Monday, April 11, 2011

Bad Romance

Romance in Mass Effect can be... a little awkward.  You just want to go have a chat with Kaidan about the ship, or to see how Liara's doing, and bam!  Suddenly, you're in the middle of some forced and uncomfortable flirting.

It's more than a little awkward when you're playing the game with your spouse, and awkwardly flirting with the same girl he picked.

Even more awkward because in many ways, Shepard is designed to be an extension of the player's own being -- the customizable look and dialogue choices speak to this, and a very very large number of players make their first or canon Shepard in their own image.  My Shepard is, therefore, female, and bears a distinct resemblance to me (if I were in shape like a space marine and not like a lazy gamer).  

So Shepard is a girl.  And I am not exactly known for flirting with other girls.  In point of fact, I really prefer dudes.  I married one!  It works well for us.  And so flirting with Liara is awkward, particularly with my husband watching.

It is an uncomfortable fact: no matter how aware or progressive you are, sometimes you're going to walk flat smack into the own brick wall of your privilege.  At least I've had the good sense to know it for what it is!

The games that would drive a player into such a choice are few and far between, and more's the pity.  For however mildly annoyed I am for feeling strongly guided into a Liara pairing (and I wouldn't be annoyed at all, except that 1. Kaidan is creepy and 2. I'm not playing solo), there are hundreds and thousands of LGBT gamers out there who are rightfully annoyed that they don't get the chance in other games.  In fact, Mass Effect only presents the same-sex option to a female Shepard; a male Shepard has the choices of racist girl or exotic blue girl.  And I resent that choice on male Shepard's behalf.  M. Shepard should also have had the chance to be creeped out by and reject Kaidan.

I hear that BioWare has had some significant progress in this area in Dragon Age and especially in Dragon Age 2.  And I know that originally Ashley and Kaidan were written as romanceable by any Shepard, and that it was scrapped.  David Gaider's response to the "straight male gamer" is excellent and famous, as it should be.

I don't really have anything useful to add to the discussion, other than my own observations.  This area's not my specialty and I'm more than happy to defer to others.  We all know that diversity -- of all kinds -- in our games isn't where it needs to be.  I've mentioned the several PAX panels on that theme I attended.  In that light I'm mildly pleased to see this token choice put in, even if it does run into the hazy, muddy, troubled waters of "dudes like girl-on-girl."

Now if you'll excuse me... I need to go flirt with my husband's love interest.  And after that, to Virmire...


  1. I hadn't seen that post from Gaider yet - that was great!

    I tend to make female characters (which seems pretty typical among other male gamers I've talked to), especially in a game where I'm only going to have one. Many (straight) guys would rather look at a girl for hours in a game than look at a guy. I don't know how many, but it's a point I've heard repeated over and over again in MMOs over the years. We like looking at girls in real life, so I guess we like looking at girls in games. Or something. My MMo characters tend to be about a 50/50 split, but for something like ME2 where I'm realistically only going to take one shot at it... probably gonna make a female. I mentioned before, I suck at DA/ME character face-making and my Shepard wound up a matron. But... I'm interested in females, so I didn't really want to flirt with males in the game, even as a female. So my Shepard wound up female in a relationship with a female (or at least attempting to, I want to say it would never let me complete any of them and left me wondering if that option was disabled in the game and she finished it alone, leaving me feeling a little bit sad for her)... 2/3 of my Dragon Age characters wound up in the same shoes. I tried to make one of them follow the "straight" romance path but I couldn't do it.

    Anyway. Gender identity/sexuality real/unreal mashups ftw.

  2. Just as a counterpoint to that, I would argue that it's not necessarily typical for male gamers to play female characters.

    Bioware allowed Mass Effect 2 players to opt-in to automatically transmitting gameplay data, and their statistics showed that 80% of people played through the game as a male Shepard.

    A disappointing statistic, if you ask me.

    (Source: )

  3. Interesting.

    Well, I suspect I'm coming from a different demographic than the majority of ME2 players - especially when you include the console folks.

    The subset of gamers I was speaking of is primarily MMO gamers, where I'd guess that more than half the female avatars are "piloted" by male drivers. Many of my frequent male teammates have female "mains". Also interestingly (to me at least), none of the female players that I can think of currently have male mains. Back in the days of EQ, where many female players wanted to hide their gender, male mains were more common.

  4. I'll agree to that. In my many years of playing EQ2, male players would have piles of female toons and female players would have mainly female and sometimes male toons but overall there was a distinct skew toward female characters on any server -- with the exception of tanks. Your zerkers / guardians / shadowknights / paladins came in two types: (1) the tiniest, slenderest, most feminine female possible, for the comic effect of heavy plate armor, or (2) the big burly dude.

    Also interesting is the gender-bending that being a regular in an MMO leads to over time; after three years playing together we all had a rough handle on who the other players were and we gravitated to using the player's pronouns, regardless of which character he or she was logged in as. So even my male character (seldom-played) was referred to as "she" in groups and chat.

    In the cases where the player wasn't known, generally the pronouns of their main character stuck. One guy was a "she" to almost everyone for years because of his half-elf coercer (female).

    Also now I really want to go play EQ2 again. Wonder if they still have that three-day pass option...

  5. It probably doesn't hurt that my mmo of choice (City of Heroes) has a walk emote that is much more... interesting to watch on females than males.

    The running isn't quite so exaggerated, but I've heard the comment about "rather watch the female avatar's backside running around all day" quote a number of times.

    Re: gender pronouns: Yes! Same thing here. Although... people tend to just refer to everyone by their globals (@) instead of their individual character names, once familiar. There are a few cases of male/female with swapped global genders though so then you can get a couple layers of pronoun confusion depending on how much you know about the person in question.

  6. good point. i did mass effect twice; once with my canonic male shepard paragon goody-two-shoes self, who ended up romancing ashley; and once with far-more-interesting female shepard who got it on with kaidan. and kaidan is kind of a tool.

    but really, i would like to see more cross-gender interactions in games that didn't lead to (all but-)inevitable romance. the flirting is mostly okay, but i chafe at the thought that the only reason most female side characters exist in games is to be the romantic interest of the male lead (and, perhaps increasingly thanks to companies like bioware, vice versa). mild spoilers (actually, medium-level spoilers, so if you plan on playing the game you may not want to read past the italicized part of the next sentence; unless, of course, you have the remarkable talent that i do of forgetting spoilers enough to get through a game or book without feeling cheated): i hated the end of fahrenheit/indigo prophecy partly because it seemed to force a romance where there really shouldn't have been one at all.

    there's a great, short scene in mass effect 2 (optional, i think) in which you share a bottle of brandy with an old friend, and it's kind of awesome to see my male shepard and this female character drunk and laughing and reminiscing in such a natural fashion. i kind of want more of that: real friendship and affection without it turning into awkward 3d-animated sexual encounters.

  7. Having completed the Virmire section of Mass Effect, I feel that the Kaidan or Ashley romance options are more in place to manipulate the player than to contribute meaningfully to Shepard's growth. Then again, I feel a lot of transparency in ME (naked, exposed designer intent and cause / effect scenarios) and am told that is one of the things that I will find improved somewhat in ME2.