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Thematic Unity

Every story has a theme. Why not game mechanics too?

Fire Emblem: Awakening has become one of my favorite games, beating out Fire Emblem (GBA) as my favorite game in the series as well. For a while, I couldn't quite figure out why this happened. Both games have, in my opinion, well thought out characters, a very well done turn based combat system, breakable weapons, permadeath, unit classes, etc. Really, when I thought about it, my enjoyment of Fire Emblem games is mostly dependent on the story and characters and I liked both about the same amount. But there is one critical difference that makes Awakening markedly better than its predecessors.

Awakening's critical difference lies within the support system. Each Fire Emblem game has a form of this system, where by placing units adjacent to each other on the battlefield, they can improve their relationships and gain stat bonuses in combat. Usuallly these relatonships are built through a limited number of unique conversations between two characters on the field or in between stages. This system was reworked in Awakening to include the idea of "pair battles," where two units, instead of abstractly supporting the other in combat, will actually have the opportunity to team up on an enemy. Pair battles happen in two ways, through the normal "stand next to this guy and support" style in previous Fire Emblem games, and actually doubleing up units to make a unit more powerful than any single unit. Additionally, the limit on the number of conversations allowed is lifted, allowing the player to get the majority of conversations on a single playthrough. The stages in the game are difficult enough so that it's almost impossible to progress through the game without using this system (at least on Hard+ difficulties). 

So why does this matter? It matters because Awakening's story has some pretty obvious thematic elements centered around the importance of relationships and friendship. If it were any other game, it'd end up being rather cliche. I won't talk too much about the ending for those who have yet to play, but let's just put the ending down as a very predictable "friendship is magic" moment. Despite that, the ending was very powerful, mainly because you see all of the characters that you've seen develop through your hard work and careful planning come together for a grand finale. None of which would have mattered at all if you didn't take the time to learn about them. The support system exists to guide the player towards this ending. This is your team, the relationships you chose to pursue, the team you decided to build, it's all a result of your (the player's) actions, and though it's rather predictable, it's a very rewarding moment. It helps that you also get an in-game story-critical avatar to play through in the game. (Honestly I thought that addition was going to be a throwaway thing when I first heard about it).

This is what I've come to call Thematic Unity. This happens when the mechanics of the game join up with the story in such a way as to support the themes present in the narrative. There are very few games that I've seen do this as well as Fire Emblem: Awakenin, and I think the team was aware of this, as I remember them stating that they wanted to build a game all about "the ties that bind" or something like that (can't rememember where I saw that). But to give another example of this Thematic Unity let's consider my favorite game ever (ever being defined as March 18, 2013), The World Ends With You.

SquareEnix's The World Ends With You (henceforth referred to as TWEWY) for the DS was a great treat and an unexpected surprise. A new IP on a hand-held developed by some of SE's best staff. TWEWY has one of the craziest battle systems I've ever seen (well, next to Knights in the Nightmare, but that's a different post). The player has to deal with two combat fields at once; the bottom screen controlled with the touch screen, and the top screen controlled with the d-pad (or ABXY buttons for lefties). Each screen has one character on it, the main character, Neku, is on the bottom and his current partner in the story on the top. Both characters have a shared HP meter, so ignoring one screen entirely is not an option.

TWEWY's narrative, somewhat like Awakening's come to think of it, also deals thematically with relationships, individuality, and trust. One consistent thematic line in the story is summed up by the phrase "trust your partner," told to Neku many times throughout the game. This theme has a direct analog in the actual mechanics of the game with the dual screen battle system. You, the player, must constantly context-switch between the two different screens. It's impossible for most people to actually process both screens at once, so in a sense, you have to "trust" that what you're doing on one screen won't totally screw you over in the battle. "Trust your partner." It's right in the mehanics. Cooperation's the name of the game, whether you like it or not. Though I guess if you don't like it you could work with the AI, but that still means you gotta trust that AI to do its job well.

That decision to use a dual screen system in TWEWY directly supports the thematic elements of the story. And in that game, it's only one of many decisions that support the themes. There's a trend system where using "unpopular" skills in a particular region will incurr penalties to that skill. Do you go with what's popular in the region? Do you ignore the trend and make something popular yourself? Conform or rebel? Yet another rather simple mechanic that also has an analog in the story. 

So yeah. Thematic Unity. Not too often seen I think (more examples anyone?). But it makes for some great games. Seems to be mostly narrative-driven, but then again, I would argue that the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer mode has some great Thematic Unity with the single player campaign. It gives a direct analog to the war being fought in the single player mode. You too can defend the front lines with the rest of the galaxy! It's a small link, but I think it strengthened the multiplayer and gave it more purpose and felt less-tacked-on as a result.

Maybe this already has a name besides Thematic Unity, but I haven't really seen this sort of discussion about story and gameplay. Maybe I've been looking in the wrong places?And maybe it works only for very specific games. I dunno.

But you know, when you see stage plays (ok well good plays at least), each element of the design is working to enhance the narrative and themes present in the show. The light is there for a reason. The sound happens at this time for a reason. The set is built like this for a reason. You don't get the same experience from just reading the script. Someone's gotta watch it. Kind of like games. You could read the script for TWEWY, or Fire Emblem: Awakening, but you'd be missing out on the elements that really bring their themes into the spotlight.

Random post script thought: I wonder if this is even a useful experiment, but if you were to make a game out of Romeo and Juliet or some other well-known story, kept story and dialog the same, and only changed the mechanics of the game, would different themes be emphasized? Dating sim vs. strategy game? Classic RPG vs. Action RPG?

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