On his journey to find his missing father, the young noble Eliwood and his companions travel to Laus to confront its marquess about rumors of impending invasion. As he notices citizens preparing for battle at every corner, Eliwood soberly acknowledges that if the rumors are true, then war is inevitable. "I've no love for war," he confesses to his childhood friend Hector. "If I concentrate on the foe before me, I'm fine. If I picture families, innocents caught up in our foolish politics? If I imagine them...All I can do is pray for a way to solve things peacefully." It’s a rare and honest scene revealing a protagonist's aversion to battle in a franchise that otherwise embraces the violent capabilities of its teenage super-soldiers. It also raises an important question, how many victims do we simply not see in Fire Emblem?
Nearly every Fire Emblem protagonist is a noble or royal who has (or will have) suffered traumatic loss or tragedy at the hands of other nobles. Beginning their journey towards redemption with only a few retainers, the protagonist invites companions from all walks of life into their ranks – a sign of their magnanimity and righteousness of their cause. With every battle, we witness more of the nobility's atrocities, but after the protagonist's climactic confrontation with the individual responsible for their misfortune, we discover that a greater force, often dark magic, is the real reason for the nobility's corruption. Thus, we lead the protagonist in pursuit of this evil personified, and after emerging victorious, watch them ascend the throne, wed, and finally bring peace to the land.
The influence of dark magic as the source of the aristocracy's evildoing absolves the system from criticism or conflict, which is why we can be persuaded that our pure and kindhearted protagonist becoming a monarch is in fact the "good ending." But as we confront every day the fallacy that we can rely on the compassion of the few for the population's wellbeing – as we watch even elected leaders turn their backs on people's suffering through the pandemic – I wonder if it might be time that Fire Emblem expands the scope of its imagination and tells stories of heroes who build a better world without the help of a throne.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses fails to take advantage of such an opportunity, even as most of its cast, including its three heir apparent protagonists, agree that Fódlan's aristocratic leadership is the cause of much suffering for commoners and nobility alike. Although the machinations of an ancient, dark magic-wielding group are ultimately implied to be the root of the corruption, characters still discuss and debate the consequences of a system that privileges pedigree above all. But instead of presenting us the egalitarian future that its characters imagine in their conversations, the game ends like its predecessors with the promise that the protagonist's absolute rule brings peace.
The dissonance between the beliefs that the characters of Three Houses share and actions they ultimately endorse could be an analog for real life obstacles to progress. But the fact that such circumstances are reproduced in this fantasy world also demonstrates our limited imagination when it comes to social change. Stories of such change, especially led by heroes outside the world's socioeconomic elite, would not only offer a better representation of our relationship with class, but also provide a much needed model for tales to come.
For example, instead of a world that hinges on the kindness of who sits on the throne, let's see a community that overcomes adversity through the teamwork of its members. Instead of writing characters simply driven by money or loyalty to their liege, let's highlight their complex and conflicting motivations the same way we give nobles depth. Let's give the towns and villages of our heroes as much detail as the conflicts and politics that embroil them. Perhaps then we'll get a clue on how we can process these issues at home, too.
I should add that none of these suggestions are new or necessarily innovative. Fire Emblem has already managed to do all of these things to some extent in Path of Radiance, which featured the franchise's first (and barring player avatars like Robin and Byleth, the only) protagonist of non-noble birth, Ike of the Greil Mercenaries. Fifteen years after its release it remains a fan favorite with rumors abound of a remake, while Ike himself continues to top popularity polls. Whether that's enough evidence that a protagonist who doesn't tolerate the nobility or racism means a better game, Intelligent Systems would do well to consider why, especially now, we may not be quite as drawn to the nobleman's plight.