I was reading Peggy Noonan's latest DECLARATIONS column in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, about the college admissions scandal going on in the news. (You can read it for yourself behind this paywall.)
One of the morals of the column ended up being that you should strive to make friends, as opposed to just “networking”. Networking is a term that Ms. Noonan doesn't define, but it's commonly understood to mean that you're making shallow, quantity-based connections with random people you meet at events or gatherings, with the purpose of possibly being able to use them “as commodities” (her words) for your personal benefit later. (Such as getting a new job.)
How do you connect this to games? That's the whole philosophy of the Support mechanic in the Fire Emblem franchise! Supports have evolved over time and are appealing to the fans for a variety of reasons, which I'll cover in this article. How well does each Fire Emblem Support structure hew to the friends-not-networks philosophy?
Supports in the Game Boy Advance Fire Emblem games and Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade, released in Japan in 2002 (that's the one with Roy in it) introduced the Support system to the series. Previous games sometimes dabbled in Support-esque interactions, but this game was the first where your characters could further platonic relationships.
For Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade, Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, and Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance (finally breaking the “the” trend in the titles), characters could have a maximum of five Supports. A Support with an individual character could be a C, B, or A-level Support, and each level counted against one of those five Supports. So you could have five C-level Supports with five different characters (or the equivalent of networking) or an A-level support and a B-level Support (making deep friendships).
|This is Ewan (left) and Ross (right) having their A-level Support conversation.|
Ross wants to be Ewan's best friend for life! Versus the C-level conversation where they said hi.
Supports, from a character development perspective, generate a substantial conversation between the two characters that go into their back-stories. As you get a higher Support level, the characters have a bigger relationship with one another and trust each other more, sharing more about their lives and helping them develop as people. People who are deeply attached to the characters have replayed the games over and over again to see all of the Support conversations — since you can only get five conversations per playthrough per character (without killing anyone off). Your average character might have 4–6 characters they can support, which is 12–18 conversations.
(For your knowledge, actually getting Supports is much easier and streamlined in Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, versus you pretty much needing a game guide to know how it works in the Game Boy Advance games.)
From a gameplay point of view, Supports give bonuses when Supporting characters are next to one another. What kind of bonus is dependent on a character's elemental affinity (every character belongs to an affinity and certain affinities boost different things; some are more useful than others). Gameplay-oriented min-maxers will prioritise character relationships just based on affinity.
Clearly, the Support system here appeals to both classes of player. The one playing for story and characters, and the other playing for deep gameplay mechanics. (You may remember that distinction from the article earlier this month talking about difficulty levels and story content, which also used Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade as a positive example.)
But the gameplay-mechanics-obsessed players are failing the Noonan principle. (Reminder that Peggy Noonan is the woman with the Wall Street Journal column.) They're forcing characters to make relationships not for the humanity of it, but just for stat boosts. To get ahead in the cutthroat world and try to get personal opportunity. Not because they actually care about anyone involved.
Support “Conversations” in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn
You see those scare quotes in the heading? Yeah, Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn ruined Support conversations. That's one of the legitimate gripes you can have with the game, much more legitimate than the professional reviewers’ complaints that Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn didn't have Mii Support.
A character can only Support with one other character. A character can Support with any other character in the game. There are still C, B, and A levels, but, well... conversations look like this:
|Leonardo: Hey, Edward... I hope you're doing all right over there!|
Edward: Hi there! It's good to see you're still fighting.
That's the entire conversation. They aren't real conversations. It's people talking past one another. Unit 1 says their generic thing. Unit 2 says their generic thing. They would say the same thing no matter who they're talking to (for the majority of cases—a few characters get slightly more unique ones but nothing of that much notability).
That does nothing for gamers playing for story & characters (though Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn has a lot of content there outside of Supports to sink your teeth into). It exclusively is a gameplay mechanic, with the aforementioned elemental affinities still playing a role. You'll start and end relationships on a moment's notice, severing ties between characters. Suddenly, three in-game years after Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance refined the Support system from the Game Boy Advance games to have the best system in the franchise, the people of Tellius completely forgot what it means to be social.
You might say having one really great friend is all you need, but not when your conversations are trite. That is the very essence of “networking” and not making friends.
In fact, there are slight variations that most characters have in their speech patterns when addressing a royal character. So instead of, “Edward, you mean a lot to me!” you get “King Naesala, you mean a lot to me!” The character's name being Naesala, and the King being a custom-added title. You know that's not making friends. That's just title-based flattery—the equivalent of having a drink of your choice at a drink-providing establishment of your choice with an “influencer” in whatever field you want to be in and getting their business card. “Well I know Dave... he's a venture capitalist. Yup, I got connections.” Then you call Dave when you have a new business idea and try to guilt him into hearing what you have to say because you bought him that drink years ago without talking to him since.
Supports in the New Fire Emblem Games: Awakening and Fates
Anything is better than what Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn did with supports (other than not having them at all: see Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon), which brings us to Fire Emblem Awakening and the three Fire Emblem Fates games on the 3DS that have dominated the direction of the franchise since 2012.
Fire Emblem Awakening and the Fates games now allow for you to support every character a unit can support in one playthrough, and the number of characters that are compatible for unique support conversations has ballooned due to the marriage mechanic. While a unit can only marry one character (the new “S-level” Support—only available in hetereosexual relationships except for a couple of instances in Fates) per playthrough, you can A-level with everyone if you put the time into it.
That's right, no limitations. And a lot more people to support. Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn could've and should've put that amount of effort, but I'm not here to keep complaining about that. How would Peggy Noonan see this?
Well... I think she'd see it as a straight improvement of the early 2000s. You can now handle having multiple best friends and deep relationships, even entering marriage and establishing a family. And these aren't Millennials waiting forever to start a family. They're getting on with it!
|These young adults already have a plan!|
One of her concerns is the lack of real social skills in the kids going to college. Certainly, the units in the latest Fire Emblem games are doing a lot better than the socially-challenged units of Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. That's something to be proud of. Why, there are very real relationships here... and that's clear whether you're playing the Japanese versions or the American ones.
Did Ludwig just end up writing an article that concludes in a large compliment to the Fire Emblem games he says ruined the franchise forever for him, with a diss to his second-favourite Fire Emblem game? Well, on this one particular topic, that's the correct analysis to take. He still praised Path of Radiance, at least. What do you think? About anything. Networking vs. making friends. Or how the support system has evolved over the series.
Advance Wars fans may be triggered by this whole topic since the lack of a Support system is why that series is discontinued.