[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 Fates—which 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?