Permadeath does not work in Fire Emblem, and the game has absolutely no interest in making it work in any meaningful way. You can tell this because there are about two lines of dialogue that play when a character dies, and there are hundreds for every possible combination of friendship/marriage/family. Plus, dead people show up in cutscenes. See, they didn’t have to spend their time and energy that way.
I will talk about those in this month’s ZEAL, but I will talk about why not death right now.
Much like in reality, permadeath in Fire Emblem is the random result of luck and miscalculation. Unlike real life, you can save and reload if you don’t like what happened. So why would you ever not do that, when you have nothing to gain and so much to lose?
However: when I asked people, the response I got most consistently was “I let the death stand if I thought it was cool/interesting/tragic” or “I don’t ever reload.” Death isn’t supported mechanically in Fire Emblem, and it is only barely supported narratively, but there were a significant portion of people who let characters die anyway. Even though the game isn’t doing any work to make character death interesting, the players are. Unsupported narrative hacking. Caution: doing so may void your warranty.
There is a genre of writing based completely on assigning arbitrary human meaning to the uncaring chaos of the universe. We call this “nonfiction,” and it has a lot in common with the way folx tell stories about video games. The game, for example, does not care that a major character dies by accident in the first level of Fire Emblem, but you could say that you’re going to act as if losing his sister was a critical event for Chrom and that it motivates and colors his actions for the rest of the game. The game doesn’t know or care, but you do, and you can make that narrative work kind of fan-fiction that lives in your head.
Death is hard to write about in nonfiction, too, because humans stubbornly assign meaning to arbitrary events, and nothing is more arbitrary and senseless than death. For the crowd that only saves and reloads during deaths that aren’t sufficiently cool/interesting/tragic, the standard being exercised is how meaningful that death seems to them, and if it seems like bullshit, well reload it. Or maybe you’re being meta and letting the randomness of the death stand because you want your playthrough to carry that sensation of the meaninglessness of death, which is itself a conscious choice on your part! The bizarre result of a game containing both permadeath and a trivial workaround is every death is consciously chosen by the player. Isn’t that so weird?
I love Fire Emblem to pieces just the way it is, but I would like to play a game where there are like, funeral scenes, memorials, characters broken up and reminiscing about their friends/lovers/family. I’d like to play a game that actually helps set up really dramatic/tragic/interesting deaths for the characters. A game as focused on death as Fire Emblem is on marriage (a tragedy to Fire Emblem’s comedy, in the classical sense I guess).