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'Fire Emblem' Can't Decide How We Should Learn to Play It

How willing should players be to dig through menus to get the information they need to play the game?

by Ricardo Contreras
Jul 31 2019, 2:41pm

Image courtesy of Nintendo

Tutorials come in all shapes in sizes. Some games will set aside a specific area and even label it as a tutorial, while others may take a more embedded approach and tutorialize the games mechanics through the act of playing the game itself. Even others might forgo any sort of formal tutorialization, and simply contain a compendium to answer any mechanical questions a player may have. Figuring out the approach that bests suits a game can be difficult, especially when different people can be predisposed to digging through menus for information, when others might be turned off by that idea completely. On the other end, some people may find a step by step approach too "hand holdy," an feel like a game is patronizing them. We discuss how the various forms of tutorialization in Fire Emblem: Three Houses stack up, the difficult decision of choosing your House, and Austin and Cado's visit to the Game Devs of Color Expo in this episode of Waypoint Radio. You can listen to the full episode and read an excerpt below.

Rob: There are no genre conventions for strategy games and tactics games in particular that bridge the gap into like more popular tactics games supposed to more like niche wargaming type stuff. The strategy stuff you're talking about, there is kind of an expectation that there is a lot of experimentation and open-ended learning you're going to have to do you, the tool box is opened for you, but you don't know you don't know what the tools do. And the game is maybe going to like tell you in text "well here is roughly how it works and what it does," but that doesn't really mean anything until you apply that knowledge and then see for yourself by experimentation "what does this tool do."

I think where a lot of games coming from the more RPG tactics lineage can go a bit wrong is that they end up having a lot of systems that you can and should play around with and experiment with, the problem is a lot of those games will also then do enough tutorializing where you'll think "well, if I need to know something the game will tell me, right?" And it's one of those things where you almost, you kind of have to either be all the way in on like tutorializing the campaign or all the way out and say "no, this is a toolbox game and how you put those things to work is up to you."

Another option is, I wrote last week about Jagged Alliance 2. There's certain opening moves you have to do at the start of every campaign and that functions like a tutorial, but you still have to feel your way through it. You have to figure out how to use the mechanics to do those opening moves. It's not going to say "and now click here. Now use this." You still have to fuck around and stuff and do those easy objectives. And then when the game is opens up, you've roughly figured out "Anything in this game, I am just going to have to screw around with until I see what it does and then then go from there." But, I also don't know how frustrating it is these days

Austin: Different expectations, yeah.

Rob: Yeah, it's one thing to lose a 4x or Civ type game and say "well I'll try again. You know, it is not a big investment." But when you have a campaign tactics game? Like XCOM 2 pissed me the fuck off because there's so much that was unclear and once you started to get behind you were a little bit screwed. And so there's this realization that you really needed to know what you were doing, you really needed these things explained to you.

Austin: Even in War of the Chosen, a much better version of that game, how often when we were playing that did we hit a text box that wasn't clear about how an ability worked? Especially stuff on the larger, meta, map scale. And that's stuff that will fuck you up, right? That's stuff like "Oh wow I built a tower in the wrong place, now I can't expand quick enough, now the Alien Avatar project is going to advance, this puts the whole campaign in a death spiral."

Rob: Do you feel like, to Patrick's example, when you sort of were able to build a house and then there were mechanics attached to that that you hadn't been instructed [on], the thing that frustrates me the most about that is if a game is tutorializing say to any significant degree, I almost feel like even when an option opens up, I'm not really supposed to screw with it until the game tells me "Ah, here's what this does."

Austin: Until you get the pop-up.

Rob: So you lose out on the sense of fun discovery the comes with that. It's not like "Oh I wonder what this does." And so I always end up, it's kind of like when you're, maybe this is just on the on the brain, when you're visiting someone else's house, and you're like "Can I do this? Can I put this in the dishwasher? Should I just uhh, you know, I'll wait until you ask me to do something." And that's kind of how I feel about games that operate the way, it sounds like by Patrick description, that game does.

Austin: So there's two things, one is there is straight-up an in-game guide that you can read. It says "guide" but it's just a list of tutorials right. And so at a certain point, this was after I learned most of the stuff in there, I just went through and was like "I'm gonna to make sure I read all of this." Again that is just the person that I am.

The other half of it is I am the sort of person who just like, "oh wow, cool, I can recruit people. I'm going to run around and hit recruit until I understand what this means. Oh cool there's battalions? What's a battalion? All right, I'm going to spend 20 minutes in these menus figuring out what a battalion is, looking at what all their abilities do, thinking about what the ways I could use them is, figuring out what the requirements for deploying them are. Oh that's what authority does, okay I see. And this person has a special ability where they do extra damage with battalions, so I should focus on their Authority."

Patrick: What if you're like me and you do the opposite of that, which is that you try to recruit once, went "I don't understand that means, I'm just not going to hit that button again until the game says that I'm supposed to." Then randomly, the other side is like "hey, here's Battalions" Why you even telling you this right now? I'm not in a fight, I don't need to use it., why are you giving me this tutorial in a moment that it's not useful contextually and I'm just going to forget that it ever exist.

And I'm hoping that when I get into a fight then it'll be like "hey by the way, battalions" but I don't know if that's true! It seems more likely I'm going to get into another fight, finish that, then go back and DM Austin and be like "so do I need to fuck with battalions?" Or I'm waiting for Kotaku to read the inevitable like tips for playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

Austin: They wrote that!

Patrick: I'm sure they did! I love those series. It's great. It's a very useful like framing device for lots of games. And this one desperately needs that because it's hard to not look at like, on one hand I'm like "Didn't tell me to recruit. I'm just not going to screw with that." On the other hand, in the back of my mind I'm also like "Am I now putting myself behind the 8-ball in the XCOM sort of meta sense that like, because I didn't start doing recruitment stuff now, it's gonna really bite me in the ass later?"

Austin: The answer is no, just tell it to relieve your anxiety.

Patrick: I know, I know.

Austin: This is the other half of it, which maybe speaks in a different direction. You're recruiting characters 'cause you think they're cool. You're recruiting characters 'cause you're like "oh wow this is interesting." The game is balanced for each house to be self-sustaining, for all of the default characters that you get throughout the story line to be what you need to beat this game. I ended up with six characters on the bench by the end of this game for most of my missions.

I was leveling people up because I thought they were cool and I wanted to see them do animations and I wanted to raise the supports between characters 'cause I was interested in what this cool assassin lady would say to this young assassin girl, you know? It is not that I think that all that stuff could be tutorialized more cleanly, or could be, like Rob was saying, be treated like a toolbox, and have Dark Souls style expectations that you're going to come into this game and learn how this game works at by just experimenting.


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