It is a fundamental truth known by the most dedicated of Fire Emblem: Three Houses fans that Claude Von Reigen absolutely wears socks with his Adidas slides. Perhaps it’s his devil-may-care smile, perhaps it’s his tastefully disheveled hair– but regardless of why it exists, there is a consensus among fans that the heir to House Riegen rocks the hell out of some crew cut socks and black and white sandals.
Claude’s brand loyalty is just one of several “headcanons” to emerge from Fire Emblem: Three Houses — “headcanons” referring to various fan interpretations of a work, regardless of how well the original content supports it. Since the game’s release last summer, many other fan ideations have joined the ranks alongside our archer-turned-Adidas model: the palpable sexual tension between childhood friends Sylvain and Felix, the Golden Deer Houses’ status as meme king extraordinaires, and, of course, Byleth’s infamous “women want me, fish fear me” hat. These are just a few. The list goes on and on – equal parts charming and hilarious – helping solidify the game as one of the most loved of 2019.
However, it is important to note the Fire Emblem series was well-loved long before the Three Houses craze, particularly in Japan, with North American audiences jumping aboard a bit later. Since 1990, Nintendo has published 16 entries in the tactical RPG series — Three Houses being the most recent. In 2013, the franchise took a departure from the games’ usual formula with the release of Fire Emblem: Awakening, giving players the option to turn off “permadeath,” as well as introducing a brand new element to the series: relationships.
In both Awakening and its successor, Fates, marriages and childbirth play an important role on and off the battlefield. In combat, relationships determine your jobs, units, and victory. However, perhaps just as important is the effect this new addition had on players. With the incorporation of romance and deeper socialization between characters came a greater love of the Fire Emblem world and those who inhabit it. Developer Intelligent Systems seemingly recognized this area of opportunity and ran with it in Three Houses, which is slated to be the top-selling game in the franchise by the end of this year.
If Awakening took a departure, Three Houses revolutionized, creating — for better or worse — a very different game. While Three Houses retains the series’ long-standing tactical combat and deeply political narratives we know and love, social elements are very much pushed to the forefront, starting with the establishment of the titular three houses.
In Three Houses, you play as a mercenary-turned-professor at Garreg Mach Monastery — a sort of academy for the Fódlan’s best and brightest. Despite being inexperienced, within the first hour of the game, you are given the opportunity to lead one of the school’s three houses — this singular decision impacts not only what character you interact with, but the entirety of the game’s story. Each house has its perks and charming cast of characters, and lucky for you, most of the students can be recruited from other houses to join your own. From the shy Bernadette to the school’s personal Romeo, Sylvain, there are characters everyone can relate to and, quite frankly, crush on.
As you play the game, bonds between yourself and the characters — and between the characters — grow based on your cooperation on the battlefield and acts of service, such as returning lost items to their rightful owners and fulfilling requests. Three Houses also introduced tea parties to the game, which are an adorable opportunity to get to know your team and use your Switch camera to show off your waifus and husbandos. All these actions aid you in unlocking new cutscenes, and ultimately dictate the direction of these character’s lives.
Not everything is quite as lighthearted, however.
About 20 hours into the game, tragic events take place that divide the three houses irreparably. If you didn’t recruit characters prior to this divide, they become your enemies and will meet you head-on on the battlefield. These events, along with “permadeath,” if you decide to keep the feature on, elevate the stakes of these relationships. If you lose a character, you lose that relationship; and man, do you feel guilty. Man do you mourn. Be it through tea parties or dramatic monologues given before death, Three Houses asks you to care for and love these students. It asks you to open your heart, and this emotional involvement is what elevates the game.
While the relationship you form with this story and its characters is personal, it’s one so many have deemed worthy of sharing and connecting with others over — in an already brilliant game, this connection is what makes it shine.
Now, all of this isn’t to say Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the first game to extend beyond its save file to cultivate its own culture, and to be honest it isn’t even the biggest– both Final Fantasy and Dragon Age still dominate the charts on fanfiction sites such as Archive of Our Own. But in the same way Game of Thrones fans proudly claim to be House Targaryen, gamers took to their keyboards to pledge their allegiance to the Black Eagles.
But within days of its release, Fire Emblem: Three Houses created a dedicated community, inspiring artists, writers, cosplayers, and, well, “shitposters”, to get to work. For months, Golden Deer memes filled my Twitter timeline, Edelgard fanart flooded my Instagram feed, and thousands upon thousands of stories popped up on Archive of Our Own; a year later, and that number has reached a staggering 23,000 — with new stories going up nearly every day.
Simply put, on some deeper level, the game resonated with its audience, and became the best part of a game that’s well worth exploring.
Of course some players, myself included, longed for even deeper connections with characters. Ultimately, however, it’s kind of fantastic the game established these strong personalities that creators can expand upon, or even transport to an “AU”– or alternate universe, such as a modern high school or a cozy cafe. While it’s important to note that any fandom can be toxic if the fan creators feel entitled to what they yearn for, more often than not these communities act as spaces for marginalized creators. For as much as I love about Three Houses, it’s undeniable that there are strides the game could make to be more inclusive, such as more physically and racially diverse characters and more freedom in sexuality.
But through art and writing, marginalized folks can create that, celebrating the characters they love while incorporating their own lives and values into the story. At the very least, the collective consciousness formed by memes, art, and stories makes us all laugh and feel a bit more understood, and isn’t that what games, and life, are all about?