Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the first Nintendo Switch entry in the publisher’s long line of tactical strategy role-playing games, casts you as a professor at a medieval fantasy school that—actually, you know what? It’s just Hogwarts. It’s medieval fantasy Hogwarts, with swords and military tactics instead of wands and potions (though there are also wands and some potions). In the beginning you get to choose which house you want to teach, even though one is clearly superior, and that’s where I met a student named Bernadette. She’s a good archer, but when her and her classmates are introduced, she gets so anxious about talking that she just turns around and asks everyone to pretend she’s not there. From that point on, my main goal in the game has been to ease her out of her shell and teach her how to be the master assassin I know she can be. Now it’s going very well and I can’t stand it.
See, I’m a lot like Bernie (as her chummier classmates call her). I don’t have purple hair, I’m not a teen girl going to medieval fantasy Hogwarts, and I couldn’t possibly hit anything with an arrow, but I would also rather ask everyone to pretend I’m not there than risk having them talk to me. Basically all of my schooling years involved a well-meaning teacher prompting me to speak up more in class or raise my hand and ask more questions, all in hopes of easing me out of my shell and helping me to become a better student, but guess what? I hated it. I knew what they were doing and I knew why they were doing it, but that just made me hate it even more. I didn’t want to leave my shell. It was safe in there and scary everywhere else.
Bernie, meanwhile, constantly has dialogue about how she’d rather be reading in her room when I send her into a battle. When she makes a good kill, securing my positioning and effectively guaranteeing a big victory, she tends to ask if she can just go home. Fire Emblem has a big social element to the gameplay that is just as crucial as the actual battles, with characters’ stats changing based on who they stand next to in battles and what sort of interactions you have with them in between fights (you can explore not-Hogwarts on days off, and while doing that you can spend time with your students at meals or return lost items to them). Also, if two characters interact with each other enough, you can unlock little skits where they talk to each other without you around.
For most of these day-off sequences, Bernie just stays in her room. You can talk to her through the door, and sometimes she’ll pop her head out to appease you, but that’s about it until you really start to push her. If you do, you get some sweet and funny scenes of Bernie trying to put herself out there. One sequence involves her working up the nerve to ask another girl to be her friend—nothing romantic or complicated, just “can we essentially put it on paper that we are officially friends.” The other girl is more than happy to be Bernie’s friend, but she’s a little taken aback by how anxious Bernie is, and the tiny hesitance that comes from that is more than enough to throw Bernie completely off the rails. The voice acting in Three Houses is very good, and Bernie’s palpable sense of apocalyptic doom in this situation where she actually put herself out there felt very familiar to me.
The thing that keeps this all from descending into depressingly relatable misery is that Bernie’s social anxiety is often played for laughs. My favorite sequence so far involved a minor misunderstanding between her and one of my male students, with Bernie’s reaction immediately jumping from “oh my god, he hates me” to “oh my god, now we’re going to be lifelong rivals and our feud won’t end until one of us kills the other.” As their professor, my response was to have Bernie and this guy fight alongside each other in my next battle and boost their stats in a complimentary way. Now they’re good friends, whether they like it or not, and it’s all because of my weird meddling. I’m no teacher; I’m a cruel puppet master who manipulated their lives just like all those damn well-meaning teachers tried to do to me. To make matters worse, I didn’t do it just to help a shy kid; I did it so I could win fantasy wars more easily. Were my teachers this selfish? Did they just want me to be a good fighter in some future war? I grew up in the George W. Bush era, so yeah, probably.
I know there’s a big thing that happens in Three Houses that I haven’t experienced yet, and it was addressed in all of the trailers so it shouldn’t count as a spoiler (even though someone will say that it does), but I don’t know how or if this thing that happens will affect Bernie’s ongoing social anxiety adventures. Part of me hopes that it doesn’t, and that she doesn’t transform into a cool and confident woman by the end of the game, because that’s not really how this sort of thing works. Besides, I don’t want to be responsible for altering someone’s personality. It makes me feel gross in a way that a video game wouldn’t normally be able to do, especially one about anime teens going to medieval fantasy Hogwarts. But, of course, that hasn’t changed how I’m playing the game. I still have a responsibility to be a “good teacher,” after all.