Too Much, Or Not Enough?
TW: Abuse, medical imagery, trauma/PTSD
Spoilers for Fire Emblem Three Houses: Black Eagles Route.
An interesting debate rose in a group of new friends from DragonCon the other day: should a potentially triggering story in a video game be censored?
It started when we were discussing a recent update to Fire Emblem Three Houses, a video game for the Switch that brought us all together. In the update, one character’s dialogue has been changed to remove some details from a story of childhood abuse. When the issue was first brought up, my friends were outraged at the idea of censorship.
Someone provided evidence of the change to Bernadetta’s tale about her father (spoilers for B support) - the dialogue went from "To train me to be a good, submissive wife, he'd do things like tie me to a chair and leave me there all day, challenging me to stay quiet." to "To train me to be a good wife, he'd do things like tie me to a chair." As soon as we saw the evidence, several strong opinions began to form.
Some people said it weakened Bernadetta’s story, making her seem dramatic or like a “crybaby” for showing such strong effects of what now seemed like a weaker trauma. (In the game, she is paranoid about others’ motives towards her, terrified of social interaction, and prone to hiding in her room.) Other people said it was a slippery slope that would lead to “ruining” several other stories, including those at the center of the game’s plot. And then, in a separate chat, my best friend brought up the fact that such a specific story of abuse as was presented in the original line could be triggering to people with a history of abuse.
As the debate evolved, I wondered: what is the line between telling a story that people might identify with or might be used to further understanding of mental health issues, and a story that could damage the very people it’s trying to help?
As a person living with a mental health condition, I know I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak for my own experiences with the game. After all, my past significantly influenced how I experienced another story in the game that connected to me more personally.
At the beginning of this game, a player must choose between three houses, each led by a student from a different land. I didn’t have a particular leaning towards any of the house leaders, but since my friends were beginning with either Claude or Dimitri, I decided to start with Edelgard to see what was different.
I progressed through the game, until I reached Edelgard’s first cutscene (spoilers for C and C+ support): the player is walking through a hallway at night, only to hear the unmistakable sounds of someone having a nightmare or night terror. When the player checks up on Edelgard, she hints at trauma in her past. Later, she reveals the story of how, when she was younger, she was subjected to a series of painful, bloody, experimental surgeries, which lingered in her mind just as the physical effects remained in her body.
I was absolutely floored. The language she used - “waiting in the darkest depths for a glimmer of light,” “cutting open our very flesh,” “lives devastated” - reminded me so much of my own trauma from seven years ago that I was shocked. When I found out that the surgeries she endured were called “blood reconstruction surgery,” I felt even more of a connection.
Of course, there are differences between the story of a fictional Imperial princess undergoing a fantastical version of a surgery and my own experience, but the similarities couldn’t be ignored: surgeries that I remember and was awake for, where I felt enough pain to recall it vividly years later, that gave me nightmares and flashbacks and much worse things afterwards.
At that point, I wanted to see her story through. She quickly became my favorite character, much to the chagrin of my friends who played the other routes. She was an antagonist there, and even though she made some pretty poor life choices later in the game, I couldn’t help but appreciate her motive of using her power to create a world where no one would have to endure an experience like that again.
Even with these poor life choices in mind, I still loved seeing Edelgard in action. I loved how she used her past experiences to make her stronger, and how she fought to stop her past from controlling her present with varying success. I might not agree with the means she used to reach her ends, but I greatly enjoyed the idea of her working towards a world where this sort of trauma would not harm people.
It inspired me enough to make a last-minute change to my DragonCon cosplay roster and purchase an Edelgard cosplay, something simple yet incredibly fun to wear. I ended up getting into so many wonderful conversations with people about the game, acting out favorite scenes, and taking plenty of photos with new friends. I couldn’t have loved my cosplay experience more, especially since Edelgard fits perfectly into my favorite archetype of characters - morally ambiguous people in power who are the heroes of their own stories but villains to many others.
For me, the fact that I thought about my own story when I read Edelgard’s dialogue helped me enjoy the game more. But I’m also over seven years removed from my experience, and have undergone years of therapy and CBT to overcome the symptoms of trauma. The details of my memories are less sharp, the pain feels more distant, and unless I’m having some sort of problem with my leg or the metal inside that requires me to go to a doctor, I can forget it even happened at all.
But just as I can’t speak for the whole mental health community, I also can’t speak for others who have gone through trauma - and just because it was empowering for me to see a character who’s dealt with challenges like mine doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be triggering or even harmful for others.
I do like the idea of a character like Bernadetta whose personality is almost entirely shaped by the abuse she endured, but there are plenty of players who could have experienced abuse close enough to hers that it would be upsetting to them.
At the same time, however, I could understand what some of my friends were saying: the majority of people don’t have trauma like this, and censoring traumatic stories makes them feel even rarer and perhaps even stranger. Without more stories like Bernadetta’s in the world, it can be easy for people to never learn about trauma or its aftereffects. It can perpetuate the stigma that mental illness should be kept secret, which is also very damaging.And yet, it’s not worth it to harm people just to educate others, or for the sake of a good story - so what can be done?
There is no perfect answer to this question. It depends on the type of story involved, how common the trauma is and thus how many people it would affect (the story that connects me to Edelgard is likely far rarer than parental abuse), and how it’s presented. It’s a complicated balance between educating people not living with mental illness and protecting those living with it. And even at the end of our long discussion, no one had any concrete answers.
The best compromise we could think of was to add a trigger warning for abuse, like I did at the top of this post, to the game. With its current warnings for blood, violence, and suggestive themes, a potential player with trauma in their past wouldn’t know that there’s a story here to avoid. If they knew and chose to avoid it, they might miss out on something others find interesting, but they also have the option to protect themselves from something harmful or at least prepare for the possibility of negative thoughts cropping up.
In the absence of such a warning, I can understand why some of the language dealing with specific types of abuse was removed from the game. It feels like the best compromise that could be done after the game’s release to tackle the most severe incidents like this, while still leaving other stories like Edelgard’s intact.
Navigating problems like these are part of what makes talking about mental health so difficult, but it’s my fervent hope that as more time goes by, society can reach a greater understanding of this balance and come up with solutions to suit everyone in the best possible way.
Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.