Waifu Chess: Fire Emblem’s Appeal

This post was a rejected pitch, but here it is. You know the drill!

What draws a person to a specific Fire Emblem unit? Is it their power? Their potential? Their design? The truth of the matter is that all of that comes together. Still, some types of units and designs attract a specific crowd of people.

There are many reasons people play the games they do. Even within a game’s community there can exist several factions that gain something else from the content. Let’s look at Game Player Motivations, by Jon Radoff. In 2011, he wrote:

My goal is to provide everyone with a new model of player motivations that have the simplicity of Bartle’s original formulation, yet which can apply to nearly any game that exists–not simply MUDs or MMORPGs.

The Bartle Mr. Radoff refers to is Richard Bartle, who studied the reasons players played MMORPGs and what appealed to them. Radoff’s research refines the categories and divides them into two axes with four quadrants. The axes are:

  • FEW versus MANY players

This leaves us with four quadrants: FEW players with QUALITATIVE rewards, MANY players with QUALITATIVE rewards, FEW players with QUANTITATIVE rewards, and MANY players with QUANTITATIVE rewards. Here’s a diagram from Radoff’s blog:

Thus, we can sort Fire Emblem (and indeed, many fandoms) into these quadrants. What you’ll notice is that many of them overlap, and that’s common for many fandoms. Discords that optimize classes in an MMO hit Cooperation, Competition, and Achievement. Role-playing servers include elements of Immersion and Cooperation, with in-character Achievement or Competition.

Waifu Chess: Competition

Seth’s art from Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones

Seth of The Sacred Stones is a fan favorite. The crimson-haired knight has a steadfast, loyal, and insightful personality. He serves as the game’s Oifey or Jagen, a second-tier unit that joins early on that serves as a crutch.

The problem with that is that Seth is so potent. Unlike many Jagens, his bases and growths are both very good, making him viable long-term. Seth’s availability is near-perfect. The only things that can even check him are desert terrain and anti-cavalry weapons.

Seth is ready to use right out of the gate, and stays that way throughout the entirety of The Sacred Stones even as other units catch up to him. In efficient playthroughs (low turn counts, speedruns, etc.), Seth truly shines with his 8 base movement and great weapon ranks. There isn’t really a situation that you can’t improve by adding Seth to it.

Units like Seth are an optimizer’s dream. In a competitive sense, Seth is used for just about every speedrun or efficiency playthrough. He also appeals to casual players just by virtue of starting great and staying great.

Waifu Chess: Immersion

Anna, a recurring character in the series.

Fire Emblem comes with a built-in shipping mechanic with its Support system. Units that spend time together grow closer and gain bonuses to their performance when near each other. It rewards making stories, something that appears in developer interviews as a fully-intentional design choice.

It’s not a big problem if some of your characters die in Fire Emblem; I want each player to create their own unique story. Don’t get caught up trying to get a “perfect ending.” Have fun!

Shouzou Kaga, Apr 1994 interview w/ Famitsu

While Kaga left the studio after Thracia 776, the philosophy appears to remain. Shipping is as popular as ever, though the growth of the community has caused the writing to draw more scrutiny. Personally, I feel the writing was at its best with Tellius, though the low sales compared to the post-Awakening games might beg to differ.

It’s disingenuous to imply that Fire Emblem doesn’t have an attractive cast of characters. There are issues, of course: most prominent characters are fair-skinned, the women tend to be either voluptuous or very slender, and Intelligent Systems has a weird relationship with queer and queer-coded characters. Certain designs (Nowi, Bridal Sanaki) have rightfully drawn criticism for their depictions of young-looking characters. Despite the issues, it’s easy to become attached to the cast. People like using their favorites despite (or perhaps even because of) their performance.

The immersion is enhanced with custom units such as Kris (New Mystery), Robin (Awakening), Corrin (Fates), Byleth (Three Houses). They’re powerful and flexible units whose versatility causes them to dominate the metagame. Plus, it’s you! That’s pretty neat. Of course, the player was the tactician in Blazing Blade, but as an unplayable robed figure of ambiguous gender there was little customization.

Kris, as they appear in Fire Emblem Heroes.

Most of the games in the series are loosely connected, though many take place on new continents in different times with vastly different lore. Magvel (The Sacred Stones) features monstrous spiders and demonic creatures, while Tellius (Path of Radiance/Radiant Dawn) has the bestial, oppressed laguz. It’s ripe for crossovers within the series, with confirmed ties between Archanea, Valentia, Jugdral (early Archanea), Awakening‘s Ylisse and Valm (Archanea and Valentia in the future), Fates’ Hoshido and Nohr, and Tellius (Priam in Awakening as an alleged descendant of Ike).

There’s both a mechanical and exploratory benefit to Supports and immersion. In many cases it’s neither fast nor particularly efficient, but it adds depth to a cast that could otherwise fall flat. This is particularly notable in Radiant Dawn, which gutted custom supports for generic greetings the support partners would exchange. The Dawn Brigade, and other new characters in RD, felt very flat compared to the character development exhibited in a lot of PoR characters.

Waifu Chess: Cooperation

The Tellius saga put an emphasis on cooperation in-story and had a massive roster of units to discuss.

It’s hard to imagine a single-player game exhibiting cooperation, but Fire Emblem has a fandom that loves to talk at length about their favorite things. Guides exist to optimize characters, even the least impressive ones. If you want to use a unit, use it. This holds more true in some games than others, but as a general rule use whomever sparks joy. Use your waifu, your husbando, whatever.

While not everyone adheres to the philosophy, the prevailing consensus is that you can use whoever you want and make them viable in most cases. Any unit with enough investment can become usable, the major point of discussion being how much investment is ultimately worth it.

It might seem strange to outsiders that these people who fiercely debate about the game could cooperate, but it’s true. They commiserate on difficult maps and do low-tier “meme runs,” with community input. Fans there for the memes, fanart, and easily-digested content can find that, too. There are many different communities with different vibes, though this does lead to a bit of siloing. When a community is siloed, ideas and concepts can get entrenched in the various factions. “Don’t use Marcus, he steals EXP” was a popular misconception for years until optimizers pointed out the benefits to using him.

The friendly debates have been a part of Fire Emblem discourse for decades, with tier lists and advice dominating discussions on just about any Fire Emblem related board. The discussions and criterion, much like the debaters themselves, have matured over time. Unit analyses are generally in a good spot right now.

Waifu Chess: Achievement

This Hector turned out low on the Str, but is surprisingly high the Skill and Res.

Fire Emblem exemplifies the Achievement quadrant very well. They aren’t the easiest games to get into, and the higher difficulties can tax the brain. Assuming, like most players, the player attempts to avoid unit death at all costs, it becomes a constant war of attrition. The enemy, after all, rarely needs to worry about weapon durability or other supplies. This leads to rewarding efficiency, and holding an ‘LTC’ or Low Turn Count record is a mark of prestige.

There are other things to achieve, too. Games which allow grinding reward players for reaching the level caps with overpowered units. Weak units with great potential can become gamebreakers with investment, rewarding the time and effort spent training them. Use Warp staves to skip significant portions of difficult maps is immensely satisfying. And there’s something pleasing to the eye when looking at the signature glow of capped stats. With random level-up bonuses, it’s very gratifying to hear the pops of multiple stats increasing.

The appeal of Fire Emblem is how you can set goals for yourself besides the objectives. The big rosters encourage trying new things and experimenting, especially as Skills have become more and more ubiquitous parts of the core gameplay.

This wasn’t my most organized pitch, but I think there’s a lot of interesting psychology behind the sort of army that a player builds. Like many personality quizzes and tests, it’s impossible to put human motivations into easy categories. I’m no psychologist, either. Sometimes the motivation really is “because I like playing it.”

Images fall under Fair Use as Commentary.

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