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.