Anxiety, Empathy, and Making Sense of the Senseless Through Storytelling

The first kid we had to kill never wanted to be a soldier. He wanted to be a painter. That was about all we knew about him; he wasn’t on our team. His name was Ignatz, he had grass-green hair and Harry Potter glasses, he wanted to be a painter, and we had to kill him.

“Oh no,” I said. “That’s not fair. That’s not okay. I don’t like this at all.”

Let me clarify: I’m talking about a video game. For the past couple of months, as we’ve been isolated at home, my roommate and I have been playing the Nintendo Switch game Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

We’re writers who have been friends and roommates for years—she’s YA author (and cosplayer) Leah Thomas—and we’re both used to working from home, being unsocial hermits for long periods of time, talking to our cats more than we talk to other humans, dealing with wild economic unpredictability, and handling all the exciting challenges of long-term mental health problems. So, hey, in many ways we’re more suited to this brave new world than most people. Lucky us!

But as this mad spring has rolled into the mad summer—as we spent several weeks furiously sewing a few hundred face masks, as we cancelled much-anticipated trips abroad, as we swung wildly between anxiously devouring the news and avoiding it entirely, as the publishing industry flailed and faltered and left us with giant question marks over both our immediate and long-term careers, as a Postmates driver named Linda shamelessly stole our pizza that one time, as the Covid-19 death toll crept upward and upward, as an angry man at the grocery store huffed and shouted about being asked to wear a mask, as we’ve dealt with far-away family members enduring medical scares and natural disasters (both in the same week!), as our friends lose loved ones and jobs and security, as nations around the world struggle and flail, as more people are subjected to more terrifying police violence, as frustration and grief and fear erupt into unrest, as everything spirals farther and farther out of control—through all of that, the one comforting constant in this uncertain and frightening time has been sitting down every evening to play Fire Emblem: Three Houses. It’s a nightly activity that’s grown into something between a coping mechanism and an obsession.

Three Houses is not a multi-player game, but we treat it as a shared activity. For the most part, our version of playing together means that Leah drives the controls while I mix cocktails and google game stats and helpfully say things like “Don’t forget to give them medicine!” and “Give him a fancy sword, he loves fancy swords,” and “Why the hell doesn’t that kid ever learn to dodge? Learn to dodge, dumbass!” and “Send in the horse girls! Fuck ’em up, horse girls!” (Sometimes the horse girls are technically horse boys, but they are all horse girls in our hearts.)

The game has a fairly straightforward setup: it’s a tactical RPG in which you play a teacher at the military-religious-magical Officers Academy. The school is located at a vaguely creepy monastery called Garreg Mach, which sits in the center of a continent shared by three nations. The first choice you have to make is deciding which of the eponymous three houses, containing students from the three nations, you want to lead. You learn only a few superficial facts about the houses and their students before you choose, and it doesn’t seem to make much difference whether you teach the stuffy imperial Black Eagles, led by the serious and intense Edelgard, or the squabbling ragtag Golden Deer, led by the charming and irreverent Claude, or the ruggedly chivalrous Blue Lions, led by the proper and polite Dimitri.

The first time you play, the choice is more or less a whim, like, hey, that kid is cute, that group is interesting, that looks fun: let’s go with that house. (Spoiler: All the kids are cute, all the groups are interesting, all the routes are fun. And all choices lead to heartbreak!)

The gameplay alternates between time spent teaching and time spent fighting. The fighting is what you’d expect from a tactical RPG: turn-by-turn battles in which you select, equip, and direct the best units to fight various people and monsters. Don’t get me wrong—the battles are fun. You advance the story, level up, watch your students kick ass, and enjoy what ridiculous things they say when they defeat an enemy. (I am going to cross-stitch “Such power dwells within?” for our wall.) It is satisfying to win and frustrating to lose.

But I wouldn’t care about the battles if it weren’t for all the other parts of the game, the parts that are a wicked combination of completely freakin’ adorable and totally emotionally devastating.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Screenshot: Nintendo / Intelligent Systems

During the game time when you are not fighting, you wander around the monastery talking to people. You teach your class. You give the students flowers and books and gifts. You go fishing. You tend the garden. You catch up with the gatekeeper. You talk to the other professors. You instruct your students in things like magic and ax-wielding and horseback riding. You give them advice. You assign their chores. You have meals with your students to build personal bonds. You watch “support” conversations in which the students interact with each other. You invite the students to tea and talk to them about opera, crushes, and cats. You can woo (sorry, “recruit”) students from other houses into your own.

The more you interact with the students, the more they trust you, and the more you learn about them. A successful interaction (“Perfect teatime!”) can be every bit as satisfying as winning in battle, because it means you learn who loves cake and who is afraid of ghosts, who dreams about knighthood and who scorns chivalry, who loves to fight and who despises battle. You hear about their families, their fears, their futures. Some of the kids are rich and entitled; others are poor and scrappy. There are kids who are neurodiverse, kids who are openly queer, and kids who are foreign-born and/or mixed race in a deeply xenophobic society. Some of them are kinda shitty people at the beginning; more than one interaction involves you, the teacher, scolding boys about how they treat girls. Some of the students are so frightened or angry or frustrated you have trouble breaking through to them.

But you do, steadily, as the game goes on. You discover who is struggling under the weight of the expectations their family has placed on them. Who wants nothing more than to protect their loved ones. Who found sanctuary in the church when they needed it most. Who despises the church with every fiber of their being. Who escaped a childhood of horrific abuse and is only just starting to learn who they are outside of that. Who hides deep self-loathing beneath a carefree exterior. Who is grieving family members lost to senseless violence. Who constantly teeters on the edge of a PTSD-driven mental break. Who can see that break coming and feels powerless to stop it. Who was kidnapped and tortured by mad sorcerers as a child (…okay, so that one applies to more than one student). Who is being pressured into a marriage or career they don’t want. Whose entire homeland was purged in a devastating war. Who faces racism, classism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice every day.

Leah put it this way: “Whatever your trauma is, this game has a version of it.”

Three Houses features a huge cast of characters: twenty-four students (twenty-eight with the downloadable content, which you should absolutely get, if only so you can feed the monastery cats), plus professors, knights, church officials, scurrilous villains, shady nobles, and more. The characters’ stories are replete with familiar anime and YA tropes—dead parents, teenage leaders, secret pasts, a veritable rainbow of hair and eye colors—but that doesn’t make them less engaging. There is a reason those tropes endure, after all, and it’s not because nobody likes them. It only grows more and more satisfying as the interactions and relationships deepen, as you uncover secrets and fears, as you earn trust and friendship. (The rich cast of characters also makes for quite an active fandom: an active Twitter community, delightful fanart for characters who don’t even appear on screen, and more than 17,000 stories on AO3, including at least one in which Dimitri is turned into a fluffy cat.)

…And that only makes it all the more painful when everything goes to hell.

There is a Major Event That I Shall Not Spoil about halfway into the game. Bad things happen. The story skips forward a few years. Your character is out of the picture for a while. (You are, er, asleep. Long story.)

When you get back, much like a sixth-grade homeroom teacher who made the mistake of stepping into the hallway for three seconds on the Friday before a holiday, you discover that former students are now literally trying to kill each other. All of them. They are at war, and have been for years.

It is—to paraphrase Claude, who would totally be my favorite if everybody else wasn’t also my favorite—pretty much the worst class reunion ever.

The side of the war you find yourself on depends entirely on which class you chose to teach way back at the beginning of the game. This means that the students who were in your class before the war are now on your side (although there are some exceptions). If you didn’t recruit them to your house before the war, they are now your enemy.

That’s how you end up like we did, in one of our first wartime battles, realizing that we had to kill adorable, friendly, artistic, non-violent Ignatz, even though we knew he didn’t want to be there and would rather have been out in a meadow somewhere, painting flowers.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Screenshot: Nintendo / Intelligent Systems

It’s clever and brutal and sneaky of the game designers, because as soon as you get that spark of guilt and regret, you find yourself thinking, “Oh no, I don’t like that, I’ll have to recruit him next time so that doesn’t happen.” The first time we played, we recruited kids based mainly on how interesting they were in conversation or how strong they were in battle. By the third play-through, we were recruiting everybody we could so we wouldn’t have to kill them later. When the last recruitable student finally joined us—it was jolly, food-loving, big-brother-to-everybody Raphael on that play-through—we cheered about having saved everybody we could.

Because, you see, there is going to be a second and third (and maybe fourth) play-through. It becomes increasingly clear in the second half of the game that you can’t get the whole story from one perspective. It simply isn’t possible to see the whole picture from only one side.

Why are all your former students fighting in this war, anyway? Is it a political war? A religious war? A territorial war? A cultural war? Is it justified? Is it idiotic? Is there even a good reason for it? Is there ever a good reason for such destructive war? Are you even fighting the right enemy?

Yes. No. Maybe. It depends on who you ask.

They all have their own reasons, but you don’t see those reasons unless you’re fighting beside them. One young leader is fighting to tear down powerful institutions at any cost. Another is on a single-minded mission to avenge people who suffered horrific atrocities. The third doesn’t want to be fighting a war at all and would prefer that people cross borders peacefully to reconcile their differences. None of them are wholly right and none of them are wholly wrong—yet all three are, notably, acting from positions of privilege and power, often with little regard for the collateral damage.

That, too, varies depending on which route you play, because your presence alters how the characters around you act. You’re a teacher, after all, and a friend. Your own character begins as a blank slate (for magical plot reasons), but the more you interact with your students, the more human and emotional you become. They teach you empathy, and you help them avoid becoming the very worst versions of themselves. You’re trying to make things better. As the war is raging, you wake up at precisely the right time to ease your students’ hopelessness and turn the tides. You’re not quite the protagonist of the story—the plot is driven by the three house leaders and their ambitions—but you are, in so many ways, the catalyst.

It doesn’t require any great psychological or neurological insight to figure out why people who are feeling like they have completely lost control of their world and have very limited ability to personally improve a traumatic situation would find solace in video games. Within the game we have control that we lack outside the game. Psychologists and neuroscientists who study the effects of gaming on the human brain often talk about the concept of self-efficacy, which is defined as our personal judgement of our own ability to act and achieve positive results. A strong sense of self-efficacy means that you have a strong sense that you can take action to change your situation for the better. Video games depend on this concept to suck us in: even if a game is notoriously difficult (like Dark Souls) or deliberately nebulous (like Inside) or purposefully serene (like Animal Crossing) or socially interactive (basically every MMORPG), video games are designed so that the more you play, the better you get, and the more you achieve, even as the challenges get harder.

That is not, alas, how the real world is designed, nor is the allure of gaming as simple as pure escapism. Studies also show that playing games helps develop problem-solving skills, ward off anxiety, and enhance creativity. All things that are, naturally, quite helpful to a couple of writers trying to figure out how to think about storytelling during these difficult days. The hours we spend playing Three Houses are always a combination of immersion in a fictional world and meta-commentary about the stories playing out in that fictional world. More than once a scene or interaction in the game has us saying to each other, “Oh, wow, I want the whole novel about that.” Or, even better: “Oh, wow, I want to write the whole novel about that.” In a time when creativity, inspiration, and focus are very hard to come by, it is deeply satisfying to experience and dissect a complex story with so many different facets.

Is it still an escapist coping mechanism if we’re using it to think even more about our real-world careers during our free time? I don’t think it is, but then, I am a writer partly because it involves a great deal of on-the-job daydreaming about imaginary things. But I can daydream without Fire Emblem just fine, so I think in this particular instance—right now, in the garbage-fire year of 2020—much of the appeal of the game comes back to problem-solving skills. Sure, figuring out exactly how good the teacher needs to be at magic to recruit terrifying, pint-sized, fireball-slinging Lysithea to our team is not a useful skill anywhere outside of Three Houses. (Aside: *always* recruit Lysithea to your team.) But considering different ways of establishing emotional depth quickly and naturally in a large cast of characters, examining a plot in which multiple people can be villains or heroes as perspective changes, thinking of reasons why the same character might fight on different sides of a war, digging into how religion, racism, xenophobia, child abuse, and mental illness are portrayed in fiction—those are useful skills for writers.

They are also, I think, useful skills for humans living in this messy human world.

I think a lot about an article that was posted back in 2017: “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.” Not so much the subject matter of the article itself—oh, how quaint and innocent it seems now, so much weariness over debates about minimum wage!—but about the exhaustion and exasperation the author communicates, the crushing sense of hopelessness that comes along with realizing that you can’t talk empathy into somebody who does not have it. I find myself thinking about that more or less constantly these days. I don’t know how to make you care about hundreds of thousands of people dead worldwide. I don’t know how to make you care about the people who harvest and package your food. I don’t know how to make you care about victims of police brutality, or about the culture of white supremacy and state-sanctioned violence endemic in U.S. police departments. I don’t know how to make you care about China strong-arming Hong Kong. I don’t know how to make you care about the pandemic crisis in the Navajo Nation. I don’t know how to make you care about women and queer people and trans people and people of color and children in cages and anybody at all who doesn’t look and act exactly like you. I don’t know how to make you care about what we are doing to our planet. I don’t know how to make you care about your children and your neighbors more than your stock portfolio. I don’t even know how to make you care about the life of your hairstylist more than you care about your exposed roots, and if that’s where we’re starting, what’s the point?

It’s constant. It’s inescapable. It’s a never-ending tempest of frustration and despair. There is too much and it never stops. Is it any wonder that so many of us want to run away and hide in fictional worlds for a little while each day? We all know that escapism isn’t a way to actually escape the real world. It’s just a way to set it aside for a while, to move everything that is terrifying and present from the front burner to the back burner so we have a chance to regroup.

And to realize, in those precious moments of calm, that maybe we do know how to make people care.

Maybe making other people care, like any other skill, is something that can be learned and honed and deployed. Writers and artists do it all the time. I certainly don’t think we can fix the world with storytelling alone—sorry, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than that—but stories are undoubtedly an intrinsic part of how we interact with the world and with our fellow humans. Stories are how we make sense of the senseless.

Many writers and artists will tell you that if you get stuck on a problem in your creative work, one way to get through it is to set it aside for a while to do something else. Go for a walk, take a shower, knit a scarf, bake some cookies. Focus on another activity that requires your attention while the problem simmers in the back of your mind.

Maybe that’s what we’re doing now, when we spend all day grieving and fighting the world’s compounding tragedies and all evening teaching fictional children to ride flying horses. We play video games with the same brain we use for grocery shopping, or writing fiction, or reading the news, or debating with friends, or arguing with racist uncles, or voting, or activism. It’s all the same mass of neurons and neuroses. When we allow ourselves the balm of fictional escapism, we briefly set aside the real-world problems that are too daunting, too frightening, and too dangerous. We give our minds the time and space we need to figure out solutions.

We’re all living in the same violent, rigged, unfair world, but only some get to live on the lowest difficult setting. And none of us, no matter who we are, have the luxury of waking up oblivious after a magically-induced five-year nap to find ourselves in exactly the right time and place to fix a world gone mad with violence. Our awakenings are a lot harder than that. We have to wake up into the battle every single day. We have to figure out which words and actions will make people care. We have to wake up and imagine a better world every day—and we have to find the energy to do it again tomorrow.

Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels for children, teens, and adults. Her most recent novel is the science fiction thriller Salvation Day. Her short fiction has appeared in ClarkesworldF&SFAsimov’s, Tor.com, and other speculative fiction magazines. After spending most of her life in Colorado, she now lives in southern California.

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