Welcome to Objection! Where we take the time to go on-depth on current gaming issues, and let you guys continue the discussion in the comments section. In this week's Objection, we're discussing Mass Effect 3, and Casey Hudson's statement that same sex romances would be given more attention.
To sort through all the issues, we've brought in Adam Ruch, PhD Candidate and prolific blogger. He's already discussed this issue on his own site, but we wanted to talk it out on Kotaku and get to the bottom of what sexuality means in a game world that is constantly in flux.
MARK: There was a bit of a kerfuffle amongst Mass Effect fans, in the wake of producer Casey Hudson's assertion that same sex romances would be given more attention in Mass Effect 3. Strangely enough, it seemed that, despite the fact that homophobia is surely at the base of some of the concerns, plenty were more precious about the 'canon' of Mass Effect, and remaining consistent with what had gone on in previous games.
What's your take?
ADAM: This is a great one, and I've been fascinated by the case of Mass Effect for quite a while now. I think this issue bears discussion in two major areas: the first is probably the more obvious social angle, the appropriateness and under-representation of anything other than straight-white-male archetype characters and situations, but also on a theoretical side. If people really want to talk about the canon, let's talk about canon!
So, canon, in this sense, is the stuff that has happened - as in history, or the stuff that can happen, magical rules, speculative physics etc, in a fictional universe. Most importantly, it includes characterisation, and the relative stability of each character's personality over time. A little bit different to the Canon of English Literature.
Anyway... The question I have for Mass Effect fans is this: in the canon of Mass Effect, is Shepard male or female? We all know that you can play as either a male or a female Shepard, but how does canon handle that kind of option? I think we have to really learn how to understand this kind of contingency in videogames in general before we can talk about any specific canon. At the end of the two games we've played so far, the "what's gone on" is really quite different for different people. In some, Liara will present as attracted to a human male. In others, she'll present as attracted to females. Does that make her actually bisexual? If she is bisexual as a character, then does that mean Shepard is actually a simultaneous hermaphrodite?
MARK: Wow. A hermaphrodite Shepard. I would like to see that.
I see your meaning though - it’s a strange one precisely because Mass Effect is designed to have this flexible narrative, particularly when it comes to how you relate to characters and how they relate back.
It’s such a powerful technique – one that enables players to engage with the game on a subjective level, and on an emotional level. That is, I suspect, one of the major reasons why people are so up in arms about the whole situation.
‘My Shepard wouldn’t say this,’ people scream. Of course he wouldn’t he’s your Shepard.
The strange thing is that because gamers have that kind of connection with Shepard and their version of the story, all kinds of problems arise when it comes to how the story continues to evolve.
I think on some level, because players have become so engaged with the existing characters in the game, they want said characters to have some sort of permanence. They want them to be the same, not only in their version of the story, but in all of them at once. And that obviously can’t be.
ADAM: Yeah, I think you're right about the possessiveness of the various Shepards. It seems to me that people are a little better at realising that each Shepard is a bit different to the next, but have more trouble with this regarding the other characters. People go out of their way to create distinctly different Shepard characters by playing the game a few times over, having no problem with the fact that those Shepards can't obviously co-exist in the same universe. So, they don't try to mash all those different character traits into one supposedly 'real' Shepard.
When it comes to the NPCs, and the love interests in particular, it seems to me (from reading many pages of that EPIC thread on the Bioware Forum) that people want to keep the NPCs consistent across the multiple playthroughs. That is, Liara or Ashley is the same character in the versions of the story where Shepard is male and female.
From a videogame software perspective, it would be trivial for those two women to be presented totally differently just based on the player's gender selection. Who is to say that can't happen? I'm not really arguing that its good or bad to think this way, but we need to understand why the reactions are so impassioned. I suspect that, because it makes the game more enjoyable, players don't want to think of the NPCs as collections of programming switches, and would prefer to imagine them as personalities, like 'real' characters.
So, as players go through different scenarios, they reflect on what they know each NPC 'would' do in different circumstances, even if those circumstances can't possibly happen in this given playthrough. So that's why Liara is thought to be bisexual. In another quantum universe where my Shepard is male instead of female, I know I could get Liara in bed with him too! Its more pleasant, I guess, to think that way than to imagine that no matter what you do, NPC number 24 will present $romance_arc to $Player_Character WHERE $gender = male.
The problem that leads us to, though, is this great word they've come up with on the forum: "Shepsexual" characters.
MARK: Hold on man. Rewind it back. Please explain Shepsexual!
ADAM: Shepsexual is this idea that everyone aboard the Normandy wants to sleep with Shepard, regardless of what gender he or she winds up, how he or she looks or behaves. It's a great word! But it also shows just how difficult this situation is: on the one hand BioWare has the admirable goal of wanting to provide a more or less equal opportunity for everyone, straight or LGBT players (or just people curious to explore the story in different directions). On the other hand, we have a limited cast and time, so what we end up with is this universe where Shepard can end up sleeping with whoever they want, which is a totally unrealistic experience for anyone to wind up in.
The general fear of making everyone "bisexual" (along the same lines as Liara) crops up a lot in that BioWare thread. The speculation is that it will water-down the experience of romance in general, making them all feel a bit the same. I must admit I share a bit of that fear, if only for pragmatic reasons: cost of development, shortage of ideas etc. But in the end, I come back to the fact if I have to start all over, change the universe I'm playing in by altering my player-character's gender, is it really true that those characters are actually bisexual? You can't change your gender in the real world to see if you wife/husband boyfriend/girlfriend will still love you. It’s this weird extra knowledge we get as experience videogame players that allow us to judge the NPCs in these different ways. We don't do this to other characters like: If Han Solo were female, would Leia still fall in love with her? She would have to for the story to work, so she must be bisexual!
MARK: It’s one of those incredible experiences that only games can provide. I think it’s also a testament to the incredible achievement in universe building Mass Effect, as a franchise, is.
Personally, I’m not troubled by the whole situation. If you want to talk about canon, and the need to have consistency within a world or universe, Bioware truly are the kings of creating a universe from the ground up and having the story flow through the universe, as opposed to simply creating a universe to specifically suit the needs of the narrative.
At the end of the day I feel like this whole debate is being bogged down by semantics. Part of the problem is that Casey Hudson himself isn’t always the best at explaining his own bloody game! I remember, after an interview with him a couple of years back, being completely confused about what the hell the whole ‘Shepard dying’ thing meant.
Part of me believes this whole thing is a ruse, and will mean something completely different within the game.
I think what people are really struggling with is the integrity of Mass Effect as a story, and inconsistency in the universe is, no matter how you put it, a threat to that integrity.
In Bioware I trust. [Salutes]
ADAM: Yeah, it's a whole new kind of experience here, especially in games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fallout etc where there is a lot more to experience than just staying alive and killing the bad guys for a high score. These kinds of worlds are about the possibilities, not so much the concrete events that do happen. They're also becoming more and more human, emotional, rather than calculated and tactical.
I'm really very glad to be involved in gaming at this point in history, where we are having these kinds of conversations out in the open, with mainstream games. I mean, the alternative would be to be not having these possibilities out there. Its all part of the growing up that I know you and I and a lot of our readers here want games (and gamers) to go through - but as anyone who has been around a kid or a puppy or anything else that grows up, its messy. The point is, we're talking about it, its okay to talk about it, and hopefully some of the younger fans who are involved in the forum debates today will be the producers of tomorrow with better answers than what I've got.
I think I'll join you in that salute to BioWare though. We need to remember that the most popular news network in the United States ran a story that called the first Mass Effect a virtual online rape game. The fact that they're pursuing this stuff at all shows a genuine commitment to their art.