This article contains minor spoilers for support conversations and some overarching themes. Later I’ll get into major spoilers but I’ll tell you beforehand.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses lays out the material conditions of its world as an absolute within the narrative initially. The church is powerful, Fódlan’s social structure is based on hierarchy, there is a regional policy of isolationism, and so on. Individuals may express doubts the way things are but at the end of the day, that’s the system they live in and, for the first half of the game, it’s all they have. At its core, FE: 3H is a game about living in a system, uncovering what’s wrong with it, and fighting for change. But it doesn’t do this flawlessly. And we need to talk about the ways the narrative succeeds and fails at addressing the issue of xenophobia.
I finished the Golden Deer Route and am now playing through Black Eagle. I am working from the knowledge I have currently and I’ll make corrections or expand on this later if I need to. So, if you have an angry comment, maybe have some tea, cool down, and then tell me all about it.
Fódlan has a religious doctrine that discourages contact with the regions surrounding it. You get bits and pieces of that in support conversations in every story route but it’s a central theme in the Golden Deer story. Fódlan’s people don’t know much about the outside world but that doesn’t stop them from making ignorant comments about it. But to see the gravity of situation you have to sift through conversations with the some of the main cast members that are not from Fódlan. During which you’ll hear a cornucopia of vaguely off-color lines. Hubert says that Petra is “industrious,” calls her inferior to Edelgarde, says she looked like a caged animal when she was kidnapped by the Empire. Hilda at one-point calls Almyrans brutes, liars, and generally unreliable to Cyril’s face and the majority of Claude’s interpersonal troubles come from people’s perception of him as a man from Almyra. In other words, your cute students are kind of xenophobic.
Now, I wouldn’t say this is intrinsically a bad thing. In most cases, I air towards the belief that depicting real-life phenomena in art, good or bad, is a positive and xenophobia is certainly a relevant topic. However, that does come with a caveat. I think storytellers have a responsibility, when showing depictions of harmful ideologies, to call attention to the fact that they are indeed harmful. If you show racism, have a character who effectively advocates against racism in some form. And this especially true when characters the audience is intended to like express harmful ideologies. I’m not advocating for didactic diatribes here, necessarily. But rather, some mention of the fact that their world view is flawed. So, does Fire Emblem: Three Houses do that? Sort of.
A Realistic (but Frustrating) Depiction
Initially when I sat down to write this, I was going to say, FE: 3H did a bad job of depicting xenophobia. There’s a slew of downright offensive conversations the Fódlanian characters have with the foreign characters where say flat out bigoted things to their face and, for the most part, they don’t get called out for it. When Hilda says Almyrans are lazy, Cyril distances himself from Almyra rather than defend it. When Hubert calls Petra inferior, she defends herself but she doesn’t say that she’s not inferior and doesn’t make a comment about being called a caged animal. Claude never really so much as bats an eye at the way people treat him, instead opting to endure it, in favor of pursuing systemic change.
From the perspective of a player, there were many times where I would yell at my TV during these moments because I wanted the characters to stand up for themselves. I wanted Petra to call Hubert out, I wanted Cyril to dig in and say Almyra was actually a good and decent place. But that didn’t happen and it was deeply unsatisfying to watch. But what I’ve come to realize is, this is how living in xenophobic society is. You don’t always have the opportunity to defend yourself. And defending yourself directly, often, isn’t the way to advance your case. You can still hit back, but you have to be clever about it. And they are.
A Subtle Defense
Cyril, doesn’t defend Almyra from Hilda’s comments, probably because Hilda’s family stole him from his homeland and made him their servant. Even though he’s been transferred into Rhea’s care, he’s not in position to challenge Hilda directly on her comments. And more than that, he barely thinks of himself as an Almyran. Instead he says that there are all types of people in every society and because of that he can’t make broad judgements about the character of a society.
It’s not the dunk I wanted but again, he isn’t in a position to dunk on her. And this is realistic. If you’re living as an immigrant in a society which is bigoted towards you, often you aren’t in position to dunk on ignorant people. Unfortunately, later in their A support, things devolve into the whole, “you’re an exception to the rule” thing but that too is realistic even if it goes unexamined.
With Petra and Hubert, Hubert says a bunch of racist things to her but she’s in no position to back him down. And, indeed, she never gets the opportunity. I think this both believable and also a failing of the narrative. An ugly truth is often xenophobia does go uncontested particularly when there’s an imbalance of power. With Petra being a literal prisoner of war since childhood, it certainly follows that it wouldn’t occur to her that some of his characterizations of her are based in bigotry. It’s unfortunate, it’s ugly, but believable. At the same, I’m not confident that the writers knew that Hubert’s language was racist. Particularly because his A support with Petra completely reframes the situation and drops all xenophobic language. Therein lies an issue with the way the narrative handles both of these cases.
It’s clear that the writers were painting pictures of characters with bigoted beliefs. They went so far as to have Hilda and Hubert square off with characters they looked down on the basis of nationality. But the ways these conflicts were resolved never saw Hubert or Hilda admit that they were wrong or confronting their xenophobic beliefs. This portrays a fundamental misunderstanding or perhaps unwillingness to confront the underlying issue of Fódlan’s xenophobia on the writers’ part and that’s a problem. Except, maybe it doesn’t?
Okay, Let’s Talk About Claude
Golden Deer Spoilers, Obviously.
The three Lords in Fire Emblem: Three Houses each have a vision for their region that they are willing to go to war for and Claude’s is to end Fódlan’s isolationism and open the boarders to trade and cultural exchange. Fundamentally Claude is opposed to concept of xenophobia. Multiple times he says, if you take pretense away, two men of similar character from separate nations are sure to get along. He is unyielding dedicated to this idea and, of the three lords, he’s consistently characterized as having the most unambiguously reasonable goal. No matter what route you go, this is true.
Now, broadly, this signals that the game writers understand that xenophobia is something worth fighting against. Anti-isolationism is a reasonable position, and on a systematic level, addresses that fact head on. So maybe the writers do understand and are willing to confront Fódlan’s xenophobia.
It’s just a shame no individuals are never made to answer for their negative systems of belief. So, how does the game handle these questions over all? Alright, I guess.