The newest professor of Garreg Mach's officers academy could use some studying on how to be a good player surrogate.
This article contains a minor spoiler up to Chapter 10 of Fire Emblem: Three Houses and ending spoilers for Fire Emblem: Awakening.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses brings a lot to the table with its characters. For the first time in the entire franchise I feel like every single character in my army is a fleshed out, complicated person with more going on in their lives than just a memorable surface-level gimmick. Some are better than others (Leonie is worst girl), but I’m constantly impressed with how much work went into making every student, teacher, and knight at Garreg Mach Monastery feel truly alive.
However, there’s one big exception. The worst character in the cast - as well as the most obviously glaring flaw in the entire game - is easily the player avatar, Byleth. A player avatar, or “My Unit” as they’re called in the Japanese versions, is not a new concept to the series. The first avatar appeared in 2003’s Blazing Blade (simply called “Fire Emblem” in the west) and with the exception of the 2017 remake Shadows of Valentia there’s been one in every game since 2010’s Japan-only New Mystery of the Emblem. Byleth is not only the worst character in Three Houses, but I’d say they’re also the worst avatar in Fire Emblem’s history.
The very first avatar from Blazing Blade was Mark, a tactician who serves Lyn’s army in their quest to reclaim the throne of Caelin from Lyn’s usurping uncle. Mark wasn’t really a character in the traditional sense - although they would be addressed in conversation by other characters, they had no dialogue or face, and didn’t have a role in gameplay. More than anything they were an excuse for characters to speak directly to the player during tutorial segments. Nevertheless, Mark laid the groundwork for what would eventually become a Fire Emblem staple.
It would be seven years before the next avatar, and strangely enough, it was in a remake. The Japan-exclusive New Mystery of the Emblem was a retelling of Book 2 of 1994’s Mystery of the Emblem, as well as a direct sequel to 2008’s Shadow Dragon. New Mystery expanded the story of its source material with more developed characters and a new side-story revolving around a group of assassins trying to kill Marth. Also wedged into the story is Kris, a My Unit whose role was significantly larger in scope than their GBA predecessor by stealing the spotlight in many of Marth’s most memorable scenes.
I’m a bit biased against Kris, but they did bring a lot of good ideas to the table that their 3DS successors would pick up on. I hate the way that the events of the War of Shadows were rewritten to shift focus away from Marth, but giving the avatar a big role in the story with full dialogue was the right choice; it makes Kris feel like a full character in their own right. Kris was also a big visual and gameplay upgrade from Mark with a customizable portrait and presence on the battlefield as any class of the player’s choosing.
For the series’ 3DS debut with Awakening, Intelligent Systems decided to pull out all the stops and make a sort of “greatest hits” album of Fire Emblem’s best features. Child units returned from Genealogy of the Holy War, skills returned from Path of Radiance/Radiant Dawn, and the new Casual difficulty setting from New Mystery of the Emblem was retained to help ease newcomers into the tactical strategy the series demands from players.
Alongside these features came another avatar, and in my opinion this avatar, Robin, is the best avatar that the series has ever had. Robin had everything Kris had - a customizable appearance, a presence on the battlefield, and a role in the story. But where Robin exceeds past Kris is in how well their role meshes with the rest of the cast. Instead of being a late addition grated on to an existing story, Awakening’s story was written with Robin in mind giving them equal importance to the “proper” main character, Chrom. Not only are Robin and Chrom partners throughout Awakening’s three acts, but the main villain of the game - the fell dragon Grima - is directly related to Robin through the game’s time-traveling plotline. Spoiler alert for a seven-year-old game, but the final boss of Awakening is actually a future timeline’s version of Robin possessed by Grima.
Robin became such a memorable and iconic character to Awakening’s story that they would eventually be added to Super Smash Bros. as a playable fighter. Chrom himself wouldn’t receive this honor until a full game later, further signifying Robin’s success and importance to the franchise. Two years later, Intelligent Systems would retain the avatar system - as well as many other of Awakening’s features - for the second (and technically third and fourth) entry on the 3DS: Fire Emblem Fates.
I have a lot of issues with Fates, one of which is the poor writing attached to its player avatar, Corrin. I can’t help but feel that Corrin is a disaster of a character that drags down the plot of the entire game. But despite my beef with them, I don’t really have an issue with the player avatar’s escalation from deuteragonist in Awakening to full-on protagonist in Fates. Corrin, like Robin, is fully customizable while also having a fully realized role in the story with full dialogue and a plot written with them in mind.
Fates’ plot revolves around a big choice that the player makes at the beginning of the game: siding with the conquerors of Nohr or reclaiming their birthright in Hoshido. Personifying the player with Corrin helps to add meaning to that choice. Corrin is a conduit for the player to identify with the consequences of their choice, and making them a customizable avatar helps to add personal stakes to the relationships they have with both the family they choose to fight for, and the family they choose to fight against.
That brings us to today. Fire Emblem: Three Houses brought us Byleth. Byleth is identical to their modern predecessors in gameplay - they can be deployed on the battlefield as any class, and they’ve also been directly written into the main story. Their existence as an extension of the player is more appropriate than ever with Three Houses’ school setting. Building your army with units that you’ve built up from weaklings to powerhouses has been recontextualized as a classroom where you’re literally instructing students and giving them goals to study and practice towards. Byleth was an opportunity to match - or even surpass - Robin as the best avatar that Fire Emblem has ever had.
So why is Byleth so half-baked? From minute one Byleth falls short of their predecessors by being the least customizable avatar in series history. Aesthetically they got as many variations as Mark; just like the avatar from Blazing Blade, you’re only able to choose Byleth’s name, gender, and birthday. You can’t alter their appearance at all; the two preset models are the only options you’re given. This breaks down the illusion that Byleth is a representation of the player a lot. I was able to customize Robin, Corrin, and even Kris enough to make them feel like something I could identify as “me.” My avatar in Awakening didn’t have messy white hair like the default Robin, he had straight black hair like me. My avatar in Fates didn’t have long flowing blonde hair, she had shoulder-length red hair and a butterfly hair clip. Byleth is the same two characters in all playthroughs. Sometimes they’re a man and sometimes they’re a woman, but they will always have straight blue hair, blue eyes, and a blank expression on their face.
So if Byleth trends more towards ‘defined character’ in design, then why is their character so...undefined? In cutscenes Byleth will speak to other characters, but they speak through through dialogue choices that the player selects from. And for the most part it’s really obvious that these dialogue choices are purposefully vague so that the same response can work for either of them. The most egregious example of this was in Byleth’s A-level support conversation with Annette where she asked me if she should have candy or tea. I told her that she should go with tea, and she agreed. The very next scene had her comment on how great tea goes with candy.
Sometimes the game doesn’t even bother with the pretense that I’m actually deciding what to say at all. There are countless scenes where I’m given the option to choose from one line of dialogue. The prompt comes up without actually giving me a choice in an attempt to maintain the thin illusion that Byleth is representing me. This was probably done to cut down on the cost of voice acting; if Byleth were a properly written character, then they would need to record a lot more lines for both the male and female versions. This is backed up by the actual casting choices we got for them - Jeannie Tirado and
Chris Niosi Zach Aguilar are relatively unknown actors compared to a lot of the more prominent (and thus expensive) voices on the cast, so removing Byleth from the game’s dialogue was probably a cost-saving measure.
However, this still doesn’t explain why Byleth is so poorly established as a character. We, as the player, know a lot less about Byleth than they do. Taking another look at support conversations, there’s a moment in Dorothea’s B-level support where she makes a comment asking “is your heart even beating?” I was feeling sarcastic, so I chose the dialogue option saying “Actually, my heart isn’t beating.” I was surprised when Dorothea followed it up acknowledging that she actually couldn’t feel Byleth’s heartbeat. The support didn’t follow up on this at all and none of the other support conversations in the game bring it up; I checked. Instead it was revealed to me in the main story several hours later that Byleth was born without a heartbeat, and still doesn’t have one to this day.
There’s also the B-level support with Leonie where she brings up the fact that Byleth wasn’t with their father Jeralt when she met him. When she asks why, the only dialogue option you can give is “I don’t remember.” After the revelation about Byleth’s heartbeat, this one line - combined with the fact that no one knows Byleth’s age - led me and several of my friends to theorize maybe Byleth didn’t actually exist until shortly before the events of the game. This didn’t turn out to be true, and while I haven’t finished every route yet, the ones that I have played haven’t answered where Byleth was at this time. Does Byleth themself have the answer like they did with their heartbeat? I dunno. Is this space intentionally left blank so that I can fill it in with whatever backstory I want “my unit” to have? I dunno. Is it a major revelation that’s waiting to be explained in some storyline I haven’t played yet? I don’t know.
I don’t know anything about Byleth that happens before the game begins, so much so that I actually believed that Byleth didn’t exist before the game began. I fully expect one of the routes that I haven’t played to make sense of their backstory, but it’s not a good sign for a player avatar if I’ve finished a full playthrough and still don’t feel like I have the same level of knowledge about the character as they do. Byleth is treated like a player avatar by the game’s production; they’re a silent protagonist that communicates only in vague dialogue options and are a mostly blank slate that I’m supposed to project myself over. But they’re made to feel like a defined character in all of the game’s writing; they know more about themselves than I do, and that’s a huge obstacle keeping me from identifying with them as My Unit.
It’s a far cry from Robin, Corrin, or even from Kris. I’d go so far as to say that even Mark is a better avatar than Byleth - at least Mark wasn’t haphazardly wedged into the story, and in fact they don’t even appear at all if you play the harder difficulties where you skip Lyn’s campaign. Three Houses nailed all of its other characters so well, so it’s such a huge disappointment that they dropped the ball on the character that the entire plot revolves around. Edelgard, Dimitri, Claude, and all of their classmates, teachers, and comrades feel like living breathing humans. It’s frustrating and disappointing that the professor they all love and derive strength from is as cold and lifeless as their unbeating heart.