I first played Fire Emblem: Three Houses in August of 2019, when I was preparing to teach my first semester of college. There were some parallels: in the game, you play as a young mercenary pushed into being an instructor at a monastery school; in real life, I was a young professor with next to no experience teaching people a few years younger than me, with no real strategy beyond waving my arms a lot and hoping anything I said sounded meaningful. For a week, I laid on my couch and avoided revising my syllabus, instead increasing my professor level, exploring a monastery, and riding out an extremely anime storyline.
Three Houses was the first Fire Emblem game I’d played, and despite myself, I was surprised to genuinely feel something for the students my character was charged with teaching. I loved Linhardt, my sleepy gay son with a secret passion for research. I loved Seteth, who worked for the church and was at least fifteen years older than me but insisted on showing up to all of my classes when he wasn’t out taking care of his little sister. I could take or leave the chauvinist-lite that joins you automatically if your character is female, or the blindingly shy student who screams whenever anyone approaches her, but hey— conflict is part of the point.
And in a way that is wholly distinct from my actual experiences in the classroom—where I have to reckon with people with complex lives and more than two personality traits—I had no real responsibility towards them. I could micromanage their goals and give them directions, as well as engage in weird tea time minigames. I could feed them their favorite foods and give them pieces of trash (or, well, “lost items”) to make them friendlier to me, a ghoulish transactional relationship that becomes the gateway to actually well-written support conversations. These often awkward pieces that make up social interaction in the monastery combine to make a pleasing whole, one that rarely forces you to have unpleasant conversations even when you completely fail to understand someone (unlike, say, the recent card-based Signs of the Sojourner, whose failed conversations wounded my pride in real life).
Nevertheless, despite the relative lack of consequences for my actions, I have been a strict adherent to one self-imposed rule in Fire Emblem, the one rule that has determined the flavor of the series since its inception: I don’t let any of my students die. In Classic Mode, any student who falls on the battlefield is gone forever. On Normal difficulty (widely regarded by People on Reddit as easy mode), the combination of the Divine Pulse mechanic, which rewinds time, and forgiving enemy placement and AI make most combats simple, even for a strategy newbie. Hard offers a few more challenges, but is still the same basic experience.
And so a few months ago, when I decided to start the game again in its post-release hard mode known as Maddening mode, I expected a slightly harder hard—maybe more enemies, fewer stat increases, and a heavier reliance on strategic thinking. Maddening, however, defies terms like “strategy”, residing instead in the twin dimensions of knowledge and luck: to succeed, you need not only a comprehensive understanding of how the game’s systems work, but also enough patience to grind through those systems over, and over, and over. Three Houses’ answer to previous games’ punishing “Lunatic Mode”, Maddening increases the stats and abilities of enemies while reducing the experience points your own units earn. This is worse than it sounds, especially towards the game’s middle, when you can be overwhelmed easily by a group of enemies that’s larger than you’re expecting, or have an opponent zip between two of your stronger characters to get to your weak archer or mage. And if—like me—you’re committed to not letting your students die in battle, mistakes like these mean you have a lot of resets ahead of you.
Whereas Hard mode is mostly tough but fair, even on the easier side if you’re a strategy game veteran, Maddening is exactly what it says on the tin: there is no sense that the developers of the mode had any interest in making your journey through it smooth, or even broadly possible. It doesn’t even subscribe to the Dark Souls mindset of hitting you with unexpected difficulty, where if you throw yourself at a challenge enough times—or summon someone to help you with it—eventually you can break through to the next thing. Here, surviving until the end of a battle requires a combination of skill, luck, and foresight, the last of which you can use Divine Pulse to gain if you, for example, get absolutely annihilated by same-turn reinforcements jumping out of a random wall. Since experience gain is reduced, you start with a five-level gap between yourself and your opponents that only gets wider. Every enemy has special abilities that can pierce your armor or bypass your front line, and for the first few chapters all of them can one-shot even your most powerful characters. The first few hours of Maddening mode are spent huddled together while you try to get the attention of one man with a sword so you can lure him to his death, without his friends noticing. Rinse and repeat.
Whereas I played Three Houses the first time for escapism, the second was a combination of pandemic boredom and a long-abandoned, half-hearted desire to play the two routes of the game I’d missed. I did my first playthrough with Claude’s house—Golden Deer forever, baby—leaving me with a choice between the Black Eagles and the Blue Lions, or the fantasy fascists and the fantasy cops. I chose the Eagles, a group of mostly nobles who hate each other, led by a teen-empress with a cape-coat from Zara. The team is half mages, meaning they’re extremely weak, and very vulnerable to the very fast bandits on the third map of the game, who—because of their increased speed—can attack you twice each turn instead of once. You start the game with three uses of the Divine Pulse, and I quickly used them up saving Petra, my frontline swordswoman, from arrows shot from inescapably long range, again—and again—and again.
In the past, spending a day—or even an hour—trying over and over to beat a boss or progress through a map hasn’t been my thing. There are a few exceptions to this—Hollow Knight, for example, a soulslike whose later bosses require precise movement in hostile environments full of beautifully rendered acid or spikes. I love the challenge of Hollow Knight because its movements are so fluid, because the developers put so much care into ensuring you feel empowered just by moving, an assurance built out of all the skills you’ve gathered along the way. Even when you die—and even when you lose all your money because you sat on a fake bench in Deepnest and got wrecked by a bunch of spiders—you still feel powerful, because your body in motion is the solution to the puzzle the world offers. You’re a fit that feels natural, but all the work that’s gone into it is there right under the surface.
That’s a blend of care and elegance that Maddening mode isn’t trying for. Three Houses is a well-designed game in its regular modes; its class progressions and intricate systems are balanced carefully, and when you pull off a crit on an armored enemy or break all four shields on a boss, you do feel powerful. Indeed, the progression of the entire game is built around taking a team of weak, unsure teenagers and training them into powerful warriors. At the end of my first playthrough, when Ignatz, my weakest archer who’d always had a boosted hit rate, was bouncing around with an unbelievable movement speed and destroying enemies from half a map away, there was a certain feeling of accomplishment—I did that, literally speaking, but I also taught someone else to do it. And it’s stories like this that make up the appeal of Fire Emblem. Each of these characters has their own stats, advantages, and stat growth outcomes designed to complement all the others. Running with their particular strengths, and getting to see the stories that come out of them, is what gives your narrative its shape and your students their personality, maybe even as much as their dialogue and character design.
Given the level of micromanagement that Maddening requires, you would think it would be the perfect environment to bring out the stories that the characters’ stats tell. And in some ways, it is: you’re reliant on your characters’ special abilities and quirks to get through even the simplest challenges, and ignoring a character’s natural strengths can be disastrous. But getting through Maddening also requires rigid optimization, thinking things through, a task I was resistant to at the beginning and paid for in the middle. It forces you to have multiple kinds of the same unit on your team, rather than try out new ones, and incentivizes repeating tasks like fishing and auxiliary battles to try for some tiny amount of additional experience. Last year, I ran through bandit outposts and collected powerful relics like they were nothing. Now I have an Excel file from Reddit on my computer labeled “FE3H Class Starting Stats and Skill Growth”. No doubt there are stories to be found in Maddening mode, but for the most part they’re not stories you create yourself, or ones your characters create for you; they’re solutions, pieces of a puzzle that you can’t click into place neatly, but if you turn them just so, you can almost make them fit.
The point of this comparison isn’t (all) catharsis; it’s also not a wish for the game to be something other than itself. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that Maddening is exactly what it says it is; it’s frustrating, often unfair, sometimes ridiculously broken, with atmospheric difficulty spikes and weird loopholes that make entire sequences inconsequential. It is possible to go several chapters with no deaths, then run up against a brick wall that stops you for days (hi again, Seteth). During one morning of frustration, having slept on an especially difficult mission, woken up to retry it, and bashed my head against the exact same wall of reinforcements that had stopped me the night before, I googled “maddening progression” and found several posts that made it clear my team was doomed from the start, because I hadn’t optimized their random level-ups and force-fed them Speed Carrots (a random farmable stat booster that will eventually show up in your greenhouse if you reset enough).
As it turned out, the discouragement wasn’t true; a few more tries and I got through the level, frustrated but excited. And then I got to level-up and do some inventory management, and the loop got me again: one of my magic users learned a ranged healing spell, and my shaky archer put on a ring that improved her accuracy, and someone learned how to ride a horse. And for a few more in-game weeks, my team stayed above water.
It’s anyone’s guess why I decided to start playing this challenging, occasionally malicious game mode in the middle of what anyone would describe as a challenging global event (with, in the US where I am, a malicious government making it worse). If the point of playing games like Three Houses is escapism, then my desire to play a game in a genre I was unfamiliar with, on a difficulty setting designed to beat me into the ground, sounds like masochism or at the very least a misguided ego trip. But in my experience the number one thing Maddening mode has given me in quarantine hasn’t been escapism, and it hasn’t even been challenge: it’s been structure. Playing something rigid, where you have to make all the right moves and fit everything together just so to succeed, might at any other time feel misguided and pointless. I have to spend the rest of my day making sure things don’t fall apart—why would I want to replicate that in a video game?
But now, when normal life for most people has already fallen apart, there’s a certain reassurance in taking those necessary steps. If I plan ahead enough, if I do exactly the right thing, I might just succeed—or I might still fail spectacularly. In the current moment, that particular flavor of success in the face of near-certain failure is certainly more realistic, but in some ways it’s also more comforting: it offers not only a small chance that work, planning, and constant improvement can actually bear results, but also confirmation that those results we do see aren’t inevitable, but the product of dedication and bravery from a huge number of people.
I’ll stop short of mapping this feeling onto the material consequences of a global pandemic; doing so ignores that “normal” structures have been doing harm to a lot of people for a long time, and despite the surprising range of Fire Emblem characters I don’t think they’re the ideal analogy for the current moment. I’m also not going to go to bat for the place of challenge in games, which has already been discussed to death, and which can obscure the need for accessibility modes and systems (of which Fire Emblem has several). The question here isn’t even “why do we like challenge?”, but “why do we like bad challenge?”— frustrating, poorly designed, ungenerous challenge? Challenge that’s actively hostile to creative solutions and requires slow progress and wasted time? It might be because it’s cathartic to play out the things we’re struggling with—frustration with governments, unions, schools, workplaces— in a low stakes way, all while fighting a bouquet of fascist governments in an anime monastery. But it might also be that the simple act of managing something, even and especially when that management is frustrating and counterintuitive, can give us some direction in a time when it’s desperately lacking.
For now, as I write this, I’m stalled out in the back end of the Black Eagles route, hoping to figure out how to get my severely under-leveled characters through one more fight. All my swords are on the verge of breaking. I have one stack of healing concoctions left. Things are looking grim. I started teaching again in September, online this time. I still don’t know what to do with my hands. But I think, if I try enough times, I’ll figure it out.