Queer Fans Deserve Better: Baiting vs. Shipping in ‘Fire Emblem Fates’

Fire Emblem Fates

[Trigger warning: Conversion therapy, homophobia, and incest.]

While the game has already been out in Japan since June 2015, the latest installment in the Fire Emblem series, Fire Emblem Fates, was only just recently released in the U.S. Because of the early release in Japan, hints of controversy reached the U.S. news outlets, leading to several reports on the game’s apparent mishandling of potentially gay characters, where one character in particular was believed to have approached the protagonist for help with “curing” her attraction to other girls.

Since this particular controversy first arrived, some of the more erroneous translations have been disproved and corrected, but regardless of the intended message, the scene in question (where the protagonist spikes her drink in order to help her feel attraction to men instead of women) still feels like an unnecessary and poorly thought-out scene. In fact, this scene was removed from the North American and European releases—a smart move for Nintendo to make.

It should be noted that much to my own confusion, the the character in question remains a straight but girl-obsessed girl who cannot date women. And while some may laud Fates for being the first game in the series to provide the option of same-sex marriage, others were not so pleased with what they felt were basically the scraps at the metaphorical table of representation. Given the fumbles this game has already made, how should critics and players evaluate Fire Emblem Fates in regards to its portrayal of queer—or, not so queer—characters?

As a disclaimer of sorts, a lot of this analysis is based on what I, as a critic, have played, seen, and heard about Fire Emblem Fates in the communities online and around me. As a newcomer to the series, I knew very little (and still don’t know much) about the Fire Emblem universe.

A quick Google search informed me that Fire Emblem is not exactly known for its representation of queer characters. As a game based in Japanese anime archetypes, Fire Emblem Fateswhich is composed of two separate games, Birthright and Conquest, plus an expansion, Revelation—plays fairly familiar to those who watch Japanese anime or read manga. The game was also published by Nintendo, a company that, in my opinion, continually refuses to talk about incorporating diverse characters of marginalized identities while constantly repeating its desire to remain family friendly,” if not apolitical.

With this track record, it was hard to expect much from a game that is ostensibly a dating simulator with tactical RPG elements. Most of the people who play Fire Emblem games come for the characters, since it is certain that almost nobody plays for the story—at least not the terribly average story of Fates. The target audience for Fates appears to be a lot of the same people who would watch Japanese anime and ship the characters. And for good reason—the Fire Emblem fandom, from what I can tell, is heavily invested in the lives and relationships of the characters, myself included.

Fire Emblem Fates
“Ah, Lord Corrin. What a pleasant surprise.”

In my friend group alone, they excitedly played through the levels and strategically paired up characters they wanted to see form what are called “Support” conversations in the game, where characters have one-on-one discussions, arguments, or confessions of love, depending on their level of companionship. These levels are ranked from C to S, S being the rank where players can have characters choose to marry one another and even produce offspring, in most cases. “Most” being the operative word.

With over sixty romanceable characters between the two main games, only two (count ’em, two) queer characters exist, and both are presumably bisexual or pansexual, given that each of these two may choose to marry regardless of gender. To make matters worse, as Matthew Codd points out over at Shindig, these characters are portrayed as villainous, if not abusive. While it’s tempting to receive a character like Niles lightly as a parody of a stereotype, it’s incredibly damaging to the queer community to have only this single form of representation.

Stranger than this is the fact that while the game approves your marriage with Niles, you cannot have a child with him, adopted or otherwise, which I found to be a disappointment given that plenty of real non-straight couples can and do have children. This is not to entirely dismiss Niles entirely, because he is a fine character in his own right; the unfortunate reality is that he stands as one of two options for queer romance, which is simply unacceptable when a large subset of Fire Emblem gamers desire to see fully realized queer relationships and who may be queer themselves.

At the same time that Fire Emblem Fates has a distinct lack of queer characters, the game also insists on baiting the player with what can only be described as extremely affectionate characters. While I am all for the portrayal of strong platonic relationships between friends or even aromantic relationships, Fates has a different agenda in mind. This first struck me when a (straight) character named Silas arrives (appears in both Birthright and Conquest) and begins to explain how he and the player character are former childhood best friends. Conveniently, your character has no memory of him, which is tragic given that his entire life seems to have led up to the moment of your reunion. Talk about commitment.

"You became a castle knight just so our paths would cross again ..."
“You became a castle knight just so our paths would cross again …”

No matter what gender the user is playing as, his entire dialogue with the protagonist comes off as an extremely romantic, especially when Silas later tells you in your Supports with him that his favorite memory of you was trying to sneak you out of the castle on what can only be described as the perfect picnic date. I know—cute, right?

Even if Silas is just a really affectionate guy with a lot of feelings about your friendship, this sort of borderline homoromanticism is not the only case in the game. Part of the trouble is that the dialogue was probably written with the assumption that only players who are women playing lady characters would want to romance Silas, but even this does not explain the character Soleil (the same character from the controversy with the removed scene), ostensibly the “girls’ love” archetype of the game who repeatedly states her desire for more than “friendly” relationships with other girls.

"Let's go stargazing. Shall we? Do you want to? Just the two of us?"
“Let’s go stargazing. Shall we? Do you want to? Just the two of us?”

If you need more convincing than the screen capture I took, here’s all three Support conversations between Soleil and Ophelia, another girl in Fates, in which Soleil calls Ophelia her “butterfly” and tells her that, “You and me were destined to be together! Once you finally realize it, we’ll be a partnership for the ages.” It would not surprise me if Fate’s developers were keenly aware of their audience’s desires for homoromantic shipping and therefore created “straight” fictional characters to titillate players into gay relationships for the sake of fantasy. However, what the developers are really doing is refusing to legitimize the actual identities of the real people who play their games.

Fire Emblem comes out of an environment where it’s common enough to see an anime-type fandom ship straight characters who are men with intense friendships romantically (re: every fandom ever). This makes sense given that writers in Japan are intentionally making the characters this way—a genre, I would argue, distinct from BL or “boys’ love”—where creators make a profit off of its fandoms, but conveniently avoid having to write them as real gay characters.

Maybe that’s why it is doubly frustrating to see girls’ feelings for each other refused outright as they are with Soleil. I have found myself yelling at my game more than once, “JUST LET SOLEIL BE HAPPY!” as if that would change a thing. Perhaps I am asking for too much when I implore that developers let the characters they created with dialogue they wrote to date who they so desperately want to date.

Fire Emblem Fates

To make matters more confusing, the same game that refuses to offer more than two queer romanceable characters and baits players at every turn also implicitly encourages players with opportunities for approved incest. Corrin, the default name for the protagonist in Fates, is an adopted child who lives with the royal family in —until it is revealed in a turn of events that they were actually born to the Hoshidian royal family and were stolen away by Nohr’s king at an early age.

Both families become very protective of and affectionate with Corrin, to the point where their siblings from both families actively flirt with the protagonist and can marry the protagonist. Incest becomes the elephant in the room that, to my knowledge, none of the characters really talk about in Fates. And yet, incest is not out of the blue for a game made in Japan, a country with a cultural history of permitted incest practiced in families.

The idea of incest is still permitted in modern Japanese anime and manga, though not all media necessarily reflects the attitudes of all people in Japan; if anything, the theme of incest is more of a subcultural phenomena now than a pervasive practice. But it does raise moral questions for consumers coming to Fire Emblem Fates without this cultural background. On the one hand, one could argue that this is a sign that Japan is more open when it comes to certain forms of sexual expression; but with the combined mishandling of queer characters in Fates (not to mention other games and anime from Japan), it is hard to say one way or another if Fates is responsible or irresponsible in the ways it portrays romances and characters in the game.

Before this analysis comes down too hard on the game, I want to make it clear that there is so much to love about Fire Emblem Fates that I myself enjoyed (and am continuing to enjoy). It is very successful at what it is: a homoromantic dating sim, and even I love to see some “I’m not gay, but I’m flirting with you anyway” shipping between characters from time to time. Whenever video games seem to inevitably fail to reach my expectations as far as queer representation goes, I remember that fandoms, fanfiction, and fanart all exist to assuage my desires; in these spaces, we get to rewrite the terms of the worlds and characters provided to us and see our identities reflected more readily.

While this is a rather saddening conclusion to reach about a game in 2016, I am ever-grateful that communities exist to envision better characters whose stories continue on in our imaginations. Perhaps then, it is the Fire Emblem community that gets the final say on who these characters would become if we had it our way.

So how can we judge Fire Emblem Fates? Is it enough to chalk the game’s failings and questionable moral themes up to cultural differences? Or should we be more adamant when it comes to demanding more from developers across national and cultural lines? As both a critic and fan of this game, these questions remain unanswered and open-ended, so my final question is, what do other fans and non-fans of the Fire Emblem series think of Fire Emblem Fates and these issues?

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5 Comments on “Queer Fans Deserve Better: Baiting vs. Shipping in ‘Fire Emblem Fates’

  1. (Heyy, my first comment ever! 😛 )
    I really appreciate this article. As a recent fan of the series ( my friend got me into awakening two years ago, and it’s the only other FE game I’ve played ), it really saddens me that they choose to… Not commit to their choices. There are pan/bi characters, but only two. They are associated with negative traits (sadism (I really, really love Niles, though) , creepiness (I don’t know much about Rhajat, but that’s what I get from what I’ve seen)). One of them is basically a rehash of an awakening character (Tharja). They are version exclusive (you’re a girl and want to marry a girl, but you’re playing Conquest? Too bad.)
    The whole incest thing is… well. I’d rather not talk about it.
    And Fire emblem, a game that gets most of its audience from its characters and their relationships, is the perfect game for including sga representation. But they choose not to. They choose to go with the “haha look, totally gay”-but-they-cant-marry route. It’s just disappointing.
    Sorry if this isn’t very cohesive. I’m trying to get things out of my mind, and English isn’t my first language, so it can be hard to find the right words.
    Great article, you described my (and many others’, I’m sure) feelings towards these games very accurately :]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. They changed Niles a lot in the English version. He is incredibly more kind and caring than he is in the JP version. He has a baggage, but he ain’t the cruel/villainous/abusive character that he is in the JP version. However Lesbian canon character does left a lot to desired…
    I would say that the localized version is not perfect, but it is better than the original (even for the straight couples can be far mooore romantic!)

    I think the game could be better hell better gosh, miles better if the developers were not afraid?? but, at least the localization did helped a lot and changed a lot of stuff that was either outright awful, and terribly questionable.

    And, if you play all routes, the incest is not…technically incest? like spoilers but yah. If you can marry them, you ain’t related by blood. Those whom you are related by blood (which there is) you can’t marry.

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  3. Thanks for this article. Nintendo tries to be uncontroversial to the point which they sometimes fumble. I was pretty disappointed with the same sex options for pretty much the same reasons you mentioned. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the option is finally there, even if it’s superficial. After 20 years of gaming with pretty much zero queer representation, I am impressed with the strides many game developers have recently made to be more inclusive, but it’s true that it is always disappointing when they fail to treat these issues with the respect they deserve. Soleil could have been far more interesting and nuanced, but they instead chose to go with a very tired “really likes ladies but totally willing to be with the right guy” that I think may only exist in the realm of hetero male fantasy. I hated most that they were version specific. I wanted Conquest, but was also interested in the lesbian option. It was like a novelty of picking a specific version. I hate sexuality being reduced to Vulpix or Growlithe.

    The incest bit though…I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Honestly, even if I found out tomorrow that the man I know as my brother turned out to not be biologically related to me, I’m pretty sure I’d still never be interested in marrying him. But this whole “hey we’re not related after all, let’s hook up!” thing is evidently common in certain genres in Japan, so there’s that.

    I am a interested in hearing more commentary and opinions out there about Forrest though. I’m very glad he didn’t turn out to be a joke or terrible stereotype.

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    • Thanks for the reply! I’m glad you brought up Forrest, since he was portrayed as a very feminine (straight) kid in the game. From what dialogue I got with him between him and his dad, Leo, his dad is somewhat disappointed initially in his “choices” (which seems to mean his interest in clothes). But the way he moves from intolerance to acceptance in their Supports with one another really highlights what that sort of family dynamic is like for real feminine boys like Forrest who just want to be accepted by their families (and most often, dads are the masculine ones who refuse to accept feminine sons). I thought it was pretty well done, and it reminded me of Dorian’s story in Dragon Age: Inquisition, although his beef with his dad is about sexuality, not about gender (though the two are related, of course).

      With a little googling, I did discover this strange change in Supports with his mother from the Japanese version to the NA release (https://www.reddit.com/r/fireemblem/comments/46ygto/forrest_vs_foleo_leos_son_changes_to_forrests/)
      Assuming this translation is accurate, it’s kind of a bummer that the NA translation removed much of the points about cross dressing that the Japanese version was making. It seems that the blame for the game’s lack of diversity can’t entirely rest on the Japanese developers, since with this example the NA translators are just as much at fault for the removal/censorship of diverse characters. The plot thickens, I suppose!

      But I’m also interested in hearing what you and others thought of Forrest as a character!

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  4. Hm, I can’t say I agree with everything you put but most of it I can, or at least understand. I really wish they would have an S support for Soleil and Ophelia too. As a heads up, I will use gay as an umbrella term in this. Sorry for the 2000 page paper about my feelings on one obscure topic of an obscure game.

    Fire Emblem has had a few ‘questionably gay’ characters in the past (ex, Heather from FE10) but this is a first for actually allowing a gay marriage. Considering this is the second game where you have so much control over supports/marriage, and the first with gay S rank, I would consider Fates a step in the right direction. I would like to see more characters that are gay, perhaps three or four would be accurate, or a handful of gay/lesbian and a handful of bisexual, etc. At least more than one so you have a choice. Niles, to me, is a fine character, and I think the issue you have could have been resolved if they’d had a very chivalrous knight who was also gay to balance it. Rhajat is dumb, but so is Tharja and they’re the same character. I hate them, and their character quirk was that they are obsessed with the avatar. I don’t care that she’s the lesbian choice, I just added her to the list of characters I would have scrapped if I were in charge. Damn, bring in Kjelle, she’d be amazing for that. As long as it’s a good character idgaf.

    The game is almost always based around European style swords, dragons, medieval themes, etc. So having this LGBT representation in a period of time where this wouldn’t have been acceptable is pretty cool. Hell, it’s pretty cool that there are female knights, although the game still touts a heavy amount of chivalry towards women (ex FE8, when Joshua says he’d prefer not to fight women in his recruitment chapter.)

    However, I disagree that they should be able to have kids. Adoption/similar functions are amazing, but they are a modern age facility. I don’t think it would fit with the game, since they’re at war, adopting a kid should be very low on the list of priorities.

    ((Honestly, as a side note, I wish they would remove kids from the game as a whole – while their functionality of mix/match to find the best child unit is fun, it does not fit with the story with exception to Awakening.))

    To compensate for the lack of a child unit you’d get from a gay S rank, the pair up bonuses would be higher. That is, let’s say a male Corrin married a Witch class Elise!Ophelia, and she gives +8 MAG for part of her pair up boost. Instead, if she married Soleil, she would give a +14 MAG bonus. (I don’t know what Soleil would do with +14 MAG, I’d rather her marry a Nyx!Nina with shining bow in this scenario, but not the point) This pair up bonus would be non-negotiable for most people.

    Here’s a super simple formula. (Pair Up calculation)=Z; If gay=true, Z x 1.5; if gay=false Z x 1.0

    In other words, if you have a gay S rank, for every two points, you get one more point. So a +4 bonus would become +6, etc.

    This would make gameplay even more diverse, as you’d want your same-sex tanks to get married in order to get a crazy boost to stats, and so you’d have to choose between whether you wanted a child unit or increased stat boosts. This is looking at the mechanisms of the game, I know many people would end up putting units together as they thought they should be based on personality; in which case, I’m not sure why a child unit is an issue.

    People do actually play FE for the story. Fire Emblem 9-10 had a wonderful story and you’d be hard pressed to say it was anything less than great. A lot of people play for the grid-strategy, like Advanced Wars. A lot of people play it because they want to kill a dragon and be a mage.

    Because you and yours play for the characters, do not assume everybody plays for the characters. And while there are characters like Camilla, who has no personality outside of her breasts and loving Corrin, or Peri, who somehow is the Crown Prince’s retainer despite her character quirk being that she loves killing, when all of this is around – I don’t think Soleil is much to toot my horn at. Yes, her support sucks. It’s awful. But every single one of Setsuna and Subaki’s supports are “i’m stuck in a trap” and “duel me” respectively. There’s so much room for improvement, and while Soleil’s supports are one, they’re no more important than the other supports that need help.

    TL;DR – I’m sorry I left a damn thesis about this. I myself am a queer, Fire Emblem and Nintendo loving female with half the series under my belt and then some. I do not think I deserve better, it is their story, and their game. I think Fates did fine, and I hope they learn from their mistakes. But as long as they keep looking forward while remembering what made the franchise so good in the first place, I am not going to attack them.

    Like

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