Ahead of the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda, Stephanie Farnsworth looks back at the franchise’s original trilogy.
Bioware seemingly has a lot to live up with the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda later this month. The first three games in the series were radical queer games. However, on the positive side of that is that there’s much less groundwork to be done. Mass Effect broke the mould of gaming by giving the player free will and moral choices. It wasn’t just following one narrative, you could choose what story your Commander Shepard followed. Each decision had complex consequences, and this freedom was extended to who Shepard chose as his/her romantic/sexual partner(s).
While the gender selection of the game was limited to a binary, the first game was released in 2007 and having any woman at all who could potentially lead the game was surprising, especially given that she was bisexual. ManShep or FemShep (as fans have called them) were both bisexual, although they did have their own options with love interests. FemShep could not romance the black gay man, Steve for example, and nor could ManShep join Traynor (another person of colour and a lesbian) for shower sex.
Shepard never has a coming out story, which made everything feel so much more dynamic. Shepard was out and loved and desired who he/she loved and that was just it. The sexuality was a non-issue and so this futuristic game helped present reality as it should be. In fact, even though I’m bisexual, I was so oblivious to Shepard’s sexuality that I accidentally got her in a same gender relationship with Liara. The player didn’t have to stick with their choices either. They could break up at any time and several characters such as Jack and Kelly had options exclusively for flings and no romance. People also revealed their sexuality at different times. For instance, Kaidan was assumed straight for the first two games but in the third he is a romanceable character for ManShep.
Shepard was out and loved and desired who he/she loved and that was just it.
Fox News even had a disastrous debate over Mass Effect that was riddled with inaccuracies. Social conservatives backlashed against the game, but it’s continued to be one of the most popular franchises of all time that has embraced the fluidity of identity. The nudity and sex scenes are incredibly sparse too and tame by almost every other game’s standard not aimed at the children’s market.. Perhaps the furore was actually over the fact that a player can make active choices, play as a woman and embrace bisexuality more than anything else. Although, top tip for reviewers: it always helps to try the product first.
Gender too was presented as more complex and nuanced than in other games. True, there are no transgender humans as we know and that is an issue. It’s tiring and quite bluntly dehumanising to have all trans characters depicted as aliens. This is something Andromeda has learned from because the alien representation of gender was fantastic. The Asari only have one gender. Their bodies are all highly similar, and there’s not a great deal of diversity at all, just a little of the blue pigmentation changes between character to character. Yet they can have children with anyone, including each other, and their language is much more fluid. In the third game, Shepard tells Liara’s father than in human language a woman who is a parent is called a “mother”. Liara’s father flat out tells her she doesn’t give a damn about human traditions, she’s a woman but she’s also a father. Games are routinely dismissed for their abilities to tell stories but scenes like that beat most books I’ve read (and I’m a literature graduate).
Liara’s father flat out tells her she doesn’t give a damn about human traditions, she’s a woman but she’s also a father.
The idea of the self and identity was highly diverse and personal. The Hanar, many could emphasise with, as they have face names they could tell the world but soul names they only ever confided in those closest to them. A lot of people can associate this with our own personal decisions about who to come out to.
Even sex work was addressed in the game series. Mass Effect showed the ignorance of even beloved characters (Ashley Williams is highly critical of sex work) and yet all of the sex workers who feature as characters are treated with respect. Shepard can be a dick, it’s the player’s choice but sex work fundamentally is not presented as a moral evil. It’s just another form of work in this ever-eclectic galaxy.
The reason why the games were so popular was because of this fluidity and freedom. Bioware gave incredibly well rounded, complex characters of different sexualities and ethnicity. It could have gone a lot further than it did, but still conservatives shunned it. Miranda Lawson and Tali were both rumoured to be bisexual and yet were written as straight – the decision with the former was particularly grating, just saying. Mass Effect though was radical for its competition, and tears were shed by so many fans at the end because they were saying goodbye to beloved characters, and a lot of them were queer (and not just because of the contentious ending).
Andromeda has a lot to live up to but it also has to demonstrate progression. It needs to build on what was a great hub for LGBTQ+ gamers. Yet, even ahead of its launch of the new game Mass Effect will always warrant respect for being one of the only media products ever to proudly create a central character who was bisexual and a concept that lauded sexual and gender freedom.
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2 thoughts on “In celebration of Mass Effect”
It has it’s rough spots but it’s my favorite videogame series of all time. Some really spectacular writing and amazing relationships. I would disagree with only one part of this piece, when you call Shepard bisexual. Your Shepard might have been but “Shepard” had no canon sexual orientation. The player is who decided that. My Shepard, like me, was a lesbian and I really appreciate it was possible for every player to make them their own.
I respectfully disagree. There is a canon Shepard – there is a canon Shepard that is either a colony kid, survivor or war hero. There is no Shepard that’s born on Thessia and gets into the Alliance through a case of mistaken identity. Bioware gives us freedom, yes but they do determine the final narrative. In the game, Shepard is written as having the potential to be attracted to multiple, if not all, genders. This fits the definitions of both bisexuality and pansexuality so if gamers want to say their Shepard is pan or bi that’s great but Shepard is either of those identities. Whether Shepard acts on the potential for attractions or not does not change this, just as a bisexual woman who only ever has relationships with women is still bisexual. Shepard’s writing was crafted to be bisexual or pansexual (I’m sure fans will debate over which and I welcome that tbh) but it was us to determine which relationships worked, not rewrite his or her identity. Shepard wasn’t a character from The Sims that we got to craft from scratch. Bioware gave us the starting blocks and several choices but they were ultimately choices Bioware allowed us to have. There was never ultimate freedom but a chance to explore. If we could create a Bioware protagonist completely to our own desires I’d absolutely welcome that. Have all types of queer Sheps that are up to the players, I absolutely would support that but that isn’t what we’ve got in the original trilogy.