I knew I had a problem when I saw a timer appear and my first reaction was to immediately hammer my Nintendo Switch’s power button until it fell into a merciful slumber.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses has a feature called an “advice box” in which characters write you letters asking for aid. You’ve got to pick a response within a 30-second window, and if you tell them what they want to hear, they’ll like you more. I put my Switch into sleep mode because I couldn’t risk being wrong. Having stalled the timer that was likely designed to prevent this exact kind of thing, I sought out my closest medieval tactics and anime dating adviser: Google.
Like many connoisseurs of turn-based strategy and blue hair, I am in love with Fire Emblem: Three Houses. On Sunday, I played it for 12 (mostly) uninterrupted hours. This week, I’ve been playing it in Lyfts, at bars, anywhere I can find a spare second. I like the battles, but I adore the characters. Sure, many of them are tropey anime archetypes, but they’re endearing from the get-go, and they reveal surprising layers of depth and trauma as the game goes on. This is why, when I found out from our own Gita Jackson’s tips post that I can recruit characters from every house (and that if I don’t, they might end up battling against me), I decided I must. I categorically refuse to harm a hair on any of my precious children’s meticulously coiffed heads. Also, I want them all to love me so much that their little cartoon hearts explode. Is that so much to ask?
I have, as a result of these intertwining desires, become a paranoid min-maxer. Fire Emblem: Three Houses contains a multitude of ways for you, a mercenary-turned-professor, to bond with various characters from all three of its titular houses. When it comes to students from your own house, you’re all set on the recruiting front, since they’re part of your army by default. But you can still rank up your support level with them by engaging in an overwhelming number of activities: eating together, cooking together, choir practice, tea parties, finding lost items, giving gifts, answering questions in class, picking the correct dialogue options during random conversations, sending flowers on birthdays… I’ll stop there, but the list goes on.
Upping your support level helps out in battle, but also results in cutscenes and story beats that are by far the most compelling part of the game’s narrative. As for students from houses whose colors you aren’t flying, you can win them over to your cause by excelling in specific skills, but you can also drop those skill requirements by preemptively increasing your support level with those characters.
Seeing as I want to recruit everybody as quickly as possible, this means precisely one thing: I can never mess up. If a student asks a question in class, I put down my Switch and Google the answer. Same goes for quick dialogues while I’m wandering the school, affinity for specific gifts, any lost item I find, taste in food, and yes, the advice box.
In games with similar time-limited relationship-building mechanics like Persona 5, I’ve tried to avoid this kind of approach, preferring instead to go on instinct and hope things work out alright in the end. But in Fire Emblem’s case, I’m burdened with the knowledge that I control characters’ fates.
I’m also a nearly pathological people pleaser. I just want everybody to be happy and chill, and when I drop the ball in Fire Emblem, characters are decidedly neither happy nor chill. Instead, they’re like “Oh, I’m surprised you’d say that” in a way that seems nonchalant enough but feels like you just tanked a first date by telling your crush that you believe all birds were replaced by government robots in the ‘60s. And throwing up on their shoes.
When I’m in the flow of playing the game this way, I don’t really think much about it. But when I take a step back and consider what I’m doing, I feel like a shameless sociopath, utterly devoid of firmly-held viewpoints or morals. I am, in practical terms, just making my character say whatever she needs to for everybody to like her. It’s not even really about role-playing anymore; it’s just about cold, mechanical optimization in pursuit of a larger goal—albeit one that’s still character-driven, at heart (as opposed to simply trying to get the best stats, or what have you). At one point, I was walking through the game’s chapel area, and one character asked about my feelings on religion and the game’s fictional Church of Seiros. My feelings were not super positive, but this character was religious, so I was like “Heck yeah, buddy. Church to the max.” Then, in the same room, speaking to another, differently inclined character, I was like “Church is for scrubs. Wanna do some coke out back?” (I might be paraphrasing a little.)
In real life, if you behave this way regularly enough, people become suspicious of you and your motives, or at least deem you too much of a coward to actually say what you think—a lesson I learned the hard way during my own younger, even more pathologically people-pleasing days.
So far, Fire Emblem: Three Houses has yet to give me this sort of pushback. Instead, it’s in my best interest to systematically charm everybody, beaming a pearly white grin to conceal the forked tongue behind it. In this way, Fire Emblem—like so many other narrative-driven RPGs before it—is at odds with itself, telling you to make choices and live with them but systemically encouraging optimization in the name of gaining access to everything and being everything to everyone. I’m enjoying getting to know these characters better, but I kinda wish I never got so wrapped up in doing it all correctly that I transformed into a Google sociopath. Yes, I want to protect every last one of my anime children, but is it really worth it if I lose myself in the process?