Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Ego of the Gamer III: Shepard

I've been playing Mass Effect.  Finally.  Yes, I know.  There's a lot I could write about it; there's a lot I probably will write about it.  And I'll say this for it: even when I'm annoyed by something the game is doing, it's always making me think.

The deal behind me and Mass Effect was that my husband really wanted to play through 1 & 2 again before 3 comes out at the end of this year, but he didn't want to run the risk of making all of the exact same choices he made the first time.  Thus, a compromise: I steer the story, and he drives the damn dune buggy.

The thing that's bothering me right now in Mass Effect (just the first; I haven't gotten to the second yet) is that I don't like the Paragon / Neutral / Renegade options.  I feel like the options are to make Shepard a doormat, or to make her a raging asshole.  And neither one of those really suits me.

In one instance, I reluctantly chose a paragon option in dialogue.  My husband asked me why I'd done it, if I didn't want to, when there was a perfectly useful Renegade option sitting right there on my dialogue wheel.  And the answer that came out of my mouth really surprised me.

I explained to my husband that Shepard had not only the issue of being the first human Spectre to deal with, but also that she had to deal with being a woman in the world of space marines and high politics.  She would have to maintain a certain level of diplomacy, I argued, in order to achieve these things without facing excessive backlash.

(Beyond that, I added, her personal philosophy and mine are kind of like The Doctor's: everyone gets one chance to make good.  One.  After that...)

I really honestly hadn't thought about gender in Mass Effect as it related to Shepard until that point.  Liara, yes.  Tali, yes.  The Alliance and the Citadel and the Asari (oh dear, the Asari), yes.  But not consciously about Shepard.  And I didn't like that I brought the sexism of the 21st century forward with me into a fictional future -- but there it was.

Of course, it was foolish of me to be surprised by my own reactions.  All fiction is really about the time in which it is produced, not really about the time in which it is set.  That's the interesting thing about science fiction and fantasy, and not just in gaming -- you're creating a hypothetical world in which to act out the consequences and thought experiments extant in the real one. 

And the audience is always a part of art.  The creators of a work can only take you so far; the interpretation is up to the reader / viewer / player.  K. Shepard has turned out fundamentally different from M. Shepard not because of a different moral outlook or a different origin (indeed, we tend to play the game about 85% the same way), but because K. and her player are women and M. and his player are men.

Truth be told I kind of dig it.  And wish more games presented me with this opportunity.


  1. You know... I think you just defined how I play Mass Effect, and I never realized it either. LoL Generally, I make a decision to be Paragon or Renegade and just blindly pick dialogue options based on that, but then sometimes the game forces me to stop and think and I'm like... oh... what do I do now? I've only ever played as female Shepard, and while no one brings up the fact that Shepard is a woman (unlike, say, Dragon Age, where NPCs are constantly saying things about how they didn't think women could be Grey Wardens - BLARGH), it's obviously still an issue. Awesome thoughts! Can't wait to hear more!

  2. I find myself in a similar place with the Dragon Age games & ME2. I really want to take the asshole options, but I can rarely bring myself to do it because "Why?" why would this character do that at this point? I'm still thinking too much like myself, I guess, because I just can't see a positive outcome for most of those negative actions.

    The few times I can bring myself to them, indeed the times when it's almost instinctive, are when someone has betrayed (me) or something to that effect.

    My Shepherd in ME2 was female (sniper! infiltrator? whatever!), and wound up looking like she was in her mid-50s because I couldn't get the goddam face editor to make her look young (I seriously suck at face editing in Bioware games. Like, a lot.). I think that perception informed some of my gameplay decisions (and certainly the way I felt about playing the game, even if I couldn't take direct actions in dialogue or cutscenes to mirror this) and I wound playing her as something of a matron/mother figure as well.

    Pfff. Games are totally not art. They make us feel nothing, nothing I say!

  3. I think that Mass Effect was the first game I ever just went total Renegade. With Paragon you'd come to a boss fight and have this long moral discussion, with Renegade you'd just choose the attack option. The game also encouraged you to go heavy in one direction or the other, so I figured that I'd just be an asshole. In a lot of ways, it was a lot more fun to do it that way. I didn't need to have drawn out discussions to get my way, I just threatened violence and viola they give me what I want.

    I also found out some good news, Bioware is giving out a free copy of ME2 to everybody who bought DAII. I guess I don't have to wait for a steam sale now to play ME2!

  4. I try not to play the game (or any game) as 100% one or the other... but I will admit, halfway through the plot my Paragon bar is about 90% full and my Renegade bar is at about 8%, hehe. I clearly have an inclination toward a certain mode of play and I seem to have trouble breaking away from it. Except when people fuck with Shepard. Then it's on. (I enjoyed not being nice to the security forces on Noveria, recently.)

  5. I'll admit to my Shepard being, shall we say, inspired by her player. ;) Only she has green eyes and I have blue ones, so she's totally not me, right? I mean, same first name and red hair and freckles and pointy nose notwithstanding...

  6. I am totally not a mid-50s woman too, so it works.

  7. Red jenny shepard looks nothing like me. The batarians do, the poor bastards.

    And I play red jenny as an almost straight paragon. I have a dude I care less about who I played as a renegade. I played a more mixed character in Dagon Age, but ME pushes you to be consistent.