In Nintendo’s Fire Emblem Fates, you’re a princess or prince from the nation of Nohr. Your siblings are other princess and princesses, all warriors, and your dad, King Garon, is a total psychopath. On your first real mission, you get captured by rival nation Hoshido and come to find out that you were kidnapped by King Garon as a child—and are in fact a prince from Hoshido.
About two hours into the game, having spent time within both nations and with both sets of doting siblings, the royal families meet on the field of battle and you must choose: fight with Nohr, or defend Hoshido. It’s a compelling moment, save for one problem: you already made your decision when you purchased the game.
See, Fire Emblem Fates is sold in two separate versions, a la the Pokémon games. There’s Birthright, in which you fight with Hoshido, and Conquest, where you throw in with Nohr. But unlike Pokémon—which aside from slight monster variations are always two versions of the same game—Conquest and Birthright are very different.
This choice matters. It puts you in a different place with different people. Those who would have been your family are now your sworn enemies, and vice versa. This, in itself, is pretty cool. The trouble is that those first two hours—the span where both games play out the same way—are as effective as developer Intelligent Systems intended.
I, for one, was drawn in by the traditional Japanese aesthetic of Hoshido and moved by the events that transpired during my short stay there. So when it came time for me to make my big decision—to chart the course of the next 50-plus hours of gameplay—I was determined to stick with the Hoshidan, the path of Birthright. Trouble was, I had purchased Conquest. I was locked into returning to Nohr and King Garon’s bullshit. Had I known what the beginning of the game had in store for me, I almost certainly would have purchased Birthright. But I hadn’t played the game yet. The story of Fire Emblem Fates was presented as though I had a real choice, and I felt betrayed when it turned out that I didn’t.
Fates does offer you the ability to choose the other path—for a price. Want to go the route not included on your $39.99 cartridge? A $19.99 download will unlock the “other game.” A discount, perhaps, given both games’ total size, and the fact that you can ultimately play both for two totally different experiences—but I suspect for many gamers, one purchase and one playthrough will be the most they’re able to dedicate.
Why should the expectation be any different? The precedent is clear—most similar games have followed one simple release format: you buy the game, and its full contents are yours.
With Fire Emblem Fates, it seems Nintendo has created a new type of rollout: Pre-LC, rather than “DLC” (“downloadable content” sold separately after a game’s release). The emotional weight of your choice is built into the game because Nintendo wants you to purchase both games. In fact, in early March, Nintendo released a third version of the game—Fire Emblem Fates: Retribution—which asks, according to the game’s own web site, “What would happen if you didn’t choose Nohr or Hoshido?” Be murdered immediately, I suspect, though I haven’t actually founf out yet.
The marketing has of course been built around this choice, which is only wise. It’s an advertising premise about which of their two products you’ll buy, disguised as a story choice. But most of what I read before making my decision pertained to the style of the two games—Conquest is harder, for example, while Birthright is more focused on character relationships. And even if what the choice really meant from a storytelling perspective were laid out right there on the cardboard standee at Best Buy (or, ya know, on the product description page on Amazon, as it is 2016), that description would still pale in comparison to playing the game and being re-offered the now-empty choice.
In “the good ol’ days,” all three games likely would have been as one. Much has been made about the advent of downloadable content expansions, but this approach is something new. It’s not simply a developer cashing in on its most dedicated customers wanting more of their product; it’s a developer turning branching storylines—a videogame mainstay—into a way to sell customers a $40 game for $80.
It’s a concept that could be cool. If there were a single base game that cost only, say, $19.99, and at the all-important branching, all three choices were presented for $20 each, perhaps I would not find my jimmies so rustled. It’s only because of the story’s effectiveness that it even feels like the choice matters at all. Driving me to feel engaged by that choice is good—but making me regret the one I’d already made is not.
Nick Hurwitch is a writer and author living in Los Angeles, where his time machine broke down in 2008. His latest book, THE SPACE HERO’S GUIDE TO GLORY, is available now wherever books are sold.
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