Intelligent Systems, queerbaiting isn’t just mean-spirited, it’s also bad writing.
I knew Fire Emblem: Three Houses had a problem with same-sex romances, especially on the MLM side. I even got mad about it on Twitter and wrote about it elsewhere on the internet. After months of wanting nothing to do with the game I was finally worn down by the recommendations and repeated assurances of those who swore up and down I would enjoy the game.
I am enjoying it, for the most part. The strategic battles are fun, the time management of every day speaks to the Persona lover in my soul, and as one-note as a lot of them seem at the early stages of the game, I’m interested to learn more about the students of Garreg Mach Monastery.
All that being said, there’s a pretty big difference between knowing a game has an issue and then finally experiencing it for yourself. I’m about 17 hours in now and there’s been a major through line of dissonance between what Three Houses’ text says and a lack of mechanical follow through. As a result, there are points where Three Houses refuses to speak truthfully of its characters, and I think I’ve finally nailed down why this disconnect is so prominent with one character in particular.
I’m talking about one Claude von Riegan, the leader of the Golden Deer house, resident suave-as-hell pretty boy, and, if the social mechanics Three Houses utilizes are to be believed, an entirely heterosexual man not-at-all bisexual and interested in men. As Byleth, the protagonist, you can only pursue a romantic relationship with Claude as a woman, but it doesn’t feel like Three Houses gets that memo until very, very late into the game.
If I sound skeptical, it’s not that I don’t believe someone making big decisions about the various support relationships in Three Houses intended for Claude to be straight; I just don’t believe the game properly reflects that. As much as Intelligent Systems would like to believe its poster boy fits distinctly into a straight-and-narrow box, Three Houses does an exceptionally poor job of reflecting two distinct relationships unfolding between a male or female main character and Claude depending on which version of the professor you choose to play as. This isn’t about how poorly Three Houses handles gay relationships in general; it’s a reflection of inconsistent writing for one of the game’s most important characters.
Claude’s relationship with your character is flirtatious from the start. He’s a playful person at heart, but there’s an earnestness to the things he says to Byleth, even when you’re playing as a man. These can be as tongue-in-cheek as claiming you only chose to join his house to get to know him better, to heartfelt confessions of how much he cares for you.
“I’ll always be on your side. You can’t count on much in this world, but you can count on that.” – Claude von Riegan
One of the most damning scenes that hints at a budding romantic relationship between Byleth and Claude, regardless of the avatar’s gender, is a ball where Claude pulls Byleth onto the dance floor to dance with him. This scene is complete with a wink, holding of hands and joining a dance of otherwise entirely heterosexual pairings. Even if you’re not actively pursuing Claude, the scene itself is clearly intended to be provocative, and feels in-line with the way the character has treated Byleth up to this point.
All of these lines and actions, from the corny flirting to Claude baring his soul to you, are ultimately meaningless when they’re said to a male Byleth. They’re piles of queer red herrings collected over the course of the game and then cast aside at the eleventh hour when the two have no further support conversations to partake in and no ring to exchange at the end.
That’s what’s most frustrating about the omission of an explicit romantic relationship between Claude and male Byleth. He treats both versions of the character exactly the same, and yet identical behavior is meant to represent something entirely different in one version of the story than it is in the other.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is all about treating either version of Byleth as neutrally as possible until the moment it isn’t. And while that theoretically can make a person feel like neither version of the story is inferior to the other, when it comes to Claude’s relationship with Byleth, the failure is on the game’s writing for not doing right by its own characters. Three Houses’ troubles with queerbaiting and misleading gay players is well-documented, but while in other cases it’s just a matter of misrepresenting its social mechanics, when it comes to Claude, depriving him of his own, obvious bisexuality undermines an entire game’s foundation.
Just let Claude be the disaster bi he’s clearly meant to be, Intelligent Systems. He’ll be a better and more consistent character for it.