Fire Emblem has has always been a franchise that juxtaposes the florid magic of fantasy roleplaying games with the grim realities of war. Protect your troop of idiosyncratic anime children from death as you save the world from an evil dragon and/or sorcerer, bathe in the blood of your enemies as you ensure a peaceful future through violence.
Just as traditional in Fire Emblem narratives is an element of melodramatic tragedy. Fates was the first Fire Emblem game to formalize that concept, forcing the player to choose between different story routes — two of which included inevitable fights against characters that could have been allies. And then Three Houses took it even further, its branching narratives demanding you fight even more of your former friends, a tacit demonstration of the horrors of war.
Three Houses is a sprawling, continent-wide power struggle, and with its built-in penchant for tragedy, it should be a perfect interrogation of the consequences of that kind of power. But it never fulfills that potential. Despite paying a lot of lip service to the idea of overturning a society built on hereditary wealth and power, as a narrative it is only interested in powerful characters.
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Teatime with Dictators
In Three Houses, you are Byleth, a mercenary-turned-professor who wields an extremely powerful weapon. Well, two weapons. One is a sword that literally burns with destructive potential. The other is time itself, courtesy of the goddess that lives in your head. And you have an array of important choices to make, the most important of which being which house of students at an officer’s academy you will teach.
I chose Edelgard and the Black Eagles, because I believe in the spiritual power of women wielding axes. And it slowly became clear that Edelgard’s story was meant to be different from the standard Fire Emblem narrative. Edelgard is an invader, a destroyer. Her stated goal is to eradicate the church that runs the school you teach at, and as such she becomes the surprise antagonist of Claude and Dimitri’s routes. But joining her reveals her motivations: to create a world where the aristocracy no longer exists and to eliminate the entrenched power structure of Fódlan.
Three Houses wants to be a game that shows that tragedy is inevitable in war, that the byzantine power struggles of the noble class always have a cost in blood. Edelgard’s route aims to take that further by pitting the player against the established order, to show that fighting against the status quo can be righteous when the status quo rewards the powerful and oppresses the powerless. The theme is always the consequences of power and the pitfalls for those who wield it, yet this theme is betrayed by one of the game’s own strengths.
Three Houses desperately wants you to like its characters and try to get them to like you back. And it succeeds –– the characters of every house are unique and charming. As you move through support conversations, every line of dialogue is crafted to make you fall in love with these people. They have hidden talents, painful backstories, varying levels of talent for music, and for me at least, they are the reason the game is so engaging. But this quest for likability is so all-encompassing that even the game’s thematic goals fall by the wayside in deference to it.
For instance, Dorothea is a commoner, and her experiences with greedy, uncaring nobles have left her with an understandable grudge towards the upper crust of society. Yet in support conversations, her grudge is treated like a prejudice she needs to get over. Ferdinand, the son of a powerful noble family, makes it his mission to teach her that not all nobles are like that.
Conversely, Sylvain is a nobleman born with a Crest, which essentially makes him the upper crust of the upper crust. He is in line to inherit his family’s lands and titles, he studies at the most prestigious school on the continent, and yet he spends all his time complaining about his situation. Sylvain thinks he’s oppressed because he has a Crest, because his family doesn’t allow him to do what he wants. This kind of noble self-pity is all over Three Houses, because what the game really wants is for you to empathize and feel sorry for these characters, regardless of the positions of power they hold.
Every part of Three Houses is dominated by nobility. The most egalitarian of the three nations, the Leicester Alliance, is governed by an oligarchy of nobles. Edelgard’s rebellion, ostensibly begun to destroy the aristocracy, is led by an empress with the full weight of her country’s military. The epilogue makes no mention of abolishing the imperial power structure after her victory, merely stating that it was now “free from the tyranny of Crests and status,” a superficial fix that seems fine with the idea that some people have more than others, so long as it’s not given to them because of their bloodline. The game wants to draw your attention to the bloody cost of wars started by those in power, and advocates a more egalitarian system than an entrenched noble class, but on a structural level all it ever wants you to look at are the most privileged members of society.
“I Have No Worry About It”
Even when Three Houses gets a chance to explore the wreckage left behind by past wars, it ignores it rather than make a character seem like a malcontent. Most notably, Petra and Dedue each despise one of the three powers of Fódlan for their crimes against their people. Petra hates the Adrestian Empire because they subjugated her homeland of Brigid and kept her as a political hostage. Dedue hates the Kingdom of Faerghus because they murdered his family along with the rest of the Duscur people.
It would seem like these two would be great opportunities for Three Houses to hold its other characters accountable, characters that may not have been involved in these war crimes but benefit from them nonetheless. Yet both Petra and Dedue make a repeated point that they don’t blame any individual from these countries, just the vague notion of the countries themselves. In her support conversations with Caspar, whose father literally killed her father, Petra actually chides herself for ever harboring any ill feelings towards him. What could be an effective reminder of the cost of power and the way these countries persecute and subjugate their vassals instead becomes a flaccid platitude about not holding on to hate.
Instead of interrogating how the squabbles of the powerful create an unending wave of consequences, Three Houses, like most Fire Emblem games, is content to stop after making the point that bloody conflict is a tragedy. There is no use remembering injustice, or fighting to hold aristocrats accountable, even though the narrative forces players into a war with no right answers.
Speaking of the war, let’s talk about Byleth.
Verdant Moon, Crimson Snow
Byleth is the most powerful person on the face of the planet. Without Byleth, it is implied in both Edelgard and Dimitri’s routes that the war would deadlock in a bloody stalemate. Your choice at the beginning of the game is the choice of who shall seize power at the end. In that light, you are never really the protagonist — you merely choose who will be. You are given more power than any other character in the game, but all you can do with it is choose which group of elites to aid, which world power deserves to take control.
By the same token, it hardly matters which route you pick, since Byleth’s rise to prominence is always the central feature of the narrative. You always play second fiddle to a house leader, but you are still the straw that breaks Fódlan’s back, the weight that tips the scales. You are the Sword of Damocles, and the only choice you can make is whose head to fall on. And much like the original story of Damocles, Three Houses largely ignores the plight of commoners, preferring to always center those in power. It isn’t a tale of the powerless threatening the powerful with retribution, it is a story that invites you to feel sorry for the powerful.
Even if you choose to help Edelgard, it is still Byleth’s (literally) god-given power that carries the day, rather than an uprising led by the people. You, as Byleth, lead an unstoppable, unkillable army of the most skilled and privileged fighters in the world, ready to reverse time at a moment’s notice should anything not go according to plan. No matter whose side you’re on, your story starts and ends in a position of power, and eventually you have to reckon with Three Houses’ thematic problem: You can’t accurately interrogate the nature of power and be a power fantasy at the same time.