Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On why the XBox 360 sucks.

Microsoft's XBox 360 is a great gaming machine.  I'm not big into platform wars -- anything that works is fine by me.  Over 50 million happy gamers use their XBox 360s and XBox Live, and I actually think Microsoft has done a great job with its console overall.  Aside from the notorious red ring of death, those little machines work and work well, and bring gaming countless games to countless gamers yearly.  When it launched, everyone was primed and ready for the next generation and Microsoft brought it to us.

The problem is, it launched pre-holiday 2005.  I remember well -- I was working for GameStop at the time.  (And what a mess that launch was.)  That sucker is nearly six years old.  And it is not anywhere near as technically capable as a PS3 or a gaming PC.  It's slower, smaller, and aging.

But platform-exclusive games are rare, these days.  I completely understand why: a modern AAA game can easily run between $15 million and $75 million for the studio behind it -- even up to $100 million.  You're not going to recoup that investment on just one platform -- there simply aren't going to be enough gamers on it.  (A 2009 study placed the average cost for a current-gen console game at $10 million.)

In short, almost every game we buy for our PCs or our PS3 is a cross-platform release (there are some exceptions).  And I'm sorry, 360 gamers, but your antique is holding the rest of us back.

There are the visual differences.  When you're in the middle of something like Uncharted 2, you see the full potential of the PS3's raw computing power and the capacity and definition of a blu-ray disc.  The thing looks gorgeous.  Crisp, sharp, detailed, and thoroughly amazing.  The merest hint at what the future of HD gaming can keep looking like.

But graphics aren't everything! you cry.  And you're right.  They're not.  If there were, I'd never use any other machine than my gaming PC (still state-of-the-art, even though it's a year old -- that curve has slowed way, WAY down in the last 3-4 years) and I'd have it hooked up to the best pair of HD monitors money could buy.  But many of my favorite games aren't about the graphics, they're about the writing.  Portal 2 is not state-of-the-art in visuals and Tales of Monkey Island certainly doesn't roll that way.

But right now there's a full keyboard attached to my desktop, of which the only keys I get to use are W, A, S, D, space, left-CTRL, tab, and sometimes Q and E if it's a game where strafing is a separate motion.  Controls, menus, and maps are all better, more detailed, and easier in most MMOs I've tried than in any other game of the last few years, and I think it's because they're PC native.  You can assume the player will use her mouse to manipulate a map in EQ2 or LOTRO.  But for Mass Effect the default assumption is that the player has only a controller, and that he can just sit closer to the TV (which will be 35" or larger) in order to read the map.

Admittedly, some despair over the future of PC gaming isn't the 360's fault.  It's Apple's.  As non-workplace "computing" tasks get relegated to the iPad and the smartphone, a capable desktop or laptop computer is fast fading from presence in the modern home.  There are 3 million people logged in at any given time to Steam, but there are over 6 million active iPhones in the US alone and over 300,000 daily new Android activations (across carriers and manufacturers).

All of this adds up to one clear fact: aside from a handful of niche titles, the era of the PC exclusive is well and truly over.  And I could take that (if grumpily), if we were not stuck right where we were at the beginning of this post: the XBox 360 is holding back content and performance for my PC games.

So Microsoft -- Nintendo's announcing their new console this summer and the PS3 is a full year newer than your device and had higher specs to start.  You are falling behind and taking me with you.  Step it up sometime soon for us with your 8th gen release, would you?

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Brief Interruption in Blogging

Your Critic had really wanted to play Portal 2 last night.  I'm in Chapter 5 and thought I might be able to get near the end of the single-player game.

Remember this little guy?

Guybrush Ulysses Threepwood Cox, Evil Mighty Pirate Cat.

He has a lot of teeth in that no-so-innocent little kitty mouth.  Several days ago he managed to sever the plug end of the gaming headset (but luckily, only the mic cable, so at least I still had headphones).

And yesterday, we got home from work to find that he'd made neat work of my mouse

"THE CAT ATE MY MOUSE," I angrily tweeted, and was immediately asked, "That's not a thing a cat can do, that's a terrible pun!!  Does your cat understand how reality works? That it is not in fact pun-based??"

Well, no.  Our cat is indeed pun-happy.  When Your Critic's spouse left for work this morning (an hour after I did), he reported that cat was going to town on my PC speaker wire.  *sigh*

Meanwhile this is on its way (for less than that) to Your Critic via Amazon and local express shipping.  I'm a PC gamer forever, even as I slowly learn to use our PS3, but I'll admit -- wireless controllers have never looked so tempting.  Too bad the wireless Razer cost more than three times the one I ordered.

So, a slight delay in game completion; I'll probably have something to say about Portal 2 next week, and we've just started Mass Effect 2 as well.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

One Year In...

A few days ago I woke up to find the following in my Droid's overnight Twitter alerts:

I was, as you might imagine, ecstatic.  Blog love from a complete stranger, with no mutual friends!  I followed it through and came across the following conversation:

I've left everyone's names off because I genuinely don't intend to call anyone out -- rather, I would like quite sincerely to thank these two gentlemen.  First and foremost, for reading!  It is a writer's greatest pleasure to find that she has an audience.  *bows*  Second, for leading me to this post today.

It's been exactly a year since I first started this blog -- and I'm happy to report that I've moved well beyond Roger Ebert.  I started with him, though, because for between six months and a year I'd been saying to myself, "One of these days, I really need to start writing about games..."  That moment provided impetus to make "someday" become "now," and I was happy to run with it.

I feel that on the one-year anniversary of this blog, I get to do a wee bit of navel gazing -- and I'm going to explain what started me writing critically about games in the first place.

In the fall of 2004, I was still working on my Film Studies MFA, and that semester I was enrolled in one of my favorite classes.  It was called something like "International City Film," but it was a great course that really looked at how space inside of film and space outside of film worked together, and also talked a lot about the rise in and perceptions of urbanization in the 20th century.  Trust me -- it was much less dry and more interesting than I make it sound.

Near the end of the semester, the professor excitedly brought in a DVD-ROM that would allow us to navigate interactively through the Ambassador Hotel.  He explained what was innovative about it, and how it connected the viewer to the space, and how it worked as experimental art, and some other things.

But what I remember most clearly is that another student and I both raised our hands, and nearly in sync asked, "Um.  Haven't you ever heard of Myst?  This is an old kind of gaming you're talking about..."

And just like that, sitting in Roy Grundmann's class, the connection was made.  I finished up grad school with a thesis on David Lynch films (I know) but sat at my computer the whole time thinking, "games?  It's like a game.  How is it like a game?  Everything applies to games!  Game game game game game game."

But as much as I enjoy writing and talking about games, games haven't always wanted me.  And that's where we come full circle: part of the reason it says "K. Cox" in the sidebar there and not my full name is because of the culture and assumptions out there.  Gender representations in games and gamer culture became a flag for me to wave because it's a flag stapled to my back anyway.  By being here, by talking, by playing -- I'm part of that system and part of that solution.

For what it's worth, the Tweeter up above figured out that Your Critic was a she pretty damn fast after reading other posts, and said so.  I don't exactly hide it!  But I don't go around shouting it from the rooftops, either.  (This blog never has been and never will be themed in pink.)

And all of that is why I write.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Beyond the Girl Gamer 1.2: The Chainmail Bikini

 Beyond the Girl Gamer: Intro | 1.1

The long and the short of this piece is really pretty brief, because it's something we all know, and have known for years.  This post in the series exists because it has to, because I can't overlook something so egregious that we all know it internally:

Our female characters are nearly all overly sexualized.  And even when they might not be so bad in the context of a game itself, they're beyond awful in the marketing materials.

Rather than re-hashing several years' and decades' worth of discussion and argument here myself, I'm going to spare myself the pain of wheel-reinvention and link you all to someone who does have the data: Go Make Me a Sandwich.

The post that first brought me to that blog was an excellent breakdown of sexualized depicion in WoW galleries, by gender.  Hint: it's all T&A for the laydeez.  She also addresses the kinds of poses that seem to be de rigeur for the men in the room.

So really we know this happens.  This leaves us with two real questions:

1.) Why?  Why why why?

2.) Aren't there other good ways to sell and market a game?

Over and over, we hear "sex sells."  We hear that a bronze chestplate -- plate armor -- that covers the whole torso on a male avatar but only the breasts on a female avatar (or plate greaves, that cover the entirety of the legs on a male avatar but wears like a thong on a female avatar) does so because the men and boys who play the game just want to look at the bare girl skin.

Really?  I mean, really?  Do we think so little of gamers that not only do we assume that they're all straight men, but also that they all have the proclivities of an uncontrollable 13-year-old?

Everyone -- I mean, everyone -- in gaming has been discussing this for years.  We're smarter than this.  Valve has just recently knocked it out of the park on marketing a game with a female protagonist and a female antagonist.

So I'll leave you with just a sample of what some others have written on the topic:
And ten minutes or less on Google will bring you to at least a hundred articles, rants, and blog posts on the theme.  Some are better than others.  (I skipped the ones that referred to our protaginists as "sluts," for example.)

So in short: this happens.  It shouldn't.  And I don't even have the energy to do the comparisons between, say, Lara Croft and Nathan Drake.  To developers' credit, 2011-era Lara Croft is meant to be different from 1999-era Lara Croft.  But when heroes in similar games are Boobarella and Charming Schlub, I think the point is made.

Next segment: first-person vs. third-person and voiced vs. unvoiced characterizations, and the difference these make to the player in terms of gender and identification.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Commander Shepard: COSMIC BADASS

Your Critic's husband continued to roll his eyes at the way K. Shepard navigated her choices.  "You're so nice," he complained.  "You're always negotiating and diplomatic."

Well, yes.  Don't like it?  Go back to M. Shepard.

However, his criticism was silenced in one surprising, pivotal [SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS] moment: 

After traversing interstellar space in a terrible dune buggy and landing in the middle of the Presidium, we arrived in the Citadel Tower.  Here it was: the final confrontation with the arch-enemy we'd been chasing since the prologue.  Of course, we have to duke it out one more time verbally before we get to the boss fight.  But there were an awful lot of charm (blue) and intimidate (red) options.  And through a masterful application of both... I convinced Saren to kill himself.  That's right: boss fight entirely averted, purely through dialogue.

I certainly didn't see that one coming!  I also got +25 Renegade points for it, which shut up Your Critic's critic for a while.  He'd actually had to do the gunslinging for that one on his play-through, and didn't know that victory (such as it is) through negotiation was even possible.

As it turns out, I've gotten very attached to K. Shepard.  Everyone's talk about "my Shepard" makes sense, because, well -- she's Commander Shepard, Cosmic Badass!  Let there be no argument!  She is just that good!  I'm ready to save the galaxy from Reapers, bring it ME2!

But then... there was this.

You know what that trailer is?  That trailer is boring.  That trailer is generic and could be for almost anything.  Woohoo, stereotypical-looking boring white dude with boring voice leads plucky group of whoever to do whatever and makes out with a good-looking woman along the way.  YAWN.

Thank goodness for this version:

Truth be told, though, I'd have been happier overall if none of the marketing materials focused on Shepard that way.  President Bartlett there in his voice-over could have said, "one person," rather than "one man."  They could have continued to focus more on the threat, the ship, and other characters.  (I might have cheered when I saw Garrus.  Turns out I like him.)

I love how the game feels with a female Shepard -- and it's a pretty universal opinion that for ME1 at least, Jennifer Hale did the far superior voice acting job.  It frustrates me to no end that EA / BioWare feel compelled to put in all of their advertising a boring, generic, seen-him-before space marine dude.  That's selling both the game and the audience short.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Meditation on Genre: The Adventure Game

I was trawling for writing ideas the other day, and got delivered a doozy.  Caleb Das asked, "The decline of point-and-click adventure games: Console victim or Hard to do right?"

And as it happens, I'd been chewing on this question for quite a while.  We previously began a discussion about adventure games, and now it's time to continue.

I often wonder if the reason for the decline of games labeled "adventure game" is because none of us knows quite how to define it.  Must it be absent combat?  Can your character die?  Is it straight-up puzzle solving?  Is it environmental puzzle-solving?  Is it a strictly linear narrative?  What about linear gameplay within that narrative?

The classics -- my eternally favored Monkey Island games -- were comedies at heart.  They were Pirates of the Caribbean.  (Seriously.  As Ron Gilbert himself pointed out... when I went to go see Dead Man's Chest in the theater, I thought... I've been here before.)  A comedic pirate story: great!  The gameplay, great fun though the SCUMM engine was, is almost secondary.  In Day of the Tentacle and Loom, my other classic favorites, the mode of gameplay does walk hand in hand with the story being told.  The use of switching protagonists / time eras in DoTT and the use of the staff (in all its senses) in Loom connects you to the actions taking place.

On the other hand, there's the type of adventure game like The Longest Journey.  When you're travelling the worlds with April Ryan, it's her story and you're just watching the live enaction of her telling it.  (We are indeed the audience clustered at Lady Alvane's feet in the prologue.)  You're helping along the way the way a child "helps" daddy tell the bedtime story with appropriate animal sounds, voices, and the occasional chomping jaw -- only with us, it's helping put Crow in a high place, or helping April pick up the weed that will let her breathe under water.

In the last post, commenter Line brought us down to Earth with a programmer's point of view on the matter:

 All games are pretty much made up of verbs and objects: actions the avatar can perform and things in the environment that will respond to those actions. Most types of game designs are verb-centric. Learning how to play the game means learning what your available actions are and what effect they have on broad types of objects. E.g., Mario can jump; if he jumps on a monster that monster dies; and so on. ...
The distinctive thing about adventures is that they're object-centric. The most common action in adventures is "use [object]" or "use [object] on [other object]." "Use" is an ambiguous verb. What defines the action is the object, and every object in the world has totally unique properties. You can't learn what actions your avatar is capable of, because those actions are context-dependent. The gameplay is figuring out what can be done to objects in the environment.

I think that games like this might be incompatible with sandbox gameplay because, by nature, this style takes control away from the avatar. In a game like Fallout, the ability to reach a goal by multiple paths comes for free, in a sense. Every enemy in the game can be shot, punched, set on fire, disarmed, lured into a land mine, sneaked past, pickpocketed, or avoided entirely. This works because "enemy" is a broad class of objects, and all these generic verbs always have the same effect on that class. But if you want multiple strategies for a puzzle in an adventure game, the designer has to hard-code them. Each object is unique, so each path has to be constructed from scratch. Which means solving a puzzle always means figuring out what the designer was thinking.

Of course, there's a lot of gray area ... . Lots of verb-centric games have object-centric puzzles in them. It's interesting, though, that the reverse is rarely true. Adventure games that do give some generic verbs to the avatar are almost always horrible experiences - you ever play the original Alone in the Dark? Still, it may not be impossible. The Penumbra games, with their traditional and physics-based puzzles, might point towards a way of fusing the two styles.

It's a long comment, even edited for length.  But it got me thinking.  The original LucasArts games did, in fact, give you nine verbs (plus "walk to"): give, pick up, use, open, close, look at, talk to, push, pull.  And they are widely regarded as not "horrible experiences," but at the exemplars of their time.  Many other games of the early and mid 1990s worked the same way.

And then of course there's the other type of interactive adventure, the environmental one.  In the Myst games, although what Atrus badly and repeatedly needs is an engineer or electrician, he gets you.  And over and over, you fix worlds and make things work without actually knowing a single verb, or carrying a single inventory item (with the occasional exception of a book page).

The modern heir of the classic point-and-click adventure is in many ways even more minimalist: it shows up on the Nintendo DS and on mobile gaming platforms (iOS and Droid).  This is where you have your Phoenix Wright titles or Hotel Dusk.  It's also where you find heavy play of the "standard" point-and-click adventures -- the LucasArts special editions and the new titles by Telltale.

The best elements of many genres come together these days, which is great.  The FPS (or hack-and-slash), the RPG, the platformer, the stealther, the adventure game -- many of the best elements of many of the medium's early genre definitions have met, mixed, and melded into the second wave of genre labels.  Something like an Uncharted (2) succeeds because of its mixture of elements that, 20 years ago, would have been in disparate games.

This really leads me to questioning genre overall.  We need genre, in a sense, but it also harms us.  On the one hand, genre teaches us what to expect, and it's a handy shorthand, particularly in marketing.  How does it look?  Do we see males or females?  Humans or non-humans?  Lush environments or 2D stick figures?  Even just the briefest glance of gameplay gives us something to go on.

But genre boxes us in: it teaches us NOT to expect, as well.  If our game-that-looked-like-an-adventure game has too many FPS elements, we're not happy.  If our game-that-looked-like-an-FPS doesn't have enough shooting, and has too much thinking and solving, we're not happy.

Gaming is now in the exact same bind that we already have with older media -- books, movies, and TV.  Where do you put 1984The Handmaid's TaleAmerican Gods?  You can make a plausible case for all three of those to go in sci-fi.  You can also make a plausible case for none of them to go in sci-fi.

As a culture we're starting, slowly, to move past single-label categorization.  GMail is my favorite tool ever because the e-mail is sorted by tags, not by folders.  Blog posts are sorted by tags.  And an e-store -- Amazon etc -- can sort products by tags, letting us all find our own ways.

I wish we were better about applying genre like tags.  "Dramedy" is clunky, but if your show is tagged "funny" and "drama" you can figure it out yourself.

So instead of filing a whole bunch of disparate games under genre labels that don't fit, we should let all the labels apply.  Uncharted, is, thus, platformer and gun combat and HD environments and smart ass hero and adventures in archaeology and environmental puzzler.

Me, I like solving mysteries and organic riddles (as opposed to the Professor Layton kind of riddles).  So if we could just make a tag-genre for that, I'd be happy.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Silicon Sisters and More

I wish I had time to write about everything under the sun, but that's not how reality works.  Luckily, other people write too:

Meanwhile, I do actually find myself with some time for writing and so I hope the next "Beyond the Girl Gamer" chapter or two will be ready by Monday.

Also, I finished Mass Effect (just the first) last night.  I have this to say about Shepard: COSMIC BADASS.  That is all.  Except it's not.  But it is for now.

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...

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Over the holidays last year, my husband and I were visiting my parents.  I was spending some down-time late in the evening on the sofa in their living room with my DS, much as I've done ever since I got my first DS in 2004.

My dad wandered into the room and finding me apparently intent on my little screens, asked, "So... are you winning?"

And although I heard him clearly, my only response was: "Huh?"  I literally didn't understand the question he was asking me -- "winning" was never even on my mind.

I get that games, in their traditional sense, are all a competition.  Chess has a winner and a loser.  So do baseball and backgammon and poker.  You win or lose at roulette or blackjack or even Pong.  But I can't even think of the last time I thought of a video game I was playing in terms of winning or losing.

The games I've played -- even back into the mid-1980s -- are always stories.  You complete a level or a game, but you don't win it.  We win the battles, sure, when we take down that boss, but you don't win Metal Gear Solid or Fallout or even, I think, Super Mario Brothers.

And you most certainly don't win a Professor Layton game, which is what I had in my DS at the time.  I couldn't win at that game any more than I could win at Star Wars or The Hobbit.  I could solve the riddles, and I could complete the story, but... winning?

Every time I have a serious discussion about gaming (and a discussion about serious gaming), I have it reinforced to me that we treat competitive multiplayer gaming as a completely overlapping circle to all gaming, and that's a bad idea.  Sure, they're a Venn diagram with a gigantic overlap in the middle, but single-player narrative gaming is a different beast from, say, hopping onto a Counter-Strike map with some people.  In due time I'll be finished with Mass Effect, just as I finished Bioshock and Fallout: New Vegas, but even as I make the "right" choices along the way, I'm certainly not winning any of them.

So no, dad, sorry: I definitely didn't win.  But I'm pretty sure I haven't lost, either.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Gamer behind the Ego

I've mentioned before that I had a really positive experience at PAX East 2011.  I came away fulfilled, and happy, and feeling like collectively, we (gamer culture) are on the right path.  I made some friends.

But what stands out for me in retrospect was that PAX was a girls' weekend for me.  Aside from a few folks I gamed with, and one journalist I met (who's the husband of a friend I made), I was almost entirely in the company of women.  I went to gender-themed panels, I sought out the company of the minority, and I was generally surrounded by affirming, positive examples of what gamer culture can be.

My little box here, and places like the Border House and TNC's joint, are safe spaces.

The world is not a safe space.

I thought I was past being intimidated solely on the basis of my gender.  When I open my mouth about gaming, I'm generally certain I know what I'm talking about, or at least I feel like I can participate in the conversation.  And if I don't, I keep my mouth shut.  Simple.  And in person, I feel like I'm on it.

But on the advice of many, I finally signed up at Bitmob this morning.  I think the site is a worthwhile endeavor, but I'm always nervous dipping my toe into any unknown waters.  And this morning I read some articles and thought about commenting... and on post after post, every name in the comments was clearly and obviously male.

I hide behind my initials because even in the non-anonymous age of the internet (having left my pseudonym behind me on a few sites I don't use much anymore), that "K" affords me shelter.

I'll pull myself together and get over it, soon enough.  All journeys beginning with a single step, and so on.  But it's hard being aware of that other level of judgement.

I miss the truly anonymous age of the Internet, when none of us had photos attached to our profiles or used our real names.  I think it afforded a lot of people who might be marginalized in some way in their 3D lives the space to avoid judgement except for their words and deeds, which is the way we should all get to live.

Meanwhile, I'm KCoxDC there, too, just like everywhere else.  Because that's who I am now, and that's the face for the world to see.

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.