Warning: Mild character arc spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2 and Fire Emblem: Three Houses
I’ve been enjoying my time with Fire Emblem: Three Houses immeasurably, something I never anticipated would happen since I’m a complete newcomer to the strategy genre. I’ve noticed it’s primarily for the same reasons that Red Dead Redemption 2 was my personal game of the year in 2018, which is a game far closer to my comfort zone. But I know what you’re thinking; how is a western cowboy shooter about loyalty, plans, and Tahiti in any way the same as a Japanese strategy game about teaching and grand sword battles. Well, allow me to explain.
Both games, though vastly different, are the same in one crucial way which is integral to what makes them both so special, and in a way that more and more games are getting better at as the medium moves forward. That is, how they develop their characters.
One of my favourite missions in Rockstar’s western epic wasn’t one brimming with explosive action or cowboy clichés, it was that one special mission near the beginning of the game in which Dutch, Hosea, and Arther row out to the middle of a lake to do some fishing and have a chat. That one mission was more important than any other of the horse riding and showdown at noon shenanigans because it perfectly encapsulates the one thing Red Dead Redemption 2 gets right more than anything else; building relationships between characters.
There’s something in the idea of characters sharing stories on a fishing boat or around a campfire that draws you in as a player. You get a chance to explore the deep bonds between Dutch and Hosea as they reminisce about the old days, good and bad. Their characters are flawed, Dutch especially so as he slowly unwinds and descends into madness through the course of the game, but that only makes them more real. Dutch can’t handle the strain of the Pinkertons breathing down his neck as he struggles to keep things in order for the gang, and we get to see that slow unravelling through the course of the game.
One way that video games excel as an art form is their ability to explore these deep inner struggles of characters in an impactful way, particularly through small character moments and interactions like those aforementioned. Movies can’t do this because they are limited by a two-hour runtime, so as fantastic as movies like Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight are, they can’t explore characters in the same way that Red Dead Redemption 2 and Fire Emblem: Three Houses explore theirs.
Three Houses does this with a much larger emphasis on building relationships between characters, in fact, that’s what you spend most of your time doing in the game. It puts you in the role of being a mentor to the other characters. They depend on you and resultantly come to you for advice and look up to you, and it shows. With each two-minute support cutscene or even each line of dialogue, you feel closer to the characters, you feel like their friend.
But you’re also given choices to make for each of them; what should they study? Should Felix keep improving his authority skills or should he focus on becoming a master swordsman? When he comes to you asking to change his focus onto something else, should you accept this change or do you think another role better suits him? These are all choices the game asks you to make, and they are all impacted by the relationships you have with each student.
Much like Red Dead Redemption 2, in Three Houses, no conversation is wasted. Each moment of dialogue is used to build characters. They discuss their troubles, their backstory, their likes and dislikes. At every possible moment their characters are being built, and as a result, after 40 hours I feel like I know each and every one of them, just like a real teacher would.
An extreme amount of thought and care is put into building characters in both games. In Fire Emblem, Dimitri is a good guy who cares about people, he wants the best for everyone but is not immune to being put on edge and occasionally lashing out because of his inner regrets. As I previously mentioned, just like real people, these characters are flawed, and that is what makes them great and often relatable. Dutch is a character we see slowly unravel through the course of Red Dead Redemption 2, but as a result of being with him from the beginning of that journey, we understand why.
The point I’m trying to make here is that the characters are at the core of each game’s story, with these two games more so than any other games I’ve ever played. They both build their characters in similar ways, through those smaller interactions that happen during gameplay. While an argument could be made for say, the sharing of stories between father and son on the boat in God of War, the two subjects of this article share a commonality in having hubs to explore and large bands of characters to make those hubs feel alive. Through Red Dead Redemption 2’s campsites, and Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ monastery, where you can interact with characters and feel like a part of their world and environment. Every other interaction branches from these hubs. You ride out on missions from the campsite in Red Dead Redemption 2 while you have support conversations (the main character building force in Three Houses) in the monastery.
These games couldn’t be further apart from each other in gameplay and tone, and yet they succeed for the very same reasons. They make you feel like a part of their worlds and once you’re done with them, they make you miss their characters as if they were real people. That is the mark of some of the best games of this generation, so if you played one and found yourself primarily engaged by its characters and story, give the other a try. You might just find yourself surprised.