School-set RPGs are not uncommon as a concept and so do not, themselves, need much specific introduction or explanation. Nevertheless, there is a subset that I find somewhat more interesting – those which take the idea of an academy for the young and influential to learn martial and political skills so they may become future leaders. The big one, for a while, was Trails of Cold Steel; I’ve written in the past about its slight inability to land its heavier political themes, and the inescapable tension between its ideas of personal friendship and intrinsic goodness versus wider-scale conflict. I like it a lot, despite its flaws (and will merrily play Cold Steel 3 and 4 when the chance arises) but it is a series of games, like Valkyria Chronicles 1 and 4, that raises a lot of very interesting critical arguments.
This article contains significant spoilers for Trails of Cold Steel 1 and 2 and Fire Emblem Three Houses.
Things changed slightly in the common room imperialism stakes in 2019 when Fire Emblem Three Houses came out. The games are mechanically different, proceed in very different narrative directions, but have a solid thematic common ground that meant I could not review Three Houses without comparing it, in some way, to Cold Steel. You can, without a doubt, level similar conceptual criticisms against both games; they both to a greater or lesser degree paint conflict with an entrenched nobility as a conflict against the bad ones (and put forward the idea that altruism can exist in an unequal society). They both idolise the public school as part of the school-to-politics pipeline (tying back into the idea that the good ones need a Good School to prosper). They both never quite stick their reformist arguments, because those arguments need narratively to be put in the mouths of antagonists.
These are arguments I think I am more sympathetic to now because it is harder and harder to distance the fantastical world of the noble academy from the very real public school educated political class. Cold Steel runs with the idea, distancing it from typical feudal/monarchical fantasy by having its setting be a rapidly industrialised empire with a royal family losing influence to democrats and a noble class displaced by new money and industrial power. The public school is gaining new – and not always harmonious – students from all levels of society and that is a very interesting line of narrative that sets up the game’s wider conflicts of reformism often being bloody and self-serving, of the nobility being compromised and short-sighted and industrialists being interested in profit and prestige over morality. And the younger generation wise up to their privilege and do something about it (even if that something is falling in with the displaced royalty to try and put an end to the civil war). This is what I mean when I say Cold Steel, particularly CS2, is a bit of a mess of interesting ideas at war.
What does Three Houses do? It makes a three-sided conflict between three nations, rather than a civil war based on social lines. Its setting is more traditional fantasy – two hereditary monarchies and a rough allegiance of city-states, rather than a world of arms dealers, capitalist rail barons and democracy for the little man presented as an unwelcoming shakeup of the status quo. It lets you join one of these nations, or sack it all off and ally yourself with the prevalent religion. (Religion in the Trails series is omnipresent yet something of a manipulating, mostly benevolent background force – sometimes at odds with, and sometimes a part of, local mythologies and traditions). Its school is more like a historical university, a place where people receive a full classical education and go off to become warriors and statesmen.
The game is also very much more vague on the nature of this education than Cold Steel – the writing never quite sells the idea of the tactics lessons the students undertake. I liked that Cold Steel’s Thors had a comprehensive education you could see – art rooms, libraries of historical texts to read, cooking classes and so on. It felt like a perennial kind of school-in-fiction, hitting all the proper beats of a school story. Garreg Mach in Three Houses exists to use the school conceit for two mechanical purposes and some different thematic ones – to bring together different ideologies and make you pick a side, to provide a narrative justification for unit training mechanics and thematically to provide a place with sentimental or spiritual value to the different armies that end up fighting over it. The big difference, of course, is in Three Houses you play a teacher, while in Cold Steel you play a student. Your interaction with education is different. Maybe a Trails of Three Houses where you played the head of Class VII and had to herd cats to avoid getting everyone killed would be a game that would be interesting. Maybe if Byleth was a charismatic student who joined one of the classes in Garreg Mach you’d see your party members differently. But those aren’t games that exist.
Three Houses doesn’t even really commit to the idea that you’re a teacher. It is, once you see past the theming, so much more of a mechanical justification for unit-raising, and to insert the cipher character neutrally into any one of three factions. Because ultimately the school aspect isn’t really important to the plot, not in the way Thors is – narratively and symbolically – to Rean and Class VII. This sounds absurd given how much of the war arc of Three Houses is spent worrying about the school, but this is what I mean. What matters about Garreg Mach in narrative terms is it is central, neutral ground, it is the headquarters of the church and it has sentimental value to former friends now at war. But ultimately the Three Houses of Three Houses are three groups of named units, and a whole lot of students who get basically no dialogue or narrative. The game is about Dimitri and Edelgard and Claude, who met at school, going to war because the class system and organised religion need to be torn down. It’s nicely symbolic that they can end up refighting one of the military training exercises of their youth. Compare this with Cold Steel, where so many students outside of the special, plot important class, have personalities, little storylines across the game’s progression, dialogue.
It means when Cold Steel has its war arc you suddenly have an awful lot of people you want to make sure are OK. It’s not us and them, it’s not now I must kill my classmates, it’s this school taught us that we need to be better people and that starts by rescuing all my friends. I still think the way Cold Steel 2 makes liberating Thors the main goal is a little trite, and further muddies an already overladen plot, but in retrospect after Three Houses offers wartime Garreg Mach as much of the same, except with even fewer NPCs to talk to I’d rather have what school stands for as a driving force for the students and a symbolic part of the wider conflict.
It’s worth here considering the politics of Three Houses a little more because I think a lot of the most visceral, immediate online responses don’t quite get the motivations of the Black Eagles right and in getting that wrong miss out on both interesting flaws in the story and its interesting merits. Now first of all I don’t think Edelgard is really a great character in herself, she’s Reinhard von Lohengramm from Legend of the Galactic Heroes only without the 110 episodes of very dense politics that made him interesting. What she is is interesting within Three Houses’ apparently simple fantasy morality, because she’s an outwardly amoral, harsh ruler willing to tear down society and rebuild it in her image, with some genuinely good and moral ideas, and a lack of long-term thinking. If you take her campaign, her arguments make a deal of sense.
Society is too focused on noble bloodlines and a magically-enforced caste system. Thus the best thing to do is tear it down. Reinhard in LOGH thinks the same about the fiercely discriminatory Goldenbaums, and tears them down. Similarly, Edelgard installs herself as a strong yet virtuous leader, reformist etcetera, casting out cults (even after using them for personal advacement). Now the thing is LOGH has Yang Wenli as Reinhard’s foil. The committed modern democractic liberal, passionately defending democracy as a concept even when it is broken in practice. Yang identifies the problem with Reinhard’s virtuous monarchy immediately. In a society where leadership is not chosen by the people, any virtuous and selfless leader is effectively a fluke, a temporary respite from unaccountable rule. This is why it is very easy to read Edelgard in Three Houses as a straight villain, because for all her claims to want a fairer society she is still the Emperor trampling her enemies before her and forcing their loyalty. You’re replacing three differently unfair societies with one harsh society that’s for the moment ruled by someone with a little more vision than most. She’s still depicted as a tyrant, to a greater or lesser degree, even if her motivations are better than most. This is kind of a necessary narrative cheat, though, because if Edelgard was painted as an enlightened figure who sees that the route to a fairer society isn’t preserving an inadequate meritocracy but getting rid of the idea of absolute rule (especially absolute rule over an entire empire) completely then the other two routes would become plainly villainous by modern standards (and even if we accept the narrative cheat that it’s OK to support fantasy kings because they’re good kings, Dimitri’s Good King-ness would be diminished if he went to war with someone offering an enlightened alternative to his rule, thus we wouldn’t have Three Houses we’d have Fire Emblem: Edelgard Invents The Republic).
This has wandered quite a bit from the initial discussion of schools in these games but to bring it back around to that there’s another thing that doesn’t quite work, that requires another, maybe laboured, Cold Steel comparison. In Cold Steel you meet Crowe very early on, he’s a bit of an edgy lad, a bit of a free spirit. By the end of game 1 he’s the masked anti-establishment terrorist C, and by game 2 he’s an even more complex character. He’s someone who’s put himself right into the midst of the school for the elite and works all sides to undermine Osborne – and Osborne is the modernising force here! Cold Steel is doing the thing of “just because someone has a bigger plan for the country doesn’t mean they’re necessarily fair or good” that I’ve said is something Three Houses skirts around a bit in order to give you the choice of fighting or joining Edelgard. The revelation that Crowe is C works really well, because by this point all the heroes have had their values tested, their loyalties – be they to family, to nobility, to industry or to nascent democracy – tested. And someone is saying everyone is wrong, there needs to be a much more permanent change of regime. And that someone is your friend and classmate. Rean, being Rean, sees this as a chance to find a compromise, to find the equitable, best solution.
In Three Houses there’s the revelation that Edelgard is a high-IQ brain genius who was supplementing her curriculum with being a masked insurgent, too. And that all (or some) of the bad stuff you see was her stirring the pot. And it kind of doesn’t work because either you work it out immediately and the missions become really weird, or you don’t and suddenly your student walks up to you and says “Yes, I’m responsible for all the bad shit you saw, trust me dude it was for the greater good.” In the long term joining her is the better(?) idea but the whole execution of the reveal felt jarring to me. And indeed I’d say the whole plotline of Edelgard’s evil(?) allies who live in underground bases and have superweapons and who are just vaguely dealt with in the epilogue with “and then Hubert killed them all in a war that was probably a lot more interesting, involving robots and underground missile silos and fantasy Belka” feels a genuinely strange and half-baked decision. At least when Cold Steel brought in high-tech terrorist group Ouroboros they’d already been established in two, maybe three Sky games at least as a massive threat.
This article probably feels like I’m ranting about two thoroughly mediocre games with terrible stories and muddled themes, that I disliked both. That’s not true. Cold Steel 1 is genuinely really good in how it does ask some interesting questions of its public school setting. I admire Three Houses’ ambition in trying to make a war story where all three sides can be seen as right or wrong, or even just right but doing it very wrong. And in retrospect I think I like, deep down and uncynically, Cold Steel 2’s idea that sometimes The Right Thing isn’t necessarily about nailing your colours to one wall but about doing The Right Thing to help people. I just think both titles are very, very flawed the moment you start thinking about the narrative too deeply – which is a shame because there’s enough good ideas in the narrative, enough questions being asked about your preconceptions of the cast and setting, to make you want to think about it deeply. And there are great casts of characters you want to care about, and if you care about the characters (in Three Houses especially) you can’t separate that from their place in the game’s setting.