essay, video games

The Right Shepard

There has been a bit of a conversation about the idea that Mass Effect may get a movie. Despite the distilling of the rumors into the product of an anime venture, the possibility still remains that a live action movie may take place within the Mass Effect world and use the character of Shepard as one of the primary protagonists. And, on a first look, this seems like a good idea. After all, this is a popular franchise.

Dragon Age, also among the BioWare progeny, has had rumors of production of its own anime movie. Promised last year, the delivery of the animated movie was reported to be available in the early part of this year. (It’s still not here.) Dragon Age though doesn’t have the same problems that Mass Effect does. While Dragon Age has a large array of characters and classes for any player to choose from, Mass Effect has two basic variaties: female or male protagonist.

It has been a bit of a concern for many people — including myself — that the female option of Shepard was being underplayed and ignored. It wasn’t even until recently that the female version even got market coverage. Previous advertisements played up the fact that Shepard — male Shepard — would have to work with a “badass biotic” and Miranda, a clearly sexualized ‘partner’ — four of the top five Google results are “romantic” in nature! Much was made of the fact that many people play as a male Shepard and would want to have romantic encounters with the women on the ship. He is the hero after all. He must, as per genre regulations, have sex at least once during the journey in order that he clearly demonstrate his manhood and domination. How can we know that he is not gay —  and therefore in many people’s eyes weak — unless he beds at least one female?

It might make some sense then to see that I deliberately chose not to take that route. Well, sort of. In my first playthrough of Mass Effect and its sequel, I chose a female Shepard and then proceeded to try to make her a lesbian. In the first game, this worked in the sense that I arranged an ‘encounter’ with an Asari,  Liara T’Soni. However, in the second game, I found the Asari crew member creepy and so I ignored her during that playthrough. Still, I tried to pursue the option of seducing the “secretary” of the Normany, Kelly Chambers. No matter how much flirting we both did though she wasn’t a romantic option for my female Shepard. Why? ‘Cause there is no gay in space.

The lack of ability to act out the role of either a gay or lesbian Shepard in the Mass Effect games so far has been a thorn of contention for many people. How can express some aspect of the character they want to play without being able to pursue who they want in the game? Isn’t that, in some way, limiting how that character can be expressed and thus closing off the option to even play in that way? In response to this (probably), BioWare will be changing the third game to allow for all sexual options. There will probably not be any characters who sexuality has been tweaked — the worst idea — but the addition of new characters to allow the player to express their protagonist’s interests — the lesser of the two evils. How then can any movie even come close to trying to represent the romances that I or anyone else made in the game?

Ignoring the premise of romantic relationships for a moment, just trying to encapsulate the diverse character interactions is going to be hard. In one of my playthroughs of Mass Effect, I saved the Rachni. This insect-like species supposedly threatened the galaxy some two thousand years before I ran into them in my game. Put in a more blunt way, I pardoned Space-Hitler when I released them from a lab in Mass Effect. Would a movie represent that? I was put into the position of committing genocide and chose, in one playthrough, not to do that. In another, I did. Nasty space-Hitler insect things had to die, I was in a hurry that time.

The example of the Rachni, and whether or not that is cannon, is not even the most pressing of the ties between the two games for many players. What about Wrex? In all of my playthroughs of Mass Effect 2, he was dead. In one playthrough of Mass Effect, I killed him myself. Yet, in some player’s games he is the ruler of an entire planet and people. How does my cannon match up with the official one? Is he dead or alive? Who, if anyone, killed him? Did a good Shepard take a bad turn and was forced to put him down? Or an evil Shepard remove him?

These two examples, Rachni and Wrex, show that the personalization can vary just between my choices. With over 700 potential plot divisions, which part of the world is the real one? Which decision is the right one? Which among the diverse Shepards is the right one? Can that even be decided in a way to please anyone? Is the best option to just pick the average — male, solider Shepard — and go from there? Would that represent even some of the wide array of experiences that player had with the games? Should they even try?

The answer, by the way, is that they probably won’t. No matter how much they might want to, BioWare cannot please most of the crowd that played either game. The character of Shepard, even if it was averaged to a dude-bro way of playing, would still have a large outlining audience that experienced the game as a (probably closeted) lesbian or gay character. I can’t help to think then that crystallizing Shepard as one fixed type of character, gender or sexual preference would be the worst form of discrimination, for every player and every choice made. There is a very real possibility that there is no “right” Shepard but the one existing in the process of every play session.