On the final day of the San Diego Comic Con, I sat in a hotel lobby completely exhausted, but still unable to stop grinning as I watched two little girls carry on a protracted and energetic pretend battle with a pair of inflatable omniblades. This felt a perfectly fitting way to close out the week as Bioware spent SDCC 2011 actually putting some promotional resources into acknowledging the existence of the female version of Commander Shepard for the first time since the Mass Effect series began in 2007.
It was over a month ago that Bioware marketing director, David Silverman, announced on twitter that the company would be producing a Mass Effect 3 trailer featuring FemShep. This deviation from their slavish adherence to the conceit of a single “iconic” Shepard — in the form of a suitably rugged yet suitably handsome but utterly banal white dude — was credited to the massive amount of support and love for FemShep amongst vocal fans, particularly communicated to the devs through social media. Of course, the announcement was made too close to E3 for anything at all to materialize by then and, outside of a few tweets requesting design input from the masses, FemShep fans were left to wait.
Left to wait until this past Saturday, when a much touted Big Announcement turned out to be that Bioware would let the fans choose which of the six versions of FemShep that they’d developed would be utilized in the trailer (and possible future marketing material). Now there’s probably something to be examined in how much of this FemShep push has revolved around the minutiae of her appearance, but I cannot describe how gratifying it was, as a huge fan of Mass Effect, of action heroines in general and Commander Shepard in particular, to walk through the Bioware headquarters at SDCC and see it decked out in high resolution person-sized posters of FemShep designs — more than one of which were visibly women of color.
Of course the probable winner (leading by a hefty margin as of the writing of this article) is the blondest, blue-est eyed option with the longest hair, but a FemShep appealing so stringently to Western beauty standards is still miles better than no FemShep at all. And just the fleeting opportunity — the outside chance — of having official Mass Effect promotional material that features a female Commander Shepard of color is a heady feeling.
However, this long-awaited triumph only increases the dissonance when considering the other big bit of Mass Effect business taking place at SDCC 2011.
On Friday, one day before the FemShep reveals and announcements began, Mass Effect executive producer, Casey Hudson, and screenwriter, Mark Protosevich, were featured in a segment during the Legendary Pictures panel where they discussed the Mass Effect movie currently in development. Very little of substance was said, both men relying largely on rehearsed sound bytes about the depth and breadth and richness of the Mass Effect universe. (The sole exception to this was when Protosevich wandered off message into an analogy about other video game movies failing because the source material was like a beautiful but stupid woman, at which I and many others in room vocalized our disgust. I say he wandered off message only because I have to hope no one in media training fed him that line.)
The one piece of news that came from this was that the movie will focus on the events of the first Mass Effect game, contrary to fan speculation that it would tell an original story set in the universe in order to avoid presenting a version of the events of the game that could be considered “canon.”
The power of choice has always been a huge talking point in Mass Effect marketing. All of the statements in the wake of this FemShep push revolve around the developers acknowledging the significance and importance of the character because of that element of choice. Even as they spent years plastering everything available with images of the same grizzled white dude space marine indistinguishable from the other grizzled white dude space marines fronting 95% of the shooters on the market, everything ever said was about how your choices define the Mass Effect universe.
The first choice, the fundamental choice, is who your Shepard is.
For a Mass Effect film, they could cast a person of literally any gender and any racial background as Commander Shepard. There is, by their own insistence, no set appearance, no immutable look. Iconic DudeShep isn’t canon, they’ve declared again and again. He isn’t the Shepard; he’s just a marketing tool.
Canonically speaking, Commander Shepard needs to be athletic; Commander Shepard needs to be charismatic; Commander Shepard needs to be the baddest badass in the galaxy.
Commander Shepard does not need to be a rugged-yet-handsome-but-banal white guy. Bioware has just now taken tiny steps away from the rugged-yet-handsome-but-banal white guy being the single, enduring image of Commander Shepard that they show to the world at large. It seems almost perverse, in light of that, to go charging right back towards that when it comes to something as high profile as a feature film that will introduce Mass Effect to millions of new people.
Yet, I’m just not optimistic enough to honestly think that anyone involved will take the time to seriously consider the infinite amount of options they have, even if they’ve been actively in the process of exploring them in another context.
All I can do is I hope that I’m wrong and that, just once, this isn’t a choice that’s already been made.