Fire Emblem Echoes signals a change in how Nintendo writes gay characters

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, the latest entry in one of Nintendo’s largest franchises, came out last month for the Nintendo 3DS, bringing with it dozens of new characters to level up and become attached to as you campaign across the continent as a sword wielding 19-year-old, just like nearly every other Fire Emblem game.

Early on in Echoes, protagonist Celica is introduced to a group of three traveling adventurers who join her group for the remainder of the game: Leon, Valbar, and Kamui. Leon is the only character of these three with support conversations with both of the other two, giving him more opportunities to flesh out his character over the course of the game.

Leon is an openly gay character whose development is grounded in experiences many queer people have had.

A first for the series, Leon is openly gay, and his sexuality is an undeniable point of reference in many of his interactions with those he travels with. His support conversations and heart-to-hearts in town revolve around his unrequited love for Valbar, one of his straight travelling companions. Though an unrequited crush isn’t a particularly original concept for a gay character’s storyline in any form of media, Echoes handles it respectfully, developing Leon as a multifaceted person that isn’t defined by this crush as much as it first appears. The crush is acknowledged by both parties, and Valbar lets Leon down gently, allowing him to move on at his own pace.

The premise of Leon’s character arc lines up with a trope that so often falls into a storytelling pitfall that prioritizes making (often homophobic) jokes about the situation over significant storytelling and character development. That isn’t the case here. Instead, Leon’s story uses the mutual acknowledgement of his attraction as a way for him to emotionally mature.

Leon’s concept art from the Fire Emblem Echoes official art book.

Of course, Leon’s portrayal isn’t perfectly rounded, partly stemming from the limitations of being a character in a game series that’s stuffed to the brim with playable units, limiting the amount of dialogue written for anyone outside of the main half-dozen characters.

Compared to characters in other franchises, Leon is given fairly little text and nearly all of it is related to his sexuality and crush on Valbar, but there’s a layer of depth to this characterization that reaches beyond the stilted archetypes that have tripped up other implicitly gay characters. Even though Leon has a small amount of dialogue to himself throughout Echoes, he has some of the most impactful text given to any character in the game — and it’s hidden in an entirely optional ‘town conversation’ in the title’s final few hours.

“When I was a kid, there was this guy that I was head over heels for. He’s the reason I enlisted, actually. Just so I could stay close to him. He died in the first battle we fought. I cried so hard, I thought my eyes were going to float clean out of my skull.
“Valbar saved me from that. Every time he saw me, he’d take the time to say something. Cheer me up. What can you do with a man like that but fall in love?
“You’re thinking I’m a tramp, aren’t you? Well, I’m not. It’s hardly my fault that the world is full of wonderful, lovable people. Such a thing really motivates one to get out there and save it.”

More than any other conversation Leon has with other characters, this monologue concretely establishes his sexuality and motives for joining the game’s cast while also showing that Nintendo is becoming more varied in the characters they include and the stories they tell. Leon breaks ground for how gay characters are represented in Nintendo games, and the total lack of shock, disgust, or confusion over his sexuality from other characters in the game is progressive in a way that’s unexpected and promising.

This more empathetic writing of a gay character isn’t something I expected from Echoes, given that romance is dialed back in the title compared to the two previous entries in the series, as well as the franchise’s bumpy track record when it comes to writing gay characters.

Many older entries in the franchise have pairings that fans have argued may be gay because of in-game dialogue and implications drawn from epilogues, but none of these characters have their sexualities canonically confirmed (Ike and Soren and Lucius and Raven are two such pairings). By not entirely committing to these aspects of their personalities, these characters were less relatable to queer players looking for concrete representation. And, until recently, these unconfirmed relationships between characters in other Fire Emblem titles were some of Nintendo’s only examples of queer representation in their games.

2015’s Fire Emblem Fates is the only game in the franchise to allow the player-made protagonist to romance a unit of the same gender, but the choice was limited to one specific character for each gender: Niles for male characters and Rhajat for female characters. Unfortunately, if you choose to pursue one of these same-sex options in Fates there are negative gameplay repercussions: you’re unable to acquire your child (as well as Niles’ child if you’re a male and you romance him), both as a unit to use in battle and as character you can use to build supports with other characters in your army.

Moving forward, Leon signals positive changes for the inclusion of more diverse characters across Nintendo’s franchises.

The primary thing that separates Echoes’ Leon from these characters is that Fates’ Niles and Rhajat will date your character regardless of your gender, and their support conversations don’t differ significantly with your character’s gender. As a result, aspects of these characters’ personalities are intentionally vague and removed from any meaningful conversation regarding sexuality, lacking the same openness that gives Leon a character arc that is easier for queer players to empathize with.

From left to right: Kamui (Leon’s friend), Celica (one of the two protagonists), Valbar (Leon’s crush and traveling companion), and Leon in the group’s introductory CG.

Leon is explicitly written as gay, meaning he talks about his feelings for other men in a way that put other readings of the character to bed. Though many entries in the Fire Emblem franchise have some permutation of the ‘gay archer’ and other similar archetypes, Leon is able to develop and have an impact that is stronger than his character’s blueprint.

Leon serves as an important touchpoint for gay players to relate to — his character is written in a way that doesn’t reinforce all-too-common stereotypes. While his main support conversations focus on unrequited love for a straight friend (a common experience for many LGBT people to the point of becoming a commonly-misused trope), his support conversations are sympathetic, and offer a unique perspective on the situation while grounding his development in experiences that many queer people have had.

To put it simply, Leon is an impactful character who overcomes the franchise’s penchant for relying on tropes and archetypes to signal positive changes for the inclusion of more diverse characters across all of Nintendo’s franchises moving forward.

Nintendo is becoming comfortable including more diverse characters in their games.

Nintendo’s 2014 title Tomodachi Life faced pre-release controversy for not allowing same-sex relationships between the game’s Mii characters due to developmental constraints. However, shortly after the backlash surfaced, the company released a statement in response: “We pledge that if we create a next installment in the Tomodachi series, we will strive to design a game-play experience from the ground up that is more inclusive, and better represents all players.”

Of course, many of Nintendo’s most popular franchises such as Yoshi, Kirby, and Pokémon are devoid of romance and sexuality in any form, and this isn’t meant to be an argument that they should be inserted where they don’t naturally fit. But by beginning to include more diverse characters like Leon in the Fire Emblem series, a franchise where romance is a key aspect of the narrative, Nintendo is backing up their pledge to be more inclusive.

More diverse representation with regards to sexuality has been a fairly new development for the company, and it is encouraging to see Nintendo expanding the variety of stories their titles are willing to tell, representing a larger percentage of the people who play and are impacted by Nintendo’s games. I’m excited to see this variety of stories and characters continue to expand in the future to include an even wider demographic of those who have long waited to see themselves better represented in the games they play.