The Limits of Authority: An Exercise in Abstraction

Author: Dom Rottman

Fire Emblem is not really a series that itself offers anything substantial to a political imaginary–and that’s probably for the best. Its games take place in fantasy worlds forever stuck in a medieval era, where societies see little development over a thousand years, and are run by kings and queens, nobles and princes, both good and evil alike. The stories experienced in Fire Emblem take place at the higher echelons of these societies–sure, there is the occasional thief or villager who shows enough promise to join the main lord’s army, but unless you’re an experienced mercenary or just plain lucky, the theoretical average human being in these fantasy lands has little to do with the central plot of these games.

Yet, often, it seems we want art to inspire something within us, not that it was necessarily intended by the artists themselves. Often, we want something beyond a pretty picture or a fun game, a message, an inspiration, an idea–something we can take out of the world of art into the world we live in. I, personally, try to look for certain cultural “cracks” in video games, books, or television; that is, opportunities which allow us as consumers to liberate us from being merely consumers–to reclaim culture as something of our own and not a product of the culture industry.

I’m aware that sounds horrendously vague, and frankly it’s a difficult idea to communicate. Moreover, it sounds pretentious. Saying something like I want to liberate art from the trappings of consumerism, capitalism, and the political environment it exists in is going to be met with at least someone saying “dude what the hell are you talking about? It’s just a video game, play it and have fun.” And I have. I’ve put over 100 hours into Fire Emblem: Three Houses and still have not exhausted everything it has to offer. But whether I’m motivated out of love for the game, my political curiosity, or just plain guilt, I feel compelled to write something about the series and its latest entry despite certain difficulties in doing so.

I outlined the primary one at the beginning. It’s hard to square the politics of Fire Emblem, or any other fantasy series for that matter, with our own. Yet if you enter “Game of Thrones and modern politics” into google you’ll find pages on pages of people trying to wrest modern political meaning and significance out of the widely popular fantasy series with varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, I did find–or make–a crack in Three Houses that can be translated into a political lesson, a lesson in part birthed from the limitations of developing such a lesson itself. Let’s start with the most controversial figure in the game: Edelgard, the Flame Emperor of the Adrestian Empire. I have seen everything from her detractors condemning her and her supporters (what does it mean to support a fictional character and/or her agenda?) to the depths of hell as Nazis, to her supporters defending her with such blind fanatical devotion that would make most dictators jealous. In reality, though, what we have is–gasp–a character with grey and complex morals and motivations! The horror!

In the interest of keeping it simple for those unfamiliar with the game and for not wanting to build a long and boring list, Edelgard’s political motivations can be defined by the infamous Machiavellian sentiment “the ends justify the means.” Her goal is to build a unified society where people are judged by who they are and their own merits (meritocracy isn’t exactly innocent itself, however; more on that later), and does not hesitate to use force and deception to get there. Depending on the player’s choices in the game, Edelgard pursues this goal with varying degrees of brutality, and, should the player side with her, can even see it through to the end. Her approaches range from a tactical, casualty-minimal path to an all-hands-on-deck total war approach that involves turning people into demonic beasts, among other things. In all cases, the approach is violent, and, notably, she allies herself with a basically irredeemably evil demonic cult– “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Based on her political approach alone, Edelgard is not wholly, beyond a shadow of a doubt, evil, unlike other villains in the series. Do we not have similar leaders in our own history, even in our own time? What political power does not use violence–the state is, after all, a violent apparatus–to achieve its ends? When push comes to shove, have political leaders not, at least minimally, had to believe that “the ends justify the means”? And as for that other political axiom, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” did the United States not, during World War 2, ally itself with the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin of all people? The point to be made here is that Edelgard is a political leader through and through, for better or worse.

At first glance it seems as if her enemies, Dimitri of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus and Claude of the Leicester Alliance, have at least the moral benefit of playing defense; as the reactive force to an act of aggression on Edelgard’s part. But is the maintenance of an inequitable order which favors the nobility–or even has a nobility at all–and those who happen to be blessed at birth with “crests” an innocent notion, especially when backed up with violent force? Yet Edelgard’s revolution is by no means a people’s revolution even if it will benefit them by the end. She still uses the violence of the established social order to change it. Claude, for his part, has a dream of a tolerant society that even he remarks is not so dissimilar from Edelgard’s, but believes revolutionary bloodshed is too high a price. In order to achieve his dream, though, he too must use violence to push back against Edelgard and the Empire. And suppose society is made more equitable through law–what is law if it is not backed up by violent force?

The issue of Edelgard and her revolution grows increasingly complex the more one explores it and its implications. It seems that at any turn, someone is forced to draw blood to change society for the better. The complexity is, in fact, part of the lesson. Three Houses ultimately explores the limits of authority to generate change and to do so in a moral way. It is the nature, perhaps even the duty of the game as a battle strategy game to pose these questions and challenges in the motivations of the central characters; their reasons for committing violent acts on the behalf of their interpretation of justice.

If the limits of Three Houses’s political world makes parallels to our own difficult, it uses those limits themselves to explore the dynamics of authority, of political power from above in itself. By moving figures such as Edelgard into the abstract, as an image of political power, we can think about her motivations, actions, and conception of justice in the abstract which we can then connect to our own life out of the abstract. In other words, in order to grasp political lessons from Fire Emblem, a fantasy series, or some other work of fiction that seems so wildly unlike our own world, we must challenge ourselves to take concepts from such fictional works into the abstract to take them back home with us in our actual lives.