I got married to my butler; his name is Jakob, and he loves me even though I can’t make a cup of tea worth shit. Then we had two children: Kanna, an adorable boy who cries at the thought of hurting flowers, and Dwyer, an inimitable slacker with stoner eyes and disheveled hair. We’re a sweet little family, but mostly I can’t wait until my friends get married and start pumping out babies, because I need more troops as my father tries to torture me through a series of more and more challenging tactical battles. Earlier, I turned into a dragon.
Fire Emblem Fates is a fucking whirlwind of a game.
Aevee Bee, writer of the visual novel We Know the Devil and editor of ZEAL, describes Fire Emblem as “a fantasy chess game where you can make the chess pieces kiss.” It’s a long-running franchise from Japan, one that only enjoyed cult popularity in the West until Fire Emblem Awakening exploded here in 2012. When I bought Awakening, I was already a fan of games in which kissing is the goal (or at least a side goal I could put way too much time into.) In Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and Persona 4, becoming friends with people and possibly kissing them later was something that would actively make you better at the game, giving you the option of more horrific, phallic demons to bond with. In The World Ends With You, while you don’t kiss anyone, making friends and going outside — the kinds of socializing that can help you get kissed — was the moral of the story, so much so that if you wanted to 100 percent complete the game you actually needed to turn it off and not play for a while.
But those games made the kissing important by using it to make you more invested in the story. In Fire Emblem, the kissing — and the children you make — are the story. Despite Intelligent Systems’s best efforts to improve upon the incredibly bland plot of Awakening -- they hired a writer and everything! -- Fates is still incomprehensible, compounded by the fact that it’s actually two games (Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest and Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright) with two different sets of characters to get to know, creating two products you need to buy to get the “whole story,” Pokémon-style. What I hope they will learn is that a good plot is not why people are buying these games, not even people like me, who play on the easiest possible difficulty. My investment in this game isn’t about my desire to defeat yet another evil dragon (which is actually the bare bones plotline of Awakening again), but because I met Jakob and wanted, desperately, to have a kid with him.
In Fire Emblem, when you have two characters fight next to each other, they get closer. When that stat is leveled up enough, they hang out outside in their off time and talk, providing you with cute little skits called "support conversations." I initially placed my player character next to Jakob because he has throwing knives, which is both a really practical pairing and incredibly dope. But as soon as we had our first conversation, I was utterly charmed. Canonically he’s my butler, and incredibly doting, if a little overwhelming — a little like my real-life boyfriend, who has left me helpful notes around my apartment about how I should take the trash out more often. Jakob fell in love with me because, even if I want to be self-sufficient, I’m kind of terrible at taking care of myself. I loved him because he’d do anything for me. That, and the throwing knives thing.
This is how players can use Fire Emblem to make a compelling story even though the one they’re presented with is utterly lacking. My experience with Awakening was entirely contextualized by my player character getting married to Chrom, the crown prince, and becoming Queen, changing my role from friend of the king to active protector of the kingdom. If I hadn’t married that character (and I had a lot of options), the game would have felt completely different story-wise. There’s a huge difference between loving your adopted kingdom and ruling it, and while it wasn’t acknowledged in text, the game gave me room to interpret the story according to my choices. The game is a bit like a fan fiction generator — every player is going to have their own little universe of ideal pairings and personal stories.
You can look at the children from each pairing as just a technical advantage — more units means more options when you get out there and fight — but I choose to look at them as my family. I don’t think this is really the point of Fire Emblem, but it’s quickly eclipsing most of the other reasons to play the game. Yes, the mechanical strategic stuff is engaging and fun — I picked the harder of the two games and even without permadeath it’s giving me a workout — but I love that the game gives me something I always wonder about in these kinds of sprawling fantasy epics. How’s everyone getting along? Who’s making friends? What’s for dinner tonight? Whose son has a crush on whose daughter?
In Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest, your player character discovers that they were kidnapped from their birth family by the “evil” kingdom of Nohr when they were a child, but rather than siding with the “good” kingdom, they stick with the only family they’ve ever known. The simplistic, black-and-white morality of these games makes it clear that Nohr is abjectly in the wrong, but what the support conversations and children show us is something way more complex. These characters are all just a bunch of freaks and weirdos trying to get by, live their lives, fall in love, have families, and protect what they care about.
Fan fiction is a way for people to “fix” the media they love. Didn’t like the ending of the last Harry Potter book? Write a new one. Want the two brothers from Supernatural to fuck? On Archive of Our Own, they can! This is part of why people call fan fiction “transformative,” but not exactly what makes the fan fic-ishness of Fire Emblem Fates so interesting. By allowing such hands-on access to the fabric of its universe, the game becomes totally personalized. All those mundane gaps you’d fill in in your head become part of what you’re playing — and part of what you’re driving forward when you get your units ready for battle. No two Fire Emblem games are going to be alike, even if somehow all our pairings were the same. That’s a little world that you, alone, authored, and that you, alone, are protecting.
It is unlikely that I’m going to figure out what’s up with the evil dragon in Fire Emblem Fates anytime soon, but I cannot wait until I get to talk to Kanna again, to tell him about flowers. I can’t wait to watch Jakob be astounded at how his perennially lazy son is just as good of a butler as he is. I can’t wait to get to know my brothers and my sisters. Someday, I suppose, I’ll slay a dragon. But first I want to fall in love.