What Fire Emblem: Three Houses Gets Right About Being A Teacher
And how this unique responsibility deepens player engagement
About a month ago my casual university teaching contract wrapped up, and for the first time in three and a half years I was not offered any teaching for the next semester, effectively ending my time at the institution I’ll tactfully leave unnamed. I’m still bitter about it, but that’s neither here nor there.
A week later I received a review code for Fire Emblem: Three Houses, in which a young warrior is, with minimal explanation, handed a plum professorial position at some sort of combat monastery, immediately bypassing the usual steps and bullshit involved in landing such a job. This is a fairly punishing position — six days a week, with a full teaching load that means the game’s protagonist, Byleth, can only conduct original research on their one day off. What’s the expected publication output at Garreg Mach, I wonder? It clearly can’t be too rigorous.
In any case, coming to this game, and watching all of this unfold, felt unexpectedly personal in the wake of my work problems. Why should Byleth walk into a job like this, when out in the real-world things are so difficult in academia? That’s not, I realise, a real and valid criticism — especially when the game’s school is closer to a military academy and resembles a real school about as much as it does a toaster. But still, something about Byleth waltzing right into a professor position rubbed me up the wrong way.
But then, as the game went on — and as my squad started to develop, or come to me for advice, and grow stronger based on the lessons I handed out in the classroom portions of the game — something changed. And in the end, I’m grateful that Three Houses gave me a new classroom to teach in the wake of my unexpected retirement from the job.
The great trick of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and the thing that separates it from all the other Fire Emblem games, is the way it invests you in the well-being of your units. Fire Emblem always finds a way, of course: the relationship system in Awakening, which has been toned right down here, remains the series’ most ingenious. In Three Houses, the link is that you taught the kids you’re standing alongside in battle. They’re fighting with you, using the skills you helped them foster, following the goals you worked out with them. You care about these kids, because they’re out there fighting with the skills you taught them, using the equipment you entrusted them with before battle. They might be fighting for whichever army they’re aligned with, but they’re fighting well because they want to impress you.
The more I played Three Houses, the more I thought that, perhaps, it actually is a good representation of what teaching is, or at least what teaching can be when the students really engage. Watching your students grow and develop based on the choices you’re making in the game’s various menus is surprisingly empowering. I grew attached to these kids not just because they were characters in the game I was enjoying, but because they were my students, and there’s a responsibility there, a duty of care. That’s a complicated feeling when you know they could die on the missions you send them out on, but, hey, it’s a videogame.
The fact that Byleth is a silent protagonist, one whose strange backstory and lack of teaching experience should perhaps bar her from this kind of work, all ends up being irrelevant. Byleth is a character in their own right, in that they’re a major part of the plot with a personality and history. But they’re also you, of course, as videogame protagonists so often are.
This dynamic changes the relationship between player and avatar. In other Fire Emblem games, I have felt like I am switching between characters like I might in FIFA, and when I control each new one, I essentially inhabit them. They become the avatar, the protagonist of the story, for a moment. You’re still directing units around in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, as you did in every previous game, but because Byleth is their teacher, in my head they’re always the protagonist, no matter who I’m controlling. When Bernadetta moves into striking range and uses her combat ability to shoot an arrow into a distant mounted soldier, she does so because Byleth trained her. When Hubert rains down purple death spells, he has Byleth — which is to say, me — to thank for encouraging him to progress through the magic classes, finally leveling up to a Dark Knight.
Byleth’s unique position of authority makes her more of a player surrogate than the main hero in any previous Fire Emblem game, and frames every decision you make as her decision, even when those decisions are being made about other characters. Even the class changes are presented as tests that Byleth is making the students sit. There’s a feeling of personality responsibility and connectivity evoked by your role as their teacher, and it makes the game extremely engaging.
My own teaching experiences have been far removed from this. Last semester I had five classes that I saw once a week each, a handful of assignments to teach to, and not much room for individual mentoring. I certainly rarely became friends with my students the way Byleth does (it’s pointed out, early on, that they’re not much older than the folks they are teaching). But in an ideal world, I could have had this sort of impact. The resources and funding would be available for me to engage on the level I can in the game.
Fire Emblem is a fantasy series, and its depiction of the world’s education system is much a fantasy as anything else in the game. This is not an aspirational game, in that you’re spending most of it slaughtering various enemies, but I couldn’t help but see something lofty and ideal in Byleth’s professorial career over the course of the game. It’s nice, feeling like you’re making a real difference in the lives of these kids. Hell, maybe Byleth really did deserve the appointment, even if they’ve never presented a single conference paper…