A decade ago, two very unrelated things were happening in my life: I was playing a lot of video games, and I was struggling to make sense of my sexuality. In retrospect, it probably would have been easier for me if those things were related — if I had seen myself represented in the games I played.
Friday, Nintendo took a huge step forward in including queer video game players in Fire Emblem: Fates, now available in two versions (Conquest and Birthright) for the Nintendo 3DS. The game features three characters who can engage in same-sex relationships. For LGBTQ fans looking to see themselves in games, Fates comes not a moment too soon.
Representation in art — including those who aren't cis, white, straight or male — is a huge topic of discussion in 2016, from the films awards bodies choose to reward to the kinds of stories told on TV. Including all kinds of people both in front of and behind the scenes is vital from both financial and creative standpoints. What gets lost in these heady, top-level conversations is how much representation matters to the individual — to the audience member seeing themselves depicted on screen.
That same desire, of course, can and should be applied to gamers looking for themselves in the titles they play.
Fates is the latest installment of the popular Fire Emblem role-playing game series, a line of games that stretches all the way back to 1990 in Japan and found its way to the United States in 2003. Fire Emblem finally hit Western shores after two characters from the series, Marth and Roy, became favorites in the Nintendo Gamecube game Super Smash Bros. Melee. The most recent installment before Fates, titled Awakening, introduced a sophisticated marriage system adapted from earlier, Japan-only Fire Emblem games. These married couples could even have children who, thanks to a time-travel plot device, can fight by their parents' sides.
Awakening did not include the opportunity to have any characters of the same sex marry. Fates does, however — subversively not through explicitly gay or lesbian characters, but queer ones.
In Fates, players create an avatar character by choosing their sex, hair, body type, facial features and more. This character serves as the game's protagonist. Each version of Fates features a character with the potential to marry an avatar of either sex: Niles in Conquest, Rhajat in Birthright. Both of these characters can also marry heterosexual partners, so "gay" is the wrong term. They're not explicitly bisexual either; rather, they're radically queer.
Over the weekend, I played through the early parts of Conquest and married my avatar, Moritz (named for a character in Spring Awakening in case this all wasn't queer enough), off to Niles. I expected to be disappointed, to have the "marriage" couched in less explicit terms like "partnership" or "union." Instead, the game is so pleasantly, beautifully explicit that this marriage is just as valid and full of love as those between heterosexual couples.
Note: The translation for the above video is available here under the header "S-Rank."
The couple comes together thanks to their individual torrid pasts. They find comfort in each other through conversation — and, eventually, marital bliss. "Do you think you could marry me?" Niles asks the avatar, named Corrin in the proposal scene above. "I want you to take this ring."
After the avatar accepts, Niles smiles. "I knew I was right about you," he says.
In 2016, this kind of relationship shouldn't be groundbreaking — and yet it is. Somewhere in the world is a kid who married these characters and saw themselves reflected in a video game for the first time. That kind of inclusion matters, not because diversity sells (though it does) or it's a more impressive artistic choice (though it is). It matters on a micro level, to the person playing the game whose life is made better for it. Certainly the teen version of myself would have appreciated it as much as my adult self does. Would it have directly fixed anything about my life as I struggled to define myself? No. But it would have helped me feel a little bit less alone.
The history of queer characters in video games is a spotty one at best, especially for Nintendo. In the late '80s, Super Mario Bros. 2 villain Birdo was referred to as a male character who "thinks he is a girl." Other LGBTQ characters, like Cherry from 2000's Fighter Destiny 2, had the queer elements of their character washed out in the translation process.
Rather infamously, Nintendo responded poorly to a campaign to include LGBTQ characters and same-sex relationships in their life simulation game Tomodachi Life. At the time, the company ascribed its lack of queer characters to a desire to not put forth any "social commentary." The company later walked back that excuse in an apology that promised more inclusion in any future Tomodachi Life titles.
Non-Nintendo games have managed somewhat better, especially in recent years. 2015's Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, the latest in the popular Assassin's Creed series, features a bisexual protagonist. The same year's Fallout 4 includes multiple queer characters and relationships.
But Nintendo's inclusion of Niles and Rhajat in Fire Emblem: Fates feels like an extra step. The company that has put forth so many classic gaming icons — Mario, Link, Kirby, Pikachu, Samus Aran — has finally included non-heterosexual characters. The Fates avatar is even in the newest Super Smash Bros. game. That's remarkable: One of the characters in Nintendo's buzziest blockbuster series is queer and can kick any heterosexual rival's ass.
Fates' inclusion isn't perfect, of course; It's unfortunate that only the avatar, Niles and Rhajat are queer when the game has scores of characters. Additionally, should the avatar and Niles marry, neither can give birth to their potential children (Kana and Nina), thus depriving players of two potential characters. From a strategic perspective, sadly, same-sex marriage doesn't make sense in Fates.
Still, I'll probably always have my avatar marry Niles when I play Conquest. Is it a bad gameplay decision? Yeah. But the opportunity to see myself in the game is too rich to pass up. The hope now, of course, is that Fates will inspire even greater integration of queer characters — both in the next Fire Emblem and far beyond that.
It's time for video games to grow and progress, not just because it's smart, but because it matters to every queer player out there.