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.