Monday, May 9, 2011

Sashaying Through the Normandy

Mass Effect did a lot of things right, and famously so.  I have written several times about my experience with the first game.

I don't think I know a soul who doesn't consider Mass Effect 2 to be a great improvement on the first.  It placed as nearly everyone's 2010 Game of the Year.  Tomes have been written in its praise.  Even I, who look askance at BioWare and still condemn the constant deluge of party-based RPGs, have been hooked to the tune of 14 hours and counting.

But oh, ME2.  One place where your predecessor went so right, you went so very, very wrong.

Shep scopes out Miranda Lawson.

Everyone who plays the game more than 25% of the way in sees this shot, because this is how Shepard is framed when being offered this loyalty mission.  And, seriously?  I get that Miranda (at whose ass we are staring) deliberately uses her physicality and her sexuality as tools in her armory, but... really?

Right from the start of ME2, the presentation and sexualization of female characters started driving me up a wall.  Miranda and Kasumi walk with their hips.  They practically are the male gaze.  I can never shake the feeling that they were explicitly designed to be seen by a male player playing a male Shepard.

And then there's the scenery.  Omega's a good place to start really playing, since there are several game-critical missions to be found there.  And once on Omega, Shepard must seek out Aria in her den of debauchery.  (I can't help but feel that we are meant to compare Aria and her nightclub to Sha'ira and her abode on the Citadel.)  Shepard has a seat... and every time the camera switches back to her in that conversation, there are Asari strippers framing Shep's head.  Really?

Oddly enough, the one female presentation that doesn't bother me in ME2 is Jack.  Jack who wanders around 80% naked, clad mainly in tattoos with extremely low-riding pants and some fetish-gear straps to keep the game M-rated.

Most images of Jack on the web are NOT M-rated.

But despite her clearly half-nude presentation, I don't feel that she is a sexualized character. I feel like Jack has chosen her presentation, and that she chose it not to titillate, but to provoke.  She isn't doing anything for your gaze.  Come to that, she doesn't do anything for you at all, really.  I consider myself lucky that she chooses not to explode the Normandy while we're traveling through a mass relay.

Miranda and Jack have both been bandied about by forces outside of their control.  Each has a sordid and unpleasant back story.  Each has been specifically engineered for a purpose, both from a perspective inside the game world and also by the BioWare design team.  But although Miranda also has remarkable technical and combat skills, her defining trait seems always to be that she is meant to be pleasing to the male eyes (and other bits).  Jack's defining trait is something else altogether.

Putting K. Shepard into this world -- of Cerberus Miranda sashaying around Cerberus Normandy -- has been a challenge for me.  Shepard felt organic and natural to me in the first Mass Effect.  She was a character who belonged where she was, doing what she was doing.  Not only was she in the right place at the right time, but she had earned her Commander rank and Spectre status.  In short, she was a cosmic badass.

Ashley, skilled and competent but lower-ranking, was actually a nice counterpoint to that, and having Tali and Liara around reinforced it.  In different ways, each of those companion characters had a bit of a naive ingenue thing going on and while I was irritated at first about Tali and Liara as characters, I did quite like the foil they provided for K Shepard.  Plus, of all your half-dozen available companions, only one was a dudely human dude.  (Garrus and Wrex have a built-in otherness.)

But I started out Mass Effect 2 feeling distinctly uncomfortable.  I felt the pressure of living up to male expectations.  My Shepard, with the exact same face and voice from ME1 (I declined to change her appearance) felt wrong, and out of place.  She isn't sexy like the women, and neither is she bulky like the men.  And I started out with a strong resentment over how many female characters I met that immediately started flirting with me.  [Edit: On request, I am clarifying this statement.  I resent that all of the female characters I met at that point went straight into flirt mode (and the men didn't), not that Shep is flirted with by female characters.]

For the first 6-10 hours, it all added up to a sense of playing the wrong game.  The good news is, between the time I first started writing this post and now (something like 40% of the way through), I feel that the game has improved.  Changes to characters from ME1 and the addition of new characters (like Jack) have helped broaden the game world and my perspective on it.  (Even if I do still hate Kelly, my secretary-spy.  The Cerberus-assigned crew can mainly all bite me.)

I do still have the feeling more often than not that ME2 stars a male Shep with my Shepard pasted on, in a way that was not the case in ME1.  Her behavior and body language are often very masculine.  But Ashley Williams's pink armor notwithstanding, I'm not looking for girliness in my badass space marines and so I can let that one go.

As a last note, I honestly don't know if I could stand to play Mass Effect as the default white male Shepard.  That character is so overwhelmingly generic, so common, and so overdone that I think it would make every other character and every quest in the game feel 50% more hackneyed and cliched by extension.  And interestingly, I'm not the only one.

Watching a crowd of girls and women talk about their perception of a game like Mass Effect is totally different than watching a crowd of guys discuss it.  And today I happened to luck onto a post & comments section all about how female players defined their Shepards.  It's worth glancing at -- if only to learn just how much variation there really is in paragon femShep according to her players.


  1. To an extent, I think you're intended to feel uncomfortable in the beginning of ME2. The Illusive Man is as much antagonist as ally, and the organization he runs is one you spent the previous game fighting against in large part (at least if you did the side missions, I don't remember them showing up too much in the main story). You owe them your life. It's their ship you're flying, their guns you're shooting, their intel, and you have no choice but to fight for them, even if you can't trust them.

    As the game goes on, it becomes your ship again. It becomes your crew once you learn you can trust them as much as they learn (or relearn) to trust you. You remake the character, reconnect with lost companions, and the mental process plays out in much the same manner as the character would have to remake him or herself, and find their place in the world once more. It's natural that things would seem better as things begin to feel on more solid ground.

    The first game is, when you boil it down, a feel good, local girl (or boy) makes good in the big city story, even if you're the renegade. The second is much more complex, and you're pushed much further out into the dark corners, without a safety line, and you're surely intended to feel that way by the writers.

    As for the Shepard-in-strip club routine, I honestly didn't remember the strippers framing Shepard's face (at some point I'm going to replay it, so I'll remember to check) but the alien strip club is such an overused trope it probably just faded into the background for me. The stuff I remember are the little side conversations. The turian who's trying to get into his quarian friend's suit. The "Sir Issac Newton is the deadliest sonofabitch in space" speech.

  2. 1. This parallels the half-step back ME2 took in dropping the lesbian romance angle (I say half-step because there was no male homosexual angle in ME1).

    2. The fact that Asari seem to mostly be strippers is ridiculous. We're talking about one of the most powerful races in the galaxy, telepaths and telekinetics who live for centuries and have a
    culture and a huge concern for their own dignity.

    3. Strippers are used to designate sleazy establishments, but there's no reason in the distant future they should all be women. Hell, we learn from the (hilarious) bachelor party that Asari strippers use their telepathy to project an image of each viewer's fantasy. So if you're playing a heterosexual lady Shepard, they should look like dudes right?

    I know you don't like Dragon Age, but they're a lot better about this stuff.

  3. My only public conclusions on romance in ME2 so far are: 1.) Jacob's a nice guy (plus better-looking and less creepy than Kaidan ever was) but I'm not interested in flirting with him, at least not right now, and 2.) doubling the companion cast from 6 to 12 certainly complicates matters.

    I actually have some small inklings what K. Shepard might decide to do but first I need to find out who that mysterious 12th companion will be. (I picked up the first round, started doing their loyalty missions, and am now instructed to go pick up the next three.)

  4. I do think you're right about there being an intentional confidence curve. Being dead for two years will take a lot out of a girl... For a while I felt like it was just me, having trouble easing into the role again, but on reflection (and on discussion from others, like you) I can start to see the intention behind it. Interesting.

  5. I didn't realize that there wasn't a lesbian option. I'd actually been in the process of trying to romance Tali with my femShep, and checking wikis, it looks like I got the entire romance dialogue run. I just forgot to go talk to people before the end mission, so I didn't actually get anyone in the sack. It looks like they just didn't add the "can sleep with" switch for some reason.

    And I dunno if you could really have called the Liara option "lesbian" per se. If there's only one gender in your species, and you can procreate with anything, just because you look like a female from another species doesn't necessarily mean that you are actually female.

    Re: Asari

    There are a lot of issues I have with the asari design, but the fact that most of the strippers are asari isn't one of them. For starts, saying just because they're a powerful race so they shouldn't have strippers is like saying America is a powerful country, so there shouldn't be American strippers here. Yes, they're all biotics, but not all of them are Jack level. On top of that, the asari society is perfectly OK with indentured servitude. Merge that with their ability to procreate with any other (at least sentient) species, regardless of gender, procreation is an important theme in both game worlds. (The krogan genophage causing some to seek asari in order to breed in some way at all. The salarians did the genophage, and have lifespans so short that breeding is very important to get settled with a contract. All the problems quarians have.) And libido is related to the procreative impulse, even if we don't actually ever want a child to result.

    In that broad context, the asari are a one stop shop for people running a strip club, especially the one on the asari world,'s an asari world. Just about anyone who walks in the door has a chance to be aroused enough to stick around and dump money down your alcohol taps.

  6. I think I remember noticing the no f-f romance options. I tried some of the male romance paths on my femshep but... I guess just because I'm a straight male it felt a little off, like I was lying to someone. Bizarre I much more "lying" is piloting a female avatar & flirting with male npcs than just piloting a female avatar?!

    It was frustrating because I kept feeling like the dialogue was moving somewhere, but then it just ended. I think halfway through I googled it and found out that the option wasn't available. I think I put her with the alien guy just for the achievement, but I definitely felt dirty doing so. She wasn't into dudes (because I'm not... and that only makes sense in the video game world, I guess), so I guess a lizard-ish thing was as close as I could get to not-dude. She wound up retiring alone. Poor shep

    Googling now it looks like they added a new npc to both male & female paths - an Asari, of course. Well, I do still need to do a male shep playthrough. But, as one of the articles you linked says, he's boring!

  7. Sort of OKCupid style, I'd be interested in a breakdown of how many romance storylines were pursued by gamers, who with, how many playthroughs, and so on. It could very well reveal to Bioware and the gaming community a real slice of how gamers play as opposed to what they say they want.

    I think there's no question that open and approachable as the game is, the series design is first for a male gamer first, and while mature considering most of the industry, Bioware is always going to wrongfoot some things. Some of it is design limitations--the strip club scene problem that Shepard framed with Asari strippers could just be an aesthetic decision. Not we need more female bodies, but we need something in motion that we've already modelled in this talking scene, hey, what do we already have. It's sort of too late to revise the Asari, the real failure this time is a strip club again?

    FYI, the last link has "" attached to the front.

  8. Liara has to be considered the f-f option. By design, that's certainly how it's meant to be read by the gaming audience despite the back story. The actual confusion is if there's only one gender, why do they look human female? The issue echoes a Star Trek: Next Generation episode where Riker falls for a member of an androgynous species, which to avoid expected audience outcry were all played by women, though the actor Jonathan Frakes thought that was a failure of nerve. They still got letters, but presumably less.

    They actually got a more androgynous look down with Jack. Going full tilt, something like Desire from the Sandman comics might have provided better cues, though ultimately if we bring up their philology, it's kind of weird that a long lived race like that is always fancy plumes out. Basically, I think their visual design was probably set pretty early, and rich as it is, a lot of the rest of material about the Asari is dressing.

  9. Whoops! Thanks for the catch, I just fixed that last link. It wasn't like that in draft, I wonder what happened on publish? *ponder*

    I bet BioWare has that data somewhere, considering how much data they have on how many people play with custom Shepards, etc. I, too, would be really interested in seeing it.

  10. Well, I agree that she's considered that in our context, and to that extent the whole asari race is a failure of design, because in the secondary world's context it shouldn't be considered female-female, but female-other. If you could choose Tali as a romance option in the first game, that would be obviously lesbian, since quarians actually have two sexes. I'm willing to concede that I'm thinking far deeper about this than most of the people who picked up a controller for this game, or who wrote it, since I believe the Codex entry on the asari refers to them as "all female." *twitch*

  11. Not too much at all, I've certainly been and am a fan of things where I do that too, and I'll read every codex entry I can of pretty much anything, I've come to realize. I think the enthusiasm and investment we as fans impart on things we often look at something that doesn't quite work and work out how it could. I've gotten to liking thinking about the how stuff is made up enough so this is just the sort of thing that pops out at me.

  12. Indeed. It's a good reminder of how so many gamers live every day. Unfortunately, I don't think that particular aspect was intentional.

    Unfortunately, the romances felt pretty flat and one dimensional in DA2. In DA1 you at least

    had a bunch more conversation options with all the romances I tested, it at least kind of felt like you were probing at each other as folks interested in each other tend to do. DA2 just felt... blunt, especially in that you could only move to the next step in the romance at certain preset points. Eh, I dunno, DA2 was a huge letdown.

    I hope MA3 is worth it. As it is now, it's off my buy on launch list. I'll wait for some feedback.

  13.  It's someone you would never guess unless you've ever played a BioWare game before :)

  14.  I agree. Asari all look and sound like women, and they look like stereotypical male fantasies of women. Half of them are strippers being ogled by males of various species. 

  15. She wasn't into dudes (because I'm not... and that only makes sense in the video game world, I guess)

    Isn't it interesting how Mass Effect games make us all aware of our own privilege?

    There are a whole lot of dudes who like dudes and ladies who like ladies out there who never have the option to game what feels right to them. And that sucks. As
    RedJenny mentions above, at least in the Dragon Age games BioWare gives players the chance to pursue their personal preferences.

    Of course my personal preference is to be a lady who likes dudes, so I will say that FemShep suits me fine on that front, even if I did pick Liara over Kaidan in the first game. ;)