This article contains major spoilers for Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
Edelgard is right about everything.
Okay, maybe not about everything. Forging a fake alliance with a bunch of evil druids who do zombie experiments on villagers might not be her best look, and on my playthrough at least, she obliterated Flayn with a critical hit when it turned out my Byleth didn’t have a high enough support level to talk her down. But when all was said and done with my first playthrough of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I was comfortable with my choices. For the first time in what feels like a long time, a video game had offered me the chance to play as a medieval revolutionary—something that sounds a lot easier to do than it is.
I’ve always been a fan of Fire Emblem as a series, but outside of a few standouts here and there I couldn’t tell you much about what happened in most of them. Despite being aimed squarely at me and my love of medieval fantasy, I’ve always primarily been drawn to the series’ aesthetics rather than any investment in the story. What makes this entry so different is its commitment to building out a world with believable politics grounded by historical inspirations. Three Houses really wants you to care.
Fire Emblem has always been populated with memorable characters painted with very broad brushes, but they’ve never inhabited a world quite so fleshed out as Fodlán. With a massively inflated playtime (I finished my first route, apparently the shortest, in about 50 hours) and social mechanics similar to the kind you find in popular JRPGs, the writers had ample space to get way, way more into worldbuilding than previous entries. And magic crests and shapeshifting mages aside, the historical influences are ample.
Three Houses was developed by Intelligent Systems in conjunction with the Koei Tecmo team responsible for the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series. It’s easy to see their influence, right down to the story being about three political factions fighting for control of a kingdom. The Romance series drills down into a very specific history and the apocrypha surrounding it, but with Three Houses, the story doesn’t have to adhere to a story people know. It’s fascinating to look at the results: Rather than picking a specific time period to play in, the team clearly cast a wide net through European history to find events and concepts both big and small to create Three Houses’ complicated political interplay.
The setting of Three Houses, Garreg Mach, is a military academy that serves the Central Church, a religious seat of power that holds great influence over all three kingdoms of Fodlán, echoing the overlapping relationship of real churches and governments throughout European history. The ghost of a brutal massacre hangs over any interactions with characters from Duscur, a nation Dmitri’s kingdom of Faerghus put to the sword in a vengeful crusade. And then there’s Claude and the Leicester Alliance, who appear to be the most enlightened of the bunch—they’ve moved past monarchism and are now governed by a parliament of noble families. Things are, of course, not so simple. The divide between noble and commoner is still as vast as ever, depending on which character you ask.
Putting all of these ideas together is a recipe for instant political intrigue. It’s like a greatest hits album of historical European wars, or a show where Pope Innocent III and Oliver Cromwell have to live in the Big Brother house together. Despite the cast primarily consisting of bubbly anime caricatures, the prevailing emotion in Three Houses is resentment. Just beneath the surface, a lot of these characters are filled with rage about something another character represents. For example, the charming songstress Dorothea has achieved success and fortune despite lacking noble birth, and can’t wait to tell literally every noble character that they are little worms to her. Ingrid and Mercedes, who I recruited away from Golden Deer into my own Black Eagle house, are fed up with their families pressuring them to marry into status to ensure political stability for their bloodlines. Cyril, a war orphan from yet another Fodlán crusade, deadpans his way through conversations with characters asking him what it was like where he was born, and would he like to go back there? There are countless other examples. The game weaves a rich tapestry of grievances.
By the time I reached the pivotal choice in the Black Eagles route, Garreg Mach felt like a powder keg ready to burst at any second. And when Edelgard revealed that she was the Flame Emperor and swore to destroy the church I had become increasingly suspicious of over the past two dozen hours, I joined her immediately. I actually assumed it was a false choice and you couldn’t not join her.
Edelgard is the avatar of all the class resentments bubbling in Garreg Mach for the first half of the game. She has a bullet-pointed plan for Fodlan: No more church wielding political power. No more nobility. No more primogeniture. Considering the ills I’d seen throughout the game up to this point, her unmasking as the Flame Emperor wasn’t a heel turn, but a call to arms.
Portraying revolutions in video game stories is extremely common, but very rarely with this amount of detail. There are countless games where you are cast as a member of a fairly shapeless “resistance” or something along those lines, with an enemy force so clearly evil there’s no need to dig into the why and how the revolution you’re playing came to be. No ideologies are ever named or argued over. You might see some vaguely Soviet graphic design, either on your side or the enemy side, but nobody is going to sit you down and give you their itemized list of plans for the peasantry when their coup succeeds. Video games tend to drop players at the very end of revolutions, where all sides have already placed all their cards on the table.
Three Houses, on the other hand, doesn’t even bring up the concept of a revolution until a couple dozen hours in. Instead, it steadily builds the case for one over an extended period of time, leaving small hints here and there as to why someone might hate the political structure the game takes place in. At one point early on, the archbishop Rhea likens turning against the church to “pointing a sword at the Goddess herself” before sending her teenage goon squad to crush some rebels. It’s a great line, and a troubling sentiment—but when it first happened I assumed it was either a badass piece of dialogue with political weight that would go unexamined by a stock JRPG story, or a thuddingly obvious hint that this character was the secret big bad who would turn on me at the end of the game. In reality, I’d be the one to betray her. Edelgard even repeats the line about pointing swords at the Goddess after the five year time skip. The game understands exactly what kinds of things skeptical players will take notice of.
Something that makes all of these characters and their stories work is the game’s dedication to verisimilitude. Edelgard is by far the most revolutionary character in the game, but she’s still a ruler in a faux-medieval setting. Her political grievances are firmly grounded in the world she inhabits, and her shortcomings are too. Despite dismantling the concept of divine right and primogeniture, she still can’t conceive of a nation without an emperor--her cynicism towards the nobility-controlled parliamentary system in Leicester is deep enough that she’d simply destroy it and reinstate a monarchy, albeit a uniquely egalitarian one. The idea of relaxing Fodlán’s tightly controlled borders and repairing relations with nations it has waged war against doesn’t even come up on her route—ideas that are essential to Claude’s Alliance route. How does a post-revolution Fodlán interact with what remains of Duscur? What are relations like with Brigid and Amyra?
We don’t know. Political tension remains no matter which path you choose, even the most radical path. That’s something that adds a lot of texture to the world: none of the Alexanders you can play Aristotle to in this game have a perfect outcome. Instead, you are offered the choice between several messy futures, anchored by characters who echo real historical pains.