Commander Shepard, the hero of the popular Sci-Fi franchise Mass Effect, can be a man or a woman; the player chooses. That kind of customisation is one of the most appealing aspects of the series, which is preparing to launch its third instalment in early 2012.
Since the series debuted in 2007, Mass Effect's box art and promotional materials have featured only a bald, tough-looking male version of Commander Shepard. As a result, the developers at BioWare have never had to declare an "official" version of the female Shepard, affectionately dubbed "FemShep" by her fans. Each of us FemShep players has been able to imagine that our own Shepard is the "real" one.
Judged solely on how the game is advertised, you'd never even know that it offered the option to play as a female protagonist. That's finally changing. In the wake of a lengthy twitter campaign organised by FemShep fans, BioWare's Director of Marketing David Silverman confirmed that the female Shepard will be featured on the Collector's Edition boxart of Mass Effect 3 and in her own trailer. All that remains to be determined is what, exactly, she will look like.
Since mid-July, BioWare has been running a competition on their Facebook fan page — a series of six possible versions of FemShep, which were posted along with the simple instructions: "Female Commander Shepard. 'Like' the one you want in game!" Two weeks' worth of "Likes" have been tallied, and one FemShep stands tall above the others — yep, it's the blonde one.
The tow-headed "Shepard 5" has dominated the voting, currently holding a massive lead with nearly 30,000 votes. (The next-closest runner-up is the dark-skinned, streak-haired "Shepard 4" with a mere 12,000.) Shepard 5's golden locks look nothing like any of the previously available hairstyles in the game, and so she looks nothing like any of the FemSheps that players have come to know and love. That fact is causing consternation among an increasingly large number of writers, bloggers and Mass Effect fans.
"I'm torn on the choice, to be honest," GayGamer.net editor Denis Farr told me in an email. "On the one hand, I love that FemShep is getting marketing and is being displayed. On the other, the way the campaign has been run has made it into a beauty pageant, which has a whole host of issues about what we value in women (things other than for which I value my FemShep).
"Since each Shep has a story, why not have fans submit a photo of their Shep and a story? Boil down who their Shep is, why she's awesome. It would both create fan engagement, as well as show the loyalty of the fans. Then have people vote on that. It creates a story about Shepard, not an image we just click on."
In the provocatively titled PC Gamer editorial "Death to Blonde Shepard," Kim Richards makes the point that this is the first time that female Shepard will be shown to the world, and says that "it breaks my heart that the mass public have gone for such the wishy washy, Barbie faced personality vacuum that is Shep 5. The modern day world is already so much more culturally diverse than yester-year, so why don't future representations reflect this? Isn't it about time that the clichÃ© of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed pin-up was fazed out?"
Holly Conrad, creative director at CrabCat Industries, has designed some pretty spectacular Mass Effect costumes over the years. She was closely involved in the competition ("Shepard 6" was even based on her own FemShep), and was disappointed in the results as well, tweeting, "The popular girls even win in Mass Effect. #whyblondeshepwhy."
"Having a blonde FemShep is like having the generic MaleShep," Conrad wrote to me."They're typical, 80-90 per cent of players will pick them just to get the game rolling. Maybe more guys will pick FemShep now that they've voted her in. Because that's who is choosing this, not the female fans. This is the 80 per cent male fan base that plays this game choosing the one they think is the most appealing, not the one that they think reminds them of Shepard, or even a soldier saving the galaxy. The voting had no story behind it, just looks, of course BlondeShep won in a pool that saturated with people that play MaleShep."
I like Blonde FemShep fine. I even voted for her! I thought her hair looked pretty rad, and I actually liked that she looked nothing like any of the Shepards available in the first two games — she was a blank slate. And past that, her hair was awesomely tousled, probably from blowing up a Reaper ship or having particularly frisky relations with her dreamy amphibian paramour Thane. She looks nothing like my own raven-haired FemShep, but that's OK with me. The default bald male Shepard looks nothing like my male Shepard either, and I've never really minded.
The democratic manner in which the "official" FemShep is being chosen represents the very thing that makes FemShep so great — we each have our own, and we all feel pretty strongly about him or her. A huge part of Mass Effect's appeal is that I can make my own character, and in doing so tell my own story. Of course, that's also what makes it so challenging to choose a single official FemShep. No matter what winds up getting decided, they're not going to choose a FemShep who represents everyone.
I like Farr's idea of having people write in with their own FemShep stories, and holding a public campaign to choose one winner while highlighting a bunch of other finalists. It would have brought a lot of attention to FemShep while highlighting the very diversity that makes choosing an official FemShep so difficult. But of course, it's a bit late for that now. EA/BioWare needs a single female Shepard featured on the box, and so I've got no real problem with the one the voters chose.
But for the ad campaign, why couldn't they perhaps try a new approach and highlight the customizability that makes Mass Effect so much fun? Imagine this TV spot, if you will: The iconic Mass Effect theme plays as the camera fades up on a view from a starship window. "We've come so far together," FemShep's voice-actor Jennifer Hale huskily intones. "But now," MaleShep voice-actor Mark Meer continues, "we've got to finish it." The beat drops and we cut to a variety of Shepards doing a variety of Shepard-y things — blasting evil Geth, shoving chumps down elevator shafts, making out with sexy aliens — but vitally, it's a different Shepard in every shot. At the end of the commercial, the montage resolves to male Shepard standing next to female Shepard, both of them turning to look out over a Reaper-ravaged Earth city.
Not only would that ad campaign feel inclusive enough to make please us hard-to-please FemShep players, it would also highlight one of the coolest (and most overlooked) features about Mass Effect: Shepard's customizability. In one fell swoop, BioWare could thrill a huge number of fans while advertising one of their game's most distinctive features. I'm not holding my breath, but it sure would be nice to see something different this time around.