Welcome back to Season 2 of the Character Column, where we run down all manner of royal, ruffian, and rough-around-the-edges rube in a weekly analysis of various characters. Last time we kicked the season off with a look at one of my favorite villains, the horrifyingly complex Porky Minch.
The first season of the Character Column was something near and dear to my heart… at first. Over time, while I still had fun with the format, and jumped at the chance to talk about characters I enjoyed, it began to feel repetitive after time. The vast majority of the pieces could be boiled down to “I find [character] likable or interesting and here’s why,” and while there were a couple pieces where I was able to take a more creative spin (such as with The Photographer or Waluigi), by its unseemly end I had grown tired of repeating similar praises. And when I decided to do a Season 2, I wanted to make sure that I avoided that same pitfall.
So today, we’re doing something that we haven’t done around here before: talk about a character that I don’t like. In fact, it’s one that I’d almost say I hate. I’m actually notorious among my friends for my distaste of this particular character. And while I’m far past the peak of my loathing, there’s no denying that when it comes to Corrin, the wide-eyed and callow protagonist of Fire Emblem Fates, I still feel a bitter taste just talking about them.
But this is going to be no mere character assassination. You see, Corrin’s been divisive since… well, practically his/her introduction. (I’m just gonna use ‘her’ from now on, for clarity’s sake.) Even before Fates came out, her status as one of the last DLC fighters in Smash 4 drew controversy. And then people actually played the game, and while she did draw a large swath of fans, she also got a lot of detractors from people unsatisfied with the game’s ramshackle plot. So just reiterating all of those complaints (of which there are far too many to cover concisely, considering Fates as a whole takes anywhere from 80 to 200 hours) isn’t really my prerogative.
So I’m not going to talk about Corrin being stupid, or overly innocent, or bland, or any other of those basic yet mostly valid criticisms. I’m going to instead consider Corrin from a very particular angle — that of an avatar; a supposed blank slate for the audience to project themselves into. And when examined from that angle, I think it’s evident that she just doesn’t work. But it isn’t really her fault at the same time. Why? Well, let me explain…
(Note: I want to make it clear that nobody’s opinion is bad or irrelevant. If you like Corrin, by all means keep likin’ her. I’m just trying to explain why my issues with her. That’s all. Oh, and I’ll only be talking about her within Fates — no Heroes or Warriors content here, though I’ll note that reception of her character there is all around more positive. And before I forget…)
Spoilers for Fire Emblem Fates and Fire Emblem Awakening to follow! Read at your own risk!
A history of “My Unit”
Corrin is really just the current apotheosis of a decently long trend of avatars within the entire Fire Emblem series. The trend got started very roughly in the seventh (and best) installment, Blazing Blade, titled just “Fire Emblem” in the West. The tactician self-insert — defaultly named Mark — had no speaking lines, no discernible personality, and the barest possible minimum impact on the story. Really, he/she served one function: to act as a surrogate to bring the player closer to Lyn and a couple other characters. But you could excise the concept entirely from the game and have lost very little, in all honesty. It feels almost disingenuous to consider this the start of FE avatars, it’s so barebones.
The next avatar wouldn’t happen until the Japan-only New Mystery of the Emblem ~ Heroes of Light and Shadow (say it three times fast), a remake of the series’ third entry that added a self-insert guard to Marth named Kris. Kris is… generally detested by the western fandom, and I can understand why: he/she is remarkably bland, steals a couple of moments from already established characters, is overpowered, and doesn’t really contribute anything to the overall story. They have their fans to be sure, but they have much more significance for serving as the first avatar who’s an actual unit than they do as an interesting or nuanced character.
The next attempt, however, proved to be the most prominent of all FE avatars — definitely pre-Corrin, and arguably still so. Because FE Awakening’s Robin has it all — a cool and unique design, hypercompetence in gameplay, and a more established presence than either of his/her forebears. (I’ll stick with ‘his’ from here on out, again for clarity.) And all of that is valid. But I’m interested more in his viability as a self-insert, and I think there are a couple factors that led to him in particular working:
- Importance in the story…
Unlike Mark and Kris, Robin is baked into the fabric of the story from the get-go. And while he’s not initially pivotal, he ends up taking an instrumental role in the third act (where he’s revealed to be the villain) and has some outstanding moments.
- …Without hogging the spotlight.
Robin doesn’t steal the show verbatim, either. A lot of the game features Chrom as the primary protagonist, and there’s argument to be made that Lucina is equally prominent within the plot. What’s more, his relationship with Chrom ties very well into the game’s themes of bonds and making up for each other’s weaknesses, making them one of the franchise’s most iconic duos.
- Acknowledgement by other characters.
Mark and Kris got the occasional pat on the back, but Robin – as a speaking tactician — really feels like a valuable part of the army, and one who fits in among the other Shepherds. Supports between him and the cast and friendly and revealing rather than dull or kowtowing.
- Marriage mechanics.
As much as some FE vets like to grind their teeth about it, the addition of romance in Awakening does allow players to get more emotionally invested in particular characters – even if talking a total of three times before getting hitched is a little hasty. This is especially true with Chrom, as the “Chrobin” pairing remains extremely popular to this day.
- Actual (sparse) possibilities for decision-making and role-playing.
There are several points throughout the story where Robin – and the player – get to make decisions to flesh out their personality and philosophy. While these moments are generally maligned since they don’t ever affect anything (except for the very last one), it does technically provide the opportunity for the player to make a moral decision. Even if it’s not implemented as well as it should be.
- A personality.
It may seem counterintuitive to list this, but it’s true — Robin has a defined personality, albeit one with enough temperance to still be easily projected upon. He’s logical, faithful, studious, and a bit snarky at times. It even differs a little by gender — Male Robin is more passive and reserved, while Female Robin tends to be more emotional and outspoken. So even if you don’t want to role-play, you can still enjoy his character.
Robin isn’t the focus of this particular essay, but I think that establishes a thorough list of reasons why he works as a character, and as an avatar. While Awakening gets a bit of flak for its writing from certain corners — some deserved, some decidedly less so — I find that Robin is about as well implemented an avatar as can be… at least, for the way FE does things, with heavy dialogue (as opposed to a silent protag that you can presuppose your words onto) and a focus on character relationships.
The fated princess
Seeing the success and popularity of Awakening, it’s pretty understandable why Intelligent Systems would make the protagonist of their next game an avatar — a number of people complained about Robin stealing Chrom’s thunder (a criticism that, in retrospect, I wholeheartedly disagree with), so having a single defined protagonist would alleviate the issue. And they clearly had a good thing going with Robin. Clearly they just needed to do pretty much the same as last time and everything would go swimmingly. And for posterity, let’s summarize Corrin’s character briefly, with a full knowledge of the game’s lore at our disposal.
Born as royalty of Valla, a mystical invisible kingdom you can’t talk about lest you vaporize immediately (Fates!), Corrin was taken by her mother Mikoto to Hoshido, where she was to be raised as daughter of Mikoto and King Sumeragi. But after an ambush that led to the monarch’s demise, she’s seized by King Garon of Nohr, where she is raised in captivity as his daughter, until the day she is finally let free. After a turn of events that lead to her discovering her “birth” family — and the death of Mikoto — she’s left to make a decision: to join the family she was born into, or the one that raised her, or neither.
So, looking at the exact same points I outlined above, let’s consider Corrin. Starting with…
Importance to the story; hogging the spotlight, and acknowledgement by other characters
As the central protagonist, it’s important to… well, be important. It can feel a little disheartening to be some joe schmoe from Nowhere, Kansas when everybody around you is Awesome McCool. Which is why it’s essential to make an avatar important to the story. Even before he was revealed to be Grima’s incarnation, Robin is established as somebody interesting and exceptional, especially when compared to Mark and Kris. So it follows that Corrin would be similarly unique and enticing.
And she certainly doesn’t lack in that — in fact, Corrin is exceedingly, all-encompassingly special. She’s not only a daughter of two (actually three!) nations, but she’s the only one of her dragon-descended family members — besides Garon, a villain — able to turn into a dragon! She can travel into a pocket dimension with its own castle and keep (technically because of Lilith, but My Castle keeps going after she bites it, so…?) safe from harm! She’s literally chosen by the mystical sword Yato, which becomes the titular Fire Emblem, to save the land!
The issue becomes not just that the story revolves around Corrin, but that the very world does. The heroes love her unconditionally no matter her deeds; the villains detest her very existence for no adequately explained reason. This is meant to play to the player’s instincts — after all, shouldn’t your allies like you and your foes detest you? — but it never feels fully justified in-universe. It’s notable when characters don’t follow this binary way of thinking.
And this comes at the expense of other, more defined characters. Ryoma and Xander are heir apparents to their respective thrones, but when they’re on your side they seem to defer to Corrin’s judgement at every turn. Ally motivations for major characters seem almost always to have something to do with her, whether it’s jealousy (Takumi), adoration (Elise & Sakura), or downright obsession (Camilla). She even has her own cadre of maids and butlers, for heaven’s sake. Outside of supports between unrelated characters, it really does feel like the world of Fates revolves around her, and resistance or opposition to her ideas is nigh non-existent.
The game will at times bend over backwards in defiance of reason in order to accentuate Corrin’s greatness — and thus stroke the player’s ego. One of the more egregious examples of this is how in Conquest, Corrin somehow makes it through battles without killing anybody. How? You just massacred legions of soldiers with a dragon-spear-hand, and you want me to believe you were being non-lethal? But this doesn’t really make the player feel unique or special — rather it actively estranges them from the character’s place because the preening makes it difficult to suspend disbelief.
The other thing this avatar-centric approach does is dilute one of the greatest appeals to FE’s storytelling — foils. Nearly every game in the series has lords who find allies they contrast with greatly: look at the difference in attitude between Sigurd and his son Seliph, the conflict between Alm and Celica, the balanced dynamic of Lyn, Eliwood, and Hector. Even more solo protags like Marth and Ike have confidants, advisors, and allies who they have friction with as they struggle to make peace. And, as mentioned, the nature of the bond between Chrom (a fixed character) and Robin (a flexible avatar) created an engaging relationship. With Corrin, it merely feels solipsistic — the closest we get to a real foil is Azura, but her presence is uneven and passive enough that the Corrin Love Train never really stops.
And this is not to say that Corrin’s family shouldn’t love her, or that she shouldn’t be super special awesome, or that she shouldn’t be able to accomplish everything. But when the game’s morality is so decidedly slanted in favor of the protagonist, it breaks immersion, and the player feels disconnected from the avatar. When a fictional family and my army heaps undeserved praise upon my character, I don’t feel flattered — I feel like rolling my eyes.
This is a much smaller point comparatively, as Fates still has plenty of bachelors and bachelorettes that I wouldn’t bat an eye at, and still maintain that that is a fine and dandy way to invest the audience emotionally in the characters to a point. (Face petting? Maybe a mite far.) But I think there comes a natural disconnect when an avatar and a character have a pre-established relationship that potentially interferes with the player’s desire to have romantic relationships with said character. Or, in other words: why can Corrin marry all her goddamn siblings?
See, this issue was present a little in Awakening — marrying the child characters carried an underlying question of “hey, isn’t that your best friend’s kid?” (looking at you, Lucina-wedders!) and I won’t handwave that away entirely. But because Robin had a pretty blank slate relationship with any first-gen characters, there wasn’t really that issue. Not that it couldn’t be problematic in other ways… (Why did Nowi have to look like she was ten? Why?)
So say you’re like me and your favorite character is Takumi, because he’s interesting and three-dimensional and has some actual, you know, good writing. If I were playing as Robin — a previously unrelated character, irrelevant to his backstory — then I wouldn’t have any compunctions about romancing him. But as Corrin, whom the game is constantly reminding me is his sister? I have a lot harder time getting down with that.
And this isn’t about blood relations or anything like that (though I do hold a grudge against the game for not telling me Azura is Corrin’s cousin before I had two kids with her). I think pre-existing relationships between an avatar and other characters can make for interesting dynamics and player choices. But it can also drive the player away from other decisions that they would be able to make on a complete blank slate. So it once again muddies her supposed role as an avatar for the player to project onto. Not that it stops the shippers. Nothing ever stops the shippers.
Decision making and role-playing
I find this part maybe the most ironic. Because for all the billing and hype Fates had as being a game with very significant choices, it ends up being only a choice of how much money to spend and on which version(s). Seriously — besides the big “route split” that determines whether you’re playing Birthright, Conquest, or Revelation, there’s like, one choice in the entire game, and that’s whether or not to kill Shura and take his boots in Conquest. Otherwise, Corrin doesn’t come across any noteworthy choices within the campaigns.
Now, is lack of choice preferable to the illusion of choice? Conventional wisdom says yes, as attempting to dupe the player into believing they can change things is generally seen as bad. But I would argue that for this instance, at least, it’s not – yes, it’s frustrating that your actions don’t actually impact the story, but at the same time, you’re allowed to have an opinion on how things play out, even if that opinion isn’t enacted. While obviously having any sort of effect on the game (even if it’s something as simple as relationship points) is most preferable, if you’re trying to have a self-insert, then you should have some semblance of control over their character at times.
This one is tricky, because I feel like Corrin both has more and less personality than Robin at times, but always in the worst ways.
As the focal point of the narrative, Corrin tends to have more defined moral imperatives — see the “no killing guys plz“ in Conquest mentioned above for an example — which make it harder to project your own ethical standards into. But at the same time, her personality also feels… more vanilla than Robin’s. Outside of her familial struggles, she doesn’t seem to have much in the way of interests or hobbies. Most of her supports focus on the other person in the relationship, with only her sibling/Azura supports garnering much in the way of character on her behalf. (In my experience, at least — there are too many damn supports in this game for me to make a mass generalization like that.) Part of this can be attributed to localization — while I will forever believe that Treehouse was way too overly villainized for their handling of this game, there’s no denying that 8-4’s work on Awakening carried a greater amount of zest and charm when it came to its cast.
Yet people have also noted that Corrin’s personality actually does change… while she’s always trusting and nice, her secondary traits wrinkle slightly depending on the campaign you choose. In Birthright she’s straightforward, doesn’t seem to have much compunction about killing, and could be almost bloodthirsty at times. In Conquest she’s pacifistic, kind to a fault, and also very, very stupid. Finally, in Revelation, she is a perfect and adoring queen-to-be who is as convincing of her cause in-universe as she is banally uninspiring out-of-game.
Now it’s not as these are radical shifts in character, and they do somewhat reflect the consequences of that initial decision — in Birthright it makes sense that you would be filled with righteous vengeance; in Conquest you would have to be really dumb to trust Garon after what he did; in order to accomplish what occurs in Revelation you really would need to be Empress of the Mary Sues. In a better written game overall, I’d daresay it was nuanced or clever. But what it actually accomplishes feels more like a confusion of character, as her core, driving philosophy changes just enough between routes as to become blurry. Which means that not only is role-playing as her harder: treating her as her own, separate character can be difficult, because you have to clarify which Corrin you’re talking about.
Ok, where are you going with all this?
My basic question at the start is this: does Corrin work as a self-insert? To which I think I’ve established that my answer is a firm ‘no’ — the game’s treatment of her feels unrealistically pandering, her established role within the world interferes with potential romantic wants, and there isn’t much opportunity to actually give her your own voice or philosophy. Corrin doesn’t feel like an avatar; she feels like a character. And not a great one, at that.
But I mentioned at the start that I didn’t think it was her fault, really. And honestly, no flaws are the character’s fault; characters are ultimately a tool of the writer, and any positives or negatives are a result of either their proficiency or their ineptitude (though of course the audience’s viewpoint also affects their own understandings of characters). What I mean is that Corrin is just in that strange place between avatar and character that FE always employs.
As much as people poke fun at them, there’s a reason silent protagonists like Link exist — not just because it’s easier to have, but because the player can project themselves much more easily on a voiceless doll than a chattering box. No matter how bland and lifeless you attempt to make your avatar be, the more a character talks, the more traits will inevitably collect, until — in the absence of an audience — they maintain a character of their own. And I find that to be a good thing, most of the time. I enjoy Robin more when I consider him as his own entity rather than a reflection of myself. And when you get down to it, that’s true of Corrin too.
There’s a lot of other stuff I could’ve mentioned about Corrin, little of which would’ve been exalting. Despite being overstuffed with content, each route in Fates feels like it has little going on, and most of Corrin’s complexities are boiled down to meaningless prattle. If this had been the usual fare, I would’ve just run down all the dumb decisions she made, the weirdness with which her family nearly obsesses over her, and how she generally lacks any sort of charisma.
But it’s strange — because honestly? Looking at her primary list of traits: niceness, naivety, and reluctance — I feel like she and I have a lot in common. I think a lot of our favorite characters reflect certain parts of our personality, or certain traits we wish we had. And had she been played out not as a reflection of my persona, but as a separate character… maybe, on some level, I would’ve liked her.
Plus, gotta hand it to her — she’s cute. And has a way better haircut than her male version.
Next time: I’m not done with this whole avatar business yet. We keep the question and switch franchises to our favorite bunch of squid kids, as we looks and wonder what happens when protagonists collide. Until then!
“So this…is the end… Forgive me everyone… I didn’t…accomplish anything…” – Corrin’s death quote.
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