Beards optional: Embedded difficulty decisions in Fire Emblem


Letting the player draw her own difficulty curve

[Destructoid likes to invite game developers to write editorials for us from time to time. Their opinions don’t necessarily represent Destructoid as a whole, but they sure are interesting. Here is a fun one on how Fire Emblem handles difficulty scaling from Anna Anthropy, the developer of Frog Assassin and Dys4ia.]

I want to introduce you to my boys. This is Marcus, Old Marcus, and Seth. They’re from the FireEmblem games on the Game Boy Advance: from left to right, Fire Emblem (the first game in theseries to get an international release), The Binding Blade (the game Fire Emblem is a prequel to) and The Sacred Stones.

But who are they really? Just some dudes with weird anime hair? (Except for Seth. Seth is adreamboat.) They’re actually DIFFICULTY MODES.

I have been playing a ton of Fire Emblem lately. I tried to take up cross stitch but my partnerended up taking over the cross stitch supplies, so I played Fire Emblem instead. I like howcharacter-based it is: it’s like Game of Thrones but without the threat of rape constantly hangingover all of the female characters. It’s great!

Fire Emblem is one of those strategy games where you pit your dudes against their dudes untilone of you wins. Except that each of your dudes isn’t just a pile of numbers, they’re a pile ofnumbers with a face. If Neimi the Archer dies in battle, she’s gone forever, but if you can keep heralive and give her enough opportunities to train her skills against the enemy, she can level up andeventually become something rad like a Sniper or an Archer-on-a-horse. Bad­ass.

Marcus and Seth come with horse already attached. As Paladins, they’re drastically over-leveledcompared to your other forces when they join you, which is right at the beginning of the game. Inall three games, you’re equipped from the get-go with a character who can kill anything, cross themap quickly (because of the horse), and take an attack from nearly any of the low-level enemiesyou face that early in the game without flinching.

These guys are essentially Easy Mode. But they’re not a decision you make once and then livewith the consequences of all game. They’re a constant series of decisions: will I bring Seth outthis round, or will I give the slots to one of my lower-leveled characters? Will I put Seth out in frontto soak up blows or give other characters the chance to grab some experience?

Seth is a get­-out­-of­-jail-free card: if a fight turns out to be too difficult, the enemies too strong, youcan always pull out Seth and have him charge at something. You’re continually making choicesabout whether to use Seth (or Marcus, or Old Marcus) and how. You can use him for the first fewmissions and then phase him out in favor of new characters. You can keep him around as aguaranteed bodyguard for the whole game.

These decisions are different than the decision to pick “Easy Mode” or “Hard Mode” off of a menuat the beginning of a game. (Many of the Fire Emblem games have those too.) That’sbecause the Easy / Normal / Hard decision is lacking in context. You have no frame of referencefor that decision, no way to predict how “Easy” is different from “Hard” or what constitutes“Normal.” Unless you’ve played the game before. But even then, it’s not clear what makes Hardso different than the other options.

Marcus­ — or the gun that fires super powerful shots, but has a really long cool down before you canuse it again, so it demands a lot of accuracy to use ­– is a difficulty decision that you have contextfor, because you can constantly test the boundaries of his strength in actual play. You can watchhim demolish a dude and then go, “Maybe I should let my Archer level up a bit.” You can watchone of your characters lose half his hit points to a single enemy and decide, “Time to call inMarcus.”

These embedded difficulty decisions give the player the chance to continuously rescope her owndesired difficulty level, allow her to find and fine ­tune the boundaries of her own play experience.Fire Emblem is real good at this sort of thing: Sacred Stones will sometimes periodically give youlevel one characters you can arduously level up into powerful fighters or over-classed powerfulfighters that you can choose to put on the front lines, or not, or only when you’re desperate.

Because character’s deaths are permanent in Fire Emblem, these late-­game reinforcements alsogive the player the chance to patch up holes in their forces with appropriately powerfulcharacters.As designers, accessibility in our games is about more than just slapping some sexist “girlfriendmode” on at the end, but about giving players meaningful ways to tweak the parameters of theirplay experience. Give your player a gun with a weird anime beard that kills anything in one shot.­ Let her decide when to fire it.

[Anna Anthropy is a play designer, critic and historian. You can support her on Patreon for regular updates on what she’sworking on. She also maintains, a growing repository of digitized games media.]