Confession: I hate creating characters in video games. Despite the fact I've spent 40 hours with him in Tamriel, I couldn't even tell you what my Skyrim character looks like. My Shepard in Mass Effect? He's the guy on the box. I can't be bothered. I just want to be the guy on the box.
But Mass Effect has never been about being the guy on the box. It's about choice. Personal choice. Everyone has their own Shepard. Everyone has their own story.
Perhaps that's why Bioware's decision to crowd source an official look for FemShep, the female version of Shepard, was so problematic. The iconic male Shepard came pre-designed. He was created before we knew we even had a choice. As a collective, we were asked to chose FemShep's canon look after two games, after forging our own experiences and memories.
"The idea was to just to let fans have a voice," claims Robyn Théberge.
Robyn Théberge is an Associate Project Manager at Bioware. She's just finished work on Mass Effect 3, and has two playthroughs of the game under her belt. One as a male Shepard ("he has a little more hair than the iconic Shepard — I just tweaked him a little more to my tastes") and another as FemShep.
"I'm the type of gamer that likes to model characters after themselves," laughs Robyn. "The male Shepard not so much, but my female Shepard looks like me!"
Bioware allowing fans to vote on how the 'iconic' FemShep would look in Mass Effect 3's marketing caused a bit of a backlash, for numerous different reasons but, according to Robyn, the biggest issue was the fact Mass Effect fans have such a personal investment in their own character, their own creation.
"I think everyone had their own impression of how she should look," she says. "People are almost protective of their Shepard, and there are always going to be differences between fans. Mass Effect really is such a personal experience and we just put it out there. It was up to them."
Well, not completely — Bioware did put together the original character designs. Not only asking fans to choose between facial types, but reselecting the hair type afterwards.
"With the original batch of models we tried to cover as many different ethnicities as possible, and as many different features," says Robyn. "There weren't a lot of similarities between them other than their body type. We just wanted to make sure that when we chose an iconic FemShep look we took on board as many opinions as possible."
But does the fact that we, as fans of the series, collectively chose how the 'iconic' FemShep looks affect things in any way — is there an argument to be made that crowd sourcing this sort of design makes a character lose its impact?
"I don't think so," says Robyn. "We still offer players the opportunity to customise their Shepard in any way they want. It's just when you're marketing the game it makes sense to have a face. In a way Shepard is the story. You are choosing how he or she looks and their personality. It helps us give a face to that hero, but you can make Shepard look however you want."
How about the fact we were asked to choose our female Shepard but simply shown what the male one looked like. Does that say something about the way female characters are judged on their appearance in video games?
"Again, I don't think so," continues Robyn. "Because you have the ability to make Shepard look any way you want — male or female. You have the choice to make your Shepard look attractive or unattractive.
"I wasn't involved in the decisions in the first Mass Effect to go with the initial iconic male Shepherd — I wasn't there — so I couldn't go into specifics, but Mass Effect is an RPG game where you have the option to customise your character, and we wanted to open things up to discuss her appearance.
"Ultimately it's still up to the gamer to decide how their Shepard looks."