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Katsucon Musings on the Phenomenon of Fire Emblem Awakening

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of travelling to Washington D.C., through a window between the snowstorms that paralyzed the East Coast of the U.S., for Katsucon 2014, a convention centered around anime, manga, games, and general nerdery.

All forms of nerd are welcome. Much like the media-grabbing San Diego Comicon, these conventions are host to a multitude of cosplayers dressed up as their favorite characters from various anime (I myself was Gilgamesh from Fate/Zero), movies (Elsa from Frozen was very popular this year), and of course games. One of the biggest and highest quality representations was Fire Emblem Awakening, the turn-based strategy RPG from Intelligent Systems.

Meeting new friends can be very easy, and I found myself caught up in the festivities with other fans of the Fate/Zero anime Saturday evening. As I entered their room for what promised to be an excellent party, I noticed they had plundered the “Artists’ Alley” of some fan art from Fire Emblem Awakening, a personal favorite of mine.


Some of the many characters in Fire Emblem Awakening.

Some of the many characters in Fire Emblem Awakening.

We immediately began discussing the game, and at one point one of my new friends said something fascinating:

“I mean, eventually Nintendo will just take out everything else and give the players exactly what they want.”

“The shipping!” We shouted together with a grin. And then we poured the drinks.

Shipping, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, means supporting the pairing of two characters. For example, I might ship Commander Shepard with Liara T’Soni. For those unfamiliar with Fire Emblem Awakening, this is, in fact, a huge part of the game.

Pairing units in combat gives considerable bonuses, sometimes even extra attacks.

Pairing units in combat gives considerable bonuses, sometimes even extra attacks.

Fire Emblem has long since included a gameplay feature where characters, by spending time adjacent to one another on the battlefield, can increase their “support” level and become closer. Between male and female pairings this might result in marriage, and for anyone else they become inseparable friends. Previously, there was a limit of five times this could happen for one character; in Fire Emblem Awakening, that limit is completely removed.

This means that there are literally hundreds of different conversations characters can have with one another. Add that the main character’s gender is decided by the player and that certain relationships result in the pair’s children joining the army, and the number skyrockets.

It is this facet of the game that so many found engrossing – surprising for some, no doubt. Here was a devilishly difficult turn-based strategy game (with adjustable difficulty from normal to insane) that had a system by which characters could fight together, granting huge bonuses to combat and eventually new characters to add to the army. The gameplay incentive was obvious, but the fun found in pairing different characters together was a game in itself.

Stahl and Tharja share an intimate moment.

Stahl and Tharja share an intimate moment.

It touches so closely to the dating-sim/visual novel genre that its overwhelming popularity and critical acclaim was very pleasing. Meanwhile Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars is coming out soon to a somewhat skeptical mainstream audience (and delighted niche fans), which features a very similar system of pairing the protagonist with the heroines of the game.

What makes the difference? Fire Emblem Awakening easily has over 40 playable characters, and while some have more interaction options than others, each has at least one group of conversations to see. This sheer number of fully realized characters makes exploring as many combinations as possible both enjoyable and daunting.

These characters could be either friends or sisters depending on the choices made.

These characters could be either friends or sisters depending on the choices made.

Looking at each combination also reveals more and more about each character, information completely hidden from the player if the relationship between a couple characters isn’t revealed. And while not every character can marry every eligible partner (homosexual relationships are also off the table… in the game, at least), seeing them form bonds with their comrades-in-arms is interesting, hilarious, and emotional.

While it’s improbable that Nintendo will ever release a game like Fire Emblem Awakening with the combat stripped out, it is an amusing thought to think of an RPG coming full circle back to dating sim. Ultimately, the relationships between dynamic, strong characters are what have made the games so enjoyable over the years. Not too far-fetched a thought, is it?

Drama abounds between Frederick and Cordelia.

Drama abounds between Frederick and Cordelia.

Games like Fire Emblem Awakening have an incredible power for emergent narrative in a strict storyline. Every player will have their favorite lady to match Chrom, Exalt of Ylisse, with, and every player has their favorite couples and pairings for any of the other 39 characters just as well. Some players will share similar penchants, others will differ completely.

The power of Fire Emblem Awakening is that it gives each player the power to enjoy their own personal twist on the game. Everyone gets to mold the Shepherds how they wish, both on the field of battle and off it. Like cosplay, everyone gets to show their love for their favorite characters in their own unique way. Gamers love their favorite characters, and while they sometimes fight about it at the end of the day:

It’s all about the love.

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