How Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE uses the Wii U gamepad as a narrative tool

So I just finished playing the prologue chapter of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE which is really the first two hours of the game. It may seem like I’m jumping the gun on discussing it but the way the game uses the Wii U gamepad to immerse the player likely has its most impact in the beginning.

For those who don’t know, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is a mash-up of the RPG series Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem, the SMT part specifically pulling from the Persona playbook. The set-up is almost exactly that of a Persona game with high schoolers that get pulled into fighting spirits in an alternate dimension except this time the spirits fighting alongside you are Fire Emblem characters. There’s also a heavy dose of idol culture that isn’t as prevalent in either of the parent series (outside of Rise from Persona 4).

It may not be packing much in the story department but it surprised me by showcasing how second-screen functionality can open up narrative immersion. Other Wii U games have used the tablet-style controller to enhance gameplay– which makes sense given that’s Nintendo’s focus– but as someone interested in interactive storytelling it’s always disappointed me that we rarely if ever saw it used in that capacity.

In Tokyo Mirage Sessions the gamepad is used to display the protagonist’s phone. You can view the text messages he receives from his friends and on occasion respond with smoke-and-mirrors dialogue options. When you first get control of this feature you can read recent conversations he’s already had with his friends, building upon their characters and cementing their existence before the story’s starting point.

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An example of the gamepad functionality.

Mind you, this is not necessarily an original concept. Other games have had similar features available as pop-up menus and the DS line has even seen this function relegated to its own touchscreen. But what sets apart the second-screen experience is that it’s disconnected from your TV. In this case it feels like you’re holding the phone in your hands. It’s that extra step of immersion that makes you feel like a part of the world, elevating it beyond a glorified menu.

There’s one other moment in the game’s prologue I want to highlight as a gaming-specific storytelling moment. Your friend Touma texts you when you enter the alternate dimension for the first time, insinuating that he too has been there. When he shows up right before the boss battle he’s already leveled up a bit and has acquired his “Performa” (slight cringe at that pun). It’s necessary for the gameplay situation and most games wouldn’t bother to address it but in Tokyo Mirage Sessions it’s intentionally used to establish the past. It furthers the idea that this is a world our characters lived in before we observed them.

I don’t want to insinuate that this game is completely innovating the way stories are told in games; it’s actually quite par for the course in many ways. You have free roaming segments where you talk to strangers, visual novel-style dialogue and anime cutscenes to punctuate big moments. There’s also a disappointing lack of subtitles for flavor dialogue (the game only has a Japanese voice track). But it’s the extra touches that make or break an otherwise standard story as displayed here.

I’m unsure whether Tokyo Mirage Sessions continues to use contextualization to expand its narrative scope but it left a good first impression. Sadly we’re not going to see more unique uses of the gamepad as the Switch is just over a month away from replacing the Wii U. Perhaps smartphones and tablets can be used to this effect in the future but that was already tried and largely abandoned by the big players in the games industry.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to play some more. If I come across anything else significant I’ll report back.

5 thoughts on “How Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE uses the Wii U gamepad as a narrative tool

  1. You had me at “Fire Emblem”. But I must admit, this is a neat idea I would like to test, though I’m short a Wii U, so I’m not sure if I would be able to try this any time soon. Regardless, I am interested in seeing these sorts of inventive touches to gaming being executed well, in hopes they aren’t merely fads that fail and fall into the ether.

    When introducing any new mechanics or applying new mechanics to an additional tool in gaming, there needs to be an extra layer of compatibility in order for it to work or be worth the hassle. When these (for the lack of a better word) gimmicks are made part of the game, it shouldn’t feel extraneous or something that detracts from the overall experience, but instead should be a primary reason to play the game. Because it’s not only a creative feature, but also a core aspect that makes the game feel unique and (again, for the lack of a better word) fun to play.

    Don’t take my words to heart, since I’m currently burnt out on video games and their ploys. It’s just something I remain wary of and act skeptical toward whenever I hear of a unique feature in a game. Mind you, I’m speaking of previous encounters, not this one – which I do find appealing that you the gamepad serves as your character’s phone with texts already there from the start. This concept was also done in Life is Strange (minus the gamepad) and I found it quite engaging there, so I imagine the case would be similar here for me as well.

    Nice post. Can’t wait to read more!
    ~ Ace

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Honestly I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the game on the grounds of the gamepad integration or Fire Emblem connection. The latter is really ancillary to a game that feels like Persona by way of being a super otaku anime with FE characters sprinkled in for flavor. You could take them out and nothing would change.

      I agree, it’s important with games to have system fluidity. Everything has to play off something else to justify its inclusion in the gameplay loop. Flavor is important as well, though. As I’ve played it seems like the texting becomes important as a means to guide the player and to let them know when certain upgrades are ready but the real meat is that it makes the game world always feel alive. You could remove the feature and the game wouldn’t change much from a mechanical perspective but it also would feel flatter.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Blog update: The future of Thoughts That Move – Thoughts That Move

  3. “Performa” is not a pun on “persona”. It refers not to the mirages, but to the baser material that they eat, and that you collect and use to unlock your potential. It’s a pun on the core series Shin Megami Tensei’s “Forma”, which is used in those games to upgrade things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is something I figured out later. As I said in the piece, this was written after the prologue section which I don’t believe delved into the upgrade/unlock system. I also wasn’t aware of the SMT connection there and assumed it was a spin on Persona… I think it works as both, honestly?

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