Don’t let the wallpaper fool you. Underneath every game is an endless matrix of numbers that rule each and every possible action. These numbers dictate everything from how well you can swing your sword to how effectively you can shoot a gun.
Numbers don’t lie: some actions are better than others. Some characters are better than others, regardless of how much you may like them as a person. Which should you care about, though?
Playing by the numbers — what I call “spreedsheet gaming” — is amazingly seductive. I don’t want to win, winning is inevitable. What I want is something absolute. When I’m playing, say, Fire Emblem: Awakening (a turn-based strategy game), I want to know that whatever I do with my character is the best move possible.
So I stare at the battlefield, I make a mental note of where everyone is. I move my characters and see how much damage they can do against the nearest units. I check again with different weapons. I try pairing people up with other characters to see if that makes any difference.
Entire scenarios happen in my head, but nothing actually occurs on-screen. Not yet. Not until I’m sure. It has to be just right. And if things don’t go as planned, for whatever reason — maybe I miscalculated, maybe chance threw a wrench into the situation — I restart.
What is it about that hunger for perfection that tantalises me so? I’m not sure. Something about the chase involved, something about a sense of achievement and ascension. Of course, the way I describe the process — the obsession on minutia, the bordering-on-self-punishment that comes with constant restarting — it sounds more like torment than it does delight, right?
Now, add in faces. Add people into this mix: characters with lives and stories that I care about. Characters that I want to learn more about. There are two sides to Fire Emblem, after all.
There’s the chess-like game that occurs during battles. Then there’s the dialogue that happens between those battles, which give you a glimpse as to what kind of a person your soldiers are outside the battlefield.
The more you pair characters up in battle, either by joining them into one unit or by fighting shoulder to shoulder, the better they’ll get to know each other outside of battle — so while there’s a turn-based strategy side of Fire Emblem and a dating sim aspect, they’re intertwined. They affect each other.
I’m particularly fascinated by the candy-loving Gaius, the inscrutable Miriel, the stuck-up Maribelle. These are characters that, based on personality alone, I’m predisposed to using in battle. But all characters are defined in relation to other characters — so when I’m considering character x, I’m bringing in a whole bunch of other characters into the mix depending on who I want to befriend and marry.
Choices must be made. Who gets included and who gets excluded? This is where the tension lies. At first, I would opt for the characters that are best suited for the situation, particularly so here because death is permanent. So I pick my best characters, logistically speaking. But my most powerful units may not be the same characters I like.
Sully, a pegasus knight in Fire Emblem, for instance, is a great character that also happens to be weak (in my game, at current, anyway). Frederick, meanwhile, is a character that I don’t really like but is an army onto himself. I think about this while picking characters.
I pause on the character select screen, mentally weighing the pros and cons of each choice. I wish I didn’t. I wish I could easily choose the character I like the best.
Fire Emblem is merely the latest example in this issue, but I have it constantly — particularly in role-playing games. Before this, there was Mass Effect, Dragon Age, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and Persona 4. Anything that involves choosing a party, really.
Thankfully, I’m finding that more and more, my choices betray my compulsion to spreedsheet game — because the strength of the writing is strong enough that I stop considering what’s going on behind the curtain. That’s a good thing, I think: the high of perfection is fickle and can fade.
Once you figure out how to game a system, it’s practically game over. There are plenty of games that I’ve dropped because the challenge was gone. Adding characters to the spreadsheets make the numbers worth caring about — like, actually caring about.
I’d rather care about characters than about numbers. Things are more humane that way.