Writers mystify their craft like no one else, but writing is a technology as much as an art, the same way that there’s no limit on what you can draw but it helps to know how to make a straight line, or how you can program anything you dream as long as you know the code. As someone who has taken enough creative writing classes to become unbearably cynical about the whole affair, I am in a good place I believe to talk about how games use writing in a way that’s not cool or magical or celestial, just a clumsy thing cobbled together by humans more or less competently. There’s a lot you can’t teach about writing and can only talk about in a lofty or theoretical sort of way, but there’s also a lot you can talk about in technical terms for other people to unpack and copy. In the case of prose-based game narratives, much of the craft in them goes into presentation, pacing, and the ability of the player to arrange this narrative(and the restrictions placed on players with said arrangement). Fire Emblem: Awakening ends up borrowing quite a bit from the techniques of pulp potboiler fantasy to create a structure for hanging a character driven and player arranged story of friends, lovers, parents, and children.
The skeleton of Fire Emblem’s story is rooted in pulp fantasy, and its mechanics are well documented, such as in this brief summary of pulp writer Michael Moorcock’s writing process, which outlines the process he used to write swords and sorcery fantasy in 3-10 days in the 1960s. Honestly, it’s probably more important that you read that blog post than this essay. Reason one is it leaves no doubt that as true to the heart the most flowery and existential descriptions of the writing process you have read are, it is just as true that it has rules and conventions and formulas you can figure out and master, and here they are all laid out for you. Reason two is this is a serious discussion of how the craft of pulp and genre fantasy works, genres which respectable creative writing programs treat with such contempt that its techniques themselves are regarded as craft failures. In literary fiction they would be, but the craft and art of things that don’t fall into the contemporary definition of literary fiction are still mediums with craft and art to them. The third reason to read that article is, for better or worse, the vast body of video games are written like genre fantasy and borrow a lot of their narrative techniques, and it would be excellent if they could learn to not suck at them. So understanding how a potboiler works and what makes a good one is a pretty good thing to do if you want to write a game that does more or less the same thing.
They don’t teach you this in CRWR 400 because you’re supposed to be better than that, and to be fair almost all the critiques you learn of genre fiction are 50% true. Follow Moorcock’s advice to the letter without anything of your own and it’ll be kinda hard to not write a ‘page-turner,’ which I like a lot for being the most backhanded compliment it is possible to give a book, as bad as “addictive” for games, like there’s a more minimal compliment to something than that you’ll want to continue experiencing it. But if you’re going to write to entertain anyways, you might as well be really good at it, and learning how that structure works can serve you. Nothing in Michael Moorcock’s advice help you to write something that feels like it’s a true thing about a human being, but it will give you a framework to hang something true on, and that’s the best you can expect from writing advice.
The final reason for reading that article is Fire Emblem: Awakening hangs on a framework that is exactly those pulp stories. Fire Emblem isn’t any more or less designed than any other narrative but it is designed with respect to the technology of a video game. It has all the important story beats—there’s a mysterious rival, there’s a Maltese Falchion, there’s an ancient evil, and reasons to get involved keep piling up. Everyone’s trying to prevent the war, but something keeps pulling them in at the last minute. You can even see how narratively important it is to have the Avatar character, how they are able to make the commentary and observations and ask the questions that Chrom and the others can’t. Fire Emblem’s plot is bare bones, so much so that the sparseness of it it is noticeable. A villain appears, is defeated, leaves a clue to what they’ve got to do next, etc. It provides enough hook for the player to be genuinely interested in what’s going to happen in the next mission. There’s building drama and high stakes for the characters involved, but it’s skeletal, and only a few characters are actually at any point present in it.
That is on purpose, and it’s also barely noticeable in practice, because the characters are so very present in their support conversations. What Fire Emblem gets to do, as it is a game, is write a fairly bare bones, page turner plot as vehicle for an enormous cast of individual characters, the interactions between which comprise far more of the game’s word count than any of the events that they actually star in. This is what the game is “really” interested in, what the game is about, and the specific choices of the plot revolve entirely around supporting that emphasis. Fire Emblem: Awakening is actually a super neat case study—like if someone completely dissected the character development from the plot and rearranged it in four dimensions.
It’s not necessarily a problem in an sense that Fire Emblem: Awakening offers only a selection of predetermined interactions between various characters than (for example) giving the player agency to determine what happens in those interactions. Each character relationship plays out as a short character-driven vignette, and it will be the same every time. I don’t mind this sort of thing—in fact, as a writer, I’m kinda okay with relinquishing narrative agency because that is most of the work that I do and I don’t mind paying for someone else to do it for me every once and a while. When you write characters, it’s a matter of putting two people in the same room and seeing what happens. Not that there are no surprises, not that there aren’t different ways it can play out, but when two people walk into a room they don’t define themselves as people through their actions there—their actions are a result of the people they were before they even walked into that room. They may grow and change and the circumstances they’re thrust into may change the way they relate to each other, but it’s a discernible outcome of the way these two people relate because of who they are.
For this reason, the personalities of the cast of Fire Emblem are kept simple. Stone butch Sully, optimistic murderer Henry, in-character anime convention attendee Owain, preciously precocious Morgan, the characters usually have a single strong character trait. This is the sort of thing that if left like that would make characters flat and uninteresting, but it also gives a very clear establishment of the character when they walk into a room with another character, which makes them easy to write, and that’s important with the dozen or so supports each character has. It doesn’t matter if the archetypes for the characters are extreme when they have that many conversations to lend nuance and subtlety to the characters. For the player, the archetypes help identify how interested they are likely to be in letting the characters hang out with each other. It’s important to give each character enough of an introduction to let the player decide their curiosity.
Henry, a pretty little cheerful blood crazed dark mage is the sort of person who acts so inappropriately I paired him with almost everyone just to watch them try to deal it. I paired him up with people because I knew it would be hilarious, even if I didn’t know exactly what would happen—and it’s that mixture of familiarity and surprise that makes watching the characters so much fun. It’s also something you can drop as soon as a support gets awkward or annoying or uncomfortable. You don’t have to see the relationship continue if you don’t want to. They’re not hard to raise, but they raise slowly enough there’s a steady drip of them. If there’s a misstep here, it’s that the compulsion to collect all the conversations and relationships may overwhelm one’s actual interest. A neat engineering problem I’d be interested in solving is a way that games can maybe reign in that impulse so players don’t get burned out or overwhelmed.
Special attention should be payed to how the Avatar functions in all this. They are able to get some of the closest looks at the cast, not only because they have the ability to support everyone, but because they are the one allowed to not have such a strong personality as to get carried away when talking with others. The avatar is a quiet, introspective geek, a listener, and the person that everyone opens up to. This allows the player to get insight into every member of the cast, and it also sets up the ending—that the player, is, in fact, a vessel for an ultimate evil, and will need to resist this for the sake of their friends. You wouldn’t care about this at all if you hadn’t spent the entire game creating friendships with all the people in your army. Saving the world is an abstraction, but the thought of killing your friends, especially Chrom, who you can’t help being at least BFFs with (if not his wife). The framework counts on the player spending enough time with supports to become attached to something they really care about.
Your gift is to put the story in whatever order you like, and to ignore the stories you don’t care for. That is the extent of player involvement. That’s ‘it.’ Arranging and choosing the narrative is still quite a bit of power and makes quite a bit of difference, and you know, if that’s a disappointment it’s only a disappointment when the standard by which narrative design is measured is by the player’s degree of control over it, not the kind or control or the quality of what they are controlling. There’s a way in which solving the problems of narrative design, its limitations and nuances, gets reduced in critical discussions to an problem of invention. That we need to create something new, a new form of technology, a new program, a new system, in order to truly unlock the possibilities of narrative design, in much the same way that graphic, physics, or procedural generation are treated.
It’s not that the idea of technical advances in narrative design wouldn’t be interesting to me. It’s just that like graphics and physics and all of that ever-advancing junk that piles on and on as time and money goes on, you don’t actually need any of it to make a game in the first place. It is possible to accomplish a great deal with simple tools, in part because the only part of it that matters if in the end unless all of this work ends up meaning something to another person. Rather than wait for some kind of technological ‘solution,’ why not continue to work on the craft and skill and technique of rearranging narrative fragments? This technology that powers Fire Emblem is the same as a visual novel and twine games and choose your own adventure books, and nothing will make it obsolete; more than anything, it’s proven only to grow the longer people spend time with it, independent designers or corporate interests aside.
The player can’t control what kinds of relationships arise between the characters, only trigger which ones arise. That is not a bad thing, I think. There’s no reason that making them more customizable by the player would make them more interesting, and if anything, it might undercut those characters. Fictional characters don’t have agency because they are fictional constructs, but they should be written as if they have agency. I don’t actually want any sort of control over how a relationship proceeds, in some ways because it’s contrary to how I write fiction in the first place, in which relationships between characters are less invented and more extrapolated. The game is doing the work of making those relationships all exist and be well written. Control over this would be control for its own sake; it doesn’t really serve the primary function of the game which is to make the relationships happen that the player wants to see happen.
It’s a story of omission. There’s a big script that exists with every possibility, and the player’s power is getting to ignore the ones she doesn’t want, and focusing on the ones she does. Which is really all there is in games of narrative arrangement.