My first game in the Fire Emblem series was Path of Radiance for the GameCube. I played it as a teenager in a primarily white, rural American community. My understanding of racism was simplistic and naive: American used to have racism but then slavery was abolished and Martin Luther King Jr got everyone equal rights. Hurray! So when Path of Radiance presented the racial tensions between the beorc and laguz, showing the prejudices held towards the laguz and the atrocities committed against them, I felt like the game was really doing something special in terms of addressing Serious TopicsTM. It would be an experience that set a false expectation for what Fire Emblem would be like, because while this series is very literally focused on political struggles between kingdoms, most games outside of the Radiance titles never dive into what capital G Gamers would label as “politics.”
Recently I have been playing a fan game built using Fire Emblem Sacred Stones titled Vision Quest. I described my first impressions of this game last week and discussed the creator’s intent for the game concerning game mechanics. My first impressions were based on six or so chapters of the game. At the time of this writing, I’ve played through twelve chapters. These chapters comprise the first act of Vision Quest, a game which as best as I can tell is split into three acts over the course of over forty chapters. Act one of Vision Quest tells the story of a young man named Storch who, along with some of his friends and family, becomes a bandit to try and survive the harsh taxation of the cruel ruler of his home country. I enjoyed this flip of the traditional formula – which often positions you as a prince or princess – but didn’t anticipate the game to get much deeper than any other Robin Hood story I’ve read.
*the rest of this article contains spoilers for act one of Fire Emblem: Vision Quest*
The country of Belaro where Storch lives is ruled by a leader named Gradin. Now Gradin has apparently up to this point been a ruler not particularly noteworthy in either a good or bad way, but recently he has made a significant tax hike that is causing some serious problems for the common folk living in Belaro. His brother speaks out against this but Gradin, in an effort to prevent any potential backstabbing, kills his brother. He then mobilizes the military to enforce the new taxes and orders his soldiers to take prisoner anybody who cannot pay the ludicrous amounts. Prisoners start pouring in as the farmers and fishermen of Belaro fail to pay the exorbitant new fees. Other folks turn to less savory means in order to make ends meet.
Enter Storch and company. Storch is the very reluctant leader of a group of bandits who steal to make ends meet in this new period of heavy taxation. They are “noble bandits” in the sense that their attacks focus on wealthy merchants and other noble figures who hoard wealth and can afford the loss of their gold and supplies. Storch is a farmer with pretty typical values and little ambition – he just wants to make an honest living through farmwork but feels trapped by the new tax increases. He is spurned on by his other companions, particularly a woman named Esfir who both through her dialogue and mechanically through her high level is conveyed to the player as being much more experienced at this whole thieving lark. The game also quickly tells us that Storch and his friends are “not like other bandits” by having them get into battles with the types of brigands who needlessly take lives for pleasure. These early moments were part of what had me thinking that there wouldn’t be much depth in how the game handled the topic of class struggle.
Nuance enters the story through many of the characters and their complicated positions. Gradin’s nephew Titus, whose father died so Gradin’s harsh taxes could continue, works from behind the scenes to find an opportunity for vengeance against his uncle. He promises to lower the harsh taxes, but as a nobleman does he truly have the best interests of the people in mind? Taxes, after all, are not inherently evil – if invested into infrastructure and used to provide resources to the people who paid the taxes in the first place, they can theoretically be utilized for the good of everyone in the community. If Titus just stops collecting the taxes to garner goodwill but has no plans to make material change for the people of Belaro, is he really any better than Gradin? Storch struggles to find the answers as Titus pushes him to take more actions that stand against his own values, such as destroying valuable stores of food just to get at his uncle’s forces.
There are others in Gradin’s court who question their allegiance in the face of the lord’s cruel actions. His highest military commander, a woman named Lesley, owes her life to Gradin after she was left orphaned in the streets. Gradin didn’t raise her as a father but he gave her the opportunity to prove herself as a soldier and moved her through the ranks as she exceled on the battlefield. Lesley may not like how Gradin is handling his taxation policies but is she really willing to turn her back on the man who saved her life? Lesley’s sister Zoya feels similarly in the beginning, but the sisters eventually diverge as Lesley decides to stay true to Gradin while Zoya decides to stay true to her values. This puts the sisters at odds with one another as the conflict reaches its climax, and Gradin’s actions tear yet another family apart.
Like many Fire Emblem games, you accumulate a party of heroes as you play through each chapter. Storch’s companions tend to be made up of fellow misfits, either foreigners cast off by their own country or other citizens of Belaro who are outcast in other ways. Many of these folks are more than happy to turn their blades against Gradin, but their motivations vary. Onisim, a pirate turned priest, is motivated by his religious convictions to bring healing and peace to those afflicted by Gradin’s cruelty. His friend Nazar, still a pirate proper, joins with Storch when his previous band of corsairs become bloodthirsty and vicious. Brother and sister team Sri and Dewi are fugitives from an adjacent country, and they are safest surrounded by a group of capable warriors. Whether motivated by family or god or self-preservation, the cast of Vision Quest shows us all the myriad reasons in which folks may find a reason to fight against unjust circumstances.
The moment of Vision Quest that impacted me the most, though, was in seeing the ever-uneasy Storch have to try to explain his actions to his own parents. Storch is plagued by doubts and feels little pride in what he does as a “bandit.” Even when people start calling him a hero instead, the violence he inflicts leaves a bad taste in his mouth. He persists for the sake of his family – so what should he do when that very family is not grateful for his efforts? Storch’s father matches pretty cleanly to the idea of an American conservative, specifically someone who believes wholly in the idea of the world being a meritocracy. You work hard for what you want, and what you get will always be a direct reflection of the work you put in. People who deserve to have money will have it, and so of course by extension those who don’t have money don’t deserve it. He is ashamed of Storch’s decision to steal in order to make ends meet, and instead insists on the value of hard work even as that hard work gets him nothing but a prison sentence.
The family dynamics at play as well as the internal strife of the characters here is excellent. Storch doesn’t want to be leading a rebellion against the head of state, but he sees no other choice before him. It hurts him to engage in the actions that he does but it perhaps hurts worse to have his father throw all of that back in his face. His father believes strongly in the idea that a man should pull himself up by his own bootstraps. But as Martin Luther King Jr once said, “it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Vision Quest acknowledges this tension – Storch and his family are punished not because they are not hard-working but because the very system that controls the flow of wealth in the country is rigged against them. The only way to create a truly just world is to unmake the system that enforces the injustice. In this case, it means knocking Gradin from his throne.
Having only finished the first act of the game, I’m sure there are plenty of twists and turns left in Vision Quest. It’s hard to say whether or not the political message of the game will be clear and consistent by the time everything is said and done. But so far I am impressed with what I have seen, and I commend the creator for tackling class struggle in a way that feels very authentic to Fire Emblem. Because of the types of stories that these games tell, they are perfectly positioned to ask these types of hard questions about class and power. I’m excited to see more of what Vision Quest has to say on these topics, and I’m happy to see fans willing to dive into them in their own creative works when chances are good that Nintendo never will.