzzle game for me. It barely lasted two weeks in my DS. Like Tetris DS, it was built for mobile gaming’s central design philosophy of pick-up and play. The problem here was lack of sustainable challenge. The puzzles become more complicated; the time limit can grow shorter; the number of mistakes allowed by the game could decrease. The fact remained that there were no serious punishments for failure since I could blunder through brute trial and error my way to each puzzle’s ideal solution. To me, there was almost no risk in the game; without risk, there are no stakes by which I could plant emotional investment. In this case, the problem was not familiarity, but how casual the experience felt.

Fun puzzles, but lack of risk led to lack of emotional investment.

Risk should not have been a problem with Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. One of the game’s main selling points is character permadeath, which in reality we would probably just call “death.” I resolved to not reset the game if one of my characters died, which ran against my tendency to play along a game’s critical path design. Permadeath should have created heightened emotional investment in the characters I controlled; if nothing else, the idea that I would lose the character’s enhanced abilities and skills if they died after gaining a few levels would force me to play more carefully, and time and exposure would mean that I would invest emotionally on at least some of the characters. I didn’t expect to invest emotionally in all of the characters, but there were characters who were my army’s backbone, and I expected to care about at least the main characters’ stories.

Six chapters and about five hours into the game, I found that I didn’t care about any of it. I didn’t care if my characters lived to fight another battle. I didn’t care about progressing the game’s plot. I didn’t care about the stats that my characters accrued as they gained levels. Oddly enough, permadeath was at the heart of this inability to invest.

Combat and character growth in Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon are ruled by the game’s Random Number Generator; there are video tutorials on how to abuse the Random Number Generator in Fire Emblem games and tales of improbable successes and unbelievable failures because of the Random Number Generator. I think the Random Number Generator is meant to replicate uncertainty on the battlefield; after all, it is said that no battle plans ever survives first contact with the enemy. But the Random Number Generator also limits my control over the game, which lowers my ability to invest emotionally in the characters and my actions. After all, even if I played the game perfectly, I could still lose because the Random Number Generator will determine that the odds are not in my favor for that battle. In that case, I would feel like the outcome was not my fault. And if it’s not my fault, why wouldn’t I be justified to reload that battle and try again? But if I reloaded the battle, I’ve broken my pledge to play the game as it was and not to reset the game if any characters died. I was stuck, and there was no way out of this problem. So I stopped caring about the game, which meant that I stopped playing the game.

I hadn’t expected one of the game’s core features to play against my enthusiasm to play the game. But Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon still sits unloved in its box at home while I cruise eBay and Gamestops for other games to play on my DS. And I feel fine about this.