Mass Effect 3

Although I haven’t been getting anything productive done lately, I have been playing a lot of video games. Specifically, I just finished Mass Effect 3.

I really enjoy the Mass Effect series (it’s my second favorite after the Dragon Age series), for a lot of reasons, but I think maybe one of the most interesting is that this is a man’s story that can be played as a woman.

What I mean by that is: Mass Effect is a science-fiction story about the square-jawed, hard-boiled space trooper, Commander Shepard. You know, this guy:

Right? Generic White Guy Sci-Fi Hero.

Only—you’re actually allowed to make Commander John Shepard whoever you want him to be. He doesn’t have to be white, and he doesn’t even have to be a guy. In my games it’s Commander Jane Shepard, wiry, tough-talking redhead, who the crew of the SSV Normandy would follow to the gates of frackin’ hell and back.

Because most of the video-game-playing audience is male, the story is designed with the guy pictured above in mind. I think BioWare has said that 82% percent of players choose a male Commander Shepard. So if you decide to make Jane your heroine, you get to play through a game where you are really, truly treated just as a man would be in the same kind of story. You get to try on that swagger, you get that deference and privilege and assumption of leadership. Your competence and bad-assery are never questioned. Women of all species throw themselves at you. Men of all species give you the bro-fist. You get really big guns.

There’s something…subversive, and liberating, and just enormously fun about this. Our cultural assumptions around masculinity and femininity are so deeply embedded that I don’t know if it’s even possible to create a story so free from gendered weight unless it was done exactly this way: a story that was developed for a hero, in which a heroine is unexpectedly substituted. I mean, let me put it this way. Over the course of three games, though she’s variously: captured, beaten, stripped of command, and just frackin’ shot to hell (at one point she’s literally clawing her way forward as her own blood pools around her), Jane Shepard never endures any kind of sexual threat. I could be forgetting some throwaway line somewhere, but I really don’t think there’s anything, and there’s definitely not anything major or serious. Rape just isn’t a problem that exists in Shepard’s storyverse. Can you imagine an epic story told about a female soldier that never even glances at the possibility of rape? It’s weirdly refreshing.

I mean, it’s a cliche that when people sit down to tell a story about a “strong female character,” one of the first, laziest signifiers they’ll reach for is to make her a rape survivor. We have plenty of Red Sonja-style “strong female characters” for whom sexual vulnerability is combined-and-contrasted with some kind of superficial martial strength. And clearly the real point is titillation for the (presumably male) audience. Obviously rape exists, and stories, including fantasy and sci-fi stories, about women dealing with rape do and should exist also. But damn, is it nice to have one epic action tale where Our Heroine spends exactly as much time worrying about rape as Captain Kirk does.

Being Jane Shepard lets me try on a specifically male fantasy of power and derring-do, but I get to experience it as a woman. I dunno, I mean ultimately I don’t want to stress this too hard. I just feel like it’s something video games can do that other forms of storytelling, like books or movies, usually can’t. It’s horizon-broadening. And it’s fun.

21 Responses to “Mass Effect 3”

  • Molly Says:

    John Shepard? Did any of them watch Stargate Atlantis?

    • shannon Says:

      Yeah, I know. It leads to a lot of confusion when I try to talk about Mass Effect with my nerd friends.

      You can change the first names (not the last), but John and Jane are the defaults.

  • Jennifer Says:

    As perhaps you know, the movie Salt was also written for a male protagonist, and then rewritten as a woman at the last minute when Angelina Jolie asked for the role. I like that movie a lot for the same reason – in fact I’ve never thought of the Mass Effect series in the way you mention, but now that I read this, I know exactly what you mean.

    (Did you ever play ME2 as a renegade FemShep? Someone makes a smartass remark about your character being a stripper, and she caresses her gun and says something like, “show me yours first. Bet mine’s bigger”. I think it’s the closest this game comes to sexual violence. Awesome.)

    Also, I love that (at least on my Xbox version) the case for the game discs is reversible, so that Jane is on the cover of the game. With her BIG GUN.

    I also love the almost total lack of heteronormativity in this third installment, which they seemed to be slowly building up to in the first two games.

    I’m still on my first, paragon, playthrough. Already dying to start again with my renegade!

    • shannon Says:

      So, are you happy with the Garrus content so far?

      I thought it was pretty great. I do kinda regret not romancing him now (Kaidan remains a yawnfest, as always) but I really ended up feeling like Garrus and Jane were BFFs till the end of time. That relationship is so great, whether or not you go the romance angle.

      I also really liked James Vega, and was super disappointed when it turned out that he’s not a romance option after all. I thought his sly, ballsy come-ons were hilarious, and way hotter than Kaidan’s endless whining.

      • Jennifer Says:

        Juliet Shepard, as a paragon, naturally remained true to Dr. T’Soni in ME2, so she just gets the best buds dialogue with G, but I’m 100% satisfied with it – and I let him win at bottle shooting. :p I think my favorite dialogue in the game might’ve when Legion tries to help Garrus calibrate, though!

        And as much as I can’t wait for my turian-loving renegade playthrough (the Shep they call Jayne), I must say I think, in all 3 MEs, the Liara romance is the best written in gaming history.

        I haven’t reached the infamous ending yet. What’s your stance on the hate? Or should I hold off on asking to avoid spoilers?

        • shannon Says:

          Yeah, the ending is bad — rushed, confusing, lacks any real closure. I don’t really share the hate though: most of the game was fantastic, and I’ve already made up my own ending.

          I’m actually tooling around with setting up a website that would ask some questions about how you played your game and then give you a proper set of epilogue slides based on your choices. It won’t pacify the enraged fanbase, of course, but it’s sort of a fun project.

          • Jennifer Says:

            I would love that!

          • Jennifer Says:

            In fact, if you need any help with that, let me know! I have played so many permutations and loved them all.

            I forgot to ask: do you get to overhear the Liara/Matriarch Aethyta dialogue even if you aren’t romancing Liara?

          • shannon Says:

            I would love to have your help. Let me get something up and running, and you can help me test and edit it.

            In my game, I sussed out that Aethyta was Liara’s “father” and I told Liara, but she already knew. Liara didn’t want to have anything to do with Aethyta, so I decided it was her choice and I just let it drop.

      • Jennifer Says:

        The dialogue between them is pretty amazing, especially if you are romancing Liara. Recommended!

        • shannon Says:

          Okay, those are great. “I’ve never felt the urge to headbutt anyone!” “Really? Not even a little bit?”

      • Jennifer Says:

        I just got the James N7 tattoo dialogue, and I now totally agree with you.

        Except about the bit where Kaiden’s whining is endless. For me, it ended in Virmire. Not feeling any regrets.

  • Kristen Says:

    I thought the rape survivor backstory was a mostly female thing? The female writers and role players I knew in college loved the hell out of it for instant drama and angst, and used in lieu of actual character building. The guys seemed to think ‘strong female character’ meant ‘hypersexed vamp with a whip’, though, so that may say more about the folks I was hanging out with.

  • James Says:

    Thanks for that epilogue generator! Very enjoyable and provided a lot of closure!

  • MC Says:

    Came here via Kotaku.

    As a guy playing through the Mass Effect games for the first time, I am enjoying the experience playing as a woman. I am not doing so for titillation, which is one of the reasons that was suggested for doing so in the Kotaku comments,. Rather it is a perspective which is rarely explored in gaming without turning it into a stereotype. There are very few female protagonists in games who aren’t designed to be eye candy or overly sexualized.

    In designing my version, I actually wanted more scarring options or even an eye patch since based on my service profile, my Shepard was a Colonist and a Sole Survivor, so she had been in more than a few scrapes throughout her life.

    I don’t know if it supports your argument, but there is a story that Ashley Williams told my Shepard (and probably everyone else) about her sister and the guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer. The younger Williams sister ended up cleaning his clock AND he apologized. I liked the Williams clan so much more after that piece of backstory.

    • shannon Says:

      I don’t have Ashley in my squad after Virmire, so I don’t get to hear those stories! I really liked Ash though, in the first game. I thought she was a really well-written character.

  • Eilifein Says:

    Damn it, came here from angryjoeshow, and used the generator. Was crying from Garrus entry to Tali’s (Destroy, medium EMS). All in all, so good written. I feel Bioware must be ashamed that you and koobismo did a better job than them just by writting/sketching 20 slides…. Lots of kudos. Thank you

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