Spoilers for Fire Emblem: Three Houses below.
In preparing to write this article, I watched video of some of the S-rank romantic supports main character Byleth can have in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. As I'm still playing through the game myself, I needed context for the ongoing discussion about the same-gender romantic supports in the game. I was entirely prepared to be angry at the male/male options in the game, which are—to be blunt—incredibly bad on multiple levels. What I did not expect was to watch Byleth's marriage proposal to Edelgard and be infuriated by it.
The text is the same, regardless of Byleth's gender. Edelgard talks about being scared that her feelings for Byleth would be unrequited, despite her desire to be with them. "All this time, I longed to share my feelings with you, and it seems you wished for the same," she says. "Now our wishes have come true. This feeling, it's… overwhelming."
And queer little me, watching this, bites down on my fist and tries not to scream.
If both Byleth and Edelgard are women, the tone of this scene, its emotional valence, is completely different. It's similar to how romantic dialogue with Kaidan in Mass Effect 3, as I wrote about in my chapter of Queer Game Studies, reads very differently if you imagine a male Shepard as a newly-out queer man.
"I'm scared we couldn't ever be together, and I needed you by my side, and my feeling of relief at knowing you love me the way I love you" takes on an entirely different character when spoken from one woman to another. It is deeply resonant with a certain type of queer experience that I suspect is relatively common. It's actually a lovely, touching scene.
So why was I mad?
The answer is: because Edelgard's dialogue—in fact, the text of all of the queer support dialogues—is 90% the same regardless of Byleth's gender with only a few (mostly inconsequential) lines of difference. Because that queer reading that hit me right in the gut emotionally has absolutely, positively no impact whatsoever on the actual story of Three Houses. It's not reflected in the game's world, its history, even the other characters closest to either Byleth or Edelgard. It's a lovely, touching moment, but that's all it is: a moment. And to quote Into the Woods, "Life is made of moments, even now and then a bad one, but if life were only moments, then you'd never know you had one."
Fire Emblem is a series that has a complicated history indeed with queerness. Over its history, it's done very little in terms of inclusion on that front. Taking a look at the LGBTQ Game Archive's and Queerly Represent Me's pages for Fire Emblem as a series shows that the queerness seen and experienced in these games is often found more in player queering and interpretation than explicit inclusion.
This isn't to say that there isn't explicit queerness in the series. The best example is Leon from Shadows of Valentia, the recent 3DS remake of 1992’s Fire Emblem Gaiden. Leon's various conversations with other characters (such as with colleague Kamui, unrequited love Valbar, or main character Celica) very directly talk about his queer identity, even if that queer identity is "fell in love with a dude who got killed, and is now in love with a clueless straight guy." Valentia's English script very directly makes explicit something that was sub-rosa in Gaiden; it isn't shy about it at all. Of course, Valentia happened in 2017, after the success of both Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates.
Fates is where the other big reaches for explicit queerness happen in Fire Emblem but boy, did they fumble the ball on that one. (And I'm not even talking about the support story that featured a male character drugging a queer woman so that she'd see men as women, which was changed for Western release.) For the first time, Fire Emblem provided same-gender, romantic S-rank supports for the game’s main character (and the player-created avatar) Corrin. Unfortunately, there was only one possibility for the game's two genders, and each option is in one of the game's two Pokémon-like "versions"—Rhajat, the f/f option, in Birthright and Niles, the m/m option, in Conquest.
Just like in Three Houses, the actual text for the supports in Fates is the same regardless of Corrin's gender, so it's difficult to consider either option particularly explicit in terms of queerness. Never mind that there is a significant mechanical cost from either option in the form of missing playable units: Like Awakening, romantic supports in Fates between a man and a woman result in "child" units recruitable later, but a queer Corrin in a same-gender relationship doesn't have their child, Kana (and Niles doesn't father his child Nina, either).
It's not necessarily that copy/pasting Kana or Nina into a queer Corrin's game, complete with their attached child, is the better option. What's important is that no opposite-gender pairing has what effectively amounts to a queer tax in terms of playable units, though, making this another marker of how "off to the side" the same-gender options can feel. The result is… well. "Your choices matter, and your main character is designed by you, but just remember that if you choose to be queer your options are severely limited, there's no real story impact, and you're giving up minimum one playable unit in a game with permadeath" is a hell of a thing.
Fire Emblem: Fates is hardly alone in this, either. Awakening, with its wild and fascinating parent-child system that prompts equal parts weird fantasy eugenics and dedicated dating sim-like shipping, hits many of the same notes for players that Persona's social links do, for example, and if anything Persona's inclusion of queerness is even worse than Fire Emblem's. It would be easy to toss off a "Well, Japan," but that's decidedly unfair given the country is well-stocked with its own active LGBTQ advocates and lawmakers.
Those who haven't played games in the series may wonder why support conversations—a largely narrative device—matter so much in a tactical map combat game. The answer is simple: because it's a tactical map combat game, the average Fire Emblem does not have a lot of time or space to do in-depth narrative development of its typically expansive cast. The game's "Lord" character, or once they started to appear the player-created main character, gets the lion's share of the narrative focus.
It's through support conversations between characters that we get to see the actual depth of characters in a Fire Emblem game. Conversations between armored knight Kellam and VICE Games' favorite farm boy, Donnel, in Awakening reveal that Kellam is a talented and knowledgeable horticulturalist. In Fates, stoic ninja Kagero's support conversations tend to focus around her desire to improve as a painter and artist. These are facts that you just won't see on the battlefield, but they give you glimpses into these character's lives, motivations, histories… they help the player connect to these characters. To care about them and be invested in them. They are pretty freakin' important.
Three Houses moved away from the "parent/child" mechanics of supports in Awakening and Fates, a fact I was glad to hear. To me, this opened the field of romantic supports to be more varied, including providing a lot more space for queer relationships. Mathematically, that did happen; compared to two in Fates, Three Houses provides eight potential same-gender romances, five for a lady Byleth and three for a dude Byleth.
Math isn't progress, though. It's just numbers.
It's not difficult to identify the same-gender options for supports; Fire Emblem games after Awakening typically reserve the "S" support rank for romantic relationships, and the in-game Support menu lists the maximum possible rank for every character combination, likely to facilitate planning
Having watched (the endgame story spoiler filled) videos of all the queer S-rank romances for women and men, as well as a few videos of different-gender romances for comparison, the F/F options don't seem so bad. That they are identical to the M/F versions of the same support is disappointing, as I've already spoken about, but there's a wide range of character types and ages represented in the five options: Edelgard, Sothis, Mercedes, Rhea, and Dorothea. These characters represent young and old, noble and commoner, the grimly serious and the cheerfully friendly.
Comparatively, for men, Alois and Gilbert (two-thirds of the options!) are middle aged knights with existing families. And well… hoo boy. I've heard complaints about two of the S rank m/m options being "old men" compared to the third, who is a more typically young pretty boy type, and to that I say: I am 40 years old and queer ageism is super real, so shut it. I admit that aesthetically, Gilbert and Alois aren't my type and I wasn't terribly excited by them, but that's not the problem.
The problem is that the supposed S-rank romantic supports with Gilbert and Alois—said older men—simply aren't romantic supports at all. In the process of building a relationship with them, you find out both of them are married to women and have children! Now, "married to a woman" does not automatically mean "heterosexual," but I think "is in a likely monogamous relationship with someone else that is also the parent of their child" is definitely not a good look for a romantic support partner. More to the point, their S-rank support conversations do not involve expressions of romantic love or anything of the sort. Instead, both Gilbert and Alois express something akin to “Best Bros” friendship, the Final Fantasy XV kind of emotional dude friendship.
I've been teaching game design for almost ten years now, and in my game design classes, I tell my students that game design is the process of building an experience for the player. What a design team builds is, largely, a scaffold: an edifice that the player engages and has an experience with. You can't control the player, and you can't force them to do anything; the most you can do is convince or manipulate them, somehow, into doing things. A game is a space where players can create meaningful experiences for whatever value of "meaningful" is relevant to them.
...it’s not like this is a series that retreats from complex, political narrative themes.
In looking at romance options in games, we need to consider them from this angle: What experiences do they scaffold? What meaningful experiences for the player does the game allow or, more importantly, which ones does it foreclose?
The same-gender romance supports in Three Houses—especially the male/male ones—are (pardon the pun) emblematic of a thing many games get wrong on this front all the time, and which Fire Emblem as a series has never been particularly good at. Yes, newer FE games have provided "queer options," but those queer options often go hand-in-hand with something, be it narrative or mechanical or both, that shuts down or inhibits queer experiences of those options.
How am I supposed to feel, playing a dude Byleth, when I attach myself to Alois, spend time raising my support rank to S, hoping to create a meaningful queer romance with him only to be told "well I'm actually married with a kid but we can be best buds!" If I imagine my Byleth as a queer dude, and want to create that experience for myself in the game, and the game ostensibly says "we'll allow that" then pulls the rug out from under me while not at all doing so for my heteronormative options, then this is the game closing the door in my face.
Fire Emblem games have always presented heteronormative worlds, and this is just another example of that. It's notable that in the history of 16 games, spanning almost three decades, there has been one explicitly queer character that is even remotely acknowledged substantially by other characters in the game's world in the form of Leon, and even he is a modern reimagining of what was, during Gaiden's original release, a bit of a trope. While a few characters may show up in queer relationships in the Three Houses’ text-based epilogue, that’s about it. On Waypoint Radio,VICE Games’ Austin Walker and Patrick Klepek talked about how the game "doesn't account for [queer characters] in the lore." And they’re right: They're just kinda there, if you want them to be.
Which is frustrating, because it’s not like this is a series that retreats from complex, political narrative themes.
Think about all the various story beats and ideological issues the various Fire Emblem games tackle. Controversial as it may be, the series uses permanent unit death to try and give emotional weight to your combat choices: Will you potentially sacrifice someone you care about for victory? If you see a former friend in the enemy ranks, do you bite down your feeling of betrayal and recruit them, or kill them off for their transgression? The Tellius games use the beast tribe Laguz as an extended metaphor for race relations, and Valentia's story frequently looks at what level of self-sacrifice is necessary or warranted if it protects a loved one.
Even if a given player doesn't necessarily have these experiences, the Fire Emblem games have provided plenty of structures to support them. I've used the word "scaffold" multiple times in this process, and that's not a mistake. The design is a structure to hold up the experiences.
If queerness exists in those worlds, it's something you add as the player, not something the game's world provides for you to have a meaningful experience with.
But the series has never tried to support a reading that is critical of heteronormativity. Heteronormativity here means emphasizing the unspoken normality of heterosexuality, setting it as a baseline from which everything else is judged by its distance. The series' relentless focus on lineage, bloodlines, and its invocation of imagined western European fantasy royalty as its central characters doesn't help this at all, something that Awakening and Fates drove to extremes with the parent/child mechanic. FE heroes from Marth on down to Byleth are often defined by their blood relationship to some ancient hero, god, or royal line. Three Houses in particular hammers the issue of political marriages and "continuing the line" home over and over again.
Fire Emblem's relegation of queerness to "a choice you can make, I guess" while at the same time emphasizing the opposite-gender pairing off of characters is a perfect example of heteronormativity in action. If queerness exists in those worlds, it's something you add as the player, not something the game's world provides for you to have a meaningful experience with.
There's nothing wrong with having a meaningful queer experience in that sort of situation, either; that process is something queer players have likely been doing their whole lives. It can be satisfying for you, but that's often where it ends. What games like Fire Emblem need to start doing is upping their game on acknowledgement of queerness. It needs to start having a place for queer identity in its game worlds, one that can't be sidestepped or deftly avoided by consigning it to "well, you could do that."
We've made "you are valid" into a joke on The Internet™, but in truth, the need to be seen, acknowledged, and known is a fundamental human emotional need. I don't necessarily need to see "The Representation;" I don't need to see my exact experience playing out on screen. But a game world that says "people like you exist, and we're going to include them and support them"—one that acknowledges the validity of our existence—is critically important, now more than ever.
Unfortunately, the male/male romances in Three Houses largely don't provide that. What we see instead is a world where bros can just be bros together. No homo, I guess.