You can’t hurry love, no, you’ll just have to wait. – The Supremes
My relationships fail because I jump into things too fast.
Hi, this is an article about video games. In particular, it’s an article on how video game romance is often portrayed in a way that sends toxic messages to the player. And how, at long last, a game has finally come out that made me reevaluate my approach to dating, love, and maybe even life in general.
That game is Fire Emblem: Three Houses – a title you’re probably familiar with, as TheGamer has covered it just about every day for the past several weeks. The latest in Nintendo’s hallmark SRPG franchise has sold a bajillion copies, raked in glowing critical praise, and already attracted a passionate fanbase. On a personal note, it’s the best game I’ve played since 2017’s brilliant Nier: Automata, and a new all-time favorite.
But what did I learn from it, aside from the fact that I’d be just about the worst military tactician ever (RIP Ferdinand, gone too soon)? I learned that my approach to romance is a flawed and possessive one, based in my clingy and unhealthy craving to be wholly loved and desired. It’s one I inherited from years of Hollywood movies and dating sims that encourage fast, hot, heavy relationships that unfurl with reckless abandon.
When I started Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I thought that things would play out just like that. After all, Awakening and Fates encouraged this bog-standard approach to video game dating. “Put enough love points in, and bam – instant relationship.” So, when I became smitten with Three Houses’ Mercedes, a devout church girl who almost certainly goes to church and reads her bible, I thought those old paradigms would apply here. Surely, if I gave her enough gifts, cooked with her, and had oh-so-many tea parties with her, our relationship would flourish and blossom, and we’d be together forever and never to part – just like Rick Astley always said.
Yet, despite all my efforts, the relationship went really slow at first. Mercedes expressed some interest, but joked around that she was just teasing, and didn’t think of me in a romantic context. At first, I was convinced that it was the game’s way of discouraging teachers from dating students. After all, that’s a bit weird, even if it’s (unfortunately) more common in higher education than you might think. Grooming is bad, kids! Don't do it! Anyway, I figured that after the game’s five-year timeskip, I’d meet up with Mercedes and fall into fast, messy, passionate love.
Only that didn’t happen.
Instead, we caught up and reminisced on where we’d been the past several years. We chatted about the ongoing war, the crushing betrayal brought upon us by a close friend, and a bunch of other miscellaneous things. It was nice catching up with her – relaxing and soothing. But I still wanted it to be something more, something serious and committed. So I continued to try and get her Support Rank (Fire Emblem’s in-game affection meter) up to a point where I could romance her. One evening, however, I was greeted with an in-game warning.
It told me that, even though my bond with Mercedes was deep, I’d have to wait until after the war was over to requite my feelings for her. I was flummoxed. Why would the game tell me no? Hadn’t I put in enough time? Enough effort? Couldn’t I give Mercedes the affection I wanted, and get it in return?
That’s when it hit me. This was not a fault of the game – it was a personal fault.
I realized that because, candidly, my almost seven-year relationship had ended over the past few months. In a way, I was using this game as an unhealthy coping mechanism for dealing with those feelings, and was desperately chasing the kind of love that I needed to feel like a whole person. My partner, while still one of my absolute best friends, could no longer be that source of emotional comfort and validation. And I realized that, for too long, I had relied on that kind of love to feel like a fulfilled person. Not only that, but I’d also run myself through the ringer trying to give them the kind of love I wanted, and became frustrated when I didn’t get the same effort in return.
But that was just it – expecting that kind of love to last is unsustainable and unrealistic. In truth, I wanted this kind of love to replace love that I’d lost growing up. My mother was absent for most of my life, and when she stopped being that, our relationship became tumultuous and confusing. My father stopped paying much attention to me when I became a teenager, outside of trying to belittle my appearance and interests when he needed somebody to be upset at. This was on top of me being the only child of a fraught marriage that often yanked me back and forth between the two of them. I needed stability, and as I became a teenager, I clawed to find it in romance.
At fifteen, I clawed my way into the life of a sweet person who had similar emotional needs that I failed to meet. At sixteen, I clawed into a two-year relationship with a physical, sexual, and emotional abuser. At eighteen, I clawed into my former partner, who remained by my side for years, but couldn’t meet the unrealistic expectations I’d placed on them.
Where did this leave me? Feeling broken and confused. Everything I knew and wanted was wrong. Every time I’d tried to love, I’d come up with failure, heartbreak, and confusion. And while it was easy to blame others, I know now that I have nobody else to blame but myself. My own emotional codependency was being fed by the types of media I liked to consume. Romantic anime and dating sims overtly encourage hot and heavy relationships that spark up in the blink of an eye, as do Hollywood romances.
But not Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Instead, the game forces players to wait over five in-game years to even begin dating, which for me translated to fifty-five hours of gameplay. That wait explicitly discourages you from trying to come on too strong up front, and instead, forces players into a position where it’s best to build up meaningful friendships with as many units as possible. At the very, very tail end of the game, you then have the option to choose one of those friends as a potential romantic partner – or choose nobody at all. It is, in fact, the very last decision to make in the entire game.
That’s why, when Mercedes did finally confess her love, it felt earned. It felt real. It melted my freaking heart. Because through all the turmoil we’d faced together, through all the battles we’d fought, through all the cups of tea we’d drank, we’d formed an unbreakable friendship. Now, she was asking to see if that friendship could be taken the next level, and told me up front that if we were to date, I needed to give her space to pursue her passion for humanitarian aid. Together, we dictated the terms of what love between us would look like, and decided to act on our feelings after that was communicated.
I see now that this is how love should work. The idea of running yourself ragged out of a desperate desire to be loved is unhealthy and can hurt you and your partner. Instead, it’s best to let things grow organically. If it happens, it happens, and when it does happen, it’s imperative to establish boundaries and expectations up front. That way, needs and wants aren’t this unspoken, ambiguous mess of a thing – everything is on the level.
Is it sad that it took playing a video game for me to realize this? Yep.
Am I happy I finally did? Absolutely.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses has forever changed my outlook on love. I hope that, going forward, I can be a better person and a better partner to whomever I happen to find that slow, steady progression with one day.
Love don’t come easy, but it’s a game of give and take.
If this article spoke to you, and you’ve found yourself dealing with codependent tendencies, I highly recommend Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More. It offers numerous bits of advice on how to overcome your own negative inclinations and become a more independent person.