Tag Archives: Mass Effect

Boob Sliders, Or How Role-Playing Games Helped Me Transition

The following is a guest post from Samantha Allen:

Samantha Allen is a transgender woman and an ex-Mormon. She is also a third-year PhD student in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on practices of sexual fetishism. In her leisure time, Samantha plays video games, writes music and dreams of inhabiting the universe of Twin Peaks. For more on Samantha’s PhD research, please visit her website.

The author is shown on the left in a light pink dress.  On the right, the author's female Hawke from Dragon Age 2.

“If I’m going to look at somebody’s ass for twelve hours, I want it to be a girl’s ass.”

I’ve heard countless straight male video game podcasters, journalists and message board commenters supply this as their rationale for playing as female characters in games when presented with the option. I’m willing to believe that, for some of them, the reasoning behind selecting a female avatar truly is this superficial. But it also saddens me to think that other straight men, the ones who might actually enjoy some sort of cross-gender identification in their role-playing, nonetheless supply this as their reason so that they can keep up heteronormative appearances amongst their peers.

I have always rolled Lady Shepards in the Mass Effect games and, recently, a Lady Hawke in Dragon Age II. And, when I find out a game has a character creator full of sliders for every conceivable bodily dimension—everything from boob size to brow depth—my interest is instantly piqued, even if I never end up playing the game itself (I’m looking at you, Demon’s Souls). I’ve been known to spend a full hour on the character creation screen fine-tuning the appearance of my avatar, making sure that the forehead is the right height and that the eye shadow isn’t too garish.

At the time I played the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games, I would have admitted, however reluctantly, to being a straight man. But I wasn’t laboring over these elaborate female creations so I could have a hot piece of tail on my screen. The key to this mystery is that I have struggled with gender all my life and, for me, these practices of character creation were a way of idealizing, visualizing, and imagining myself as female. We had a lot of shared traits, my Lady Hawke and I: blond hair, brown eyes and a big forehead. This verisimilitude was intentional. I wanted her to look just like me (with different secondary sex characteristics, of course) so that she could live out a life I couldn’t, enjoying a public career as a woman and wearing dresses when she went home to Hawke Manor. Video game commentators often refer to games as a form of escapism but, for me, I wasn’t just escaping a humdrum life, I was escaping a physical body that didn’t feel quite right. It takes a lot of courage and the right life circumstances to be able to transition (to change genders socially and, if desired, to change the sex characteristics of one’s own body).

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Missing the Point? An Examination of Reaction to Newtown

The following is a guest post from Dakin “Chilly” Lecakes:

Chilly has been playing videogames since their beginning as a commercial product.  He has a longtime perspective on gaming and tries to add a voice of sanity to the diverse issues surrounding the modern gaming culture.  He has been participating in various gaming communities and forums for over a decade trying to be a light shining in the darkness when all others fail.

On Friday, December 14, 2012, I sat at my computer, horrified, reading the news of a mass shooting at an elementary school located in Newtown, Connecticut.

On Monday, December 17, I found out that I knew someone very well that was immediately impacted by the tragedy.  Someone whose sister was a victim of the incident, a teacher at the school.

I remember when I was told that it took more than a brief moment to process the information.  It was incomprehensible to me.  Suddenly I knew someone who was directly affected by this horrific event and the surrounding mass media frenzy.  It was a subtle change, but I found myself now evaluating each related story that appeared in a slightly different way, having a bit more empathy for the point of view of the surviving family members.  It is a heightened sensitivity that I had never experienced following one of these events.

I include the foregoing only to explain how my thoughts on this particular event have caused me to want to write about the issue.  To offer, in what way I can, my own plea for sanity, a loaded word.

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Omega: Writing one of Mass Effect’s wrongs

I’ve written here before criticising Bioware for only featuring male Turians in their Mass Effect series. As a quick reminder, Bioware essentially didn’t include female Turians because they had no idea how to denote female characters other than by adding lipstick and breasts.

However, I’m happy to be able to say that with the release of Omega, the latest DLC for Mass Effect 3, they’ve now fixed this oversight. Omega contains a female Turian called Nyreen Kandros who, shockingly, does not actually look just like a male Turian with breasts and lipstick.

Nyreen Kandros from Mass Effect 3: Omega.
(Image courtesy of the Mass Effect wiki)

Instead, they’ve given her less prominent crests (which is reminiscent of many real life bird species, where the males tend to be more highly decorated), but more prominent mandibles. She’s clearly the same species, but also clearly not the same as the males we’ve seen before.

So, kudos to Bioware for finally getting with the program. That wasn’t too hard now, was it?

Cortez

Same Sex Romance and Mass Effect 3

Though rare, same sex romance options are not new to video games. We have seen them Jade Empire, The Sims, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and the Dragon Age series. But lately, BioWare has had some shining moments in this area. When they announced that Star Wars: The Old Republic was going to add same sex romances post release The Family Research Council got members to send thousands of letters to EA to denounce the move. EA did not back down, and instead stood by the decision to include the romance options http://kotaku.com/5899246/homophobes-slam-ea-with-thousands-of-letters-over-same+sex-romance. When a forum poster complained about the inclusion of bisexual NPCs in Dragon Age 2 David Gaider explained that “The majority has no inherent “right” to get more options than anyone else.”  http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/304/index/6661775&lf=8 Several recent BioWare games had same sex romance options, but Mass Effect 3 is especially important as a big budget game that has characters who are exclusively gay or lesbian.

 

 Some logistics first … Let’s look at the numbers!

(Author’s note: My Shepard romanced Liara and stayed faithful to her throughout the series. Information on which other characters can be romanced was taken from the Mass Effect wiki and some YouTube clips were referenced while writing the post.)

Steve Cortez from Mass Effect 3

Before delving into Mass Effect 3, it is important to look at the series as a whole. Let’s look at what character romances result in the Paramour achievement/trophy in each game. I call those the primary romances or relationships. The original Mass Effect had had 2 primary romance options for both the male and female Shepard. As a man you could romance Ashley Williams and Liara T’Soni while as a woman you could romance Kaidan Alenko or Liara T’Soni. While Liara is often considered by fans as a same sex romance for a female Shepard, the game specifies that asari are a mono gendered species. They do not talk about a male/female gender binary; they are simply asari. So we walk away from the original Mass Effect without an official same sex romance.

 

Mass Effect 2 had many more romance options than the original game. As a man, Shepard could romance Miranda Lawson, Tali’Zorah, or Jack. As a woman, Shepard could romance Jacob Taylor, Garrus Vakarian, and Thane Krios. None of these are same sex options.

 

Mass Effect 3 has the largest number of romance options in the series. As a man, Shepard can romance Miranda Lawson, Tali’Zorah, Jack, Ashley Williams, Kelly Chambers, Liara T’Soni, Kaiden Alenko, or Steve Cortez. As a woman, Shepard can romance Garrus Valkarian, Kaidan Alenko, Kelly Chambers, Liara T’Soni, and Samantha Traynor.

Game Shepard Primary opposite sex relationships Primary same sex relationships Asari relationships
Mass Effect Female 1 0 1
Mass Effect Male 1 0 1
Mass Effect 2 Female 3 0 0
Mass Effect 2 Male 3 0 0
Mass Effect 3 Female 2 1 1
Mass Effect 3 Male 5 2 1

 

             

Secondary romances

However, there were also relationships that were not tracked by the Paramour achievement. In Mass Effect 2 either Shepard could show interest in Samara, Morinth, and Kelly Chambers. This last option of Kelly Chambers is the only one in Mass Effect 2 that could definitely counts as a same sex relationship option. In Mass Effect 3 either Shepard could have a sexual relationship with Diana Allers which which add another same sex relationship option for a female Shepard.

 

All those numbers mean something  

When looking at the numbers, there is a clear trend for greater diversity in sexual relationships within the Mass Effect series. But there is something else in those numbers: a male Shepard has more options than a female Shepard. Part of this is due to the exclusion of Thane and Jacob as romance options in Mass Effect 3. Yet, even if those two were included in the group, a female Commander Shepard would still have fewer potential romance options than a male. The quantity of options appears to favor a male Shepard.

 

This favoritism falls apart when discussing same sex relationships. If we look at Liara as a same sex option for female characters, then a lesbian Shepard has had a romance option since the beginning of the series. Even ignoring Liara, a lesbian Shepard could start a relationship with Kelly Chambers in the second game and then have that carry over to Mass Effect 3. BUT, a gay Shepard had to wait 3 games in order to have a possible relationship. If you choose to role play Shepard as a gay male, romance is left out until the end of the series. See http://kotaku.com/5909937/with-the-galaxy-in-flames-my-video-game-hero-finally-came-out-of-the-closet Denis Farr’s article about this issue.

 

What could have been done differently?

 

Liara from Mass Effect 3

The relationship with Liara T’Soni deserves discussion. Does she “count” as a same sex romance for a female commander Shepard or not? If she is considered female, then there is a potential for a long term same sex relationship between her and Shepard stretching from the first game through to the last. But by describing her as part of a monogendered species the series denies players one positive lesbian romance portrayal. While a relationship with a genderless species could be interesting the asari are not androgynous, they are heavily coded as feminine. Because of their appearance, the relationship looks like a same sex romance with a female Shepard but should it be read as such or should we look at it as something different? I am not sure. Even after 3 games I do not know if my Shepard’s relationship with Liara can be considered a lesbian romance.

 

Kelly Chambers in Mass Effect 2 is also potentially problematic. Her relationship with Shepard is not considered a canon romance in that game. It is a flirtation, a quick hint of a potential relationship. When she joins Shepard in her cabin at the end of the game she is wearing a tight fitting outfit and does a sexy dance. The point of the scene is to provide sexual arousal for Shepard but does not allow for a further relationship within that one game. There is nothing wrong with that, but as the only portrayal of a same sex relationship in Mass Effect 2 it conforms with a male gaze, “two women are hot” portrait of lesbian relationships that is all too common in media. We need more diversity in the portrayal of lesbians. This relationship can become deeper in Mass Effect 3 but only if Shepard goes though this more superficial experience in the second game.

 

What makes ME3 special?

The final game in the series does several important things in terms of relationship options. The game portrays them as something that can be persistent and evolving over time. It is possible to have started a relationship with Liara in the first game, stayed faithful to her in the second game, and continue the relationship in the final episode. This is something unique and not available to a player that just wants to begin a relationship with Liara in the final game. The way the trilogy was set up allowed for the possibility a dynamic relationship. The NPCs were treated as having potential beyond just sex. These were characters whose stories mattered, with their own journey and growing relationships with Shepard.

 

However, one of the new characters in Mass Effect 3 is incredibly important. Steve Cortez is a pilot in the game. When discussing his past, you learn that he lost his husband in a Reaper invasion. This fact is handled wonderfully. We have a man, discussing the loss of his husband, and there is no pause in the discussion. Shepard does not stop to say, “Whoa, hold on, are you saying you are gay?” or ask any other question all too often heard by people in same sex relationships. Cortez mentions his husband and we are meant to mourn the loss with him. It is no different than if he mentioned the loss of his wife. This one simple thing is incredibly important. Imagine a world where all players of Mass Effect 3 accepted gay individuals as easily as Shepard does in the scene. Cortez being attracted to someone of the same sex is not an issue; it is a not an oddity, it just exists as one option within the universe. Cortez is shown as an exclusively gay man, and yet his sexuality is never shown as a problem. His sexuality is not used to impose tragedy in his life. This is not the tale of a difficult coming out story or an attack on a gay man. He is allowed to be a gay man and not have that one trait define his character arc. It is not something we see very often in media. This portrayal was done beautifully.

Authorial intent

Were the writers cognizant of these depictions and their implications? In an interview, Patrick Weekes and Dusty Everman show that members of the BioWare staff were aware of how they displayed these relationships. As Patrick Weekes said about writing a gay character:

Liara’s relationship in Lair of the Shadow Broker can be with players of either gender, so I was familiar with writing dialog that needed to work for a same-sex romance. Nevertheless, I’m a straight white male – pretty much the living embodiment of the Patriarchy – and I really wanted to avoid writing something that people saw and went, “That’s a straight guy writing lesbians for other straight guys to look at.”

 I also really wanted the romance with Traynor to be positive. One of my gay friends has this kind of sad hobby in which she watches every lesbian movie she can find, trying to find ones that actually end up with the women not either dying or breaking up. I think the most positive one she’s found is “D.E.B.S.” I wanted to avoid any kind of tragic heartbreak, to make this a fundamentally life-affirming relationship… at least, as much as possible within Mass Effect 3′s grim war story.

 

Samantha Traynor from Mass Effect 3

Similar to Cortez, for the exclusively lesbian character of Samantha Traynor her sexuality is a part of her but not her sole defining feature. Patrick Weekes again:

 I worked hard to create a character who addressed her lesbian identity in a positive and intelligent way. My first draft of Traynor’s pitch was all about how her character arc would be about identifying and overcoming the challenges of being gay… and my friends and managers called me on it. I’d been so focused on writing something positive that I hadn’t made a real-enough character. So in the next draft (closer to how she shipped), the focus was on her as a mostly lighthearted fish out of water, a very smart lab tech trying to adjust to life on the front lines, with her identity as a lesbian present but not shouted from the rooftops.

 

From Dusty Everman:

 I believe that by the 22nd century, declaring your gender preference will be about as profound as saying, “I like blondes.” It will just be an accepted part of who we are. So I tried to write a meaningful human relationship that just happens to be between two men.

 This interview shows that the team at BioWare was conscious of the implications of their character designs and story arcs. They were aware of some of the pitfalls often found when creating gay characters and they at least attempted to avoid them. The full interview can be found  http://blog.bioware.com/2012/05/07/same-sex-relationships-in-mass-effect-3/

 

What do we want to see next

BioWare did several laudable things in Mass Effect 3. So what do we want to see in future games? From both BioWare and other companies I ask for one thing: DIVERSITY! We need more games to show the complexity of human experiences. Let’s have some asexual characters. Let’s have NPCs that are straight but are NOT interested in the main character despite a match in gender and orientation. Let’s have more gay characters. Once we have more diversity, we can tell more stories. The Princess doesn’t always need saving by the Prince and the Prince may not want to marry a Princess anyways. Let’s step out of the box a bit more and get creative. Who would want to play a game with a lesbian necromancer as the main character? I would! And I doubt that I am the only person. Games are meant to be fun to play, so let’s play with the stories and create some new experiences.

Mass Effect 3 FemShep Trailer is Finally Here

A Mass Effect 3 wallpaper with an Earth being attacked by Reapers in the background and Cmdr Shepard, a light-skinned, red-haired woman, in the foreground.

Back in June of last year, in response to a group of passionate fans, BioWare announced that they would give the female version of Commander Shepard her own trailer. It was supposed to be released some time last summer, but months went by without much word. This week, on Twitter, David Silverman (edit: fixed wrong first name!) dropped a few hints about the trailer being released before the Mass Effect 3 demo is made available on Valentine’s Day. Finally, Silverman declared today to be #FemShepFriday. The long-awaited trailer is below, or you can watch it here.

Happy FemShep Friday! Brb, watching trailer again.

Designing non-human females

Creating non-human species for games (or other media types) can’t be easy. You need to try to create a unique and interesting look, which retains some humanoid features for familiarity, but also has several alien features as well. You need your species to look like something which could plausibly have evolved but at the same time, you need it to be exciting. And for games, you need to make sure that your species works within your technology framework. I have a lot of respect for the great artists of the industry who come up with some truly iconic designs.

One additional consideration is how to deal with sexual dimorphism. Do the males and females of your new species look the same? If not, how are they different?

We all generally know how to distinguish between human men and women (with the caveat, of course, that both sexes are diverse and varied, with substantial crossover in most if not all areas, and that’s before you even start to consider various intersex conditions). Identifying the sex of other animals is much more hit and miss, though. Sometimes, they’re easy. Male lions have manes, whereas females don’t. Male elephant seals are much larger than females. Various birds have males with brightly coloured plumage and females with plain feathers. For other animals, the differences are much less pronounced, and hard for even an expert to spot. How do you tell the difference between a male gibbon and a female one? Or closer to home, what’s the difference between the sexes in domesticate cats or dogs?

The point I’m making is that in actual real animals, the differences between the sexes can be extremely pronounced or virtually non-existent, and it can take all sorts of forms. So when you’re inventing a new species from scratch, how do you decide what differences to use?

The sad fact is that in the vast majority of cases, the males of the species will be designed first as the default, and then females will be made as a variant. So, with that in mind, how do you take a male species deign and turn it into a design for females of the same species.

I’d like to look at two approaches to this. Firstly, Turians from the Mass Effect series, and the charr from the Guild Wars series.

First, the Turians. In this video, Mass Effect 3′s art director, Derek Watts, talks about how the Turians were created. The relevant part, as regards female Turians comes at about 1 minute in, when he has this to say:

They’re all males in the game. We usually try to avoid the females because what do you do with a female Turian? Do you give her breasts? What do you do? Do you put lipstick on her? There’s actually some of the concept artists will draw lipstick on the male one and they’ll say “Hey, it’s done” and we’ll go “No, can you take this serious?”

What I personally take from this is the message that these artists pretty much think of women as being nothing but breasts and lipstick with no other identifying features, that they have very little idea how nature works (hint: birds don’t have breasts), and that they decided that making female characters was hard, so they’d give up. After all, it’s not as if they’re losing anything by not including female Turians, right?

Compare and contrast this with this article in which Kristen Perry talks about designing the female charr for Guild Wars 2. The entire article is worth reading, but for me, the choice quote is this one:

Well, when I started designing the female charr, I definitely wanted her to feel just as fierce as the male of the race. She had to feel sleek and agile while at the same time have an appearance of strength and power. By thinking in terms of movement, it became clear the answer was in optimizing nuances. Yes, she had to be large and robust like the male, but we could tone down the testosterone by really extending her body lines to gracefully flow from the top of her head to tail tip.

Obviously, it’s notable just how different this approach is from that of the Mass Effect 3 designers.

A charr male and female. Both are fierce-looking anthropomorphic felines, though the male is slighly stockier, and their teeth, horns, and tails are different.

A charr male and female. Both are fierce-looking anthropomorphic felines, though the male is slighly stockier, and their teeth, horns, and tails are different.

 

When I look at this image, I can see that the two creatures shown are clearly of the same species, but that they are also different. The horns are at different angles, the male is stockier and has more teeth. The female has a bushier tale. I can also see that the female is still a ferocious fighter who could rip me to shreds as easily as she could look at me, and that she is most definitely not just there for the male gaze. I suspect that any man she caught leching at her would quickly find himself with sever abdominal injuries.

This sort of thing demonstrates that designing non-human females can be done brilliantly and effectively without resorting to tired tropes or mindless objectification. Knowing what can be achieved just makes it all the more galling to see things like the Turians of Mass Effect where the designers seemingly couldn’t even be bothered trying.

Social responsibility in pop culture and video games

There is a great article today over on one of my favorite non-gaming blogs, This Ain’t Livin, about whether or not pop culture has social responsibility.  While the post itself isn’t about gaming, there are definitely some intriguing thoughts within that validate what we’re doing here.

One of the more common negative responses to what The Border House is all about is that we’re overreacting, that we’re deeply analyzing video games which are supposed to simply be whimsical entertainment.  That we’re “too sensitive”, that we’re wasting time doing critical analysis on games.  That video games don’t have an obligation to be socially responsible because they’re just art, or just entertainment.  Meloukhia responds to this with:

The ‘no obligation to be socially responsible’ argument is extremely boring and tired, and it’s usually utilized when people don’t actually want to engage with the content and substance of the discussion at all. They can avoid any responsibility as viewers and fans to consider the critique, simply by declaring the entire critique invalid and not of interest. It’s one of the tell-tale signs I look for in responses to criticisms, because of the embedded ideas presented in it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve linked on Twitter a wonderfully written article from one of our authors only to hear back that we’re wasting our time because the developers won’t read our content anyway.  That we could be spending our time being real activists instead of just writing.  That we’re taking games too seriously.  That there are “bigger fish to fry”.  That The Border House is too negative about games, and we should talk more about games we like.

The other thing that people seem to miss when they’re busy dismissing criticisms of their favourite pop culture is that most critics engage with work because they are care about it, possibly think it is interesting, and may even really enjoy it. There are, of course, a few exceptions—I am quite open about hatewatching Glee for example. But those cases are pretty rare. It’s easy to take pot shots at pop culture you don’t like. It’s harder to delve into works you really love to probe them and ask whether they are working not just as works of art, but also as works of messaging. It is one of the greatest acts of fanlove, to challenge the work you adore.

Every one of the authors here is a part of The Border House because we love games. It’s our deep passion for games that makes us want to be critical of them.  When we write about racial issues in Dragon Age, people state that we should be throwing BioWare a bone because they’re the most progressive mainstream game developer.  The problem is, we talk about Dragon Age and Mass Effect because we love those games so much.  We recognize that they did plenty right, and we also are capable of still critically analyzing them.  Meloukhia uses the example of Joss Whedon fans getting upset when feminists critique his work, because he does make so many strong female characters.  That doesn’t excuse him from critique, instead it makes feminists focus even more on his work.  The same goes for BioWare who are more inclusive than other developers but still struggle in some areas when it comes to representation of women and race.

Read the blog post!

The Border House Podcast Episode 1 Transcript and Call for Volunteers

The cover of a fake romance novel starring Varric and Flemeth. The text reads: He found the wildest witch... and got more than he bargained for! The Stone Heartbreaker's only hope of escape is... TO TAME THE DRAGONESS

Art by aimo.deviantart.com

Below is the transcript for Episode 1 of The Border House podcast. But before we get to that: we need your help! Transcription is a big job, so we are looking for volunteers who can transcribe 5-minute segments of the podcast for our readers. It takes approximately half an hour to transcribe five minutes of audio (maybe less if you’re quick). If you are interested in helping out, please email alex at borderhouseblog.com.

Just having a few people helping out with the transcript will be a huge help and will allow us to provide transcripts in a more timely fashion. Please consider volunteering!

And now, here’s the transcript:

The Border House Podcast
Episode 1: Lewd-onarrative Dissonance

MATTIE: Welcome to The Border House Podcast, episode one. My name is Mattie, and this week we’ll be talking about romance in BioWare’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. The Border House is a gaming site dedicated to fostering a safe place for people who are women, gay, transgender, queer, of color, disabled, poor, or any other marginalized group, along with our allies. Our goal is to promote diversity in the gaming community and provide thoughtful analysis of the latest games and news. Visit us at borderhouseblog dot com.

So, I’m just going to do a quick roll call to show who’s here. First we have two of our editors, one is Alex, and she is doing, actually a recent article on Dragon Age 2 at her personal blog, if you want to say hello…

ALEX: Hello!

MATTIE: [laughs] Almost kind of AA-like, but that’s okay, I’ll do it. And then also we have a new editor, Anna, hello.

ANNA: Hello!

MATTIE: Also excited to have Anna here. We have, as well, Rawles, who is a fellow writer along with me. Hi, Rawles.

RAWLES: Hi!

MATTIE: And we have our guest speaker today, who is Kate Cox, and she is writing at Your Critic is in Another Castle, and also is a guest writer at The Border House, hi Kate.

KATE: Hello!

MATTIE: And with me, who will chat if they want to, is Kim will help me with our technical recording and will help me put this together. So thank you, and hi, Kim.

KIM: Hello.

MATTIE: Awesome. So, let’s get this started.

So I wanted to start off our conversation with kind of a personal walkthrough of how there games have affected us, speak to us. I figured I would start off with my personal experience with romance in these games. For me, what was very interesting, as a person of a multiracial and transgender identity, was how, specifically to me was Dragon Age: Origins, how this world seems to not have those kind of cues involved. Like you can create your character, but you don’t have like this multiracial option where people treat you differently, or I’m a transgender person where people treat you differently. So it was interesting for characters to just interact with me without even, is always treated like this white male, even if you’re some other kind of identity. And I was wondering if anyone else had a similar experience.

RAWLES: I definitely have, especially in Mass Effect. Just the whole situation where, yes they do just basically treat you like you’re a white dude regardless of how you make your character look, which to me as a black woman, it’s just, it’s a really really bizarre experience, frankly.

MATTIE: Yeah, I agree. For me, it was particularly interesting because I’m not used to, especially since we’re talking about romances, I’m not used to someone just kind of coming up to me out of the blue, be it like let’s say a peer or a coworker, when this sort of interesting dynamic happened with my party, especially in Dragon Age: Origins, it was a new experience for someone to just come up to me and be like, “Hey, I find you attractive.” I’m not sure if anyone else had that kind of experience.

RAWLES: I mean, for me, I think that in Dragon Age, I think one of the things that felt the most to me in that, was just the way that the characters in the party, they–like, the four romanceable characters, they are all very diverse in the way that they are presented, but they all sort of more or less react to you in a really similar way. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but because of the sort of structures of the game environment, it’s, there’s just–it’s odd, frankly.

MATTIE: Did anyone else have, kind of like a strange interaction with other characters? Like if you were being, if your identity was fully realized in the game, even let’s say… we’ve had a lot of articles about, let’s take a player–a woman’s interaction with Miranda, which is a constantly cited strange dissonant feeling where a lot of women players felt odd interaction with her, that she felt disrespectful. And like for me personally, I kept seeing her as this posed woman all the time, and that just felt really strange, and I’m wondering if anyone else has?

KATE: Oh, Miranda frustrated the hell out of me. [laughs] Yeah, she was very much targeted toward a male player that I am not, is how I felt. Although I had female friends who really appreciated her, I didn’t. What felt strange to me, actually, in Mass Effect 2, especially, was how Tali and Liara interacted with my female Shepard, in that, Tali especially, had this very sort of flirtatious sequence that just happened happened happened and came to a dead stop in the middle of conversation very, very weirdly.

RAWLES: Oh definitely, I definitely felt that too, with Tali, because yeah, there is absolutely no difference in the way that she interacts with the female Shepard and the male Shepard, except for the fact that the male Shepard then gets an option to actually continue and follow up on that.

KIM: Interesting story I heard about this, apparently the voice actor who played Tali refused to do the lines from the female/female romance option.

[crosstalk:]
MATTIE: Wow.

KATE: I never heard that, that’s disappointing.

RAWLES: Really? I never heard that, that’s upsetting.

ALEX: Yeah, that’s a shame.

MATTIE: That sucks because I’ll admit it, I had the hots for Tali. And I totally–

ALEX: Who doesn’t, really.

MATTIE: I mean, I always had her in my party, in the first game, and I liked her, just because it was an interesting place that she’s put, like the ethnic, racial sort of implications that are associated with her. It was just interesting how Tali is made to seem very flirtatious and looks up to Shepard, and I felt–I agree–I felt a sudden stop. I also thought, while we’re on Mass Effect, that that was the same for Jack, as well. There was an implication that Jack was bisexual, and, you know, you didn’t really get any more than that. And then I was like, oh you know maybe something can happen, and it was kind of like “no, thanks.”

RAWLES: I completely–oh my–Jack is so frustrating to me because she will talk to you, like you said, she will talk to you about having been with women before, and she will just discuss all of these things with you, and just everything about the character is just right there, and then yeah, the wall just slams down. And I found it so–like, as a queer woman, I don’t–okay–I don’t play as a male Shep. I don’t like to play as a dude in games, it’s just not something I do because it’s very important to me, when I have the option to create my own character, to make a character who is, you know, like me, or just not the sort of default white guy. Because there are so many narratives and so many stories where everything revolves around this sort of white guy, and if I get the opportunity to instead make the entire universe revolve around the most important person in the world be a black woman, or you know an Asian woman, or a mixed-race woman or something you know, I’m going to do it. And so the complete like lack of ability, especially in Mass Effect 2, with all of these various female characters who seemed really interested in you, but then the door slams down. It’s just really frustrating, playing a female character, not to be able to follow up on that. It was just awful, and it was so–it was also really just contrived, because there was really no reason they needed to stop it there.

MATTIE: I know, I completely agree. Kate, did you have something to say?

KATE: Yeah, it–that’s what bothered me the most, was the contrived nature of it, how you’re just going along, going along, going along, and these conversations just totally brick wall on you. And I think, part of what frustrates me in general is that I feel like, despite the fact that I love my female Shepard with Garrus forever, and I dig that like crazy even though I didn’t expect to, I feel like female Shepard kind of got the secondary sort of short shrift consideration a lot of the time when it comes to Mass Effect 2. One was one, but two, Miranda’s made this very sort of important, present dynamic character, and Jack is a really interesting character, Tali has been kicking around with you since the dawn of Mass Effect 1, and in Mass Effect 2, female Shepard gets Jacob?

MATTIE: Yeah, I mean especially if… does anyone want to comment on about how interaction between Jacob and female Shepard?

RAWLES: Oh, jeez. I have a whole thing with Jacob in that I know that a lot of people really resent the character because of the way that female Shepard’s lines are delivered to him because he just constantly sounds like, you know, FemShep talks to him, and it just sounds like throw him to the floor right then. But I don’t know, I’ve always had a sort of defensive reaction to Jacob just because I don’t think he’s a bad character, outside of, you know, it’s not the character’s fault the way that they wrote FemShep to respond to him, but I always just feel slightly uncomfortable just because there’s a whole bunch of “Oh, Jacob is useless, oh.” I think he’s a fine character, I just feel a little odd because he’s a black guy, and that’s not generally widely considered basically attractive, so, you know.

MATTIE: I was definitely appreciative of Jacob basically being, I guess, existant there, and a decent character, for the most part. But then, especially when it came to the flirtation between female Shepard and Jacob, especially the ending line, where the “spilling drinks on the citadel” line, was problematic. And Kate, do you have something to say?

KATE: I really wanted Jacob to be an interesting character because I was–excited is maybe too strong of a word because I was investigating the game, but I liked that there was a black male character there, and I wanted him to feel as important to the story as Miranda did. And he didn’t, and that’s part of what annoyed me, I would rather have had more and better Jacob and less Miranda.

MATTIE: Oh my gosh, I completely agree. Anna has something to say.

ANNA: Yeah, since people are mentioning Tali, one of the things that upset me in Mass Effect 2 was, the first game I had a female Commander Shepard, and she romanced Liara, and even with all the backpedalling that happened about whether or not that can be seen as a same-sex relationship or not, I wanted to continue that relationship in Mass Effect 2, and, while she was in the game, she wasn’t someone that I was able to really have a romance with. And so it seemed as if same-sex relationships were taken away from me when I moved from Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2.

MATTIE: Yeah, the whole… it’s really strange, when it comes to how there’s this large availability, and at the same time kind of a strange muddlement of same-sex relationships, when it comes to at least female Shepard. And also what I found kind of strange was the idea, I guess the option to cheat, if you will? Because I had romanced Liara as well, and from what I could tell, because I didn’t have the DLC, I didn’t really know about it, it seemed like Liara was over me, and I was kind of heartbroken. So I moved on.

ANNA: DLC… If you’ve played the DLC–I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, it’s a spoiler.

MATTIE: Well, you know, it’s assumed that, you know, we’re going to be spoiling Mass Effect and DA, so you can go ahead.

ANNA: Okay so if you play the DLC, and you go through the specific dialogue option, what you’ll find out is that Liara is the one that actually went and rescued Commander Shepard’s body after the end of the first game. So she was so heartbroken to have lost Shepard that she is the one that went after the character. She–to my character in that conversation then said “I do still love you and I’m still invested in this relationship,” but she’s still dealing with all the Shadow Broker stuff and was kind of obsessed with that right now and focusing on that, rather than that relationship.

RAWLES: They also did an entire comic series, a limited series going through what she did, all of that business as well.

ANNA: Yeah I ended up liking her character even more once I got that DLC and was able to get more of her story. When you just play the game itself, it feels as though while she’s just up there in this office, she’s not really talking to you. And at least for me, as I was invested in that relationship with her, I felt strange, that, not really talking, nothing is going on, what happened?

MATTIE: Go ahead, Kate.

KATE: The funny thing is, I actually romanced Liara in the first game, too, and while, by the time I got to 2 I wasn’t invested in continuing the relationship with her, I felt really badly that the game wouldn’t let me break up like a decent human being. I just felt really bad that it was this never-spoken-of elephant in the room, and I was like, can’t I at least talk to her and tell her I’m sorry and no hard feelings and thanks for rescuing me from space? So you know, the DLC felt very like content that should have been able to be in the main game. It really rounded everything out.

MATTIE: Yeah, I went through my original playthrough without the DLC, and the most heart-wrenching part was when her picture went face-down on my desk, and I was like, I felt like scum. Because there was nothing I could do, there was no options, there was nothing. I addressed relationship issues with her without this DLC. Oh my goodness.

So as we kind of seem to have already gotten there, I’d like to kind of go through both Mass Effect and Dragon Age and see how a lot of hegemonic culture is represented in kind of blocks. The diverse readership that we have, if anybody has a particular experience of wasn’t very exclusive of these games to other identities.

RAWLES: Well, I’ve always felt, just what we talked about way earlier, about how the game, sort of–Mass Effect, espcially–just assumes that… actually I don’t think that, I was going to say that the game assumes, basically, that your character is straight, except I don’t think that it necessarily assumes that the character is straight, I think the better way to put it is that would be to say that the game assumes that the person playing it is a straight male. Because, like, if you play as a male Shepard, there are all these instances where, like, women will flirt with him, and he will automatically, you know, no matter what you do, there will be automatic reactions of interest and you know if you’re playing your male Shepard as gay, then that’s completely out of character for him because obviously he’s not interested in women. And I’ve talked to a lot of people who have played their male Shepards as gay, and that just completely throws them out of the game, and they end up going through all these contortions trying to find out which options to push to sort of not be forced to show interest in women.

MATTIE: Yeah, also something that was interesting for me was, I guess, kind of an underlying concept of this entire topic is being forced into let’s say a monogamous relationship. Like for me personally, I wanted to explore like polyamory, or let’s say not rigid monogamous relationships. And I remember specifically, I was playing through the first game and there came a point where, to be honest I was flirting with both Kaiden and Liara, and eventually I was confronted about this. And I really didn’t feel like there was cheating going on, we were just talking, you know! So what was interesting was there was an option that kind of insinuates “oh, well let’s just like make something work out that’s not very traditional”? And instead the voice acting implication was like “I just don’t want to be committed, can’t I sleep with you both?” And I was like, that’s really not progressive whatsoever.

RAWLES: Oh, yeah, I know exactly what option you’re talking about. Yes, they sort of… it’s not actually a real stab at anything, you know, any kind of polyamorous situation, but they make it sound really really sleazy, and just kind of, just gross, frankly.

KATE: That gets to one of the things that really irritated me with the romances in general, which has to do with the overall structure of these games where you think you’re getting a dialogue option that you totally aren’t, or the only way to do something is a way that totally breaks with your character. I was saying before, my Shepard went with Garrus, and to me that’s, I like the story that way, but I was totally thrown by the scene in which you have to take a sort of normal conversation between the two of them and basically be like, “So, you. Me. My quarters. Let’s go.” ‘Cause it’s just so dissonant to what you feel is the picture of those characters and the conversation they’re having, and you don’t even realize what these things are going to be until suddenly they’re popping out of Jennifer Hale’s mouth and you’re like “Oh, crap!”

ALEX: Seriously, there’s like so many like cheesy pickup lines in Mass Effect 2, it’s, aw, it makes it kind of–it does make it kind of awkward if you’re trying to play the romances.

MATTIE: Anna, you had something to say.

ANNA: I had a question. When the option popped up, the “I’m not really committed to either one of you,” if you select it, can you actually be with both of them? Or does it still make you pick one character?

MATTIE: No, basically what happens is that Kaiden just says, “No, I’m not interested, bye.” And he leaves. And Liara is like, “Well, I’m here!”

RAWLES: Yeah, I always found that kind of just funny actually, that the game is just like, “Yeah, well, now you have Liara since you said that.”

MATTIE: Yeah, so, it is–I don’t know, that was very problematic for me, especially because that was kind of like an assumption of, I would say, what is going on through how we romance these characters in these games, that the end goal is just to sleep with someone. So I mean, like, in all of these, that’s what it seems, especially in Mass Effect, where it’s just like, well, how many times am I going to talk to you before I fulfill the requirements to sleep with you at the end of the game?

RAWLES: Yeah, and also, there’s also the issue of, not everybody’s ideal relationship involves sex. So, you know, that’s also an issue. There was that one downloadable character for Dragon Age 2 who you could have a romantic but not sexual relationship with.

MATTIE: Oh, I didn’t even know about that. Is that the… I’m not sure, I can’t remember.

ALEX: That’s Sebastian. The–it’s only romantic and not sexual because he’s like, taken vows of chastity or something, until he’s married or something. Because his whole story is that he was a prince and he was like a womanizer or something, and they sent him to the Chantry to shape him up.

KIM: I’m not sure how this fits in the context of Mass Effect 1 though, because it wasn’t that long ago that Mass Effect 1 was on the mainstream news as being this game that let you have 3D fantasy sex, or whatever. I don’t know if you remember the story, but Sky completely overblew it, and there was that really famous YouTube clip where some journalist was like talking to a news reporter, saying, “Well, have any of your played it?” and they were all like, “No, but I’ve read about it!” So I don’t know if half of the second game–I’m not defending BioWare by any means, but I don’t know if half of the second game was like them trying to not offend the same people again, but I don’t know.

MATTIE: Well, I find that, when you see the difference between Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 and the way relationships go, that it’s kind of like they wanted to add a more or less a Dragon Age depth, if you ask me, I saw these two games speaking to each other as a development. I mean we even see in Dragon Age 2, kind of the, you know the conversation wheel comes in and things like that. So, and what seemed very interesting about Dragon Age: Origins, at least for me and I guess Rawles as well, the characters were actually not so bad. Well, for me personally it was Alistair and Morrigan were pretty interesting, and I found Leliana and Zevran to be complicated. But it’s interesting to see how BioWare is adapting, especially when you want to see what they’re going to be doing in the future. Like I remember specifically seeing Ashley’s picture, and she’s become a little bit more sexualized, I think.

RAWLES: Yeah. I’ve been really disappointed in what they’ve shown of Ashley in Mass Effect 3 because they sort of very much sexualized her. They have her hair down now, and when they were supposed to be showing, like they were showing the alternate armors for different characters, and so all the other characters had on, like, armor, and she’s in just this little sort of outfit. It’s a very cute outfit, but Ashley was always very sort of hardline soldier, she wanted armor, and then they just said, “Oh, yeah, she has full armor in the game, don’t worry, blah blah blah” but then I’m like, “Yeah, but why did you feel the need to show her not in her armor?”

KATE: The marketing going forward into Mass Effect 3 is frustrating me so much that I just start running out of words for it. They could have done so much, so well, and instead I feel like they are regressing and getting stupider about it, after giving us some pretty good stuff for the first two games, and Ashley and the new marketing face for female Commander Shepard are the really key points there.

MATTIE: Yes. This is a nice segue into looking for improvements, how to improve what we’re talking about, the things we’ve brought up, and also what BioWare as a company, if they are listening to this, what we can say. Because we’ve seen, especially with that very infamous post about the straight male demographic being ignored, which I’m sure we can all talk about for hours, but we won’t! And to see how that reaction happened and how to include, how we want to include, we want a more diverse cast. I’d like to know what we can do for the future. Rawles?

RAWLES: Now, I spend more time than is advisable probably wandering around the BioWare social network forum. And there is this sort of bogeyman, whenever someone talks about romance in the games, including same-sex romance, and the bogeyman they talk about is Dragon Age 2, where all of the romanceable characters were available to both genders. And to me, that should be the standard going forward. Like, I don’t see any reason to do anything but that ever again. I don’t–I don’t, like–unless you’re actually going to go and make all the characters have distinctive, assigned sexual preferences, and just include people who are same-sexual-relationships-only, which they have said specifically they will never do, then everybody should definitely be available for both genders, there’s no reason not to.

ALEX: Yeah, absolutely agreed. It was pretty awesome when they–when they announced that all the, the romance interests in DA2, they were all bi. Or… yeah. They’re all–they’re available to both genders, and, yeah, that should definitely be the standard going forward.

MATTIE: Any other games that did romance well, particularly well? Anyone have any thoughts on that?

KATE: I actually wrote about this on The Border House. Fable 3 did it terribly, it’s terrible, it’s not romance at all, but that is a game where every NPC is assigned a sexuality, a sexual orientation and a sexual preference, and it shows up when you click on them and get their information. So you’ll see whether a person will sleep with your character outside of marriage, you’ll see whether a character is straight or gay or bi, and your player character can pretty much do whatever. So even though it’s kind of abysmal in so many ways, it was really refreshing to see that level of… thought, I guess? I don’t know, it didn’t seem thoughtful, but I appreciated having that in there, and it made my player character make different choices than I think I would have in a different game.

KIM: So wait, to be clear about that, do you actually have to talk to them to find out their sexual preferences and options, or is it just…

KATE: It’s just a thing that shows up when you click on them. I mean, you have to get into a conversation with anybody–it’s not a real conversation, an “interaction,” they call it–to see their stats, whatever, their information. But as soon as you see their information it just shows up, it’ll be like “Cheerful,” “Poor,” “Wealthy,” “Gay,” “Flirty,” whatever.

RAWLES: I completely agree that it was good that they actually sort of assigned everybody sort of a sexual orientation and everything, but one thing that was always really weird to me about that in Fable was that then, in the actual game, the only love interest you get that actually has any kind of actual personality at all, is always somebody of the opposite gender of whatever character you selected, which always seemed weird.

KATE: Oh, yeah, I mean, it was just terrible, incoherent, and it doesn’t stand up to thought at all, especially as you keep progressing. I had been spoiled by being deeply in Mass Effect this year, and I kept expecting to be able to enter into a romance with an actual character who had lines and a personality. So it’s certainly not an example of what I would say is “doing it right,” but in that one little aspect, I thought it was positive.

MATTIE: One thing I was hoping for, let’s say, the future of romance gaming would go is kind of like the avenue to explore sexuality and romance in a way that you maybe won’t be able to in reality. And that’s kind of important for me because I felt like I personally experienced something I have no experienced in reality, and it was interesting and strange, and I did things that, you know, I wouldn’t have done. I mean, let’s say, for some reason or another, I have more BioWare girlfriends than I will ever have girlfriends, most likely in reality. And I wonder if a lot of good can come from, let’s say, this very, this market that’s saturated with, let’s say, people who have expectations about heterosexuality. And lots of male gamers who tend to be very forward about their heterosexuality. If there were games that just allowed you, without judgement, to just try out what is it like to be another sexuality or another identity, or to have a romance of a particular situation. Because right now it seems like romances are just an added bonus, like “here’s a mini sidequest of just getting the right lines right so you can see something, like a sex scene.” So, having like another purpose for romances would be great. I don’t know if anyone else had a similar thought.

RAWLES: Well I think it’d be interesting. I definitely–if they wove it more into the actual sort of storyline. I actually think that Dragon Age: Origins did that really well. But really only if you romance Morrigan or Alistair. But it definitely did sort of weave the romances into the story of the game a lot better, I think, than sort of Mass Effect where it’s just like, yeah, you know, like you said, you just go through the romance options and you get to a sex scene kind of a thing, so.

MATTIE: Yes. Another kind of way of, I guess, how the structure of an RPG might add to that, so I was wondering if anybody had another idea of, well, something like a dating sim should be employed? Or how else can romance be used in a game?

KATE: I’m willing to cut them a little slack, and to understand that evolving this in a good way might take a really long time because when you think about it, an actual romance is deeply complicated. I mean if you think of all the flirting and the interactions and the way it grows more natural over time, I can understand why, from a development perspective, writers and coders and artists would prefer to give you very limited options. That said, I want the options I have to be better, even if they are limited.

MATTIE: Go ahead, Anna.

ANNA: So one of the things I’d be interested in seeing is that if the characters that you’re trying to romance have more of a say in that interaction because one of the problems I have with romance that I think is done badly is when, oh you give them enough gifts, or in Mass Effect 1 you need to make sure you talk to them enough, and I kind of find that problematic. I’d rather they seem to have some sort of say in whether they want to have a relationship with you, it’s not just what your main character does. And actually I think that Dragon Age 2, even though technically it was still the same setup with the behind-the-scenes numbers or something going on, it felt like the characters had more of a say because they went to Hawke to initiate the romance, which I really appreciated in that game.

KIM: I was just going to make a quick response, which is that I actually heard–again, I’m not sure if I’m just spouting unverified rumors–but there was a bug with Leliana in Dragon Age 1, where if you give her too many gifts too quickly, she wouldn’t romance you because it would glitch out and skip her personal quest so you couldn’t romance her. And so yeah, if you kind of tried to give her too much stuff she won’t be interested in you, which I thought was quite funny in an [? sorry, couldn't hear this word] way.

RAWLES: Yeah, I actually–I have–I very much agree with you that it should be less just kind of handing people stuff, and I would definitely love to see the sort of–for the characters to have sort of more autonomy, but the thing about that is that, you know, what they did in Dragon Age 2 where there are characters who will sort of approach you, and infamously Anders, who if you’re just kind of nice to him, he will make the first sort of move on you, is that people just sort of railed and railed about “Oh no, ninja-mance!” and “Oh, blah blah blah, I didn’t mean to do this!” And I’m like, you guys, in real life, if you’re really unreasonably nice to somebody, they might think you like them, and they might say something about it. That’s good!

ANNA: Yeah, I really love that Anders did that, I love that Anders did that even if you were the male Hawke. I thought that that was a really great decision on the part of BioWare, and that’s one of the things I think they did well, even if it made some fans uncomfortable. I think it was a really good decision on their part.

KATE: I actually, a couple of male friends of mine were complaining about that at one point, and I actually, you know, it was amusing to me, I pointed out to them, this is what happens sometimes if you are female, especially if you are in a male space like being a gamer, if you are a little nice to somebody, you’ll engage them in a conversation, and all of a sudden they’re like, “So, you. Me. Bed.” And you’re like, “Oh, no no no no no no no.” And it was an interesting sort of weight for a few people to see their own privilege in a way they didn’t know they had it, and I got a kick out of that, personally.

RAWLES: One hundred percent completely in agreement there. I’ve had so many just sort of conversations with my friends, we’re just kind of laughing at all these, like, heterosexual male gamers complaining, “Oh, god, someone I’m not attracted to tried to initiate romance with me!” I’m like, yes, welcome to the life of a woman. Any woman! In the world! Because that happens all the time. And you know it’s just every time–I like to post about that issue sometimes on my Tumblr and things like that, and we’ll always people are like “Oh, but this is just so uncomfortable, you know, a male gamer is going to be hit on by a guy!” And I’m like, yes, as a queer woman, I have no idea what it’s like to be hit on by men that I’m not attracted to.

ANNA: Well and also you had the option right away to say “Oh, no, I’m not interested.” And he would back off. So not seeing what the very scary thing was.

RAWLES: Yeah, and especially–yeah. Because the whole thing, where he’ll just immediately back off, that doesn’t also happen in reality all the time. But I think it’s an issue of, you know, what they’re scared of–the gay, I guess they think they’ll catch it? I don’t, I don’t know.

MATTIE: Well, I mean, it’s definitely this interesting topic of, well, you know, is there a time where your privilege needs to show, in that sense of like, these complicated situations of a perspective that you might not see. And I think that’s what games like this can help us with, especially with romance. Romances tend to be something that we have a large media representation of something very stereotypical, but like some actual about, let’s say, sensitive things, like how to deal with someone who’s not of your sexuality approaching you with a romantic interest. Or is anybody doing that? Which is what I kind of liked about what you all have said about Anders approaching, because that’s also not something that happens in a game very often. And giving these characters a little more say with, well maybe I am attracted or I’m not. And as well, I find that things like Aveline, while we’re on Dragon Age 2, how you can try and romance her, but you can’t. You know, she’s already taken in a sense. Or just kind of, how I like that sort of–the controls aren’t exactly everything you say. And that kind of goes along with Alex’s article in a sense of what seems to be very jarring to a lot of people in these games is that there’s no control, you lose control and these events happen to you. And that’s unsettling for a gamer to have you not be the world-changing hero. So I think that’s interesting. And actually, Alex had just come back, and I wanted to see if you wanted to add anything about how to improve romances in games. We were just talking about how we want more autonomy of our characters interacting with us. Rawles, you go ahead while she thinks.

RAWLES: Yeah, about the autonomy, I think what you just said about gamers not liking sort of control taken away from them is very accurate because, especially in terms of like, what characters that they’re trying to romance, and you know, I think a lot of people actually really like it for the characters to just go along with them, that you just say a couple of good words to them and, you know, they are in love with you forever, and they never disagree with you, or anything like that. And another thing, I’ve seen peoples’ reactions to be almost bizarrely extreme to me, is for instance, in the second Mass Effect game, when either Ashley or Kaiden, when you meet up with them again, and you’re working with Cerberus, and Cerberus is this just kind of awful terrorist group, doing all these bizarre and just kind of grotesque experiments in the first game, and you meet up with Ashley or Kaiden and they’re just like, “What the hell? What are you doing?” And they get upset with you, and you can’t talk them down, they’re still going to be mad at you and they’re still going to walk away. And so many people have developed this intense anger and hatred for these characters who have what I felt was a fairly reasonable reaction to what is happening, and it’s so much is just rooted in the fact that they don’t like not being able to control everything about the game world. They don’t like that these characters have autonomy, they don’t like that these characters stood up to them, and you know, did what they thought was right, and you couldn’t just, you know, charm them out of it. And I just thought that was interesting, I mean, the conversation itself is kind of awfully, terribly written, but I think the fundamental basis of what was happening was perfectly reasonable.

ALEX: And on the flip side of that, I think later on, Kaiden sends you like a letter about how he–while he thought you were dead, he went on a date with somebody and he like, feels terrible. And I’m like, why do you feel terrible? You thought I was dead! It’s okay to move on! Like, that part just struck me as so weird.

RAWLES: Yes, oh god, yes. Like, the whole letter–and the funny thing about what you’re saying, and like, yeah, why when you were dead for two years, you went on one date, oh no, like, why would you feel bad about that? The funny thing about that is I saw so many people who are furious about the fact that he went on a date.

ALEX: Are you serious? Oh no…

RAWLES: I am absolutely serious. They’re like, they are furious he sent them the letter, they are–they somehow interpreted the letter as saying like, “Oh, well, you know, I’m seeing other people,” and I’m like, what are you–how are you getting that out of this? I don’t understand.

MATTIE: I think that BioWare relies a lot on Hollywood tropes, like they’re part of these gaming studios that are getting kind of more film-like, and want to be more like blockbusters. Like they keep using that word blockbuster in everything that they’re talking about now, which is driving me insane. And so they want these sort of movie tropes such as, hero has been gone and, you know, wife has moved on and is with another person, and there’s going to be tension, you know, that sort of thing. So there’s a lot of these complications that come into these romances because they’re also framed by this, how we–what we consume, the media, the Hollywood version of relationships.

KATE: That’s also–it’s one of those things that you don’t necessarily notice, at least not the first time, when it’s working correctly, but when you do something that the game doesn’t necessarily expect, that’s when you kind of get that dissonance. Like, I never got a letter from Kaiden because I left him to die in the first game, and I romanced Liara anyway. So it was that very different sort of, you know, where the tension is, like I was mentioning before. But the incongruity of that “By the way, I’m really sorry, I kind of dated somebody while you were dead” letter doesn’t–it’s one of those things I think the game expects the player to feel differently about it than a lot of players are going to.

KIM: I was just going to say, it’s a really interesting position because games aren’t like films, and they’re not like books, they’re really complicated and multifaceted, and they take a lot of money to produce than even a film. And it’s kind of interesting that in all of this, I think it’s important to keep in touch with, there’s not that many games that have really done romance well, like, full stop. And I actually really think it’s quite a good sign that these discussions can happen about the ones that have. And so, and again, like I really sound like I’m defending a company, but I don’t want it to sound like that, I just think it’s really interesting. And if you view it from the perspective of someone trying to write a work of fiction as well, which is essentially what a lot of these games are, like they have a main plot which has nothing to do with romance, right. The main plot has to do with saving the world. And the romance is what brings so many people in, and it’s where the fan culture comes in, and fan culture has this, like, huge impact on the way that video games work, and in a way that happens in books and film but doesn’t happen to quite the same extent as I think it does in video games. So through all of this there’s this real feeling that this is a real new media, and the ways we have to criticize it aren’t really there yet, in a way. And also the, just the budgets and time that goes into these, and then the idea that there has to be a single person just in charge of writing all of these possible ways you can play through this game and kind of make them make sense, it just seems like this crazy thing, and in some ways I don’t know even how people write them. But yeah.

MATTIE: Go ahead, Rawles.

RAWLES: Yeah, this is actually something a friend and I talk about a lot because we’re very very much into–we’re both writers, and we’re both very much into the sort of narrative of the games, particularly the BioWare games. And sort of breaking that down. And I’ve just sort of thought so much on the ways, for instance, that you write a love interest character in a video game versus the way you write it in a static work of fiction where the audience that you’re dealing with doesn’t have any input. And there are a lot of ways that they write romanceable characters that you wouldn’t necessarily write a static love interest. Because if you’re writing a static love interest in a book or something like that, you have to make them appealing because you want the audience to sort of understand why the main character would choose this person or be in love with this person, but there’s a degree to which you have to craft a video game love interest that is not present in a book or a movie or something like that because you have to make the audience member actually think, “I would want to romance this person myself,” and I think the choices that they make as to how they sort of craft the romanceable characters for targeted at specific demographics, just says so so much about the developers and their sort of views of, like, what straight women want versus what straight men want, and just kind of not thinking about what queer men or women might want, so.

MATTIE: Yes, I was just thinking about, I’m actually studying how writing, fiction-wise, differs from an interactive medium from novels and static, and it’s very interesting, we’ll have to do another talk about that. So let’s move on to Kate.

KATE: It feeds right out of what Rawles was saying in that the stories we’re telling in these games are very much, you know, the games we love may tell them better, but they’re very sort of trope-based, standard, template stories in a sense, and there comes a point in that story where the hero gets the girl. And that’s just how it goes. And I think where we do see some of that dissonance and some of that break down is when our hero might be the girl, or our hero might be a girl who likes girls, or our hero might be anything, and so they’ve kind of written themselves into a box where this is the point in the story where the hero gets the girl. How do we do that with a nearly infinite perception of our hero and twelve possible romanceable characters?

ANNA: Well, and I think that since we’re talking about these two BioWare franchises, it seems as though Mass Effect does a kind of, much more generic storyline of, clearly this woman will be in love with this man, and this man will be in love with this woman. Whereas Dragon Age, across the three games that they did, I feel like they’ve done a bit of a better job of making the characters have a bit of their own story and their own interests, and it didn’t feel as much as, if I was being forced into a relationship with any person. ‘Cause I know, as female Shepard, I kind of felt like they were forcing me into a relationship with Jacob, or just really pushing that relationship, and as a male Shepard it’s like they’re really pushing a relationship with Miranda. But I didn’t feel any push toward any one character in the Dragon Age games. I don’t know if other people had a similar experience.

MATTIE: Oh, I totally agree. There were times where I was, mostly with female Shepard and Jacob that felt really strange, just from personality-wise, there was a more platonic relationship, and it just made things really awkward. So, Rawles, what do you have to say?

RAWLES: Yeah, this actually ties straight into what Kate was saying, and definitely what Anna was just saying, that, yeah, the whole sort of trope of, you know, set up where the hero gets the girl, it can’t really sort of, it can’t really work when you put something that’s not very normative in it. And the sort of generic nature of Mass Effect where it’s just that. The hero gets the girl, they sort of point you straight at who they want you to sort of go for, as opposed to Dragon Age. Dragon Age: Origins has what I will–full disclosure–my favorite game romance, which is a female Warden with Alistair. And I find that really really interesting just because I think it was accidentally sort of subversive because Alistair is essentially–he’s essentially the, like, the sort of secret princess character who, you sort of swoop in and he’s very inexperienced, and, you know, sweet on you, and you know he loves you desperately, even down to the point where the climax of the game sort of–a huge climactic point of the game revolves around his sexual purity in a way that would normally be completely reserved for, like, a female character. And so I just found it really interesting, and just, it’s one of my favorites just because it is probably accidental. Like I said, it’s very subversive that you can have, like this female character be very very sort of, just kind of in a very masculine role in that relationship, or a traditionally masculine role, while he takes a more traditionally feminine role.

ALEX: Oh, man, I never thought of it that way, that’s pretty awesome.

KIM: Yeah, me either.

MATTIE: Yeah, that is so on point. Because I was wondering about that when I was, ’cause I had an Alistair romance as well that ended horribly, and–but, either way, it was interesting to be like, well, is it your first time? You know, that sort of kind of–he was witty and enough intelligent–I would say he kind of portrayed himself as a little dull sometimes–he wanted to be, like it was almost kind of his first relationship. And that’s not a trope that we see in gaming very often, the inexperienced male. We have a lot of men who are experienced with weapons, for some strange reason. Like you’ll have lots of young boys who know how to wield swords and guns from a very young age, and romance any woman, and you get Alistair, who you hear the entire story of how he comes into his skill and also how he is inexperienced with romance. But to tie things up, as we unfortunately have run out of time–it has been so quick!–I think that with all these, with games such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age, that once we see how a lot of other games take inspiration from what does well, I’m hoping to see kind of this compound of features, and kind of lengthening these character interactions and these romances.

But that’s it for now, I thank all of our speakers, and all of our listeners for joining us for our first episode. Hopefully you’ll like it. We’ll have a bi-weekly release of all these episodes, and a fresh new topic each time. So thank you from me, and thank you guys, and we’ll see you in two weeks.

Mass Effect Goes Multiplayer

A team consisting of a Turian, a Krogan, and a Salarian fight against heavily armored Cerberus shock troops.

After months of rumors and speculation, BioWare has confirmed that, Mass Effect 3, the final part of their space opera action RPG trilogy, will feature a 4-player online co-op mode. BioWare introducing multiplayer at such a late stage in the series is an interesting move, especially in light of the fact that they have been criticized in the past for neglecting their current audience in their attempts to court a new one.

It’s nothing unique to them, but I’ve always found it a particularly interesting conflict with BioWare. Their titles have been regularly featured here on The Border House because of the way their narratives, character customization options, NPC interactions, and marketing choices pose and interact with various social justice issues. Due to statements and responses from some of their staff, like David Gaider, on representation and the presence of queer characters in their properties, BioWare also tends to be perceived as comparatively progressive amongst game developers.

However, in the last few of their releases, many marketing and design choices have been at odds with their progressive rep, due to their often overdone attempts to appeal to fans of twitch combat and intense FPS action over fans of deep RPG character building and involved storylines.* Fans of the former are stereotyped as the “typical” white, heterosexual male gamer only interested in sex and violence, while the latter’s interests are often feminized.

Online play has always been a tricky proposition for the marginalized. To move from the insulated safe space of single player or local multiplayer where, generally, you will only be in the company of those you’ve chosen to be with and into the wilds of random online match-ups can be downright terrifying for some. The tenor of communities that pop up around games with online play (mandatory or optional; competitive or cooperative) vary, but many involve players constantly being exposed to a barrage of verbal abuse including racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, and other slurs.

The multiplayer in Mass Effect 3 is both co-op and optional, but also said to be beneficial to the single-player campaign if utilized. It remains to be seen whether there’s any legitimate shift in the audience for the game due to its addition and how the current audience will comport itself in a multiplayer setting. A (sometimes dubiously) progressive developer does not necessarily equal a progressive audience, as the perpetual arguments about the inclusion of same sex romance on the BioWare Social Network prove.

Personally, I plan to give it a go. I’ve played online games for long enough that I’m sure I won’t hear anything I haven’t before, and I might just hear something I like.

*This is in no way a value judgment on either mode of play. I happen to enjoy both immensely myself.

Recommended Reading: the Women of Gears 3, the Case for a FemShep Movie, Sexism in Arkham City

Anya, a white blond woman, wears heavy Cog armor and aims her chainsaw gun at an unseen enemy.

There have been a lot of good posts and discussions relevant to The Border House this week, but here are three that I read that all deal with female characters and how they are treated by the games they are in as well as the video game community.

First, over at Laser Orgy, Maddy Myers has a fantastic piece Gears of War 3‘s female characters and how their treatment reflects that of female gamers by the predominantly male video game community:

But those femme-presenting among us who do venture into hyper-masculine spheres get treated very similarly to the way Anya Stroud and Sam Byrne are treated in this game. We get reduced to being Women, or wombs, and shouldn’t we be off making babies or sandwiches or something, somewhere else, not here, because we’re muddying up this masculine game with our femininity. We get looks of surprise and alarm and shock – you play this? This game? We get half-propositioned, half-mocked in ways that are meant to be “jokes,” sort of, except it’s not really a joke at all, is it. We could try to downplay our femininity, or play along with misogynist jokes ‘til we half-believe them, in an effort to fit in – but that never really does the trick, because at the end of the day, you’re still The Other. Even if you don’t try to rock the boat, you’re already causing an upset just by being there. So you may as well rock harder.

Read it.

Our second piece for today is written by Daniel Orta at his blog, making the case for the Mass Effect movie to star the female version of Commander Shepard:

The world of science fiction films is crowded with the idea of the one male hero fighting adversity for the good of their respective “universe” so to say- everyone from Captain Malcolm Reynolds(Serenity, Firefly) to older classics like George Taylor (from Planet of the Apes). The male hero fighting for good in the face of so much adversity is a world to which comes natural to the science fiction genre in films. Let’s mix it up a bit and place a female Shepard into the role. After all, when you think of a female hero in science fiction, most minds turn immediately to Ellen Ripley of the Alien films. And that character is almost thirty years old at this point- have there been no other real sci-fi super heroines. Okay, maybe Buffy, but she was more fantasy character than sci-fi. Some of the Firefly characters were quite strong, but they weren’t the main character- only playing second fiddle to Nathan Fillion’s Malcolm Reynolds.

Alien was almost thirty years ago! Damn. We are long overdue for another great sci-fi heroine.

Lastly, Twitter exploded yesterday afternoon with discussion of sexism in the newly released Batman: Arkham City. [Trigger warning for the following two links; slurs for both, discussion of misogyny and rape in film for the first.] First is an analysis from Film Crit Hulk, appropriately titled “GODDAMMIT VIDEO GAMES“:

TO REITERATE: IN THE FIRST HOUR OF ARKHAM CITY WE HAVE A SCANTILLY CLAD HIGH-HEAL-NINJA-ING CATWOMAN GETTING BEATEN BY TWO-FACE AS HE CALLS HER A BITCH. WE HAVE A GROUP OF MUSCLE-BOUND HOODLUMS ALL STANDING AROUND EXCITED TO DUMP HER INTO A VAT OF ACID. BATMAN COMES TO THE RESCUE AS CATWOMAN ESCAPES. SHE FLIRTS WITH HIM MERCILESSLY AND MAKES NOT JUST DUMB, BUT NOT-FUN SEXY PUNS. BATMAN THEN GOES OUTSIDE AND YOU OVERHEAR A BUNCH OF GUYS TALKING ABOUT HOW CATWOMAN AND AGAIN THE WORD BITCH POPS IN. THEY ALL THINK SHE SWINGS BOTH WAYS (CAUSE THAT’S THE KIND OF THING ANY SEXY GIRL MUST BE UP FOR). AND THEN THEY’RE BASICALLY TALKING ABOUT THEIR MASTURBATORY FANTASIES OF HER… YOU KNOW, ABOUT THE SAME ONE THEY WERE CALLING A BITCH. BATMAN THEN GOES OVER TOWARD THE JOKER’S TOWER AND YOU HOPE ALL THIS SHIT IS OVER BUT THEN YOU OVERHEAR A BUNCH OF THUGS TALKING ABOUT HOW HARLEY QUINN IS A DUMB BITCH.

NOW THIS WAS WHERE HULK LEFT IT THE OTHER NIGHT AND TO BE SURE HULK WASN’T JUST REACTING OUT OF MOMENTARY THINGS HULK CAME BACK AND PLAYED A LOT MORE TO BE FAIR… IT DIDN’T GET ANY BETTER.

ACTUALLY IT GOT WORSE.

Hulk goes into detail about the difference between portraying misogyny in order to make some sort of comment on it and simply offering up misogyny for consumption without any context or commentary, which he argues is what is going on in Arkham City. Here’s more from Kirk Hamilton at Kotaku, but don’t read the comments unless you want to see just how nasty gamers can be over even a moderate statement like “hey, characters in this game use gendered slurs a ton, that’s kind of messed up!”