During the summer of 2019 I bought myself a Nintendo switch, and a copy of Fire Emblem: Three Houses purely on a whim. I don’t normally buy games at launch, but I needed a first title for my new game system and had never played a fire emblem game before, so I decided to take the plunge. I finished my first play through of the game that fall, and by early 2020 I was working on my first maddening run, the hardest difficulty. Today I’ve completed the game front to back five times. It is easily my favourite single player game in a very long time. Partly because of its interesting, but flawed, game-play, but mostly because it has something interesting to say about conflict that has been in my mind since first playing the game.
(Spoiler warning!!! I’m going to be talking about the ENTIRE three houses story line in detail. If you have any interest in the game stop reading now and play this masterpiece for yourself.)
A game about war.
The main quality that sets Three Houses apart from other war games is the subtle ways it communicates both the horrors and complexities of war. A major issue when designing war games is the limitations of the medium itself. Players want to win, and this simple fact reinforces a very black and white view on warfare that is difficult to get around; there are enemies to defeat, and allies to save. The plot may mess around with the morality of one side or the other, muddy the waters between allies and enemies, by having sympathetic villains, making characters switch sides, questioning the motivations of the hero, or just having the player take side with the villain, but ultimately the final level must have an enemy to overcome and an objective to clear; war is a game with two sides.
At a gameplay level Three Houses is no different. Similar to how most strategy campaigns allow players to pick opposing factions, players in three houses can find themselves on any of four different routes. However, unlike the typical campaign approach, Three Houses hides the branching of the story from the players until absolutely necessary. Players do not need to play through all campaigns in order to get a complete game experience. During the first half of the game all four routes follow an almost identical trajectory. The game only significantly branches the story in the second half. As well, the writers were careful enough to only branch when absolutely necessary. Certain events are shared across routes making it possible to experience the same battles from opposing perspectives. Regardless of which faction the player sides with, they still get to be the hero of their own story, but the interaction between these parallel routes allows us to see biases and complexities that none of the routes individually can express. What we get is a game, fundamentally about war, which is able to express the reality of conflict as more than just two competing sides vying for power.
The titular “Three Houses” refers to the three main student groups at the Officer’s academy. Each house, Blue Lions, Golden Deer, and Black Eagles, represent one of the main political factions on the continent of Fódlan and are each led by one of the games three main protagonists: Dimitri, Claude, and Edelgard. The player character, Byleth a silent protagonist1, is a mercenary recruited by the church of Seiros to teach at their officer’s academy. Early in the game Byleth is given a choice to lead one of these three houses. The player needs to make this choice before any main plot is revealed, and the consequences of this decision isn’t fully appreciated by the player until much later in the game. Each house is made of of eight students and only the mechanical stats and abilities of each ‘unit’ along with a single introductory sentence revealing their personality is revealed to the player before choosing them. The player is encouraged to choose based on little more than mechanical game elements and artistic preference making the decision feel like a character creation screen. However, this choice turns out to be the most consequential decision in the game.
The game is broken into two main parts. The academy phase, or “white clouds”, is a single narrative viewed through the lens of whichever house you choose. Each month, or chapter, the church sends you and your students on a mission that is common across all routes. As the missions progress your class tries prevent an evil ‘Flame Emperor’ and and the loosely associated band of cultists ‘Those who slither in the dark’ from interfering in the affairs of the church. The second half chronicles a war that breaks out over the entire land of Fódlan. There are four possible routes that can be taken depending on the choices made in the first phase; each telling a related but different story2
The game’s mechanics are a big reason why the story of Three Houses works so well. An important part of the fire emblem series as a whole is a mechanic known as permanent death. Unlike other strategy games that might protect playable characters with resurrection items or by returning fallen characters, possibly through an injury mechanic, after the mission is done, dead characters in Three Houses stay dead. Most no longer appear in cinematics, they can no longer be selected for missions, and their story is no longer progressed. Some plot important characters might ‘retreat’ from combat allowing them to fulfill their plot relevant role; however, something terrible inevitably happens to them off screen once the plot no longer needs them. Notoriously, the game can soft lock if the player loses too many of their units, especially on harder difficulties, as they will no longer have the resources to clear later levels. Mechanically, death is this universe has meaning and the plot uses this to great effect.
During the Academy phase the player spends a great deal of time and effort building relationships with the students. Between each monthly mission you can explore the academy campus and talk to nearly every character in the game, who reacts uniquely to the events of the month. You can offer gifts to students, return lost items, share meals, and even invite them to tea parties. All of these activities build support between you and the students. Support offers a small amount of in game benefit by offering bonuses to units with high support when they fight together, but it is mostly used as a mechanic to further the plot. At certain support thresholds the game unlocks support conversations where, in a cut scene, students and faculty members share a little about their life and personal struggles. Importantly, you can interact with students outside your house in this way as well. External students can appear as guest characters in some missions, they can offer up quests for Byleth to complete, and, under certain conditions, can be recruited into your house. During the war phase, all students are forced to pick sides in the oncoming war. All character you recruit side with you, but other character can find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. This allows the later portions of the game to serve up these characters as enemies instead of other faceless minions. Just like how your characters die permanently, characters you face in combat also die when defeated. The act is designed to be emotionally unpleasant, and it is not uncommon to hear of players recruiting as many characters as possible simply so they won’t be forced to kill them later in the game.
Even background characters are treated like this. Rarely do missions require you to go up against nameless bandits, instead enemies are frequently relatives of one of the playable characters. Chapter three has the player put down a rebellion against the church led by Lord Lonato, the adopted father of Ashe a student of the blue lions house. Chapter five has the player fight off bandits, led by Miklan the older brother of Sylvain another member of the blue lions house, who have stolen a hero’s relic. When playing as any other house, these characters are disposable villains, but to both Ashe and Sylvain these are important life changing events that colour the story for the remainder of the game. Likewise, the web of noble houses introduced throughout the game means that generals defeated in the war phase are rarely just the monster of the week, but are instead someone’s relative who might have gotten more screen time if the player had sided with a different faction.
All of this works together to create a world where death matters, which adds necessary emotional weight to the war phase of the game. Edelgard reveals herself to be the Flame Emperor, becomes emperor of Adrestia, and declares war on the church of Seiros at the climax of White Clouds. It is here that the the game loses its silly and naive video game veneer and transforms into something extremely brutal. Few characters escape death, and death itself becomes the primary driver of the story. In this way the game escapes portraying the war as just heroic, but also as the tragedy that it really is.
Edelgard’s War: A war to end war.
Edelgard von Hresvelg born the ninth child of Emperor Ionius IX of the Adrestian Empire. In many ways her story is the story of the Adrestian Empire itself. At a young age she was taken to the Kingdom of Faerghus during a conflict between the emperor and the ruling nobles resulting in a transfer of power away from the Emperor. Upon returning to Adrestia, Edelgard, along with her siblings, found themselves as test subjects in experiments conducted by the cult, Those Who Slither in the Dark, who had at this point deeply embedded themselves in the Adrestian military. They were trying to artificially embed crests, a magical brand that granted the wielder great power, into these children. The emperor, in his much diminished capacity, disproved of these actions, but could do nothing to stop them. Only Edelgard herself survived, making her the de facto heir to the Adrestian throne.
Edelgard stated goals in the war is to overthrow a toxic world order. Her upbringing soured her permanently on the idea of crests which she saw as a physically manifested caste system. Those who have crests wield power, both physical and political. Crest bearers can wield ancient and powerful weapons, known as hero’s relics, while those without crests are driven to madness and transform into giant abominations by those same weapons. Normally crests are inherited genetically, and Fódlan’s noble families are defined by them. The nobles engage in aggressive breading practices in order to create children who bear crests so that they can go on and lead the family into the next generation. Those without crests, even those from the nobility, form a permanent underclass. Noble children without crests often find themselves viewed as lesser to their siblings in the best of cases and frequently outcasts in their own family. Everyone else are commoners and peasants.
Edelgard sets her sights on the church of Seiros because it is the source of stability to the crest system. All crests find their origin in the founding myth of the church Seiros as each crest is linked to the family line of those warriors who aided Seiros in defeating the King of Liberation long ago. It is the church that perpetuates and maintains the entire system. The church sits at the centre of the continent, acts as an intermediary in political disputes between the three ruling powers, and most importantly supports the noble families and their hero relics. This is made clear in chapter five as Miklan, a crestless son of house Gautier, steals the families’ relic. The church’s response is to kill him, retrieve the relic, and return it to house Gautier. Before the system can change, the church must be removed.
Edelgard wishes to see the world free of crests; a world where where those with and without crests can interact as equals. As well she also envisions a world free of the church of Seiros; a world where humans determine their own fate free from the interference of a God. She vowed to use the power that she was unwillingly given to bring about this future; at any cost. However, Edelgard’s war is as much a civil war as it is a foreign war. Destroying the crest system also involves unseating the Adrestian elite just as much as destroying the church, and as one would expect, Edelgard’s coronation also corresponded with the assassination and removal of many of these ‘corrupt’ nobleman. However, this purge has one very notable exception; Lord Arundel.
Lord Arundel is Edelgard’s uncle and the second most powerful man in Adrestia. During Crimson Flower, Edelgard’s route, he represents the Adrestian wing of Those Who Slither in the Dark. Edelgard openly dislikes the cult and many times throughout the game refuse to be associated with them. During chapter eight, after Byleth stops the cult from experimenting on a village full of civilians, Edelgard, disguised as the flame emperor, tries to distance herself from the actions of the cult.
And yet, she never does. During all routes, even her own, the cult are present at nearly every major battle. The death knight, Edelgard’s vassal, is present during most of the cults experiments in the early chapters of the game, they are present in the chapter twelve attack on Garreg Mach in all routes except Crimson Flower, and most notably they are present in Edelgard’s final stand in the Azure Moon route3. In crimson flower, the cult mostly disappears, but Arundel takes their place, and Edelgard seems unwilling or unable to check his power. He is seen as a necessary evil, and while Byleth never works with them directly, they continue to operate in the background unhindered.
The most egregious example of the cults relationship with Edelgard happens after the the battle of Arianrhod chapter sixteen. In this chapter Edelgard attacks and executes Cornelia, a kingdom mage, who was involved with forbidden crest magic. Notably, in the Azure moon route, Cornelia betrays the kingdom in favour of the Adrestian Empire. In Crimson Flower, Lord Arundel condemns Edelgard for executing the mage because if, “that were the case, would it not have been better to keep her as an ally?” Implying that she was associated with the cult. Lord Arundel then warns Edelgard to avoid such mistakes in the future. Moments later, the entire fortress and both armies inside are destroyed in heavenly flame, a weapon that in other routes is tied to the cult. Edelgard suspects the attack came from Arundel, but warns both Byleth and Hubert to keep this secret to themselves. In the next chapter she protects Arundel by blaming the destruction of Arianrhod on the church and uses it as further justification to attack the Kingdom capital directly.
The Crimson Flower route is contentious among the fan-base because it is the shortest route with the least number of missions. It, in many cases, feels lacking and doesn’t do a good job of letting Edelgard tell her own side of the story. Notably the game ends after Seiros, who in a rage transforms into a dragon and sets the kingdom capital and everyone in it on fire, is defeated. The fate of those who slither in the dark, to many disappointed fans, is not resolved. While I believe the story could have been better fleshed out, I do believe the omission of the resolution with the cult is on purpose. Many of the epilogues imply that even though the war is over, Edelgard and Byleth continue to fight an underground war against the cult.
It is hard to believe that Arundel would have gone quietly, which implies that this underground war is just a gentle way to label a much larger civil war. But, the bigger question is what a “world where people can rise and fall by their own merits” actually looks like. Edelgard made it clear that her own feelings on the subject were secondary to her actions. Neither her friends, her enemies, nor her own doubts could convince her to part from her chosen path, and anyone who got in her way wound up dead. Her actions tell a story much stronger than her stated goals. Merit, in Edelgard’s world, is just a pseudonym for useful. The cult aren’t allowed to exist because they deserve it, they are ignored because they are useful. It’s doubtful Edelgard could just suddenly turn off such a fundamental part of her personality, even in peacetime. The above epilogue (There are several depending on how the player ships various characters) implies a happy ending, but it is left unsaid how they go about fixing the issues with society beyond just saying that they did. Yet, this is just to prevent reality from spoiling Edelgard getting to be the hero of her own story. She has already set the precedent that her way to a better world is through the corpses of those in her way, and that she is willing to cooperate with evil so long as it’s useful. Why would she ever let anybody undo that victory? So she does create a better world, one where people who agree with Edelgard can prosper, and everybody else likely met the same fate Dimitri did.