I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
While headlines have recently been made thanks to the rough implementation of canon same-sex relationships in Three Houses, the Fire Emblem series has always had a history of LGBT subtext that feels both ignored and underrepresented.
When it comes to talking about Fire Emblem, the support system is inevitably what comes to the forefront of the discussion. Originally designed as a hidden mechanic to merely buff adjacent characters for story purposes, the conceit gradually evolved more and more with games like Genealogy of a Holy War adding a child-rearing system, and Binding Blade adding customized cutscenes for any given pair of characters. In most recent games, the system has become polished and simple: you put two characters next to each other in battle and over the course of your war campaign they’ll go from begrudging strangers with differences to the best of friends (or maybe more). While not everyone has been a fan of the more Otome style of gameplay this has encouraged, with a focus more on making two characters kiss and joke around instead of the horrors of war, it’s undeniable that the implementation and evolution of Supports have brought Fire Emblem to the acclaim it holds today.
While the series first took a foray into “proper” canonized gay supports with Fire Emblem: Fates, you can go back as early as 2003’s Blazing Blade to see implied same-sex relationships through the characters of Lyn and Florina, as well as Lucius and Raven. Both of these characters have paired endings, where the characters promise to “spend forever together”, or joke about how they’re already an old married couple. These supports, while not mechanically represented the same way heterosexual relationships are, still showcase and promote a healthy homosexual romance. Sacred Stones even goes a bit more blatant, with the characters of Gerik and Joshua having their own paired ending where Joshua basically challenges Gerik to a duel with the goal of convincing him to settle down with him.
With the series’ first 3D releases, Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn, subtext became even harder to ignore with the main character Ike becoming involved in not one, but two different romantic supports with other men. The primary and most represented in fan content is the bond between Ike and Soren, which was basically made canon through anniversary books released over the last few years. In Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn Memorial Book Tellius Recollection: The Second Volume, Ike and Soren are continuously referred to as having “feelings of love” for one another, and even goes so far as to refer to a support interaction where Ike and Soren embrace as “the moment where their two hearts became one” which is like, wow.
The other romance for Ike takes shape in Ranulf, a catboy who has an “extreme fondness” for Ike. Just as with Soren, Ranulf has an ending that changes depending on whether or not he got an A-rank support with Ike. If he does so, he leaves his home after the war to travel the world with Ike. If Ranulf dies at any point during the game, regardless of context, his last thoughts will be of Ike.
Though neither of these relationships are as vocal as the vast amount of heterosexual options presented throughout both games, I argue that they do not need to be loud to be valid. While there is absolutely an importance in cementing representation of homosexuality on the same playing field as heterosexuality, that doesn’t discount the feelings that these pairings helped create in the people who played these games. Fans made art, music, fiction, and more all about the implications that these relationships tried to get through, and that makes them important in the history of gay content in gaming.
When 2013’s Fire Emblem: Awakening implemented the old child system of Genealogy of a Holy War alongside a new “S-Rank” system, which let characters get married, it, unfortunately, led to a lot more heteronormativity than the series had started to move away from. Fans, however, were not wont to leave well enough alone and ended up creating a comprehensive fan-hack, which allowed same-sex marriage, while keeping the children. The ROM-hack featured custom written S-Rank dialogue as well, so it was not as if you were simply changing some pronouns in a confession speech. While it’s possible that a hack like this could’ve been created even without the history of homosexuality in Fire Emblem, fans were inspired to and looking for content like this because of what had come before.
Fire Emblem: Fates had a same-sex hack of its own, but it also had the first “legitimate” gay options for supports. While the unit’s homosexuality (or I guess bisexuality?) was limited to relationships with the player character, women had the choice of marrying Rhajat, while men could romance Niles. For some reason, however, these characters were made version-exclusive like a rare Pokémon, and you could only find Niles in Conquest, and Rhajat in Birthright. On top of this bizarre wrinkle, both characters were represented as twisted murderers and criminals, which, while obviously redeemed over the course of the game, didn’t exactly leave the best impression onto what Intelligent Systems’ impressions of gay people were.
Outside of the romance options, there were also multiple LGBT-coded characters scattered throughout the teen characters you recruit during the second half of the game. Forrest, the Nohrian Prince Leo’s child, is assigned male at birth but dresses up in frilly dresses and outfits that they sew themselves. While Leo struggles with this at first, he ultimately comes to terms with and respects his child’s choices, even going on to get more involved with them upon realizing that he’s been foisting his own expectations and beliefs upon them. Obviously, this can be interpreted as a trans-narrative, although there is no blatant explanation of such.
The knight Laslow’s daughter Soleil’s entire character revolves around her being unable to stop herself from flirting with every girl she sees. While this is a common trope in a lot of Japanese media, Soleil’s interactions with characters like Ophelia play just like any normal romantic interaction, even ending with the two going out on a date. The most damning (and unfortunate) evidence for Soleil’s homosexuality comes from her supports with the player character.
In the original Japanese script, Soleil is made to go through “training” to make her stop disliking men and going crazy for women, where she wears a blindfold and is convinced that whoever she’s interacting with is the opposite gender than she would assume. Obviously, this entire scenario ends up seeming a lot like gay conversion therapy, which is not exactly the best thing in the world to randomly feature in any game, let alone when played off as a joke in 2016! While Nintendo changed the events of the support conversations for the English release, they merely changed it to a magical potion instead of a blindfold, which is honestly? Maybe worse! Though even with this egregious stain on her character, she’s become one of the most popular characters in the Fire Emblem fandom, specifically because her homosexuality is so undeniable and endearing.
There are plenty of other characters I haven’t even mentioned too, like the loud and proud Heather from Radiant Dawn, or the later legitimized Leon from Shadows of Valentia. While Fire Emblem has only recently waded into the territory of blatant and mechanically labeled homosexuality, that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t had any characters with gay narratives. Outright and heavily supported representation will always be an incredibly important thing to strive for and implement in any form of media, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore or dismiss the legitimacy of the more subtle stories along the way.