Content Warning: Mild spoilers for Fire Emblem: Three Houses, brief discussions of familial trauma, experimentation
I impulsively bought a Nintendo Switch last month.
The purchase made sense on paper. I was in the rubble of a long-term relationship, two months into feeling out a new therapist after a six year hiatus, and I needed to find something to take my mind off of everything being kind of on fire. When I sheepishly explained the situation to my therapist, she smiled wryly and said, “It sounds like you might be trying to reclaim something.” I shrugged, because maybe I was. I also just didn’t want to tell her the whole truth.
The reality was that I wanted to get a Nintendo Switch because I wanted to play Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
I had watched two of my friends play Three Houses all night a few weekends prior and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. My friends traded off between two of the game’s titular three houses, the Black Eagles and the Blue Lions, introducing characters and functions of the game along the way. One friend took on the Black Eagles route first, showing me the house leader: Edelgard. She’s canonically 5’2” and wields a giant axe. I learned I could romance her and all I could think about was how cool it would be to have a same gender relationship with one of the major characters in the game. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the fact that the game plants your main character into it as a professor, making most of the cast your students. On the other hand, there was something so charming about Edelgard chopping through enemies while yelling, “Don’t waste my time!”
My other friend grabbed the controller and began to show me the Blue Lions. Specifically, they spoke about the house leader, Dimitri. They explained that not only did he face horrible trauma prior to the game, a timeskip later in the story leaves him isolated and in the throes of mental illness. I clumsily searched terms on my phone, trying to find a picture. When it loaded, I saw that the bright-eyed, boyish kid on my friend’s television screen would grow up into a scowling man with his hair hanging in his face and an eyepatch strapped over his left side. I gasped, said that he was definitely my friend’s type, and continued watching the game, though I couldn’t stop thinking about how this kid, who was effusively speaking to the main character and leading his friends into battle, would have a rough road ahead of him.
When I left my friends’s place, I mulled over purchasing the game. The last time I played something that wasn’t a rhythm game was Skryim back in 2012 and I didn’t even finish it, because I was too frustrated. My relationship with video games prior to that was spotty, mostly because I always had a little brother, roommate, or partner that was so much better at it than I was. But my life didn’t have those roadblocks anymore. I’ve been disowned, I live alone, and I’m single. Why not give this new game a shot?
I made one of the friends I watched play drag me to the Nintendo NY store to purchase my Switch. I fumbled through deciding which accessories to get and when one of the employees asked me which house I wanted to choose, I stammered, because I couldn’t remember that Edelgard’s house was called the Black Eagles (in my defense, the color she’s assigned is red, which still kind of confuses me). I felt like an idiot, but my friend got me through it. When I got home, I started playing Three Houses and found myself smacked with the game’s complex discussions about trauma and mental illness.
I truly believe that media consumption has to be a right place/right time kind of deal. In the case of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I started playing it at the same time I got diagnosed with PTSD.
I wasn’t ready to get diagnosed. In all honesty, it was kind of an accident. My therapist referred to my reaction to something as a “PTSD response” and I felt like I got hit by a truck. Trying to conceptualize what I’ve been through as that level of traumatic felt disingenuous.
During all this, I began playing Three Houses. It seemed like a lot of the characters were struggling with similar issues. I started unlocking “supports,” which are extended scenes between the cast. Bernadetta, a Black Eagles character, reveals that her father locked her up in her home. Because of this, her anxiety was perpetually activated, spending significant stretches of the game hiding out in her bedroom. Edelgard, the house leader I was instantly invested in, was experimented on at a young age and became walled off from repeated loss. They were not perfect overlays of my experiences, but I found myself connected to them and cheering them on as they continued to go through their support chains. I cried when I found Bernadetta walking around the monastery and she mentioned that she was surprised that she could venture further and further from her room. I tweeted excitedly when Edelgard told my character that I could call her El, a childhood nickname.
I would have been satisfied with this content based on narratives like this, but I wasn’t remotely ready to see such a composite sketch of my mental illness in Dimitri.
The thing about Dimitri was that I started with the Black Eagles. All my interactions, outside of spoiling aspects of the game and reading some fanfic,was from an outsider’s perspective as the professor of a different house. Even with that disconnect, I found myself relating deeply with his character. His dialogue tended to veer into a dark territory, usually weighed down with feelings of sorrow or vengeance. I ended up caught up in a conversation with his retainer, Dedue, who was begging Dimitri to rest and take care of himself. Later on in the game, he lamented that an ally dying was all his fault, even though the only fault that could really be found was the fact that she was fighting in support of his cause.
My initial reaction to each moment was to yell at my Switch. When he spoke of vengeance, I told him to figure out how to navigate these feelings. When he refused the help of my character and Dedue, I grumbled that he isn’t a hero for not taking care of himself. When he mourned his ally, I screamed, “It’s not your fault!” It really took until that last moment to realize I was being a real hypocrite about this whole mental illness thing.
The thing about this whole experience is that, much like Dimitri, I conceptualized myself as a singular entity during a lot of my personal tragedy. I’ve had people leave me, so why should I depend on the people who haven’t? Thankfully, Three Houses forced me to connect with people at a time I desperately needed to.
Dimitri has provided me with an analog to explain my mental illness. This connection helps me personally conceptualize my symptoms and my diagnosis, but it also allowed me to connect with others in fandom. I can not only speak to the ugly parts of my symptoms, but I can also remember that Dimitri is a character who can, under certain conditions in the game, be a hero. He can be granted endings with the playable character along with other characters that may not always end romantically, but allow him to spend the rest of his life with someone who is loyal and embraces him. But the best part of all of my excitement about Dimitri is that when I tell people any of this, they are nodding excitedly and telling me they feel the same way.
When I was forced to live alone, I was terrified that I couldn’t do it. I had repeatedly told my therapist that it was one of my deepest fears. Sure, I now live alone in my apartment, but Three Houses has ensured that I’m never really alone in the bigger sense of it. I can always continue playing the game and update people on Twitter. I can check my Discord servers and strike up a conversation with someone about a Three Houses-specific meme. I can invite someone over and we can prattle on about our favorite characters. Three Houses reminded me why I’ve gravitated toward fandom so often in my life. Much like media, a fandom can come to you at the right moment and help you through a difficult time.
At a recent session with my therapist, I was asked to list activities to help me through getting into a “red zone,” or a time that I feel particularly distressed. We went through some general topics, like weighted blankets or other mindfulness techniques we had been going through in past sessions. As we continued working on it, I grew bashful, admitting that playing Three Houses and talking about it was something that helped me when I recently got into the red zone. I quickly diminished the realization, saying that it was a bit embarrassing that a video game could calm me down like that. She promptly instructed me to add it to my list, reiterating that while it won’t prevent me from hitting emotional walls, it could help me get back on track. I begrudgingly added it to a note on my phone for easy access.
I showed the note to some of my friends after the session, laughing about how ridiculous I felt about the situation. Every friend just smiled and told me that they were happy that the game was able to do that for me and that they would be around if I wanted to talk. I usually joked that they might regret saying that someday, but they haven’t rescinded the invitation yet.
I know I’m still at the beginning of my journey. There are so many things I have to work on, both as someone in therapy and as someone in the world. It’s hard to think of myself as optimistic about the path, but at least I’ve been able to enlist the help of a cast of video game characters and people who love them to remember I’m never really alone.