Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Fire Emblem’s Terrible, Horrible Gay Conversion Romance

Say what you will about Hatred – it’s a mediocre game that manufactured outrage in order to generate a modicum of buzz so that the Perpetual Outrage Machine would be duped into buying a few copies.  But hey, at least they were aware of, and were trying to be, offensive.  It’s harder to get a good read on what’s going on with Fire Emblem.

A mere week after confirming that Fire Emblem Fates will release with Same Sex marriage options in them, a move that was generally cheered given that Nintendo has been slower on the update on dealing with these sorts of things.  However, this week people playing the Japanese version of the game report a different kind of lesbian romance – one which is, er, borderline Gay Conversion Therapy and nonconsensual to boot.  From the blog that brought this to light.

In her early dialogue she speaks of her lesbianism as a weakness preventing her from being a strong woman, and this is what causes the player to go through with drugging her and “turning her straight”. Once again, there is no option to romance Soleil with the female Kamui, despite her being a lesbian, you must go through with magical gay conversion therapy if you wish to romance her.

How it actually plays out is hard to tell, given we’re only getting second-hand takes on the romance arc from people playing the Japanese version and being suitably outraged by it.  This video attempts to walk through the whole thing from a more even-handed point of view.

Despite the video, I don’t think this makes things much better.  General gist:

  1. The game treats and presents the fact that Soleil is a lesbian as a problem.  The weirdest part of the interaction is when Soleil appears to hit on her own mother, telling her how cute she is. (9-12m in the video above).  On the flip side, it’s clear that both mother and father love and support Soleil despite her proclivities.
  2. This manifests itself with Soleil feeling like she is an inadequate warrior because she gets weak-kneed and faints around young girls.  She tells you that she feels that her weakness for girls is preventing her from her full potential as a warrior.
  3. Your hero slips something in her drink, which makes her confuse girls for boys.  You explain this to her (presumably before trying anything). She’s relatively cool with this, because she too sees her weakness for girls as a problem that needs to be fixed.
  4. She eventually agrees to marry your hero, saying that of all the boys who looked like girls while she was under the influence of the potion, your hero was by far the spiffiest.  It’s implied that this is made clear-eyed and undrugged, and that everyone involved is quite relieved that she found a man she could love despite her fondness for girls.  Your character warns her not to cheat on you with any other guys, and then you catch yourself and point out that, in this case, that’s probably really not a problem.  Ha ha!
  5. While I can’t confirm this, someone mentioned offhand somewhere that if you’re playing a female character, this questline is unavailable to you.  Meaning that you can’t give Soleil the relationship she really wants.

So, where to begin?

First off, having quest lines basically encouraging you to drug any woman (or man, for that matter) in order to reduce her inhibitions is something that makes me feel pretty squicky.  Even if you ignore the LGBT issues entirely, this is pretty gross, but that’s what we’ve got here.  The video I linked above thinks that this is okay – would you have a problem with a love potion in Harry Potter?

Secondly, the dialogue and the quest implies that the character’s gayness is a problem that needs to be, and can be, fixed.  This is now considered pretty barbaric by most therapists, with more than 18 states in America now in the process of passing laws – or having passed laws- limiting the use of Conversion Therapy for homosexuality. The video passes it off as completely cool because Soleil herself wants to fix herself – but this is actually part of the problem – kids thinking that they are broken and can and should be cured.  Conversion therapy not only doesn’t work, but gay kids whose parents are not accepting are 8 times more likely to try killing themselves.  A quest that says ‘this girl is broken because she likes girls’ is NOT cool, and helps contribute to these sorts of self-flagellation.

Third, some have tried to handwave this away by saying that she’s bisexual.  The game really gives no support for the notion that she has any interest in men until she gets ‘fixed’ by the magic happy potion.

GameRanx tried to wade into the controversy and got it very wrong.

Enter the controversy. The game and its developers have been accused of promoting “Gay Conversion Therapy,” an appalling practice used heavily in the United States and other Judeo Christian-dominant countries where people are often “treated” by religious authorities under the guise of therapy that amounts to at best being condemned for their sexual orientation. Essentially, it’s the same as praying the gay away–not only does it not work, it deprives those in need of actual help and support networks.

However, the problem with this is that it ignores Japanese culture. By listing it as akin to conversion therapy, it completely neglects Japan’s largely sex positive culture. This isn’t to say that Japan doesn’t have its own LGBT issues–gay marriage is not legalized there, for example–but it does deal with them differently than the United States would.

Simply put: conversion therapy by the West’s definition doesn’t exist in Japan. 

Oh, brother.

1) Describing Japan as sex-positive is a stretch at best – Japan is a fantastically repressed and screwed up culturally, sexually, to the degree where politicians are desperate to figure out how to get their kids to have sex with each other at all.  Honor is still hugely important, and suicide in Japan is higher than in most first-world countries.  And while being gay is fully legal, gays stay pretty strictly closeted, and gays in the media are typically played for Will & Grace style gags.  Much like America 15-20 years ago, gay culture is pretty much in the closet over there.

2) The problem isn’t that this feature mirrors Western Conversion Therapy.  It’s that Western Conversion Therapy has shown us how wretched and abusive the idea that gay is something that is broken, and needs to be fixed.  This is a dangerous idea that feeds directly into the epidemic of suicide that plagues LGBT youth.

3) When you’re making a game for a worldwide audience (which Nintendo certainly does), you also need to understand and be sympathetic to how story elements around controversial subjects will play to a global audience.  For example, in South Africa, the practice of Corrective Rape for lesbians is a very real and very shocking & horrific thing.

Whether or not this is what’s intended, this is a massive misfire by the game’s designers.  I doubt very seriously that they were trying to make something this awful.  Gaijinhunter’s video makes a compelling case that this was at least intended to be a harmless story revolving around a standard love potion trope. However, teen suicide around LGBT issues are very, very high – the word ‘epidemic’ is used a lot – and as such, it behooves game developers who actually claim to give a shit about the issue to be much more careful about the stories they tell.


Want more reading?  Check out this thread as well as this writeup and this flamewar.


  1. I think conversion therapy could fit into a video game if done properly. I could see the Nameless One trying it on someone (and probably driving them to suicide when it doesn’t work) in between feeding the comic humor sidekick to the Pillar of Skulls and selling the party fighter into slavery.

  2. I really think that the questline is just about curing the reflex of fainting around the girls, not necessarily curing the love for the girls. So she’ll still go “SO CUTE” every time she sees them, she just won’t faint
    Additionally, and I cannot confirm it, the drugging without consent thing as presented in the game is a cultural thing in Japan, so it will definitely get fixed for the NA/PAL release
    That’s just my take on it.

  3. “The video I linked above thinks that this is okay – would you have a problem with a love potion in Harry Potter?”

    I know plenty of Harry Potter fans who very much DO have a problem with the idea of a love potion. As they’ve pointed out, the use of a love potion means that Tom Riddle was essentially born out of date rape.

  4. yoshihiro kawakumi

    July 6, 2015 at 6:27 am

    “Japan is a fantastically repressed and screwed up culturally”

    no we are not you ignorant fucking gaijin. do not come to japan.

  5. Ira Shantz-Kreutzkamp

    July 6, 2015 at 7:09 am

    Besides the witless repetition of “It’s a different culture!” , easily the most telling aspect of all this is the attitude that because this isn’t LITERAL “gay conversion” that means it can’t have anything to do with the mindsets and viewpoints that make such a vile thing a reality. It would have to be spelled out at exhaustive length and explicitly stated as what’s going on to be even grudgingly accepted as part of that world, and even then there’d be the old saws about how this or that detail mildly differs from the accepted wisdom/personal understanding of reality and so clearly they weren’t about that thing at all.

    Because in video games NOTHING IS WRONG. Persona 4’s treatment of difference isn’t indicative of just this kind of “disruption of The Normal must be stamped out” thinking, the fact that women characters are so routinely boiled down to hollow sexy bags with varying kinds of fetishization says nothing about the minds or markets that created them, that Call of Duty has lots the thin, ragged shreds of self-awareness and skepticism about the politics it once mildly lampooned, that video games introducing complex social and cultural arrangements are nonetheless expected to be magically apolitical and inoffensive to the vapid lumpen so as not to shock and discomfit the frail creatures…nothing is wrong.

  6. I’m not sure that that’s what was going on in the game. From what I’ve read, she’s not used to being around pretty girls and she gets extremely anxious and flustered and sometimes even passes out in those situations, even on the battlefield. She thinks this is a problem (not that she’s attracted to girls, but that she doesn’t know what to do) so she goes to the protagonist to ask him for help. He secretly casts a spell on her (secretly because it wouldn’t have worked if she’d known) that temporarily made her perceive all the girls as men, and men as girls. This allows her to interact with some of the other girls without causing her to have any issues and cures her of that problem.

    Subsequently the protagonist proposes to her, and she basically says that she fell for him when she saw him as a woman, that he was the only one she had felt that way about, and still did even once the magic had worn off.

    If this sounds like a kind of wacky and dumb plotline, well, welcome to Fire Emblem. Most of the supports, romantic or otherwise, can be a bit awkward or silly.

    I’m not even certain she’s actually supposed to be a lesbian at all – from the info I can find, all her possible romantic supports are male and she has no female romantic supports. She flirts with girls all the time because this is a callback to her father, who does the same thing all over the place. It’s just in Soleil’s case, the girls she hits on tend to actually return the interest and she’s not quite sure what to do about it, or at least that’s the impression I get. It’s a not-uncommon anime trope.

    I really think there’s nothing here except for things being lost in translation a bit. I’m just glad that they’re exploring this sort of territory at all, even if they’re a bit ham-fisted in their approach, because it seems like they’re actually listening. Nintendo’s approach used to be to bury their heads in the sand and pretend homosexuality doesn’t exist.

    • Sterling Ericsson

      July 6, 2015 at 4:33 pm

      I can tell you didn’t even bother to read the article at all, since he addressed every single point in your comment.

      • Soleil is not supposed to be lesbian. She is supposed to be attracted to feminine looking males. Feminine looking heterosexual males e.g. slim figure; long, dyed and styled hair may wear make up are popular among Japan heterosexual women. The opposite male archetype, e.g. built, muscular types is more popular in the gay community. Fainting is not supposed to be attraction, it is just what it is.

        She is not lesbian to be fixed, she is heterosexual girl with fainting around girls problem. Also, note that she want help because fainting is disadvantaging her when fighting.

        What you see as acting gay is acting gay only in western culture. In Japan, it is either being experimental or just joking around – something heterosexual girls can engage in. Just like heterosexual girls in west hold hands, go dance together or hug without being considered lesbian (at least where I live). Just like close relationship between original Sherlock Holmes and Watson is not supposed to be homosexual attraction. Just like homoerotic looking shots in Triumph of the Will are definitely not supposed to represent homosexuality (I used this movie cause it is absolutely clear it is not meant to be homosexuality. Same goes for other old movies).

        Also, lesbianism as something to be fixed is western way how to deal with homosexuality. Japanies do not see lesbians as someone to be fixed, they tend to attribute lesbianism to sexual curiosity. Their (as opposed to our) idea is that women can sexually experiment or play around with other women without being lesbian (e.g. forming romantic relationship with women). Western women wont have same fun because they would be considered lesbians if they would engaged in it.

        Japanese game developers would likely be surprised their character is considered gay. Japanies actually tend not to believe that Japanies can be gay at all. So, what you are doing here is projecting western anti-homosexual attitude only country that has entirely different misconception of homosexuality. This is probably what allows heterosexual Japanese women to engage in gay-looking fun for western eyes – west acknowledge homosexuality and simultaneously has stigma against it so people wont engage in fun that would made them look homosexual.

        Neither male beauty standards nor attitudes towards homosexuality are constant across cultures. Japanese character liking feminine looking males are not secret lesbians – they just grew in culture with different idea of what is good looking male. Japanese character flirting with women is not lesbian – it is character unafraid to be seen as lesbian.

  7. The Harry Potter comparison is hilarious because not only do fans have a problem with it, the story itself -CONDEMNS- the use of love potions, the whole reason Tom/Voldermort was born and apparently so fucked up from the get go was BECAUSE he was born out of a potion induced love. Which has it’s own fucked up connotations about people born of rape irl, but the core gist of the comparison is entirely off base, Fire Emblem doesn’t condone doing this, it celebrates it.

  8. The key factor is that the female character doesn’t have this quest. It’s specifically a male character who saves her from the gay. It would seem the female protag could apply the same potion and help her but end up keeping her gay but “fixed” however, no. Her problem is definitely her being gay. She MUST be straight to be cured which is a horrible message.

  9. ‘It’s harder to get a good read on what’s going on with Fire Emblem.’

    I doubt it’s a serious attempt by devs to incite offense and inflate interest in a sub-par product but rather a simple clash of cultures.

    I really can’t imagine a situation where game developers sit around a table discussing a linear quest involving one female NPC of the many female NPCs a male character can romance in terms such as ‘Gay conversion therapy’ and ‘Date rape drugs’.

    I haven’t played the Fire Emblem series of games, my interest in Japanese RPGs started and finished with Final Fantasy VII (I may have dabbled with FF VIII too but it left no discernible memories) but I have watched more than my fair share of Anime to appreciate the difference between Japanese and UK (American) culture.

    • Ira Shantz-Kreutzkamp

      July 6, 2015 at 7:13 pm

      If you watched Seinfield, The Wire and Firefly you’d get a vague understanding of America’s fiction culture, but it’d be useless for actually grasping much about the real country. Same with anime, they’re just TV shows. Even the most grounded and mature of those cartoons isn’t any substitute for actual research into the actual island nation’s politics and society.

      • Without going into a subject in academic depth and length it’s very difficult to make more than grand sweeping generalisations in a comment to a blog.

        Of course I realise life in Japan is not accurately reflected in Anime, as with all forms of entertainment it tends to be distilled and focused towards a particular audience. Anime (and manga) covers an immense variety of styles to appeal to numerous audiences, in the West we tend to only see the boys action style anime (or the excessive Hentai for shock value… and most of that because of the rather prohibitive obscenity laws), rather than the full range.

        The sort of fan-service given by panty shots, big boobs and the socially incompetent interaction between overbearing male admirers of women reflects more to the tropes of UK film and TV back in the ’70s with the Carry on films and Benny Hill (and many more that thankfully I’m too young to recall).

        I think you’d have to be particularly naïve to think that Japanese society doesn’t have it’s own quirks and peculiarities that aren’t the norm in Western society.

        • Ira Shantz-Kreutzkamp

          July 6, 2015 at 9:51 pm

          Obviously. But in one respect the Japanese and Americans are VERY similar.

          “I really can’t imagine a situation where game developers sit around a table discussing a linear quest involving one female NPC of the many female NPCs a male character can romance in terms such as ‘Gay conversion therapy’ and ‘Date rape drugs’.”

          It’s almost inevitable that the majority of the writers and artists who make video games on either shore would NEVER even consider for a moment that something they would make might reinforce or represent such noxious ideas. They’re almost invariably comfortable with their assigned gender, part of the majority ethnic group, straight and male. They don’t live in a world where NOT being any of those things affects their lives, so it doesn’t occur to them that the stories they tell from their privileged viewpoint would remind anyone of something they’ve experienced.

          Ignorance and obliviousness know no borders. Somebody decided it would be cute and funny for a woman who liked other women to fall via magic for the male player-insert, and never stopped to consider what they were writing would say beyond the bare facts.

          • Damion starts off his blog entry with the fact that ‘Hatred’ was a game specifically designed to cause offense, he couldn’t understand what the intent was behind ‘Fire Emblem’.
            All I was trying to suggest was the fault lay not in developers intentionally seeking to cause offence but having a certain level of insensitivity to a minority population, possibly due to them being male, possibly due to them being Japanese, more likely a combination of both.
            As we are discussing a piece of entertainment I used experience of other forms of Japanese entertainment (notably Anime) to colour my expectations. Having seen what is readily available in manga and anime and then extrapolating over to computer games doesn’t feel like too much of a leap to me 😉

    • Chaos-Engineer

      July 6, 2015 at 9:53 pm

      I really can’t imagine a situation where game developers sit around a table discussing a linear quest involving one female NPC of the many female NPCs a male character can romance in terms such as ‘Gay conversion therapy’ and ‘Date rape drugs’.

      You’re looking at it backwards.

      The starting point is unspoken cultural assumptions: Those are things like “Lesbians are ‘broken’ and need to be ‘fixed'” and “Lesbians can be ‘fixed’ by getting them to have sex with men so that they’ll see what they’re missing.” and “It’s morally justified to use trickery to ‘fix’ people who won’t admit they need ‘fixing'”.

      So it’s not a matter of developers sitting down and thinking, “How can we incite offense today?” It’s more a matter of them saying, “OK, we need a hundred sub-quests, everyone start shouting ideas!” and then not taking the time afterwards to ask if maybe some of those ideas are awful old bigotries that need to be retired.

      • I should have realised that irony doesn’t translate well in the written form.

        Of course the devs in this case are not literally sitting around seeking out ways to offend. It stems from a blindness to the sensitivities of a minority subculture.

        Then again the game seems to be quite trite and contains a lot of silliness. Defining character traits such as ‘Likes to stare at the moon the most out of everyone in the army’ or ‘ Best thighs in the army.’ does not suggest a game that is aiming for deep insightful moments.

        But I think the biggest failing of this situation seems to be the linear nature of the quest with no alternative solutions.

        And, if my little bit of research is correct a male character can romance most if not all of the female NPCs, not just Soleil. The real limitation is the same gender romance options that require you to purchase specific versions of the game to follow particular alliances (or get a limited edition that has 3 versions of the game).

  10. >By listing it as akin to conversion therapy, it completely neglects Japan’s largely sex positive culture.

    I don’t know people often this this, maybe because hentai is relatively popular? Culturally they are super puritan, if a pop star is actually known to be having sex it’s a huge deal, might even be against their contracts. And there’s a rather large obsession with women being a virgin.

    • >I don’t know people often this this
      Should be I don’t know why people often think this. Damn you autocorrect.

  11. Daniel Minardi

    July 7, 2015 at 11:18 pm

    But, we have to acknowledge that homosexuality is not a choice, at least not in all or even a substantial proportion of cases. Gay conversion therapy is terrible and doesn’t work and makes things worse.

    But can’t we imagine a world where people can choose their sexuality through fantastical means that do work in this ultimate universe?

    Does this game in any way legitimize real-world gay conversion therapy? Seems doubtful. It seems like a poorly written but ultimately harmless story. Seems like a good enough reason not to buy it, but the outrage is just pointless. It’s just suppressing (bad) art, not suppressing harmful “therapy.”

    • Daniel Minardi

      July 7, 2015 at 11:45 pm

      To be clear, if it relies uncritically on some “gays are broken” trope, that is another example of poor writing and is perhaps marginally harmful itself and made marginally moreso by the existence of effective conversion in the story.

      An effective sexuality conversion method should even in fiction be based on informed consent and not harmful misinformation.

      Ultimately, there’s nothing broken about being a man in a woman’s body, or vice versa, but people still can get hormone therapy and surgery to get the body they want to accompany their gender expression. So if, in the future there are effective therapies or drugs such that people could make informed choices about sexuality without being told they are dysfunctional, law and society should not stand in their way.

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