No Extra Lives

Root-canal surgery is about the worst thing in the world. However, when it comes to recovering from such dental fun, there’s nothing quite like absorbing yourself in a meaty RPG for hours on end (granted, I think my dentist would have me committed if I told him that). So it’s with this that I recently returned to my GameCube library for a game I missed the first time around, the wonderful Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance.

Apart from being one of the tactical RPG granddaddies – with a level of story-telling quality matched perhaps by only the original Final Fantasy Tactics – the Fire Emblem series is unique in that its playable characters can die. And I don’t just mean that a unit will be unavailable for the rest of a battle; unless they’re truly essential to main story, they are gone for good – removed from all further NPC dialogue and combat skirmishes, denying the player multiple story threads, bonus items and, of course, a valuable fighter. Dead. The only way to revive them is to load a save-file from the beginning of a fight.

When a companion dies, you're treated to them uttering their last words to remaining allies.

At first, this particular mechanic can be a little hard to swallow for some players. Indeed, it put many off of the series when Fire Emblem 7 first arrived in the west in 2003, localised simply as “Fire Emblem”. But for those who stuck with it, they discovered this brutal punishment had an odd effect: you start to really care for your men and women. These little sprites and polygons not only have strengths and weaknesses, but personalities and histories. Soon, you end up worrying whether you can continue the battle with the losses you’ve incurred.

Warning: Minor Mass Effect 2 spoilers ahead. You pretty much get told this stuff on the back of the box, but I’m not taking any chances.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about how he handled the suicidal finale of Mass Effect 2. Of course, with an almost OCD-level of obsessive preparation, I took every precaution to ensure my crew would survive, earning the “No man left behind” achievement in the progress. My friend did not; not only did he lose Yeoman Kelly, but he lost singing salarian scientist Mordin. Despite this, he’s exporting that save to Mass Effect 3.

They'll be no encore for this star…

When I questioned this course of action – this madness – my friend told me that he’d be doing a dis-service to the game to do otherwise. That was his outcome of the story. I can’t help but respect that. I have to wonder… as we all clamour for games which give us greater control and choice over the game world itself, perhaps we’ve forgotten the narrative power of life and death – especially if that responsibility lays in our hands. While it’s true death presents many story challenges if you want to put it in a game outside of an ending, the pay-off could be worth it.

Approaching the final chapter of Path of Radiance, I haven’t lost a single unit, regardless of the number of times I’ve been forced to start each battle afresh to maintain that. But maybe I should have taken the losses and moved on. Maybe I missed the point.






One response to “No Extra Lives”

  1. Mark P avatar

    We can put .gifs in our blogs?! This changes EVERYTHING.

    Anyway, I was quite taken aback with the perma-deaths in Heavy Rain. Towards the end of the game, my favourite character bit the dust and I was ridiculously pissed off at myself for ages for letting that happen. I’m not even sure why he died. I couldn’t even relaod the save either because of Heavy Rain’s save system – it forces you to deal with the consequences of your actions, which was cool.

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