Measuring Inter-Character Affection In Fire Emblem: Three Houses

True to my word, I’ve been playing a lot of Fire Emblem: Three Houses lately. It has stayed my evening game while Cyberpunk 2077 has taken over my weekends when I’ve got more than a couple hours to spare. As I’ve slowly ground my way through the early days of the game’s timeline (lots of XP and support grinding early so I can move a bit more quickly through the later levels, also so I can afford all of the Seals required to do the class changes since grinding levels also means grinding weapon skill levels and class skills), I’ve spent a lot of time having units follow each other around the battlefield so I can get those combat-based support points. Because you can assign units to act as “adjuncts” (doesn’t appear on the battlefield but can sometimes act to support the field unit they’re attached to) to units on top of earning points for having them near each other in combat (adjacent to the attacking unit or, in some cases, threatening the unit being attacked), I thought it was be a quick process. I feel like I remember it being a quick process. Turns out it only sometimes is.

I spent the one hour I had last night trying to get a single support level to increase between two units. It wasn’t the only thing I did at first, but it quickly became my sole focus as every other support pairing I set up and sent out increased except this one. I had another couple I wanted to increase with my protagonist, but not a single one of them went up. I spent time goolging if there was a bug, doing solo-battles with just the two of them to see if there was something wrong with having on of them as an adjunct despite that working for literally everyone else, and feeling increasingly frustrated that this core mechanic of the game wasn’t progressing. It also wasn’t something I could even look into, to see if I was making any progress at all because the only sign that things are working is the heart that appears above the characters’ heads when they gain support points and then eventually the support conversation itself. There’s no way for you to see how much further you have to go or if the actions you’re taking are actually having any effect. I assume they are, and that maybe I’m just really far from leveling up for some some reason [which turned out to be the case], but there’s no way for me to check on that in-game. There’s a bunch of write-ups of how the system works according to dataminers and the research people have done, but there’s still no way to check any of this stuff unless you’re doing so from the very beginning and keeping track by hand.

I find systems like this incredibly frustrating. Anything that works based on some kind of accumulation of points or data or whatever numbers are involved should have a progress bar. I would prefer something similar to an experience counter, with actual numbers so you can calculate the best means of leveling up, but I understand that its a personal preference thing. The game doesn’t expose the support system to you because that starts to quantify the interpersonal relationships of the characters in a way that feels a little gross even to think about (even if the powergamer in me desperately wants to apply all my data management skills to it). A progress bar or even some kind of marker to show progress between support levels would help address what feels like a huge waste of time on my end without reducing things to numbers in a way that feels weird. I just want some kind of feedback rather than just dumping my time into an unknowable void.

It is frustrating to know a system exists but to not know how to use that system. I get that not everyone is super interested in the mechanics of things and that a lot of people can find overexplanation of systems to be immersion breaking, but making a system so opaque that you are never sure what consequences your actions have frequently makes me less inclined to play a game. I don’t have that specific issue with Fire Emblem because it explains how to increase support and eventually shows you the results when you’ve made enough progress. Sure, I’d prefer more feedback, but I feel like that’s true of most of my life and not just this one video game. I think most of the problem occurs when systems rely so completely on users discovering them that some people wind up missing them entirely. Like EVs in the early Pokémon games. Only in the later generations did they start to explicitly mention the system and expose it as something you can measure and affect. I never used the stat boosting items (proteins, irons, etc) until Pokémon Sword and Shield because I had no idea what they did or why you sometimes couldn’t give them to a Pokémon. Only once I dug into the systems (after they exposed it to casual players in X and Y with Super Training) did I come to understand why using those items rarely did anything for me.

Fire Emblem has a very good tutorial system that is easy to find and access (something a lot of other games could stand to emulate, such as Cyberpunk 2077 where hint messages are just gone forever whenever they fade off the screen unless they’re hidden somewhere in a menu I couldn’t find the dozen or so times I tried to hunt them down on my first day with the game). So at least I know that I’m doing the right thing and have some ideas for what else I can do outside of boring repetitive combat to speed things along. The in-moment feedback is also good, because I at least stopped worrying that I’d encountered a bug once I saw the hearts appearing. I just really want a progress bar or some form of simple feedback that doesn’t require fully leving up. I just want to know how many more times I have to send the duo into combat before I can swap to different characters. That doesn’t feel like I’m asking for a lot.

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