[Every weekend, Gamasutra is featuring sharp editorials and feature stories from our correspondents, and this piece from Game Set Watch columnist Chris Dahlen deals with sexuality and Mass Effect.]
Count me in the camp of people who was disappointed by Mass Effect. I expected to be lured into a rich, alien world, and seduced by the exotic races and intricate politics that BioWare had crammed into the story.
But what I got was less a classic like Knights of the Old Republic and more like - well, you know when you start a cheap paperback and you just can’t put the damn thing down, and the writing’s sloppy and there are typos and the cover’s cheesy, but you just have to get to the end? And the end still doesn’t knock you out? I could go on about how the incredible hype and AAA-prestige that latches onto titles like this blinds critics and fans to the not-quite-awesome product that finally hits the stores.
But let’s not talk about that. Instead, let’s talk about that girl-girl alien sex scene.
Didn't that soft-core sex scene in the clip – come on, you've seen it - take you back to late-night Cinemax? Did Emmanuelle ever make it into outer space? But that said, how much does it suck that they leaked this early? The gay relationships in Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire and that D & D game that nobody played, Temple of Elemental Gay Marriage, were all snookered in under the scenes. I beat KOTOR and didn’t even know that Juhani, one of the female characters, swung that way. (I was too busy trying to mack on Batista.)
Same goes for the boy-boy kiss in Bully. Or the easily-assumed homosexuality in Planescape: Torment (the Nameless One is a sensualist whose many identities swung from ridiculously lawful to brutally chaotic; who’s betting he didn’t plane-hop on the downlow somewhere down the line?). These encounters were like Easter eggs, and they were really only for the fans who actually wanted to hit on same-sex characters – because if you weren’t flirting, then you wouldn't get a prize.
Anyway, when I got my copy of Mass Effect, I rolled a female character. Hey, stop looking at me like that! Given a choice, I always play women, and the female Commander Shepard is voiced by the inimitable Jennifer Hale. If you don’t play as a woman, and specifically as a kick-ass renegade woman, you’re missing some of the most entertaining dialogue of the year. So I picked a woman – but I wasn’t one of those guys who was slack-jawedly jonesing for a sex scene.
In fact, I figured I would probably skip the romance subplots. Even as an observer, none of the non-player characters were that interesting. I met the handsome, earnest guy with a sensitive backstory – who’s a total drip. And then I met Liara, the blue-skinned alien chick, who also turns out to be a drip: she’s a historian who gets all nerdy and nervous whenever you talk to her one-on-one. She’s nice enough, but not really my type.
Let me also add that the NPCs in this game are a major step back for BioWare. They never talk with you in the field, aside from a couple generic lines about how “This building is very cold” or “This planet is very hot.” The extended get-to-know-you conversations I’m used to never happen. And as for flirting? Back in the day, when an NPC had a thing for you, they were subtle about it. A hint here, a jealous comment there, a few tests to make sure you would do nothing but agree with their every suggestion – and whammo, the screen went black and you got lucky.
But Mass Effect doesn’t have time for that. Your romance options basically hand themselves up on a platter: the first time you get to talking with them, they start dribbling about how impressive and intriguing you are and, hey, space is lonely and sometimes it’s fun to share a bunk. In fact, they don’t even say anything that romantic. They basically just say, “Keep talking to me and someday we’ll have that sex scene you saw on YouTube.”
Like I said, neither of my suitors did it for me. But of the two, Liara was the less obnoxious. She gave me a whole spiel about how her race is entirely female, meaning they reproduce bisexually, and their matings are a serious union of body and spirit, and it’s really a whole credible thing that they go around the galaxy banging aliens of either gender. Like, it just made perfect sense the way she explained it. Also, maybe if we had sex, I would get to father a kid. In real life I’m a dad, and in Second Life I’ve been a mom. But a lesbian dad? That would be new.
Also – and I don’t mean any disrespect to Liara, or any other fictional characters in this game - but have you ever been far away from civilization, and you really wanted a cheeseburger? That’s how I role-played this one. I figured Commander Shephard was happy to keep her own company – but she could probably use a good, hot cheeseburger.
But that didn’t mean we hooked up. No sir. We kept working, saving the galaxy a planet at a time, chatting between missions. Liara was all into me, but at the same time, nervous about taking things too fast – plus, the galaxy’s about to blow up, and it didn’t seem like a good time to start something serious. About halfway through the game she said she wasn’t ready, I said that’s fine, and then – she dropped the subject! That was it. Somehow I’d blown the romance subplot. And I was never going to get that Paramour achievement (worth 10 points).
Or so I thought. The night before the last mission of the game, I was typing away at some space age keyboard thing when there’s a knock on my door. It was Liara. She wanted to come in and talk – but clearly she wanted something more. She was lonely, she was nervous and – well, don’t we all feel that way sometimes? Don’t we all need a little company? And I don’t need to tell you, she got it.
But look. That wasn’t my goal. It just happened. I didn’t get this game, choose that character and follow all those options just so I could say that I became a lesbian dad in space. I mean, how hard up would anyone be to play hours of a video game just for a cutscene? And I don’t even think it was as persuasive as some of the other romance subplots out there – I mean, I could go on for pages about Annah in Planescape: Torment, and that just ends in a smooch. I've had whole relationships that didn't last as long as the time we spent circling around each other. Sure, this was a lot more cinematic, but I never bought Liara’s attraction to me, I didn’t like how little conversation and build-up we had, I just didn’t buy the whole thing – any more than I bought Mass Effect. Liara, like BioWare, promised me a “life-altering experience”: I sure didn’t get that.