The hotly anticipated Fire Emblem: Three Houses was released last Friday for the Switch. The title is the latest in Nintendo’s increasingly popular tactical-RPG series of the same name, best known for its Super Smash Bros. swordsmen Marth and Ike. By early reviewers’ accounts, Three Houses is faithful to the strengths of the series: chess-like medieval-fantasy battles, a large cast of charming characters, and a robust dating mechanic where you can painstakingly pair off your soldiers and watch them fall in love before your eyes. It’s this last mechanic’s implementation in Three Houses, however, that’s causing controversy among LGBTQ+ players on social media.
The furor largely centers around the treatment of Alois, a male teacher and knight at the boarding school where the game is partially set, and Gilbert, the school priest. They both can achieve an “S-rank” relationship with the protagonist Byleth when the latter is a man (there are binary gender options for Byleth). They are two of the three same-sex “S-Rank” options for male Byleth, along with Byleth’s long-haired, effeminate student Linhardt. Achieving “S-Rank” between characters typically entails a romantic confession and marriage at the end of the game. No unit can “S-rank” more than once; the mechanic is practically synonymous with wedding vows. But players who hope for a romantic ending between Alois or Gilbert and Byleth are in for an unpleasant surprise.
Those who achieve “S-rank” with Alois get a flirty cutscene where the knight blares, over a weepy violin, that as long as he lives, he’ll “be your most faithful ally.” Those who achieve “S-Rank” with Gilbert get a cutscene where the priest gives up the church to become Byleth’s personal knight, swearing “allegiance” (but nothing more) to the protagonist. In addition, the scene goes out of its way to clarify that Gilbert will not be leaving his wife and kids, despite the last line of his “S-rank” conversation being: “I swear from this day forth to protect your life … and your smile.”
Both conversations lead to an ending of the game where Byleth is married to an anonymous village girl, presumably remaining close friends with either Alois or Gilbert. It’s easy to see how a player could feel upset when what they reasonably expected to be a gay marriage option is unceremoniously diverted into heterosexuality. However, the third gay male romance option, Linhardt, clearly acknowledges a gay relationship between the characters with an engagement ring.
The first two relationships fall into a pattern cultural critics call “queerbaiting”: when characters stop just short of presenting as explicitly LGBTQ+ in order to appeal to a queer audience while still preserving the comfort of homophobic consumers. In recent years, LGBTQ+ media consumers have gotten tired of vague subtexts and implications, and have demanded that queer relationships be just as vivid as their straight counterparts. It’s unsurprising, given this context, that Three Houses’ bait-and-switch has caused some anger on social media.
There’s also some anger over the character Claude, a student of Byleth’s who is pictured in this article’s illustration, who flirts with the protagonist regardless of gender but is restricted to only heterosexual romances.
Fan frustration with Three Houses have to be taken in context with the ugly history of Fire Emblem, where same-sex relationships were barred from the “S-rank” mechanic, even when the plot implied homoerotic interest between characters, and instead were relegated to “just besties” status. The most infamous example of this was the relationship between Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance protagonists Ike and Soren, who were very intimate in-game but mechanically restricted to maxing out at “A-rank,” which usually implies friendship.
The previous main title in the series, Fire Emblem Fates, was the first to include same-sex marriage, though it included only one same-sex romance option per gender and stereotyped the bisexual characters, Rhajat and Niles, as dark and deviant. Despite Three Houses’ mishandling of male-male romance options, the game actually represents a step forward in terms of queer representation in the franchise. The game has five lesbian “S-rank” options, with only two of those platonic, a series best. There’s also several vaguely homoerotic relationships between students (the most explicitly queer being Dedue and Dimitri) that have special paired endings, but no marriages.
All in all, these complaints might seem minor for the rare videogame series that bothers to accommodate queer romance options at all. But the tip-toeing around fleshed-out queer romances is a little suspicious for a franchise that has no qualms about relationships involving half-rabbit humans or thousand-year-old dragons in the scantily clad bodies of prepubescent girls. The mishandling of gay male relationships in Three Houses, especially compared to the robust lesbian options, speaks perhaps to Fire Emblem’s intended target audience of heterosexual men (with queer female players an afterthought). Or, because of the school setting and Byleth’s role as a teacher, perhaps it protects against the stereotype of the gay male child predator by restricting a majority of the gay routes to men much older than Byleth (which would be unproblematic, even noble, if it was applied evenly to all genders!).
Fire Emblem: Three Houses, it’s true, makes an attempt to accommodate queer players. But by failing to include a full selection of queer romances, the game devolves into tokenism at best, and an insidious pink dollar cash-grab at worst.
Substitute Thapliyal is an intern at Paste covering videogames and music. He chose the Blue Lions to see Dedue smile. You can follow him on Twitter at @AdyThapliyal.