It’s no secret that video game stories are kind of terrible. Rarely do you find a phenomenal story in a video game, and oftentimes, the story instead takes a backseat, merely acting as a support for the gameplay. (This changes a little if you consider visual novels video games, but let’s not get into that here)
And even when the story is given importance, since it’s likely to be garbage, it can be an extremely miserable experience where you want to pull all your hair out and curse the developers for not having a skip button.
Seriously Mihoyo, why the fuck is there no skip button to your shitty story?
Fire Emblem Three Houses’s Story is by no means a masterpiece, but there is enough effort and competency that made it pretty great, to the point that it sometimes overshadowed the gameplay.
One of the reasons why it’s so good are the sudden tone shifts that give the game a completely different feeling, sometimes even impacting the gameplay. There’s two major tone shifts in the game, the second of which is made even better if you play a certain route.
Obviously this will have spoilers for the game, though I doubt anyone will go play a game just to come back to read this post. But if you’re in the middle of a playthrough or something, maybe you’d be better off not continuing.
To understand the first tone shift, you have to understand that the protagonist, Byleth, falls under the category of ‘emotionless protagonist.’ Most of the time these kinds of protagonists are present in games where there isn’t much thought put into the story and often feels jarring, but Three Houses takes this character trope and actually makes a real, fleshed out character, constantly addressing it and even providing lore-related reasons for her personality. Byleth’s character is dealt with quite well, and she definitely feels like a realistic character that could exist. That being said, it doesn’t change the fact that Byleth is still an unrelatable emotionless robot(again, not to say it’s a bad thing. It’s just her character. In fact I like Byleth quite a lot).
This is her portrait for 90% of the story
This changes in chapter 9 however, when Byleth’s dad, Jeralt, dies. This is the first death in a game that, so far, has been relatively light hearted. Not that there’s a happy-go-lucky kind of atmosphere, but it hasn’t been about war, conflict, and death like the story will be later. Three Houses deals with its first character death pretty damn well, and it’s even more impressive given that Jeralt is basically a nothing character. He doesn’t contribute or even feature that much in the story, giving the audience little reason to like him(besides being kind of cool, I guess?). Because of this, you don’t really care about him dying. But, Byleth cares. We get a cutscene of her crying on Jeralt’s body(pretty much the first time she shows any strong emotion in the story(except for a smile one time)), a cheesy line about how Jeralt doesn’t know if it’s “sad or happy that the first tears he sees from Byleth is because of his death,” and the cutscene ends.
In the next cutscene, we get a short scene where one of three characters(depending on the route you chose) mentions how Byleth has been holing up in her room, and comments on her red eyes implying she’s been crying since Jeralt’s death. When the cutscene ends, the player is given back control of Byleth and is returned to the menu screen.
As you can see above, Byleth goes from her usual robot face to an actual sad expression, even looking downward. I can’t show it through this post, but the music also changes. Before it’d be a really cheerful track, but it plays a remixed version that’s much slower, mellow, and pretty depressing. I don’t think I’m really doing a good job doing this part of the game justice, but when this first happened I was pretty shocked. This was really cool, and began to give Byleth some depth beyond being emotionless, and began to make her seem human behind her emotionless exterior.
Oh yeah, this post was supposed to be about tone shifts. The game generally has a depressing and more heavy atmosphere for a few chapters until a sudden time skip happens. Obviously part of this is due to a character in the story actually dying, but the tone shift basically happens solely because of Byleth’s emotional state, emphasizing her sadness and building on making her feel even more human.
Three Houses manages to utilize a nothing character to effectively shift the tone as build up for an even more significant shift later on, and brilliantly makes its protagonist relatable and sympathetic for the player.
The second tone shift happens in Chapter 12, around the time the time skip that I mentioned earlier happens. Technically it happens in 2 phases, since the story out of nowhere changes to become much more heavy right before the time skip, and fully commits to it post time skip. I’ll mostly be talking about it in regards to the Crimson Flower route, since that’s where the tone shift is dealt best in my opinion, but the shift exists and is done really well on the other routes.
I won’t summarize the story, but basically you’re given an option to side with one of your students who declares war against the Church, who you’ve been working for this entire time. When you start the consequent battle, the music that plays is heavy and exciting, with a much more weighty atmosphere than the tracks that have played until now. You play through the map which is pretty difficult, and your enemies include authority figures whose orders you’ve been following until then. It’s really, really fucking cool.
Then the time skip happens. To be more specific, 5 years have gone past, and all of the characters have changed their appearance to be more adult-like. Every single unit goes from looking like a teenager to an actual young adult, and it’s really cool and exciting, especially if you weren’t spoiled about the time skip. And this is pretty significant because the child-like characters that we had been with all this time now actually perfectly fit the violent war that you’ll be fighting from now on.
Every single unit that falls from combat now dies in canon, and this applies to the enemies, too. This can make for some really heavy moments in gameplay, especially if you like the characters beforehand, whether that’s from previous playthroughs or you’re just easily attached to every character that comes up. There’s a really great video of a guy who falls into the latter category, where it’s a highlight of the most ‘mentally damaging’ moments in his playthrough. It’s in Japanese so I don’t know how much enjoyment you’d get from it without understanding Japanese, but you might want to check it out as it’s a blast: https://youtu.be/WIWioA-Y4oc?t=143
Even with Jeralt’s death having happened previously, a tone shift this extreme from going out on missions and taking out bandits to fighting a war, killing people you used to be friends with and talk to, was completely unexpected. And man, was it incredible. It’s such a cool concept, and with the great execution that Three Houses managed to pull off, I get excited just thinking about it.
I’ve seen people complain about tone shifts in various scenarios, and I think that the biggest complaint is when it was simply more enjoyable pre-tone shift. This is most certainly not the case for Three Houses. You’re with your favorite characters that have grown up into adults, the battles have actual weight to them and the music is much more intense and exciting, and Byleth, you, has an actual goal to pursue in the story– winning the war.
Now, if you’ve come this far and are thinking that all I said was how tone shifts are cool, you would be correct.
Thanks for reading!