It’s embarrassing how much I’ve played Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I got the game for Christmas, started it on the second day of the new decade, and by early April have logged, according to the in-game counter, over 240 hours of play time.
“Wow,” my chiropractor said when I told him I’d hit the 40-hour mark, seven days in. “That’s like a full workweek!”
I had not thought of it that way, although the fact that I was telling my chiropractor about the game at all should have been a sign I was in deep.
I’m turning 30 soon. I’m not scared about it, or anxious; I reserve those feelings for … ... everything else going on in the world at the moment. I’ve identified as 30 for the past few years, so really this is just making it legal. I feel lucky to be getting to this age at all — several people I loved did not — and 30 is not old, and old is not bad.
Thirty is, if anything, a waypoint, a firm-ish line I can use to demarcate a portion of my life and take some semblance of stock. I’m largely happy: I like my job and my city, love my friends and boyfriend, and have not had to contend yet with any major family tragedy. I sing in a choir; I knit sweaters and socks; I make dinner for myself most nights. I count my steps and I take a light antidepressant. The rhythm of things suits me, finally, after a lot of stops and starts and uncertainties. I do not expect it will feel this good forever, so I am trying to be in it, to tread the water of it, while I can.
Still, the big questions — kids, marriage, money, parents, profession, place — loom just outside the frame, because with each year it becomes clearer that this life of mine is not practice, not groundwork for something bigger and later, but real, for keeps, permanent.
Three Houses is a game about choices. You play as a young mercenary who becomes a professor at a monastery-slash-officers’-academy (“horny magic war school,” is how I describe it when prompted), training a group of students in their late teens and early 20s to become paladins and mages and swordmasters.
Even if you do not play JRPGs, the rhythms are likely familiar: You and your students battle monsters and enemies, gain levels and gold, and upgrade weapons. The story, which ultimately becomes about your attempts to win a multipronged transcontinental land war, feels in moments like Harry Potter fucked Game of Thrones and gave birth to Pokémon. It’s a little cheesy, a little predictable, a little repetitive. It’s incredibly, irrevocably satisfying.
The first choice you make is in the game’s title: which of the three academic houses you will lead. At first, I’d thought that was largely a cosmetic choice, that the story would unfold similarly no matter who you picked. It became obvious almost right away that this was not the case. While the mechanics and story beats are similar (which I know firsthand because as soon as I finished my first run, I immediately went back and played all of the others), it’s an entirely different game from route to route. The students in the houses you don’t choose become, over time, your enemies; although at first you might have enjoyed meals with them in the dining hall or fought beside them on missions, by the end of the game you’ll likely have stood opposite one another on a battlefield. You might even have killed them yourself.
This is made acutely painful because of how richly drawn the characters are. Each house contains eight students, and every one of them has a complicated, compelling backstory that gradually unfolds over the course of the game. You deepen your own relationships through training and teatime, and they get to know each other as well. The real currency of the game, to my mind, comes in the form of “supports,” or little cutscenes that take place between characters as they spend more time together. Sometimes they fight, sometimes they flirt, sometimes they confess to the other that their dads were mortal enemies. I like to hoard these supports until I’ve collected half a dozen or so and then watch them all at once, usually right before bed or on the elliptical.
That’s the other, subtler set of choices I’ve found myself making over the course of my hundred-odd hours: how best to care for these characters. You are responsible for choosing their paths, for deciding whether to train them in healing magic or battle-ax-wielding (or both!), and have a fairly strong hand in whom they wind up spending their lives with as well.
As a result, you become intensely acquainted with their quirks and proclivities. One character tells you he knows he’s destined to be a knight but wishes he could be a painter instead; another wants to spend every day alone in her room, which you gradually realize is because of horrific abuse by her father before she finally left home. Another simply prefers to nap all the time. It would be hard to overstate how much I think about these people who don’t exist, how many soft spots I’ve developed for two dozen fictional students living in the year 1181. Whenever I play, which is practically every day now, I feel made of soft spots.
In my daily life, I spend a lot of time optimizing for my own happiness. Keep the step count high and the credit card bill low; maintain the tidiness of the inbox and the bedside table. Always calibrating, always checking in to see what my levels are, always aware of the tick-tick-tick just below the surface.
Maybe this sounds like a prison, but to me it’s a comfort. There have been times I’ve veered too far — calorie counting is not something I can do without consequences — and yet most of the time my running tallies are what keep me feeling grounded. When my mind starts its too-familiar wobble, I can look at the framework of my life as proof that it has all to this point been largely OK, that it will likely past this point be OK, and then I take another 1,000 steps or read another third of a book. I add to my bottom line and I get back to myself again.
When I first started to interrogate my love of video games, which I’ve had since I can remember having moods, I thought it was simply about quantification, about control. All you had to do was push the right buttons, make the right plan, and you’d succeed. You could save your grandfather’s failing farm; you could find your way back to the kidnapped princess; you could amass more Simoleons than could be spent in five generations. I still love the comforting rhythm of my favorite games, the partial brain required to operate them, the prepackaged feeling of accomplishment that comes with each increasing level.
Lately, though, I’ve felt that the real fantasy is the replay. I’ve replayed virtually every game I’ve ever loved, some many times. I like the familiar contours, the sense of recognition, even the lulling feeling that comes with having successfully completed a task before, and knowing I can do so again.
Three Houses is one of the first narrative games I’ve been drawn to, though, where replaying is built into its DNA — you can’t possibly see everything the game has to offer, or even most of it, unless you go back and start again on a different path.
Similarly, a central game mechanic is something called the Divine Pulse — when you are in battle, you have a handful of opportunities to rewind time, rescuing characters who have fallen or backtracking to make a strategy play out more cleanly. This is most relevant to players who undertake the game in Classic Mode, otherwise known as “permadeath,” where characters who die stay dead for the rest of the game; I’m a big old baby and can’t stomach the thought of that, so I play on Casual Mode, even though there is nothing particularly casual about arming a group of teenagers so they can fight someone called the “Death Knight.”
Divine Pulse makes it so that you can retrace your steps; you get to see what’s coming and go back to better prepare. I sometimes think about what it would be like to use it in my own life — to unsend the frustrated email, to unspill the drunk secret. What would it be like to redo the whole thing, to get to see how it feels to choose one path and then go back and pick the others? Who would I be if I got to see it all from where I sit right now?
Of course, I can’t, and I wouldn’t want to. Even the way turning back time works in the game doesn’t leave you with a clean slate. If anything, it papers over the consequences of your actions. I still remember with cold-water clarity exactly what a favorite character of mine screamed as she bled out on a battlefield, killed unavoidably by one of my soldiers. I replayed the entire battle to evade her, but it’s hard to forget. And every time I start a new playthrough, knowing that choosing one house means abandoning the other two, it’s hard to forget what it was like to have cared so deeply for those sets of kids, to feel as though their causes, diametrically opposed though they may be, were the just ones.
This is a game about growing up, about taking care. About laying out a path and knowing you can’t unchoose it, even if you can eventually double back. In its own way that’s a comfort too: It’s closer to how things really are.
In February, an update to Three Houses was released — a side quest involving a fourth house, composed of a handful of students secretly living underneath the school. It’s corny and kind of pandering; it feels far closer to fanfiction than to the writing of the main game. Still, I love the added dimension it brings to a world I’ve practically memorized. It’s at least good for another 40 or so hours as I play through the main story once or twice more, meeting new characters and enjoying the familiar grooves of this place I’m not ready to leave yet (especially when the rest of the world is currently less than hospitable).
In my heavily organized, quantified adult life, there probably shouldn’t be so much time to devote to an escapist fantasy, and yet somehow I’ve managed to carve it out from the rest of the regimen. Now, of course, there’s more of that time than ever. That, above all, is what I’ve loved best about these past 12 or 13 weeks — my gameplay is just mine, only of itself, resulting in nothing. It allows me to stay comfortably in one place while the rest of time does its usual passing around me. It’s so fun; it’s so fun to have fun. It’s such a relief to love something like this, to look forward to it when I’m not playing, to have a container to pour myself into, at least for now.