Fire Emblem: Three Houses and the Illusion of Choice

In the lead up to Fire Emblem Three Houses there was only one aspect of the game that worried me. I thought the idea of the school was fantastic, the main characters looked neat, the music in the trailer had me excited for the full soundtrack – everything seemed perfect until one little tidbit of information came out. Byleth, the protagonist of the game, would be a silent one. Instead of having an established character with a specific personality, the game would present the player with dialogue options and allow you to choose what to say during conversations. Despite having Byleth as silent in order to make him or her more “your own,” they also removed character customization. This choice was obviously due to the animated cutscenes but still felt like a smack in the face in a game that was now going to lean harder into making the character an extension of the player.

So you may be wondering why I disliked the idea of dialogue options in Fire Emblem. After all, isn’t having choice better in games? Isn’t being able to choose your house part of what makes the game so appealing? What concerned me is that in many games where the character is merely an extension of the player, the protagonist loses any life they might have had as a more fleshed-out character. Robin and Corrin in Awakening and Fates have customizable looks but predefined personalities. Those personalities are what make the characters endearing and memorable – to lose that in Three Houses seemed like it would diminish the game, not drastically so but enough to make me a bit less excited about it.

Still, I tried to look at the positives. The emphasis on player choice seemed intriguing in a game about guiding a group of students. There was an implication there that player choice would be more significant in this Fire Emblem than any other. The ability to choose your side and your entire cast of characters at the beginning of the game, the ability to choose any class for those characters and raise them the way you wanted, and the ability to choose your character’s words throughout the campaign. On the surface, Three Houses appeared to be a Fire Emblem game dedicated to giving more choices than ever before. As it turns out, in many ways your choices are illusions.

Three Houses Class Guide Cover

I’m going to start with mechanical features and work my way into story details, so I’ll be sure to mark spoilers when they’re about to come up. For now, let’s focus on the class system and weapon skills. In the marketing for Three Houses characters were shown to be able to wield any weapon regardless of their class. This is brand new to Fire Emblem – in past titles, your class determined your weapon proficiency even when playing a character who had access to classes that could use a specific weapon. For example, Chrom in Awakening could become an archer as one of his alternate options. However, as long as he was a lord he could never practice with his bow, and if he ever changed back to a lord after being an archer for awhile he’d suddenly forget how that bow worked. Oh, and while he’s an archer? Forget using your sword. Separating weapons from classes seemed like a great idea that would allow exciting new choices when it came to character progress.

Unfortunately the practical applications of that choice were rather limited. Classes don’t restrict your weapons anymore but instead your weapon skills decide which classes you can access. So sure, once you become an archer you can still use your sword if you want, but in order to reach the archer class you’ll still have practice with your bow until you reach the right proficiency. And as you reach higher rank classes, the weapon requirements become more and more specific. Look at Bernadetta, a Black Eagle with talent for the bow and the axe. If you take advantage of those talents and focus on those two weapons, you won’t be able to make Bernadetta into a master class because there is no class for that combination of weapons. You’ll have to choose between the axe-focused warrior or the bow-focused sniper, and while you can still pick up your other weapon, the class skills you have won’t reward you for any specializations that are separate from the class you are currently using. So yeah, sure, you have the choice – but mechanically that choice is suboptimal.

Then there’s magic, a skill that works quite differently from weapons. It’s even more restricted – if you’re not playing as a magic class then you flat out cannot use magic, no matter how high your skill level gets. So say you want Dimitri to practice faith a little bit on the side so he can heal someone when he’s not bashing heads in with his lance – you can’t do that unless you make him into a monk or priest and lose growths in your strength and defense. Teaching someone magic means locking them into a narrow range of classes so they can continue to use their abilities. The class and skill system in Three Houses promises a variety of new choices but suffers from many of the same limitations – and even adds some new ones in by having more gender restrictions than many of the modern Fire Emblem games.

Three Houses Waiting to Die

So let’s go back to those dialogue options – we’ll have some mild spoilers here but I’ll save the big ones for the end of the article. As I mentioned already, the game gives us a silent protagonist in the form of Byleth, who says whatever it is we tell him or her to say. Or rather, what the game lets you say. After all, the way game design works restricts the ability to ever truly be you in the game – the choices available to you are still options from a list predetermined by the developer. You can be whoever you want to be within the boundaries of the game’s programming, but even then in Three Houses your options are severely limited.

In some cases, the game literally only gives you one option to express yourself. A good example of this is when you first meet your students after choosing a house. No matter what house you choose, the students will have a brief conversation with you about how you’re basically the same age as them and so they want to treat you in a more informal way. Now one might imagine that you would have a choice here to enforce the division between professor and student. But the game only gives you one dialogue option – you have no choice but to allow the kids to treat you as a peer rather than a teacher because the game won’t let you choose anything else. In that situation, why even have dialogue options? What’s the point of being silent if the game wants you to say a specific thing? Of course, even when the game gives you dialogue choices it often wants you to say something specific. Right at the beginning of the game Sothis asks you who or what you are. You can answer with demon, ghost, or mortal, but only mortal is true and saying demon or ghost grants you nothing. Sothis doesn’t even have different lines of dialogue to refute you each time. In this situation the game gives you the illusion of choice but there is really only one right answer – if you don’t pick it the first time, they’ll make you pick it.

Even when it seems that you might have an option that actually matters, the game finds a way to nullify that choice too. In one of the game’s early chapters, Linhardt and Caspar have a disagreement in the dining hall and you can speak with both of them about it. Linhardt tells Caspar he eats too fast and if you agree with him, you get some support points. Now you would think that agreeing with Linhardt would block you out of getting support points from Caspar, but no, you can walk over to him and tell him you side with him and get support points all the same. Your choices don’t have an impact beyond raising support levels, and characters don’t care what your personality is like with other characters.

Three Houses Golden Deer Students

Now of course we get to the big choice in the game: your house. We’re also getting into spoiler territory now, so if you haven’t finished Three Houses and care about not seeing spoilers then now is the time when you may wish to duck out. The game’s titular Three Houses are affiliated with different countries and have a different group of students to train. The game promises a diverging path for each house – each one stands for a different cause and fights for a different purpose. Choosing your house should be a choice that significantly impacts the rest of the game, but what I’ve learned over the course of multiple playthroughs is that the choice matters less than you might think. For three of the four routes (there is still one path I haven’t played yet), the entire White Clouds portion of the game is essentially identical. Even as part two begins, you still repeat the same five chapters before finally diverging on a different path. As I discussed in my article on the game’s replayability, for the Blue Lions and Golden Deer there are actually only two chapters that are actually different, and two more that are in a different order. This means that the majority of the game is actually the same despite your house choice, showing that choice to have limited significance except for the support conversations that you get to view.

Now up to this point you may be thinking “dude, this is video game 101,” and you’d be right. Being able to tell one character one thing and then turn around and tell his friend something else just to get points is par for the course in many games. Lots of games offer false choices in dialogue or force you to answer a certain way even when the character is supposed to be “your” character. These offenses are annoying but expected, and they are common trends in design. However, there is one choice in Three Houses – perhaps the most important choice in the game – where they seriously drop the ball. (If you haven’t ducked out to avoid spoilers and you don’t want major Black Eagles spoilers, now is the time to say goodbye.)

Towards the end of White Clouds, the Black Eagles path splits in two directions. You can choose to side with Edelgard in her battle against the church, or you can stand with the church and become enemies with the empire while still maintain some of the members of your house. During my run I was planning to side with Edelgard. Now it’s important to know that this is my third run of the game, and I’ve been taught over the course of two different runs that talking to characters at the monastery during exploration is an optional feature. The dialogue adds very little to the game and ultimately burns time when you’ve already played through once before. If a character has something important to say, that character will likely be part of a quest, and red quests are mandatory and must be completed to progress the game. For two playthroughs, nearly 140 hours, I was constantly reinforced that characters who do not have quest markers are not necessary to speak to in order to progress the game. Those conversations never mattered or had any sort of meaningful impact.

Want to take a wild guess what you have to do to join Edelgard?

Three Houses Enemies Now

I found out the hard way that the only way to join the empire is to speak with Edelgard during exploration during chapter eleven. I found out when Edelgard betrayed me and I ended up siding with the church against my volition. The choice I wanted to make was hidden, and so instead my character chose a side I didn’t want to side with. Now it’s worth acknowledging that I wasn’t necessarily playing the game optimally by not talking to people, but again I want to emphasize that all of the other playthroughs of the game taught me that talking wasn’t important. Characters didn’t give me choices that mattered during small talk at the monastery. If they had a quest, a clear marker told me so. And if the game wanted me to do or know something important, that thing happened in a cut scene. The choice to join Edelgard defies the logic of the rest of the game, and if you miss it then you’re totally out of luck. Byleth will let himself or herself be dragged along with the story and you, the player, are dragged too.

Fire Emblem Three Houses is a game that promises more choices than any game before in the series. As it turns out, like so many other games, the idea of choice is an illusion. It’s not enough to ruin the game, but it has affected my opinion of it and will play a role in my ultimate review of the game down the line. If you truly want to give your players choices, it’s important to convey to them how those choices work and make sure it is clear what they need to do. Give them context so they can make their choice as intelligently as possible, and keep your rules consistent throughout the game.

I’m curious, adventurers – for those of you who played Three Houses in the Black Eagle route, did any of you also miss the opportunity to side with Edelgard when you would have wanted to?

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