When I’m getting to know someone, I have this habit of asking them an arbitrary question: “What is more important to you, loyalty or justice?” Their answer is never as enlightening to me as the justifications that come afterward. In my experience, most people choose loyalty, and then add some variation of “but I’d always try to do the right thing”. Last time I got this answer, it was a lie, and it came from Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
Not that I’m surprised. At the end of the day, that’s Fire Emblem for you. In these games, you don’t fight for something, you fight for someone. Justice just so happens to be by your side, but the characters are the real selling point here. That’s why Fire Emblem prides itself in its permadeath mechanic: once a unit dies, it dies for good. It doesn’t come back after the battle, you can’t use an item to revive it. Getting your friends killed is the upmost punishment the series has to offer, all because your only reason to fight is the people who fight with you. Gameplay-wise, you can fail these people by letting them get killed, but you can’t fail to live up to your ideological standards. You can’t deviate from your current path, spare, massacre, or anything that would move the spotlight from your allies to the abstract concept of “doing the right thing”. Who gives a damn about that, it’s not like you can S-Support it.
But there’s an ironic setback to all of this. Units become disposable, and if you care little about them and they get killed...well, restarting the level is too much of a hassle. And it’s not like Fire Emblem is battle after battle with no dialogue in between, so this quickly became a problem. This unit is dead, but they have a line in the next cutscene. What about that? In pre-3DS entries, they didn’t care much. But right now they do, and they don’t know how to handle it. Permadeath has become an absolute mess.
In the first part of Three Houses, you’re a teacher and the units you deploy in battle are your students. Fights take place in a safe, academic context most of the time, so if an enemy defeats them, they’ll say “Ah, I got tired. See you later, guys.” Sometimes, that means it was a mock battle and you would, indeed, see them later. But most of the time, it means they’re effectively dead. And you don’t know that, you don’t get any clue until you’ve saved you progress and they stop being there (Whatever happened to poor Ignatz?) And yes, there’s a disclaimer before a mock battle saying the units won’t die, but the problem is it doesn’t make sense for them to die in that battle, anyway. It’s even more outrageous in the second part, the actual war. When a character dies, time slows down and corny music starts playing to signify they’re dead-dead. Oh, unless they’re a special character but not so special as to be included in the defeat conditions. In that case, a huge demonic beast can beat the hell out of them and they’ll just be tired. See you in the next cutscene, pal.
So why keeping permadeath when it doesn’t work? You can’t mourn any dead student if they’re just tired. Or if time slows down, but then the character you “killed” appears again two chapters later. Or if you learn they’re dead when the credits start rolling. Hardcore fans will tell you disabling permadeath makes deaths meaningless, but they’re meaningless either way, so why not accepting it doesn’t have much place as it currently is in Fire Emblem?
Even so, I get why it’s not so easy. Three Houses lives and dies by its characters. They need to be there, they’re the point. They can’t die and then appear in the cutscenes, because losing them should feel affecting and persistent. Fire Emblem is no longer the struggle of leaders and the soldiers who follow them, but the story of the soldiers as they relate to their leaders. In Fire Emblem: Fates, factions are a pack—a family and their allies—; a homogeneous group that aligns with certain ideas: ideas of family, tactics, and aesthetics. Biological or adoptive. Attack or defense. Western or eastern. Their emotional connection to these ideas is what glues them together, and the reason why you can’t make allies of your enemies, as you sometimes could in previous entries.
In Three Houses, each house is full of individual students, each one with their own set of experiences, hobbies, and friends. What do any of the members of a house have in common, besides their current place of residence? You’d say the Blue Lions value chivalry, but most of them don’t care as much about it, or even despise it. The Golden Deer fancy themselves the people’s house, with the highest amount of commoners in their ranks. Yet, they uphold a protocapitalist system in which only nobles have the right to vote. Long story short, every student is unique and independent, and their affinities very malleable. No matter the path you follow, they’ll stay by your side and sing praises of that political project without a single trace of conflict or hesitancy. The fact that the main source of dramatic tension in the second part is having to kill the students you didn’t recruit before the war speaks volumes to how much the game cherishes its characters over anything else. So much so that it changes the series’ structure for their sake.
Conventionally, Fire Emblem has been a journey, a spatial quest at heart. You travel through a continent and meet new allies along the way. Sometimes, you’d even have to sway them to your cause during the battle while dodging a lethal encounter for either party. In those scenarios, even making peace—the opposite of fighting—demanded careful control of the space.
In Three Houses, the importance given to space and travel is shunned in favor of time and change. Even the battles have undergone subtle, albeit radical changes. The ability to rewind time to undo mistakes through the divine pulse isn’t there just to help players. It breaks with the philosophy of battles as an all-or-nothing situation—no save scumming allowed: if you’ve made mistakes, you’ll have to restart the whole level or to live with them.
With the divine pulse, you don’t have to be careful anymore. You don’t have to restrain yourself or sacrifice anything. You can pull the riskiest moves without any drawbacks. I mean, I’ve found myself rewinding over not getting an unnecessary critical attack! The significance of probability-driven attack systems is risk management, so I don’t love the divine pulse, no. And you could say “Well, don’t use it, then”, but the thing is, the game does want me to use it. From the inclusion of gambits to reinforcement units that appear and move in the same turn, it gives room to more aggressive enemy strategies that would seem unfair without rewinding. Just look at the death knight: he’s a beast, strong as no other opponent, and most crucially, has a high chance of getting critical attacks. That means certain death, in case I didn’t make myself clear.
Fire Emblem battles abide by two basic units of meaning: tiles and turns. One related to space, the other to time. The divine pulse, however, gives a new layer of complexity to time, dividing each turn into as many parts as divine uses you have. It adds a ton of granularity to the whole battle. And most of the new elements ensure time overshadows space as well. Fighting the death knight, or even demonic beasts, seeing how poor the odds are for you, becomes a task of time management: how can I approach this attack so I don’t receive a counterattack in the next turn? Both the death knight and demonic beasts have a high range of movement and attack, so escaping is not an option. What then? Killing them in one turn or leaving them unable to attack in the next one, that’s what. Turns dictate your strategy here, not tiles. Same with gambits. They have a lot of fancy effects, like setting an area on fire or changing your and/or your enemy’s position on the map. However, this swap can make a two tile difference at best. Again, it won’t get you out of the enemy’s range. The real deal here is the fact that they will paralyze the enemy, making them unable to move during the next turn. These new mechanics administer time more than anything else.
And that’s only the start. The whole game takes place in Garreg Mach Monastery, a cradle of faith and conciliation for the region of Fódlan. To further establish its political neutrality, the monastery was built in the exact center of the continent. What does this mean for the adventure? Well, there’s never a journey to speak of. Every location is within reach. The stops between points A and B are minimal. Besides, all your allies are always with you, from beginning to end. With no new additions to your side after the five year time skip that chops the game in two, Three Houses prioritizes trust and development over expansion and excitement. You are back to the monastery only to find your old students, now in their warfare attires instead of their school uniforms. But everything else is still the same.
This is indignant. A story about the flow of time, about history repeating itself, about ideals, about the future. And people are having nonchalant talks about something they did “the other day”? A lot of conversations can take place before and after the time skip alike, so their characters aren’t allowed to develop as human beings. Keeping these teens who are transitioning into adulthood during times of war hostage to growth, trauma, and change of beliefs is even more heartless than it is unrealistic. It’s almost as if they were only allowed to be as long as the avatar was there to see it.
And that’s a huge problem, too. This avatar, a pure extension of the player, embodies a cult leader to a degree few others I know have reached (the irony of this happening in a narrative that calls into question that exact dynamic wasn’t lost on me). Whether a cause is just or not depends on the side the avatar defends. I mean, even the Black Eagles route, regarded as the most immoral of the three in general, makes a laughable attempt to antagonize the other side beyond the original frame of moral ambiguity. You always made the right choice, did the right thing. Any student you want on your side wants to be on your side. They aren’t loyal to anything, and you’ll find them expressing polar opposite opinions on different routes. They’re sunflowers to the sun.
This videogame bends over backward to offer the player the utmost degree of flexibility, the least amount of friction. The weapon triangle system is no longer a thing, so the distinction between one weapon and another flattens; anyone can be any class they want, and any unit can use any weapon. I’m not calling for an essentialist system of fighting roles but, once again, some of these elements are, at best, dead weight from a rusting legacy. I’m a bit conflicted here because I love how tutoring and certifications work, but since a lot of the skills are weaker compared to previous games, the potential stat growths alone aren’t attractive to me anymore.
Right now, it might seem like I want Fire Emblem to go back to its roots, but that’s far from the truth. When I first heard about this game, I was thrilled about the concept of teaching, charmed by the characters’ design, and overall excited by the step away from the Fire Emblem tradition it represented. Awakening and Fates branched out from their predecessors in some ways, but they didn’t commit to it. They wanted to introduce dating sim elements but had to pass the “how can they relate to battle” filter first. Supports haven’t always been present in Fire Emblem, but when they first were, you had to spend a whole in-battle turn to have those conversations. With the 3DS entries, those conversations were moved into a leisurely base of operations.
Now, in Three Houses, it goes even further. You can still see a heart when one unit fights close to another, but relationships are, in essence, developed in the monastery. Giving your students gifts, sharing meals with them, sending them in pairs to a school assignment; these are the things that draw them together, no matter what’s going on in the outside world. Garreg Mach is a bubble, a safe space where students can figure themselves out, goof around, discover different cultures, and make ever-lasting friendships.
To me, it’s more and more obvious that Fire Emblem wants to be two different videogames in one. On the one hand, honoring its tradition, a tactical role-playing game, and on the other hand, appealing to a newer audience, a visual novel with dating sim elements. It could be both, sure, but as it stands, it doesn’t succeed as any. It shies away from committing to a visual novel format due to battle-related mechanics such as permadeath and their immense transformative power over the cast, and it tames strategy by trivializing weapons, classes, and skills for the sake of allowing the player to just use their favorite characters however they want. Each new entry makes a new milquetoast attempt at untangling these two dispositions, but they all fall midway.
Three Houses’ themes revolve around time, but its whole world is timeless, stubbornly infantile. The avatar doesn’t have a past, since it’s all behind a smoke curtain, and doesn’t have a future because of their lack of any resemblance of ideals or ambitions. They accommodate to their leader’s wishes. As the students accommodate to the teacher. As the game accommodates to the player.
All things considered, I can’t deny the ridiculous amount of hours I’ve spent playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I might even spend more, and I believe that must mean something. This game coddles you, it imbues you with a certain warmth. There’s also Mercedes. But the more I think about it, the more I understand I don’t want to be coddled. Not like this. I don’t want to be patronized, to be catered to from every flank. I want franchises like this to be brave for real or move on. But then again, my answer to the question is justice.
After the tedious indulgence of Life is Strange and the dreadful continuity of Before The Storm, I had many reasons to be skeptical of, if not downright repelled by, Life is Strange 2. And I was, believe me. You couldn’t squeeze more patience out of me to entertain yet another bastardization of The Walking Dead’s first season; yet another futile, cowardly tale about fake teens. And, well, I have no idea why I gave this one a try, but I did. And oh boy, it was one hell of a ride.
Life Is Strange 2 follows the journey of two siblings, Sean and Daniel, who escape their home after the murder of their father at the hands of a police officer unveils Daniel’s supernatural powers. It is our duty as Sean, the big brother, to take care of Daniel and help him manage his new abilities.
The premise here resembles that of The Walking Dead in many aspects. The inexperienced caretaker as a protagonist, the balance between doing what’s right and doing what’s safe, the idyllic house that becomes dangerous, their separation, the conflictive objectives of each other. I could go on, but you get the idea. There are, however, two big differences: Daniel is not as docile as Clementine is, and this tale is more hopeful than Lee’s.
Life is Strange 2’s story, just as its protagonists, proceeds in a rash, urgent manner. With little time to linger on liminal periods, to grow organically. We don’t follow Daniel as he becomes stronger, or Sean as he falls for his crush; those things are shown to us once they’ve already happened. We’re there to see them explode, but see them explode without giving up an ounce of hope.
The Walking Dead often painted trust, solidarity or sincerity—traits that define humanity—as naïve, or used cynical sensationalism to stress that you can’t help everyone. Life is Strange 2 portrays the worst of this world—often channeled through racism and police violence—but doesn’t let it sink in spiritually. You’re never punished for trusting those who want to help you. None of them end up tying you up in a dark room—and the ones who do, you see them coming from a mile away. Call me idealistic, but I appreciate this narrative. In the face of adversity, I believe people come together and not the other way around. Imagine a tale about brotherhood and injustice that encouraged isolation and extreme wariness. There’s no truth or power to a tale like that.
This story has been overwhelming to me unlike any other I remember. You can thank my little brother, with whom I share an age difference and relationship very similar to Sean and Daniel’s. This conditioned my experience, of course, but let’s give credit where credit is due because the game does pull its own weight and a lot more in this regard. The way their brotherhood is written is just delightful. By far, the most inspiring part of the adventure and a single-handed reason for me to cherish the whole work.
It also made me realize something: the best choices aren’t the ones that emphasize the act of making a choice, the prospect of its consequences, or the impact it will have in the game world. The best choices are those you don’t realize you’re making. When I chose to hang out with Cassidy and Finn instead of going to sleep with Daniel, I didn’t give it much importance until I found out about Daniel’s loneliness. And to be honest, I would make that mistake again, because Sean is young, and he wants to socialize and have fun as any teenager should be able to.
And let’s not forget about the ending. In Life is Strange, the last choice was not a real choice. It served nothing. It was crude and trivial, even though its consequences were huge. Then there’s The Walking Dead, with another fake choice. This time for good. You didn’t have to decide over anything since the conclusion was the same no matter what you chose. The single choice there was to accept the situation as is. To move on.
This time, the choice was both real and resounding. The relationship between the brothers crystallizes here as a promise for the future, now that the journey is over. Neither of the outcomes feel quite right or wrong, although one is more unfair than the other. That’s the one I chose. And I did because, for me, there wasn’t a choice. It wasn’t worth it, but it was the natural course of action, considering how I had been playing the game and my personal baggage. I’ve never felt more disempowered in a videogame about choice. Refreshing? Well, for sure. But I’m still not satisfied.
Turns out there are two more endings. You get them by having a low morality score—ah shit, here we go again. Life is Strange 2 centers Daniel’s education. You’ve got to teach him how to tell right from wrong, be compassionate, responsible, etc. At certain points, his responsiveness to your commands depends on your previous behavior; your influence is huge and his temper is short, so you can imagine how tumultuous the dynamic between the two can get. However, was it necessary to reiterate it with an extra pair of endings? Nope. No, it wasn’t. It renders the theme of education utilitarian. The mere existence of these endings bugs me, but don’t even get me started on their content. Let’s just say they speculate about why juvenile crime exists with embarrassing conclusions. But alas, that’s far from the worst.
A lot of these videogames are so insecure about their alleged lack of gameplay that they introduce small doses of interactivity here and there. Sometimes in the shape of quick-time events, other times in the shape of sterile puzzles. Life is Strange 2 has both. I remember the first one appearing when you try to convince Daniel to come with you. You have to win this microgame multiple times for him to do so as if you “kept trying no matter what”. And look, that’s the problem with this videogame imposter syndrome: it always leads to puerile ludic metaphors.
If a situation appears gamifiable enough, they’ll go for it. Have to get in locked a room? Let’s hide a key in the house and let the player look for it just because. Your brother is in danger? I’m sure you want to play this stealth minigame before advancing the plot. And the peak of absurdity: morality puzzles. That’s right. You can escape from here using brute force, but that would be bad (and Daniel would remember). Instead, you can solve this real-time puzzle about moving furniture to harm zero cops and be a good brother.
I get that you do whatever it takes to produce a deep connection between the player’s situation and the avatar’s. I get how simulating physical and psychological states might seem like the way to go when it comes to empathetic design. Yet, this blatant assumption of distance, these loud maneuvers of seduction, and the game dynamics that emerge as a result prove how desperate Life is Strange 2 is to reach a target audience that has little in common with these two Latinx kids.
Though the game is sensible and well-informed for the most part, some choices are questionable in the purpose they serve. When Sean is pulled out of a car by two bigots, you get to choose between something that’s racist and humiliating but safe and something that’s combative and dignifying but dangerous. They intended this choice for white people. Anyone with a similar background and/or experience would choose to keep Sean safe, or at least, wouldn’t read this scene as a moral dilemma. Here the game says “What is worse, doing A Racism to this brown kid as a white player or putting him in harm’s way, again, as a white player?” If empathy is built upon the exclusion of the people whose voice you want to reproduce, then something’s not working as it should. Now, let me guess what that is.
Life is Strange 2’s simulationist approach to the unresolved narrative, aesthetic, and ideological spaces points to the unwillingness of this project to let go of the Life is Strange brand; to the risks the series isn’t going to take. I guess, for some, holding on to a sinking ship is worth it, even if your achievements get watered down as a result.
It’s not a secret I’m fascinated by the old web. This enthusiasm isn’t powered by nostalgia since I was born after the fact, but I can’t deny I orbit anything related, including videogames. After falling in love with the internet of the early twenty-first century in works like Lost Memories Dot Net or Secret Little Haven, it figures I had to give Hypnospace Outlaw a try, if not to get a fresh outlook.
Now, imagine a rendition of the old web as seen through contemporary eyes, with contemporary sensibilities. For instance, in this videogame, you don’t use social media as we know it, but the philosophy behind it—hyper-vigilance, centralization, inescapable corporate ownership and control of user-generated content—is the basis of this world. Hypnospace might look like the past, but it speaks like the present.
In Hypnospace Outlaw you’re an internet cop whose job is to navigate a fictional GeoCities, looking for infractions that you can then report to make some coin. Infractions go from using copyrighted material to harassment or distribution of malware. But see, there’s a twist: your job makes the internet worse because your tools are made to strike users, not to help them. Who would’ve thought?
Hypnospace is ambivalent about the implications of this role. In the first chapters, you punish users’ online faux pas or juvenile antics. However, at a certain point in the game, when your role as an enforcer is no longer useful to the corporation behind you, Hypnospace resignifies the game mechanics to give you a much more benign task. Before, navigating Hypnospace was a means of policing: you tracked down the suspect and flagged them, no matter the context, the way the community handles conflict, or even the culprit! You crept into this world only to leech off and erode it from the outside. But in this last chapter, you browse Hypnospace in order to archive it and use your enforcement tools to dismantle the evil corporation’s crimes. The mechanics don’t change, but their framework does. As an enforcer, your work destroys the game world. As an archivist, your work preserves it. This hopeful gesture is a nice conclusion, but it’s not enough to hold the nebulous vision of the game.
One would think its visual influences or the anachronistic elements it injects into them would point to a commentary on either the past or the present of the web, but I’m afraid representation doesn’t entail insight. Thus, whether the personal web pages are meant as satire, nostalgia bait, or sincere character studies is irrelevant. They build an environment, but such an environment doesn’t allow itself to be; it’s there in the service of something else that came afterward. Let’s keep the slow loading times and the quixotic navigating system, but put some juiciness into it. Let’s use the personal site format to tell stories, but the actual story is incidental to them. This swerve turns the lore into the story and vice versa, illustrating the work’s lack of direction and purpose. It is as if Hypnospace Outlaw looked only through its heart, not deeming it enough.
Beware, for in this game, your choices have real consequences. Yup, it’s one of those. But this time, you have to save your girlfriend not from a storm created by time travel, but from a very real threat: war.
At least, compared to other videogames of its kind, its treatment of this humanitarian crisis isn’t as obtuse or insensitive as I’ve learned to expect. Bury Me features a detail-rich context, but it’s not condescendingly didactic; it is familiar, yet sober—which in this case is only appropriate. At least, on a superficial level—but the problems of this work run deep.
I’m tired of this videoludic ego, of this savior mentality, and of this exceptionality attributed to something that’s not meaningful for the reasons we’re often told it is. No, videogames are not “the perfect medium” to build empathetic narratives (this idea isn’t just incorrect; it’s also easy to exploit) because the potential bonds they can create with the player through interactivity (don’t get me started) are unprecedented (people should consider diversifying their cultural horizons). Like, come on, let’s stop pretending these illusive truisms aren’t the indie alternative of “This videogame makes you feel like Spider-man”.
Bury Me, My Love’s creators wanted to give a voice to Syrian refugees through the character of Nour while placing ourselves—players presumed to be living in western countries oblivious to her position—in the role of her husband, Majd, who guides and counsels her throughout her journey. To give off the impression that Nour isn’t the avatar of the avatar—a collateral object of our whims and fantasies, instead of an autonomous subject—, the game will make her disagree with and even ignore our instructions sometimes. On paper, this decision strips us of our agency, so we can experience what her husband, texting her from a different country, would go through in that situation. But they couldn’t commit to a decision like that, now could they?
I mean, it’s a videogame. That’s why they offer you 19 different endings and encourage you to get them all, right? Well, this renders the power dynamic between the presumed agent (Nour) and the actual agent (us) very conflicting. Bury Me might want to implicate me in its politics, but willingly sabotages its premise to the point of turning itself into a collectionist game. Oh, and it wants me to accept that Nour has agency of her own, engendering the same issue: she seems to do, but doesn’t, for the sake of the game experience.
Sure, videogames have an inherent proficiency in broadcasting these messages, but they have to stick to crass conventionality and revere player agency in that pursuit somehow. How strange! It’s almost as if empathy was a marketing buzzword at this point and videogames had a lot to offer, not because of generic innate virtues, but because of their artists’ vision. However art is defined I don’t know, but I’m sure of this much: art isn’t just there, art is created.
As harsh as this might sound, I don’t think the creators of Bury Me, My Love thought they were making art first and foremost—although yes, they were, and no, there’s nothing wrong with not doing so. This videogame’s vision is journalistic to the quick: it wants to inform, to archive, to be faithful to reality at all costs, and to encompass a wide range of circumstances, albeit channeled by the same character, because they don’t want to miss the full scope of this (his)story.
Said fixation with accuracy is the core of the experience in every other sense. From the uncanny similarity the interface has with your messaging app of reference, to the focus on telling the story in a hyper-realistic chronological order, Bury Me makes its tone, ambitions, and narrative devices clear-cut.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Bury Me, My Love is a work of art out of convenience. For example, if you want to humanize a marginalized group of people, turn them into defined characters! We are all weak to the charms of drama, after all. That would be counterproductive in a journalistic setting for several reasons, but might work to an extent in a fictional narrative. No matter; Bury Me doesn’t show a lasting interest in that sort of expression, and that’s a wound the game can’t heal from.
The narration is devoid of spirit and can get ridiculous when its obsession with fidelity and player options get out of hand (replying to people’s suffering with emojis is gimmicky, to say the least). As advocacy journalism turned into fiction, it lacks earnest execution, while as a personal/universal narrative, it lacks a heart. Bury Me, My Love isn’t exploitative, but is for sure a palatable gamification of a conflict that doesn’t want to confront me, either aesthetically or ideologically.