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.
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.