I recently finished my second full clear of Mass Effect 2, which is also my first time beating the whole game as lady Shepard. Jennifer Hale really owns the character, to the surprise of no one. It also helps that I was busting heads whenever possible–the opposite of how most of my other Shepards have engaged with the locals.
Romance has always been a part of the Bioware formula, and ME2 was when I originally felt that in force. My first Shepard in the original Mass Effect never had anything to do with Liara, because his heart was set on Tali as soon as she stepped onstage. Smart, devoted, and slightly mysterious? Childbearing hips and weird feet? Boxes checked; cranks turned. The romances in Dragon Age: Origins were great, but my arc with Tali spanned the better part of an actual decade. We changed the galaxy together. It felt like an experience larger than an hour or two of dialog and cutscenes.
So romance had been a big part of my previous game, and this time I knew that Shepard and Garrus needed each other from the beginning . We were both sick of playing by the rules. By the time we were reunited in ME2, the galaxy was falling to bits, and I knew what was coming. I made a point of kicking Cerberus and anyone else responsible for that future mess whenever possible. Garrus approved.
We were comrades in arms, we’d lost friends, and we were both damaged–but we’d found each other. We were used to following our instincts, so we knew what we wanted.
And wow did the crew’s reaction weird the hell out of me. The basic response from my squad felt like “That’s really nice of you.” Even Kelly Chambers, who sometimes comments on the beauty of different aliens on the ship, seems to say that she’s glad someone is taking care of poor Garrus. Lady, we’ve killed, like, a million intelligent beings. 350,000 + in a day is our record, I think. Bumping uglies is fun, not charity. He’s my friend, he’s dependable, and we both murder pretty frequently. You can be happy for us, not just him. Sheesh.
So we had our own thing, and to hell with everybody else. Then I got to re-know Thane.
This made me pause. I hadn’t considered anyone but Garrus up until this point, and I was a little shocked to find myself second-guessing. A dependable friend who knows me, or the mysterious stranger with a broken heart? I probably don’t need to say much about perceived gender roles or young adult novel cliches here, but because I was playing it out and I had insight into Shepard’s character–insight the game hadn’t wholly provided me because I’d felt compelled to do that work on my own–it didn’t feel cliche at all. It made me think about how that kind of situation looks from a woman’s perspective, and while this was wrapped in a quest to save the galaxy, it still felt much more genuine than “team gale or team peeta?” I hadn’t seen Thane’s romance option before, but I’d heard others talk about how great it was. Confronted with the choice, I saw his appeal as a tragic character.
Why had the decision been so easy when I’d played as male Shepard? Was Tali just more interesting (yes) than other women in the game? Was I unintentionally playing a role because of how women are portrayed in fiction? Was a I seeing these men as attributes or potential experiences…and is that even morally wrong? Is that kind of fictional romantic conundrum popular because of female gender roles, or is it inspired by how men act? The more terrifying question, I suppose, is whether that type of fiction has a basis in reality. Or maybe I’m just being hijacked by misogyny. I’m not sure how to answer most of that , and the truth is probably all of the above to some degree, contingent on a lot of things.
What I do know is that “emergent gameplay” has been getting a lot of press lately, which is awesome. But this is the kind of moment (and game) that term is never applied to. That’s part of why, to me, emergence is a little misleading as a design goal. It doesn’t have to be about mechanics interacting without supervision; as long as the player feels involved and is given enough opportunities for interesting experiences, they will take them, and the game will get away with much less heavy lifting.
So yeah. Yikes. Interracial dating and gender politics…did not see that one coming.