For those new to the series, plural protagonism is based on this article I wrote for PopMatters. Plural protagonism occurs in a game when there is no individual main protagonist leading a group: the group itself becomes the hero. Each individual maintains their identity while contributing to the narrative in equal measure. Moreover, they are all controlled equally by the player and coordinate as a collective consciousness to overcome the challenges facing them. This narrative technique appears most prominently in JRPGs and this series investigates different JRPGs that feature plural protagonism in interesting ways.
For a while now I’ve wanted to specify and ground what I mean when I talk about “plural protagonism.” The main reason that I haven’t added much writing to this series (aside from it being a total hobby project) is because I need to really take the time to figure out what this subject really is, and whether or not it even deserves much attention in the first place. Fire Emblem: Awakening demonstrates why I ought to categorize and qualify what I mean by with this term I’m wrestling with. The first time I wrote about plural protagonism, I thought of it as a focalizing technique that incorporates multiple agents into a single narrator. In exploration, conversation and menu-driven play, the player never embodies a single character, rather they embody a party of discreet, individualized characters. The player occupies the role not just of the character on the box art, they occupy the role of the whole party. These narrating agents aren’t subsumed by the group−they maintain their independent character traits and their agency as actors−but they join in perspective to act in the story/systems. I found its use interesting in JRPGs because narratively framing the cast’s actions through the shared perspective of a single gaze/control scheme reinforces the genre’s common theme of discreet, strongly personalized individuals briefly coming together for a worthy cause. Most often that cause is saving the world, because bombast and melodrama is another of the genre’s mainstays, but all the surface silliness belies what I think is an elegant communicative technique.
FE:A complicates things, though, because, like Persona 3, FE:A follows a single character in their search for a place in a group, not a group coming together. (Filipowich, Mark. “Plural Protagonism Part 5: Persona 3.” bigtallwords. Jun 20 2013.). Often that probably isn’t an important difference, but in FE:A it’s worth making the distinction. Where Chrono Trigger or Tales of Symphonia, for example, introduce individuals with strong traits and gradually integrate them into the party’s goals, FE:A begins with these characters already apart of something bigger than themselves. As has been noted both by those who liked and disliked the game, members of the large cast have no personalities unless they are taken in the context of every other member. The player-character, who I will refer to with the default name Robin and with feminine pronouns, begins in isolation and folds into a community through plot and play. Similarly, FE:A contrasts Robin’s and her army’s development against several other figures in the game who act exclusively on their own behalf.
Of the 49 possible playable characters, only Robin, Chrom and Lucina have more than a single characteristic (and even that’s debatable) and only the player-character experiences a major personality change in the game. Each character displays a single strong trait who, when mixed with every other strong personality, becomes complicated in aggregate. A lot of pulp fiction employs this trick because it allows for the sense of scope provided by a large cast while easily encoding each member with a memorable place in the world. With this kind of world-building the mercenary isn’t just a mercenary, he’s a hyper-mercenary: the scientist is a hyper-scientist and the priest is a hyper-priest (Bee, Aevee. “Arrangement of Omission.” Zeal. May 31 2014.). Characters like those in FE:A depend on understood, assumed schematics for what a figure is supposed to be and push those conditions to as far an extreme as tolerable. This includes character and plot tropes but it also extends beyond them. The reader is left with the cognitive default of all the required and necessary conditions for being a “mercenary” or “scientist” or “priest” without any augmentations to complicate it: a vanilla standard. A character who doubts himself is hard to remember in a cast of hundreds unless doubting himself is all that he does.
It is easier to understand caricatures than characters in a large cast. The characters in Game of Thrones, to use another clear example of this kind of writing, don’t need to be very complex because imagining what it would be like to see Burnt Face Man and Little Sword Girl hang out with their forceful personalities in tact is compelling by itself. How can we account for such a mean-spirited thug accompanying an energetic, assertive child? What circumstances need to arise to align their interests? Which of their differences are irreconcilable? Who in that relationship holds power? How can that power dynamic invert or complicate? What sacrifices must be made to sustain their cooperation? One never really changes the other, but the sparks shed from their ramming together make for a good light show. There are maybe one or two characters who, at their core, change, but each character is an easily identifiable trope bouncing through a world made up of the same. It’s easy but ultimately unfair to call this bad writing because these characters function as tour guides through a world and through ideologies. They die and get replaced, but they don’t change. FE:A works very similarly, and−as described in Bee’s article cited above−the absence of depth opens characters up to the player’s interpretations.
For instance, if the player chooses to play matchmaker to Robin and Chrom, they’ll be treated to a three-part exchange in which each accidentally catches a glance at one another naked before declaring their love for one another and eloping on the spot. I’ve been led to believe that this is not how humans normally form life-bonds. However, since so much of FE:A exists in the wide spaces between the lines, I remained convinced of the union in spite of the admittedly awkward “relationship level-up” dialogues. In scripted plot scenes, Robin and Chrom interact amicably: they are friends. They are also important leaders of the kingdom, respectively the top general and the monarch. Thus, since they get along, have responsibility for a country, and share a common vision of the world, I interpreted their marriage as a political manoeuvre. The conversation where Robin and Chrom acknowledge their circumstances and openly decide to marry for the good of the state exists only in my brain, but the game establishes a context where such brain-exclusive conversations are plausible. Scripted dialogue and plot developments create context, and events are justified not just by the plot threads, but by the player-filled space between them.
Again, these characters are just one thing to an extreme degree, which makes for shallow characters in isolation but when placed along a long list of like characters, these single traits place stress against one another in dynamic ways. How do we account for events like Robin and Chrom’s marriage if, by itself, the text doesn’t give us enough information to do that? We must look elsewhere in the text, at the warm but unerotic and unromantic relationship between Robin and Chrom, at information about the world the game gives us, at our understanding of monarchies in history, at storytelling convention of the fantasy genre. We must keep reading outside of Robin and Chrom’s three relationship dialogues until we can account for the event. They married to have children who would further their political aspirations, much like the player, who marries characters with the hope that the children they have will be strong fighters capable of securing the state’s interests. In response, the children, both as plot elements and as mechanics, press harder against the emergent narrative, recontexualizing and problematizing it. For me, the relationships Robin and Chrom had with their children, Lucina and Morgan, and the relationship the siblings had with one another, felt authentic as interactions between members of a loving family. Robin and Chrom might have married to control their country but, to me, they really loved their children.
Like Chrom and Robin, the children only have a molecule of personality beyond their dominant characteristic, but the extra molecule works hard to flesh them out. The interactions between Robin’s cool competence, Chrom’s tranquility, Morgan’s doltish optimism, Lucina’s urgency create the feeling of a family looking out for one another. Lucina’s sense of duty twists in unique ways in the rare moments of femininity she shares with her mother, her longing for acceptance with her father, her severity and protectiveness with her brother. The game gave me just enough space between dialogues to justify these details. Maybe that smacks a little of authoring fan-fiction parallel to the actual game, but I’m fine with that because it deepened the experience for me: it contextualized the concrete lines of dialogue in a way that, on its own, it couldn’t. There’s a scene near the game’s conclusion where Lucina confronts Robin about a prophecy predicting that Robin will murder Chrom, which is hinted at since the game’s onset. Even though the circumstances of this scene are not canon−that is, Chrom and Robin’s marriage to benefit the state and the resultant family holding a loving loyalty to one another−it stands out because it takes place between a mother and daughter (which alone is almost unheard of in fantasy) who love one another in spite of their family originating in a contract. This scene pits the honest love between mother and daughter against the social good, and it was incredibly tense not because the written or filmic techniques were astounding, although both were fine, but because the narrative emerging between lines and systems intensified the on-the-screen text. Fire Emblem: Awakening nurtures this co-authored context and guides it in tandem with the plot (Filipowich, Mark. “Something from Nothing: Authored Emergence in Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive.” The Ontological Geek. Mar 25 2014.).
I realize that drawing on liquid evidence from my feelings toward the game is difficult to back up, but I find that’s one of the ways that FE:A feels so personal. Blocks of text establish types and tropes and these concrete types and tropes grind against one another, occasionally in conflict but rarely to privilege one over the other. Meanwhile, the white space in between allows the play of representations to complicate an understanding of these characters. Raw events (Chrom is crowned king) and static context (the kingdom is in peril) open up the space for narratives to emerge (Chrom marries to stabilize the kingdom). It’s just an illusion of depth but it’s an effective illusion, one that I found satisfaction in.
This relates to plural protagonism because this process of discovery demands interacting with the other members of the cast. As I mentioned in an earlier article, “Each character actually has a rich history but only fragments are revealed as throwaway comments in each of their subplots with other characters. As each pair bonds over whatever micro-drama brings them closer together, they casually mention their history, aspirations, fears and hobbies” (“Life at the Grindstone: The small significance of grinding.” bigtallwords. Aug 8 2014.). Even though the cast puts everything on the surface, exploring that surface demands pairing them up and exploring the different ways that they relate to one another. Opening the narrative to the kind of emergence I saw with Robin and her family is only possible in pairing characters together. Dialogues unlock when characters are either positioned adjacent to one another or when they occupy the same square and combine their strengths. This is fairly straightforward, two paired together are stronger than a lone character. However, a part of playing the game efficiently is positioning characters on the board in such a way as to maximize the growth of relationships per turn. A character flanked by two allies will earn relationship points with both of them when they act. A character in a pairing and also adjacent to two other party members will develop with all of them when they act. The system inside the turn-based SRPG is a sort of positional puzzle game where the player must set characters up not only to meet the demands of battle, but also to efficiently develop as many friendships as possible. Proper play not only keeps each individual safe, but strengthens each character and maximizes their growth as a part of the group.
This, naturally, resonates with FE:A‘s interest in community. Robin is the isolated figure in the group: she begins with amnesia (shocking), isolated not only others but from herself, and folds into Chrom’s band of adventurers coincidentally. However, the interface and control scheme are abstracted as Robin’s interpretation of the battlefield. All the information provided by the board and the UI is established as Robin’s abstract perspective of her environment. In Chrono Trigger and Tales of Symphonia, battles and exploration are likewise abstracted through menus and numbers, but they are abstracted through the party’s combined perspective. The player does not control Crono or Lloyd, they act through a coordinated consciousness that represents each party member’s scope of possible actions: the point being that their actions are shared. No one of them sacrifices themselves, but no one of them acts alone. In FE:A, though, the game tells us that the interface is exclusively Robin’s abstraction of battle. Robin alone can “see” the battle for what it is and dictate the team’s actions. Therefore, everyone else’s actions can only be interpreted as their following her command. This is significant because it separates Robin from the rest of the party which, as other parts of the game demonstrate, is self-destructive.
The first central antagonist, Gangrel, is the ruler of a neighbouring country, whose war against the player is premised on recent conflicts between the two nations. Gangrel is quickly framed as a moustache-twirling, cackling villain, his stock characteristics being greed and warmongering. Walhart, the second act’s main villain, is slightly more complex in that his use of force and aggressive individualism is, in his mind, the most effective means to achieving peace. Finally, Aversa, who recurs throughout the game in a villainous role but comes more into focus in the third and final act, endorses a hierarchical world view, where everyone must accept their place in a chain of command before their own personhood. Naturally, as characters with hard, individualistic characteristics, placing them in villainous roles makes it clear what the game thinks of these characteristics. They’re a warning for what Robin could be were she left alone.
In fact, an alternate timeline version of Robin makes an eventual appearance. This version of her adopts many of the moustache-twirling villainy of Gangrel and the contrast makes a straightforward point: morality develops with others in mind. However, FE:A does not reduce its binary to absolutes. Those other villains I mentioned can all later be recruited as members of the party. Gangrel sneaks away and suffers abuse as a foot soldier under a commander who treats him much the way he treated his own subordinates; Walhart accepts that peace cannot be forced; Aversa finds a version of herself that exists outside of a rigid hierarchy. The optimism of FE:A is that the bad guys can learn and find redemption if they’re folded into the group.
The option to play the game with an iron man setting (that is, with a single save state that leaves all fallen party members fallen for good) holds FE:A‘s core ideas hostage because the emergent possibilities I illustrated with Robin and Chrom’s marriage can only happen in the space between dialogues. Characters complicate only in relation to one another. Where the iron man modes in other games like XCOM or Expeditions Conquistador emphasize the player’s individual failing (Reid, Christos. “I Am Ironman.” Gamers With Jobs. Nov 13 2012.) or the fickleness of chance (Filipowich, Mark. “The Universe Rolls 20’s.” bigtallwords. Jun 12 2013.), in FE:A, the entire cast diminishes with each casualty, not just because the population shrivels, but because the scope of each individual’s personality narrows. When a character is lost it isn’t a war asset being destroyed and it isn’t a stroke of bad luck, the whole narrative pool becomes shallower.
Personalities of each individual flourish only when pressed against other people and the space to imagine their interactions between conversations. Alone, each member is just an anime face tied to a piece on a board. They’re a faceless, dehumanized grunt in a war with no details. Other people give individuals depth, they give hope to Robin−the happy ending depends on Robin developing enough friendships to survive the final blow against the big bad−and they let evildoers find forgiveness. Let enough members die and characters fail to become anything more than stock types planted from culturally accessible templates, if not downright caricatures.
Much of Fire Emblem: Awakening comes not from what it offers, but from what it withholds or what could be withheld. As Aevee Bee’s article illustrates so well: what is omitted speaks as much as what is presented. The strong character traits grind against one another to compel plot developments but the space between scripted lines allows drama to emerge, relationships level up when characters are planted next to one another, but failing to do so leaves them weaker and aggressive self-interest condemns the villains, even a version of the hero herself. It’s a game interested in fairy tale simplicity but it still reaches out and demands the player’s creativity. It approaches the social themes of JRPGs but from the perspective of an outsider folding into an established group. It’s another permutation of the plural protagonism narrative technique that elucidates how the genre upholds and complicates one of its most well-known conventions.
Further reading: Galloway, Brad. “Fire Emblem: M/Str8 > F/LGBT.” Game Critics. Mar 15 2013.
Johnson, Jason. “Pigeonholed.” Bit Creature. Feb 22 2013.
Auxier, Tom. “What’s Fire Emblem Without Death?” Pixels or Death. Feb 4 2013.