Tag Archives: Mass Effect 2


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.

The Border House Podcast – Episode 1: Lewd-onarrative Dissonance

FemShep looking at Tali with some distance between them.

FemShep looking at Tali with some distance between them.


It’s finally here! In our premier episode, we talk about diversity issues in the portrayal of romances in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series from BioWare. As to be expected, there are spoilers for these games in the podcast (though, if you haven’t played them, you definitely should!). We are more than happy to take feedback on how to better improve and fit our listeners’ interests, so feel free to comment about what you think.

The Border House Speakers

Host- Mattie Brice

Editing- Kim

Alex Raymond



Guest Speaker

Kate Cox


Opening & Closing Credits – Was that away message for me? by 8bit Betty


Transcription: http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=6665





Let’s Talk About Sex!

The following is a guest post from Kate Cox:

Kate Cox had ideas about games, thought, “someone should write about this,” then realized in 2010, “I’m someone.”  She’s a straight white cis woman who’s been an avid gamer since 1986 and who currently lives around Washington, DC.  She writes about games, gaming, and gamer culture at your-critic.com.

I had an unexpected amount of video game time to fill, this past weekend.  After an hour of Bastion and an hour of Chrono Cross I cast about for something new, feeling at odds.  What I really wanted to play was Mass Effect 3, and that’s physically impossible for another six months.  I tried other games as a distraction but none of them actually satisfied my craving, no more than a bag full of carrot sticks actually satisfies a craving for a bag of chips.

Everyone on Twitter gave helpful, thoughtful suggestions for what I should try, and in the end I ignored every last one of them and got sucked into a marathon six-hour session of Fable III.

The female lead character of Fable III, a white, brown-haired, bosom-heavy princess.  She is wearing a blue blouse and black trousers, brandishing a sword.  Her older mentor (white, male, grey-haired, bearded) looks on.

This is my pretty pretty princess, kicking your ass. She had a piratey hat but NPCs made fun.


Fable III isn’t exactly challenging, as far as game play, story, or game design go.  And yet, it has challenged me in a most unexpected way.  I knew, offhandedly, before I started playing that this was considered a “mature RPG.”  And yet I was surprised (pleasantly so, but still taken aback for a moment) to find that among the character attributes for nearly every adult NPC in the game, there is a sexual preference qualifier.

The game was telling me, bluntly, in no euphemistic or uncertain terms, which of the characters I was interacting with were straight or gay — and, by extension, letting me know up front which men and women were considered to be in the dating pool for my character.

Knowing all of this, and knowing how the Fable franchise prides itself on a choices-and-consequences approach, I was still surprised further to discover that the bed in a player’s house can be interacted with — and on interacting, the options are “sleep” and “sex.”  Sleep has essentially an alarm clock option, and sex can be chosen in the protected or unprotected varieties.

I am in my thirties and have been playing video games since the middle of the 1980s, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen the existence of sex, as an event unto itself, so explicitly and practically addressed in my pixels.

To be sure, I have played my fair number of games that contain romantic interludes, or the plain ol’ bumpin’ of uglies.  Divine Divinity contains an unmarked quest for finding the main city’s brothel, and rewards a large amount of XP for employing services therein.  (The brothel in question has both male and female staff, and the player character can pick either, without comment and with equal experience awarded.)  Then of course there are the just-barely-offscreen quicktime event shenanigans in God of War (I, II, and III), in which Kratos turns his ragey gusto toward anyone with boobs for a time.

Fallout: New Vegas does not tread the BioWare-style path of party member romances, but sex workers (both voluntary and involuntary) feature fairly prominently in quests and on the Strip, and there are indeed some questionable fade-to-black moments the player character can select if so inclined.  And then of course, there are the BioWare games, with their array of party member romance options, based on conversation and consummated in a carefully choreographed fade to black.


A screenshot from Mass Effect 2 of a female Commander Shepard and Garrus talking, closely and intimately, against a blue-lit backdrop.  Garrus's dialogue is subtitled and reads, "I want something to go right. Just once. Just..."

I ship this so hard, but I'm actually grateful for the fade to black.


Indeed, the fade to black is what I’m used to seeing in games (with “suggestive offscreen noise” its crass and less-often seen cousin).  We all know how this goes: provided you’ve said the right things throughout Mass Effect 2, someone comes up to Shepard’s quarters during the last quiet moment on the Normandy, they exchange a few more words, there’s some suggestive motion, press “F” to continue, and it’s the next morning.  (Relatively speaking, since they’re in space…)  The romance option with Liara in the first game was much more explicit, but even so, probably less tawdry than many R-rated movies I’ve seen.

It’s actually just as well that ME2 fades to black; if, later, you choose to call your special someone back up to Shepard’s quarters, the “couch” and “bed” animations might actually be the most awkward, least natural, most static, least romantic, and least sexy interactions on Earth.  Even as PG rated cuddle sessions, they fail.


A screenshot from Mass Effect 2 of Garrus and a white female Commander Shepard lying in a romantic embrace on a bed.  He is flat on his back and she is on her side, awkwardly holding him.  Both are fully dressed.

It's not just a body-shape thing; male Shep with Tali is equally wretched but you can image search that one yourself. (Warning: don't image search that one.)

Still, the real surprise for me with sex in Fable III is not that it exists; sex is implied in plenty of games.  The surprise is that its existence is announced independently.  By adding “sex” to the bed options, and indicating NPC sexual orientation (and flirtatiousness levels) in info boxes, the game is putting out there the idea that sex is a thing your PC might do for any combination of fun, profit, and love, depending on any number of whims, emotions, and circumstances.


Almost like the real world, there.  How novel!

Now, I know I’m late to the discussion, and I haven’t played Fable or Fable II.  (I was interested in Fable II but there’s no PC port and likely never to be.)  I knew going in that a wide array of player choices existed in the game, but “vague understanding they exist” and “actually having a choice in front of you to make” are two different things.

For what it’s worth, my Princess hasn’t shacked up with anyone yet, mainly because she hasn’t met a soul worth her time.  Most of the NPCs she’s encountered and interacted with are neither attractive nor interesting, so “friend” is more than enough work there.  (Also I can’t actually find the way back to my house, which was free DLC content and doesn’t appear on the world map that I can find.  I may need to buy an apartment in town.)  I certainly have no moral objection to my character having (safe, consenting) sex.

Once again, though, I’ve been surprised by the baggage that I the player bring into this world with me.  Although its wardrobe cues are drawn from the 16th – 19th centuries, Fable III takes place in a version of the 1820s that never existed, where most fantasy RPGs take place in a version of the 13th or 14th centuries that never existed.  Its “Albion” is yet another false Britain, and so I find myself instinctively guarding against the roles reserved for women in the Georgian and Victorian eras.  In that environment, I feel that marriage is not actually an option for my female character.  In order to remain a successful, independent, respected agent, my gut says she needs to stay single.

These are totally assumptions I the player bring to the world, and really I only notice and question them because I take the time to write here.  I mean, as mentioned, I have no problem pairing off my Shepard.  Yes, I felt that not only did she have the burden of representing humanity to the galaxy, but also of representing women.  But when forced to examine it, I find that in a sci-fi, future-based environment, I feel that a woman can be partnered and yet also successful and respected.  Plus, the Commander was a renowned, accomplished hero in her own right before a partnership option entered her life.  She has a strong identity and can keep being herself, and the world in which she lives will support that.

Intellectually, I’m keenly aware that this Albion is not actually England in the dawn of the Industrial Age.  I know that it’s a game in which I can make any choice the mechanics allow, and still reach one metric of success as a player.  I’ll be able to complete the story regardless of the side-choices my Princess makes.  But in my gut, I still feel the pressure of a few centuries’ worth of feminist issues.

Realistically, I don’t actually think the mechanics of the game will enforce any kind of social penalties for marriage.  Based on what I’ve seen so far, the biggest impact on the overall story arc I can imagine is NPC gossip and chatter around me in towns.  But this unnamed Princess is right now forging her place in the world.  She’s trying, very hard, to become a leader and to earn the loyalty of an entire kingdom through hard work and hard fighting.  She’s aiming to place herself at the very head of a nation-wide rebellion to oust her lousy brother, who’s a terrible king.  That’s no small task!

And yet while I feel that a permanent partner (even with divorce easily available in-game) would hold this nameless lady back, I’m not at all averse to her having some sexual interludes for fun, if the right NPCs show up.  Somehow I don’t feel that the Princess openly having gentlemen or lady visitors will set off any actual consequences with her people (though they may gossip); we’ll consider this the “never existed” half of the culture.

Sex in games (and everywhere else) has a way of falling into a certain trap, though.  Alex Raymond wrote a really interesting piece a while back on how video games perpetuate the commodity model of sex:

To give an example: a guy I know once received a call from a couple of his friends, who asked if he wanted to go to a strip club. He said something like, “Why would I want to go to a shady bar and pay a random stranger to show me her boobs when I can have sex with my girlfriend?” And his oh-so-clever friends informed him that Hey! When you think about it, you are still just paying to see boobs! Except the payment is in dinners and dates and compliments, rather than dollar bills.


Ha. Ha. Get it? Because all women are prostitutes.  …


So what does this have to do with video games? Well, some video games allow the player character to have sex with NPCs; even more allow the player to have romantic relationships with NPCs. What the vast majority of these games inevitably do is present relationship mechanics that distill the commodity model down to its essence–you talk to the NPC enough, and give them enough presents, and then they have sex with/marry you.


This design approach is extremely simplistic and perpetuates the commodity model of sex–the player wants sex, they go through certain motions, and they are “rewarded” with what they wanted (like a vending machine). Furthermore, when sex is included in a game, it is generally framed as the end result–the reward–of romance, rather than one aspect of an ongoing relationship/partnership. For example, one gamer commented that the romance in Mass Effect seemed like the romantic interest was really saying, “‘Keep talking to me and eventually we’ll have sex’”. The relationship is not the goal; the goal is the tasteful PG-13 sex scene. The NPC’s thoughts and desires aren’t relevant; what matters is the tactics you use to get what you want. This is a boring mechanic in games and dangerously dehumanizing behavior in real life.

Fable III is most certainly and emphatically guilty of what Alex describes; the mechanic of all relationships in the game is purely an item-exchange, level-up sort of thing.  And yet it actually feels more like a free choice than in most other games I’ve seen.  Although mysteriously my assumptions about marriage in-game are framed by a historical understanding of the 19th century, my assumptions about sex remain grounded firmly in the 21st: any number of adults can do whatever they all willingly and openly consent to, and should do so as safely as possible.

In pretty much every other game I’ve ever played, sex for a player character exists in one of two contexts: (1) within a romance arc (not necessarily leading to marriage), or (2) as a literal commodity, traded for money or information.  The avatars I’ve controlled have encountered a number of sex workers in their times and likewise my player characters have on occasion used seduction as a tool to advance.  But sex as a choice, with a willing partner, just because we’re both there and it seems like fun?  Not so much.

This, then, is the paradox I find.  While sex in Fable III is to every pixel a tradeable, level-able commodity, it’s also a free and open choice, presented without judgement.  If there is a “doing it right” to be found, I’m certain this game isn’t it — but it’s also, in a strange way, closer.

With the recent release of Catherine, “how does game design approach actual sex and actual relationships?” is a question flying around criticism circles at the speed of the Internet.  In almost all cases, I think that answer is still, “badly,” with a chaser of “inadequately.”  Ultimately, all of our games still rely on sets of numerical mechanics and rules.  They’re a series of unbreakable “if, then” statements and our heroes (and villains) can’t decide to take a left turn to the established rules of reality the way a flesh-and-blood human can.

In this one small way, though, in this one tiny instance, my Princess can break the rules.  Maybe the next time I see “sex” as an in-game choice, it will be in a game where the NPCs are actually designed to be characters, rather than a half-dozen fixed sound bites and gestures.  Society’s head might explode.

*If you hear Salt-N-Pepa singing in your head, congratulations: you, too, are an old.  Now dance!

[Originally posted at Your Critic is in Another Castle]

A brown skinned woman with an asymmetrical bob with a red streak stares intently forward. She is dressed in full body armor with an N7 symbol on the breast and carries a pistol in one hand and a glowing "omniblade" in the other.

FemShep Steps Forward, But for How Long?

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.

A brown skinned woman with an asymmetrical bob with a red streak stares intently forward. She is dressed in full body armor with an N7 symbol on the breast and carries a pistol in one hand and a glowing "omniblade" in the other.

Looks iconic to me.

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.

Six headshots of women dressed in armor with a rifle on their back. They have varying hairstyles and hair colors and the three women on bottom appear to be of African, East Asian, and possibly Hispanic descent.

Look, Ma! They're not ALL white!

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.

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

The Politics of Game Hair

N.B. Many thanks to Latoya Peterson for allowing me to ask her a few questions, and my friend Janathan for reading and giving me feedback. I do not claim to have these experiences, but it is something I rarely see addressed.

The choices for game hair often are often disappointing. The physics for realistic hair are not quite there, meaning longer hair is rarely seen. However, as a white male with the accompanying privileges that can afford me in terms of being represented in games, it took me a while to realize just how bad the hair options are. It first started around 2000, when I began making my little Sims and basing them on real life friends—it was then that I realized, try that I might, I could not model my black friends effectively, because many of them liked to wear their hair naturally

Ever since that time I have kept an eye on the characters I am able to design in my games. From the original Sims to White Knight Chronicles to both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series (and many more besides—MMOs for instance), I have noticed that if I want to create a black character model, I am typically given at maximum four options, if that, when choosing hair options that are not treated in some fashion: cornrows, locks, mini-fros, or going the shaved route. Even more curious is that sometimes this is even further divided between selecting to play as a man or a woman; when playing Dragon Age 2, I noticed that my male Hawke had more options than my female Hawke, oddly enough (or, as is the case with Mass Effect 2’s editor, I found myself unable to emulate Jacob’s features very well). For Ronia Shepard, for instance, I found the options to shear off all her hair, or go with the pulled back ponytail look featured below (which still isn’t perfect, but alas).

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

When presenting this topic to some people, there are typically two responses. Either, as I mentioned above, all hair options are horrible, so this should be seen as either a boon (this is said with a laugh, so as to make sure I understand it as a joke) or we should work on improving hair overall. The second is rarer, but also comes from a place of privilege, asking if black people really want these options? After all, the assumption goes, how many black people play these particular games anyway? And given that the assumed number is so infinitesimally small, wouldn’t that just be a waste of resources?

Of course, games are not alone in this lack of representation. In almost any media, when we do see a black man or woman who is supposed to be taken by us as attractive, there are certain standards regarding lightness of skin, acceptable facial features, and how their hair is presented to us—Eurocentric standards. The ideal is to have flattened, straightened hair for women, and short, closely cropped hair for men. This does not mean I want to excuse games, but want to point out how games are performing the same-old, which is a shame when we have games that propose that we get to create and make ourselves, to immerse ourselves in their worlds, or to inhabit some fantasy character.

Sim Janathan is holding on to a telescope while being tractor-beamed by a UFO. He is wearing a blue suit, and has a short 'fro.

Sim Janathan is holding on to a telescope while being tractor-beamed by a UFO. He is wearing a blue suit, and has a short 'fro.

In my first example, with The Sims, the problem was further highlighted by the fact that the game had a thriving mod community. Hair options abounded, as many were not satisfied with the original stock of hair options. Try as I might, I found myself frustrated on two fronts: rarely was black hair considered, and, back in the days of the first Sims, clothing was split into three skin color categories (white, a yellow/light brown, and a light-toned black), and quite often, white was the only option for particular sets of clothing within the modding community. With the release of Sims 2, we did not seen a return to the clothing divided by skin color, though natural hair options have still been somewhat lacking in the default selection as the series progresses.

Which only highlights the related problem of the lack of diversity in the industry, and further, those voices being heard in directing a project, or coming up with its assets. It is still common that even basic skin color never goes darker than light-brown, and that the skin tones are abysmal in certain lighting conditions. It starts to seem as if it is an afterthought. Since many white people I know are still relatively ignorant in terms of natural hair,  or how the media quietly silences all but the ‘acceptable’ black beauty, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see how this occurs. Plainly: ignorance.

Games seemingly brag more and more often about their character creators, and how they have better options, allow more customization, and give the player the chance to really play themselves, or whomsoever they may choose. Myself? Yeah, I can play my pasty white-skinned self to my heart’s content, but I do not play games to always play myself, and I am one of those people aware of the self-loathing encouraged by media (both subtly and overtly) and the battles people can have about the politics of their hair in public (note: aware, not experienced). I want to play from different perspectives, even if the game does not wholly acknowledge my choices of created character.

There is a question of the social responsibility of games, and if we are to believe they have the same social responsibility as any media, we need more diversity in a number of ways, including self-representation for minorities (and theoretically for those who don’t want to play themselves all the time—much as with same-sex romance, it is folly to believe that only those who are queer would play such). The media’s black beauty standards should ideally have no role in games, though they are present. If we are to continue to open up character creators, however, we need to also allow a larger range of options, where natural hair does not get boiled down to what white society considers ‘acceptable’ and ‘politically safe.’

BioWare producer claims its female characters are not iconic

The female version of Hawke in Dragon Age 2. A Caucasian woman is shown with a strong and confident look is on her face. Her hair is short and dark grey, and she wears a set of plate armor that surprisingly covers all of her arms and chest.


BioWare sure isn’t on a roll lately when it comes to their developers sharing their opinions publicly.  A conversation on Twitter went down Wednesday in which a producer at BioWare claimed that woman Shepard (from the Mass Effect series) and woman Hawke (from Dragon Age 2) are not iconic characters.  Here’s what happened:

@MiaC  asks:

“All promo materials I see for Dragon Age 2 keep referring to Hawke as a guy. Female Hawke that uninteresting?”

@gTez replies:

“Not in the least. Just Man Hawke is iconic like Man Shep is for Mass Effect. Fem Shep is the fan favorite though but not mkting.”

gTez is the Twitter handle of Jesse Houston, Producer at Bioware for the last 3 years who has worked on Mass Effect 2 and 3.  His “About” section of his Twitter profile states that “opinions expressed here are solely my own and not the views of BioWare ULC.”  We’re not going to take his reply on Twitter as an official statement from BioWare, but this is just another example in the long list of game developers who are perpetuating the male-centric nature of the gaming industry.

Hm, I wonder why the man Shepard is so iconic.  Could it be because it’s the only character that BioWare’s marketing has ever used?  Television ads, print ads, internet ads, you name it – they all feature the male version of Mass Effect’s player-controlled protagonist.  It’s almost as if players cannot choose to make their character a woman.  How disappointing (and not very surprising) it is that Houston acknowledges that female Shepard is the fan favorite but admits that marketing still chooses the male avatar for promotional materials.

The most upsetting aspect of his statement for me, is that he is labeling male Hawke as being iconic before Dragon Age 2 has even released to the public.  He is only iconic because he’s the only character shown on every piece of promo material for the game.  Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.  A producer on the game feels that the male version of their main characters are the most prominent representation of the game.   You know what?  He’s right.  And it’s a sad truth.  The male characters are definitely more visible, but it’s only because BioWare has made them that way.  It’s a shame, because BioWare could have done things differently with Dragon Age 2 had it been a priority for them.

(Thanks to @AngryCSR for the tip)

Actually Breaking It Down: Penny Arcade’s Rape Comic

Trigger Warning: This post contains both triggers of rape and using it as a device for humor.

The cover (all text) of Yes Means Yes! : Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman & Jessiva Valenti with a foreword by Margaret Cho.
The cover (all text) of Yes Means Yes! : Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman & Jessica Valenti with a foreword by Margaret Cho.

While playing Mass Effect 2 and going to the prison station, a prisoner confides in you that he is under both physical and mental duress–the former indicating, with a quick shift of the eyes and bashful motion of his head, that he is being raped. My hand froze on the mouse as I took a deep breath and walked away.

In the middle of reading Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, I happened across Latoya Peterson’s excellent “The Not-Rape Epidemic,” about the concept of being raped twice: the physical act and then the proceeding legal trial. I ran short of breath, closed the book, and focused on breathing.

While posting these, I am aware I am posting to a sympathetic audience who understands what I say when I mention that these were triggering moments for me. Both were fairly innocuous, hardly graphic, and were allusive but vague. This can happen very easily to someone who has lived through rape or sexual assault.

So, what’s my point?

It started as these things usually do:

  1. A joke was told.
  2. A person stood out and commented that the joke wasn’t really funny–offensive even.
  3. Another joke was told.
  4. An explanation was made pointing out the flaw in the ‘witty’ riposte.
  5. Some people don’t get it (scroll down to Gabe’s post).

For those who do not wish to click links: 1. Penny Arcade posted a comic with a joke that utilized rape. 2. Shaker Milli A wrote a post explicating the joke, breaking down its MMO components, and explaining how the rape part of it failed to amuse. 3. PA posted another comic with the authors’ personae making a joke of a straw argument (rape jokes create rapists). 4. Melissa McEwan very succinctly deconstructs that statement and levels two legitimate arguments (it’s about triggers and rape culture, not creating rapists, there being a difference). 5. Gabe partway quotes a Mel Brooks line, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die,” and avoids the topic at hand.

As for myself, I discovered this through Twitter early in the AM, while perusing game press releases. As I opened the enclosed link (I don’t read PA unless linked to it these days), I just sighed. I was not angry, really, but was hardly surprised either–this is par for the course. Here’s the thing, Gabe’s argument in his last post was, “Did the comics about bestiality, suicide, murder, pedophilia, and torture not bother them? Or how about the fruit fucker? I mean, we have a character who is a literal rapist. What comic strip have they been reading all these years?”

This seems a rather half-hearted argument to distract from actually addressing the issue. While I can certainly understand being irreverent at times, I check myself when it comes to certain topics, and I set my own boundaries. Rape jokes tend to be among those boundaries.

As McEwan states:

A survivor of sexual violence who experiences a trigger is experiencing the same thing as a soldier who experiences a trigger, potentially even including flashbacks. Like many soldiers who return from war, many survivors of sexual violence are left with post-traumatic stress disorder.

I will never understand why anyone wants to be the total jerk who evokes someone’s memories of being assaulted by blindsiding hir with a rape joke (or image, or metaphor, or whatever), in the guise of “humor.” No “joke” is worth triggering someone. Not if you understand what triggering someone really means.

Which sums it up pretty succinctly.

A teaspoon over a blue body of water, liquid dropping off it. In text above the body of water, it states 'Teaspoon by teaspoon.'

A teaspoon over a blue body of water, liquid dropping off it. In text above the body of water, it states 'Teaspoon by teaspoon.'

Personally, I did not find the comic triggering (and thank unicorns for that–all I would need at six in the morning). That does not mean I do not understand how it could be.

The issue at hand is not that nobody has voiced opinions over these other heinous acts, but that the concern about this one, when brought up, is so easily dismissed. Personally, among the reasons I find rape jokes much more problematic than murder jokes (and I don’t necessarily let off the hook the latter), is that this is the response to rape in the real world. Murder, unless sanctioned by a government, is quite often condemned. Rape is often more murky, even if we theoretically believe it wrong.

Once more veering into the personal, what made me raise an eyebrow even more is that the victim of the rape in the PA strip is a male. There exists within me a personal rage when I consider that the only other male rape victims I tend to meet are the ones who furtively tell me their own story after sharing mine. This is indicative of the larger rape culture–victims rarely speak, and when they do, they are asked to either be silent or blamed (often by way of grilling them with questions to ascertain whose ‘fault’ it was), creating an environment where they wish to remain silent.

Do not get me wrong, I don’t hold high standards for the PA comic. It can be funny. It can not be. While I appreciate what Gabe and Tycho have done for the gaming community at large, I do not feel the need to give them a pass over issues like these. The excuse Gabe later gave of all the other horrible things they’d written that never got as large a response only serves to highlight in my memory other times I have closed my browser tab in disgust, and decided it was not worth my mental reserve at the time to raise my voice (I have raised concerns to webcomic authors in the past with little effect). However, I am glad more people are able to do so, and only feel ashamed for not having done so earlier.

This is not to say I plan on never again attending PAX East or one day heading to PAX (I do), or never again reading their comic (likely will, if linked), but that I wish to add to the voices of dissent and hopefully educate one more person, give one more perspective, add one more voice. This comic was a raindrop in the milieu that is rape culture, and hopefully this post and others I have read create a milieu of voices seeking to stop, slow, or even give temporary reprieve from said culture. As McEwan from Shakesville would state, teaspoon by teaspoon.

N.B. Long-time TBH reader TheFreman is auctioning off his PA merchandise, being rather fed up with the comic. The focus is less on the merchandise and more toward the proceeds, which are being donated to Men Can Stop Rape.

Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape

Miranda: Femme Fatale?

As a space adventurer, and saviour of the galaxy with a new game spinning in the drive, I was happy. More Mass Effect! Getting back to being Ophelia Shepard! I HAVE WAITED SO LONG!!

A few hours into the game, I had familiarized myself with my new companions. Although I didn’t really dig them right off the bat, the joy of returning to this world had me riding high.

Then something happened. Like a solar eclipse, the camera pointed right at it, and I couldn’t look away.

Miranda’s butt.

Miranda, crewmember of the Normandy in ME2 leans over her desk, the camera focusing on her butt.

This was the first moment in the game, where I sat back, realized I was playing a game that wasn’t really meant for me and said “wtf?”

Of course, I still love the game, but that moment stuck with me.

And FINALLY, someone asked the question that I had wondered since that incident. WHY?

That someone, is the always awesome Tracey John. In an interview with Casey Hudson, ME2 project lead:

Me: Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, or I’m a female Shepard, but my other friends — both male and female — also noticed that shot and found it be to be gratuitous. I did notice that Jacob’s uniform is pretty tight too, but you can only tell when you stand behind him, and these shots of Miranda just could not be missed. So why…

Hudson: That’s part of her character design, she’s the femme fatale. It’s part of her character and the fact that she’s beautiful and this beauty is part of what helps her. As you get to know her, you realize there’s more to her.

First of all, the idea that she is a femme fatale. Let’s look at what a femme fatale is, to wikipedia! (Batman theme music plays) (brackets are comments by me):

A femme fatale is an alluring and seductive woman whose (check) charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire (hmm…), often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations (no….).

The phrase is French for “deadly woman”. A femme fatale tries to achieve her hidden purpose (no?) by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm, and sexual allure (huh…). Typically, she is exceptionally well-endowed with these qualities. In some situations, she uses lying or coercion rather than charm (um…) . She may also be (or imply to be) a victim, caught in a situation from which she cannot escape; … (sort of).

Really, none of this is true of Miranda. She doesn’t ensnare any lovers, or manipulate male Shepard. From what we know, she doesn’t have a hidden purpose. Seems like a weak response. I get that she is supposed to be “the (traditionally) hot one” on the crew, but really?  I would almost prefer the admission that yes, this is eye candy, rather than the implication that this is part of her character.  In the game she laments her modifications, and from what I remember, never uses her beauty as an angle.  The camera shot always seemed odd to me, especially when playing female Shepard—who can’t get with Miranda anyway.

Go read Tracey’s article!

Homosexuality in Mass Effect 2

Tracey John recently interviewed some people at Bioware and among the questions asked included one about the lack of homosexual relationships in Mass Effect 2. The article had a quote from Casey Hudson, the Mass Effect 2 project lead,  We still view it as… if you’re picturing a PG-13 action movie. That’s how we’re trying to design it. So that’s why the love interest is relatively light. …

So, does that mean that homosexuality is R rated? I saw the implicit claim here that heterosexuality is PG-13, normal, but homosexuality is “dirtier” and deserves a stronger rating. I find that claim offensive. Love is good no matter the gender of the individuals. But the problem with this comment goes further than simply implying that homosexual sex is only acceptable for more mature audiences than heterosexual sex. A large problem with this quote is that Mass Effect  as well as Mass Effect 2 are M RATED games! These games already have the equivalent of an R rating for movies. So, is he implying that gay sex in video games deserves an even stronger rating? Is it seen as deserving of an Adults Only rating? It was possible to have a male Grey Warden character in Dragon Age Origins have a sexual relationship with the male party member Zevran. This Bioware game was rated M, just like Mass Effect 2. Bioware has already shown that they are willing to have homosexual relationships in M rated games. So what makes Mass Effect 2 different and why the PR spin? Is it simply because they felt Mass Effect 2 would be purchased by more people than Dragon Age Origins and they did not want to offend some of those consumers? If that is the case then I would like to remind Bioware and other companies that some of their consumers are gay. We are gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, pansexual, queer, male, and female and we all count as gamers.

BioWare Adds Women’s Sizes to Online Store

Many women gamers are in a pickle when it comes to wearing branded apparel of their favourite games. The majority of times, licensed clothing is not available in women’s sizes, and whilst men’s t-shirts can fit many women, a lot of women prefer the cut of clothing that is specifically targeted to women. I would like to purchase more gamer clothing, but men’s sizes simply don’t work for me, for the most part.

Female models (neck down to waist) wearing shirts from BioWare games.

Female models (neck down to waist) wearing shirts from BioWare games.

Dragon Age and Mass Effect fans looking for women’s sizes can rejoice, as BioWare have announced that, due to popular demand, they will soon be stocking shirts sized for women in their online store. A closer look at the BioWare store indicates that only a few designs will be available in women’s sizes, which is unfortunate as I’d totally rock the Olive Dragon Age Griffon Tee if it were actually available in my size. Another thing I noticed is that women’s sized t-shirts are the same price as men’s sized t-shirts, which is nice. I’m used to having to pay more for a woman’s version of a t-shirt design offered in men’s sizes. Having said that, the price of their t-shirts are a little high, in my opinion. Sizes for women range from Small to Extra Extra Large. It’s notable that they provide women’s sizes in Extra Large and Extra Extra Large, because more often than not, when a gamer shirt does come in women’s sizes, they don’t offer a full range of sizes beyond Large.

You can pre-order your shirt at the BioWare store and they’ll start shipping on March 2.

[Via GreyWardens.com]