The axe fell, and he was gone. I closed my eyes and let out a tired sigh. I should’ve seen it coming, done something to stop it. Told him to hide in the forest, or stand with the people on horseback. Then he might’ve survived. And yet, I knew that this was what had to happen. It was the best, least terrible choice left to me. He died so everyone else could survive and protect the local citizens.
I wiped my slightly sweaty hands on my pants, and picked my 3DS back up. The least I could do was honor Vaike’s sacrifice.
It’s safe to say that I’m fully in love with Fire Emblem Awakening. The fact that it’s still listed as one of The 12 Best Games for the 3DS despite its successor, Fire Emblem Fates, being out, is proof enough of this game’s excellence.
If I had known that Fire Emblem games were this engrossing, I would’ve picked them up a while ago. As it stands, most strategy games vis-à-vis Starcraft tend to bore and terrify me. Closest I’ve gotten is Project X Zone and its sequel, which are less about strategy and more about jamming everyone close enough to do Cross Hits but not so close that the boss can one-shot everyone with a multi-target attack.
There’s too much to keep track of: supply lines, buildings, multiple troop deployments—too much pressure! I’d rather be the soldier on the ground than the dude in the bunker moving figurines around.
That statement reveals a couple of things about me. One, that I really am a Fire Emblem noob. So much of a noob, that I’m playing it…in Casual mode. The noise you just heard is the sound of all the judgmental pitchforks and flaming torches being lobbed at my skull. I freely admit that part of my decision to be a filthy casual is due to fear of the game’s difficulty which, thus far, hasn’t been realized. However, the other part of my status stems from what else my “boots on the ground” statement reveals about me.
I can’t stand the thought of permanently losing a team mate. I can’t stand failure.
I can honestly tell you, after all my years of schooling—including 5 years at Northwestern to earn a Master’s—coping with failure is not something I was ever actually taught. Indeed, it’s almost like it’s actively ignored or danced around, such as when the rescue puppy you brought home has an “accident”. Yet, it’s something that practically each and every one of us will face at some point in life. And no, I’m not talking about how paying taxes works.
Lawyers, businessmen, doctors: they’ll all tell you about how they were at the top of their class at Harvard, or editor of some newspaper that isn’t really important unless you’re “in the know”. They’ll gush endlessly about their achievements; they’ll sweep their failures under the rug. Schools and tutoring programs proclaim to all who would hear that they can steer your child to far-reaching success (provided you can afford the loan, of course who am I kidding, you’ll be in debt forever). Achieving something in life is by no means easy, mind you. But at least the major and minor somebodies of the world can get advisors and therapists for when their fifteen minutes turns into fifteen years.
Failure, like vomit or bigotry, is something that will happen to or around us at some point in our lives, but is just so unfortunate that maybe we should just keep walking, honey, and try to breathe through your mouth. Also, like vomit or bigotry, ignoring it doesn’t help. So here’s the cold truth: most of us will fail to make all of our dreams come true.
Fire Emblem Awakening, more than any other game, spelled that out for me. Whenever I lost a battle in a Pokemon game, I knew it was because I ran out of Potions, or my team wasn’t strong enough: I knew immediately what the problem was, and how to correct it. Every time I fell down a cliff or ran into a Goombah in a Mario title, it just meant I needed to react faster and learn the game better. Even in a “strategy” game like X Zone, the only enemy that ever gave me real trouble was the very last one in the first game—and I still beat the SOB with the time-honored strategy of Fire Everything while my hands shook like a chihuahua that’s just mainlined ten cups of coffee. But the strategy of More Dakka doesn’t work in Fire Emblem. Yes, character levels and stats are the primary method of doing damage, but that isn’t enough.
Vaike was one of my strongest non-Frederick characters, and he got killed by a combo of axe-wielding barbarians and mages. Strength helped them bring him down, but only by using an effective strategy. They stayed out of reach of his axe, and picked him down. Life, in much the same way, does its damnedest to bring you down. No matter how gifted you are, eventually there will come a time when enough well-placed blows and setbacks knocks you to your knees. But that doesn’t mean you should just give up.
What I love/hate about Fire Emblem is that the outcome of every battle is ultimately down to you. Every time you try to attack an enemy, the game displays what the HP of each character will be at battle’s end, along with the accuracy of each weapon. You can stack the deck with as much support as you want, or you can Leeroy Jenkins it; whatever happens, the consequences fall upon your shoulders. At the same time, there’s enough room for chance: as you level up, some weapons start missing you more and more; as you build Support Levels with other characters, the bonuses you get by standing with them make you hit harder, dodge better—and if you know how to work the Rock-Paper-Scissors analogue, you can even make blows hit with all the strength of a mosquito bite. While life doesn’t provide a HUD, you can still tilt odds your way: studying in school, doing internships, getting new experiences, and so on. And through it all, there will always be someone standing by your side, backing you up.
However, no matter how high your knight’s level, or how much your prep for a job interview, you still fail. So you re-load, and try again…and you still fail. It’s never pleasant. As the failures pile up, the acid in your stomach starts making itself known, you tremble and sweat, and suddenly you can’t breathe because you’ll never be able to do to this, WHY CAN’T I DO THIS?!
I lost Vaike in Paralogue 2, after I’d completed Chapter 6 in an attempt to get my party strong enough to beat Paralogue 2—after I’d lost characters in 3-4 separate attempts at Paralogue 2. After every failure, I’d clench my teeth, try to calm my shaking hands, and re-load the save. And start the whole thing over. Finally, though, I couldn’t take it anymore. After enough beatdowns, it finally got through to me that, maybe, there was no way to finish this Paralogue at this point in the game without losing somebody. Because I wanted to finish the game, and I was doing a Casual run, I, or rather, Vaike, bit the bullet. In other words, I gave up.
“I gave up”; three simple words, but oh, how they hurt. Racial slurs and other bile-charged speech fall with all the subtlety and force of hammer blows, but “I gave up” glides like a poisoned knife. You failed, you lost, you stopped trying. Seeing a dream torn away from you like that affects everything about you and what you do. It’s enough to drive individuals to the darkest depths of despair, especially those that haven’t experienced it before. And it tears up even more those who cannot figure out where they screwed up.
But they forget what Captain Picard so eloquently stated: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”
It’s okay to fail at a dream, because dreams are as malleable as life itself. It’s impossible to tell where your story will go, how the narrative of your life will shift. Fire Emblem taught me that too.
Because of Vaike, I learned how to gather my party. Over the next two chapters (I’m still not done with the game—adult things get in the way, unfortunately) not only did I not lose a single character, but I was never in danger of ever losing one. Very rarely did my characters get below half health, and I even managed to level up Donnel twice. I learned from my mistakes, and improved my strategy massively. And I also noticed something else: every time I reloaded a save, those sparkling squares with the hidden bonuses changed their drops. A small detail, but an important one.
Everything that happens in your life occurs for a reason. The reason may never become clear, but every event you experience influences you in ways both large and small. Every failure is an opportunity to learn, to grow, a notion that I still need beaten into me every time I fence. That dream you had, the one you gave up on? The journey you took in trying to achieve it left you a treasure whose value may only become apparent in time. And just because you think you’ve given up on a dream now, doesn’t mean that dream can’t come true later. Every video game designer, every engineer, every writer, every person had an idealized version of where their life was going to go, an ultimate destination for themselves. But like a thousand motivational posters and the Stormlight Archive tell us, what matters most is the journey.
Every day is a new day; every sparkling square hides something new that changes every time. Dealing with failure is never easy, but if you can get through it, you will emerge a better person than you were before. Someone who always wins at everything may be skilled, or fortunate, but what’s the point of getting something if you haven’t earned it? What makes Fire Emblem so satisfying to play is the knowledge that I won the battle: the computer may determine the odds, but it’s me, the player, who deals with the variables and ultimately triumphs. When I fence, I curse at my limitations, my failures, the tells and poor knee-jerk reactions. But it’s all the sweeter when, after countless drops of blood, sweat, and yes, tears, I transcend myself. Winning feels great: it’s a confirmation that the hours and hours spent training were worth it. But, what feels amazing is the bouts that I win by the slimmest of margins. Fencing against someone that’s at my level, against someone who I know I can beat if I just focus and bring everything to bear, brings a grin to my face each and every single time. Against someone like that, I find the Zen I scout for, the inner peace of the samurai. And every time in practice bouts when I lose my sh*t, when my self-despairing anger threatens to drown me, I remember that feeling of letting go of everything, and I pick my sabre back up. Because that’s what’s important. A conviction I’ve heard from coaches, from teachers, from Pope Francis at World Youth Day: it doesn’t matter how many times you fall, as long as you keep getting back up.
I’m not here to teach you how to deal with failure. That’s something that better qualified professionals and ultimately, you yourself, know how to do. But I can tell you that failure isn’t a death sentence. It’s another twist in the road, another lesson to be learned. Fear of being looked at as a failure keeps a lot of us going, but failure in and of itself isn’t something that you should avoid at all costs. And even when it happens, it’s not something you have to go through by yourself.
Most of you have probably heard that Fire Emblem Awakening was potentially going to be the last Fire Emblem game ever if it didn’t sell well. The developers didn’t know if the game would succeed: there were no hit percentages, no way of knowing how the world would react. But they were determined that, if they were going to fail, they would do so with style. Final Fantasy’s creator said that if the first game had failed, he would’ve gone back to school—but he still gave it his all anyway. Life is harsh and cruel at times. It will make you bleed for every step forward you take. But you shouldn’t be afraid of the wounds. Just grit your teeth and grab your falchion. Who knows, you may land a critical hit.