Forget The Most Powerful Characters. Use The Ones You Like.

Forget The Most Powerful Characters. Use The Ones You Like.

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.

The obsession on minutia, the bordering-on-self-punishment that comes with constant restarting — it sounds more like torment than it does delight, right?

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.


  • That’s what bugs me about the Halo community. The second the game comes out, so too does a spreadsheet of all guns and how fast they kill, then everybody sticks with the one weapon that has the shortest. Thus, limiting the game down to just that one weapon and annoying everybody else who wants variety.

    I managed to hold off from that and learned how to master the Assault Rifle in Reach, killing people at all ranges who merely think it’s a “spray-and-pray” n00b weapon.

  • I think how much you agree with this idea depends on if you’re a Timmy, Johnny or Spike. As well as the whole Melvin/Vorthos thing.

    For those that don’t know, Magic: The Gathering uses the above terms to describe player archetypes.

    A Timmy is like the wide-eyed kid. they want things big and simple so that they can go “that was totally awesome!” when something big happens.

    Johnny is more interested in interesting interactions. Finding combos that might not be powerful but add a level of complexity to things.

    Spike just wants to win. Doesn’t matter how, they’re all about brutal efficiency.

    A Spike would disagree with this article because winning is what matters here.

    Then there’s the whole Melvin/Vorthos bit, where a Melvin doesn’t care about the lore/fluff while a Vorthos is dedicated to it. That’s more of a sliding scale that independent of the other archetypes. So a Melvin/Spike wouldn’t care about the characters in Fire Emblem, they just want to use the best to win. On the other hand, a Johnny/Vorthos will probably use weaker characters that are more interesting and allow for some fun little interactions.

    In short, different people find fun in different things.

      • That’s a good name for a vigilante.

        I really oversimplified things and after reading a more recent article about how things are broken up, it’s really not a good description. Do yourself a favour and look up the whole Timmy/Johnny/Spike thing.

    • Awesome comment! I myself graduated from being a Spike/Johnny to being a Timmy/Johnny. Vorthos all the way though. Now I love interesting combos and big awesome stuff but am not too worried about winning. Losing and having fun is a better result for me than winning at all costs.

    • The thing is, the actual result of ‘winning’ isn’t inherently ‘fun.’ If I just gave you 30 chapters of repeated victory screens, you can’t possibly derive ‘fun,’ from that. In video games it’s always about the journey not the destination, or perhaps more accurately, the destination is meaningless without the journey. What Spike presumably really wants is something to do (doesn’t really even need to be challenging necessarily, but it might depending on the person) that has a clear goal, and, obvious or not, a path of least resistance/maximum efficiency. That’s well and good, until you realise that most rules within a video game are ultimately arbitrary, in the sense they only control you as much as you want them to.

      If all that matters is the act of winning, then in a video game, 99% of the time, the most efficient way to do this would be to cheat, to change the rules that can be changed in your favour, in magic, slip some cards up your sleeve or fix your deck, which ironically plenty of people that fall into ‘Spike’ would have a problem with. In Fire Emblem, if you can only take 9 units in to battle, why not alter that to 10? 9 is an arbitrary limit set by the developers, they might think it’s the perfect number for balance, but game devs are fallible, it’s doesn’t simply follow from the level design that 9 must be the limit and any other number is wrong, Spike might think 10 is a better amount! By the same token, someone who only uses characters they like can still very much be playing with the aim to win, they’re simply doing so with their own arbitrary rule that they feel makes the game more ‘fun.’

      I’m not trying say playing to win can’t be ‘fun,’ just that there’s maybe more to ‘winning’ than a video game informing you that you’ve ‘won.’ Spike doesn’t just want to ‘win,’ he/she wants to be given a set of goals and restrictions on how to reach said goals, and then find the path of least resistance to those goals. You might think I’m just talking semantics and of course that’s the definition of ‘winning,’ but I challenge you to spend any amount of time in a competetive online community and deny that many people fundamentally believe it’s all about that ‘victory’ screen, the route there be damned.

      TL;DR I’m not actually disagreeing here just suggesting the idea of Spike might be a bit misguided, essentially,
      ‘Spike just wants to win. Doesn’t matter how, they’re all about brutal efficiency.”
      I’d say the ‘how’ always matters, the ‘how’ is where fun is derived.

      • I grossly oversimplified Timmy/Johnny/Spike. Like I said above, it’s definitely worth looking up some more detailed explanations. Mark Rosewater has written about it several times, you could start with his stuff.

        Spikes are generally the competitive players, they’re the ones that like to beat others. That doesn’t mean that it’s just about the victory screen, just that they derive their joy from winning more than, say, exploring or experimenting.

        That being said, the “how” matters more to Timmys and Johnnys.

        The point is that different aspects of games appeal to different people, and this article ignores that.

  • I used to be more of a power gamer, now I stick with who I like. Like replaying FFVIII, ignoring Zell because he’s a douche, even though he has the most powerful limit break.

  • I hate having to choose a party. Most RPGs don’t level anyone up that isn’t in your active party (or do so at reduced XP gains) so you have a choice of either rotating your party or picking your “power party” at the expense of either having to grind the lower members up if it turns out you need them later or just forever condemn them to magically appearing in cut scenes. Generally I just go for whoever I like personality wise but also consider the abilities and their synergy.

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