I got my idea to play the sci-fi epic Mass Effect 3 as a closeted male version of the lead character, Commander Shepard, before the game’s creators said the third game in the three-game saga would finally include male same-sex romance.
As someone who did enjoy the series, I wanted to lovingly mock it while pointing out its parallels to the thinking behind such policies as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. But before I could do that, those points became irrelevant: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is no longer in effect, and there are now options for players to allow Shepard to experience two male same-sex romances.
I still played a closeted Shepard. I named my Shepard “Sebastian” and, as him, saved the galaxy while gathering a crew on my ship, the Normandy. In return, the game’s creators at BioWare inadvertently gave me a story that allowed me to more meaningfully connect to a coming out story than any I have read or seen in books or film.
As early as the first game — a game that ostensibly did not allow the male version of its protagonist to fall in love with any male character — there was a hint of homosocial camaraderie between Shepard and Kaidan, the first male crew member I brought into combat. The tension between them read as awkwardly as many conversations I have had with crushes in real life: heavy pauses between sentences that would touch on topics more intimate than anything that might be said just between casual friends. Whether or not this tension existed, I did want it to be there and could play that cat-and-mouse game of “is he or isn’t he interested in me?” We went, saved galactic civilisation as we knew it, and no more than words exchanged between us. Then I died (at the beginning of Mass Effect 2) and came back. Kaidan chastised Shepard for not speaking to him for the two years I was dead. He cared somewhat, at least.
Kaidan with one version of Mass Effect‘s Commander Shepard.
Through the first two Mass Effects, I found myself staving off advances by women of varying stripes, from crewmates to my personal assistant. When quietly denying their interest, or taking the conversational option that was more brusque than I would have otherwise chosen, I was left wondering if this would damage friendships. I wondered how this would be perceived, worried about not wanting to reject someone. I wanted my Shepard to be able to say to these ladies: “I’d love to be close friends, though.” I couldn’t say that in my rejections of their advances, however. It wasn’t exactly in the script. Yet I also couldn’t express my love interest in my close friend Kaidan, whom I had chosen to save at the expense of Ashley, another crewmate on board the Normandy.
Kaidan felt guilty about Ashley’s death, and I couldn’t even bring Shepard to say anything about why that decision had been made. I was, perhaps, not the right man for the job. Imposter syndrome seemed entirely plausible for this Shepard, but no one else was going to step into his shoes to make the decisions necessary to fight off the galactic threat of extermination by a synthetic master race. They were at least a good distraction when Shepard was far from Kaidan; something to make sure Shepard did not try to reach Kaidan through drunken extranet messages (which is what experience tells me I would have done in the same shoes).
In Shepard’s world, as shown in the third game, homosexuality does not seem that large of a deal. Indeed, in an interview on BioWare’s blog, Dusty Everman, who wrote the role of Mass Effect 3 pilot Steve Cortez, says: “I believe that by the 22nd century, declaring your gender preference will be about as profound as saying, ‘I like blondes.’ It will just be an accepted part of who we are.” Cortez mentions his husband many times. He is forthright and says it with no sense that he is cunning or testing of the waters. His having a husband is no big statement. It just is.
Unfortunately, prior to Cortez’s comments and the introduction of male romance in Mass Effect 3, I had no way of expressing Sebastian Shepard’s own romantic desires into the game universe in which he found himself, meaning I was internalizing all of it. I was playing from inside the closet, wanting to express my desires, but finding myself unable to actually put those feelings into any form, time and time again. In my mind, Sebastian was penning sober messages to Kaidan, expressing his feelings and deleting them; practising for the day he might finally say something.
While playing the game before me, I was constantly answering the question why: why was I not romancing the options I had? Liara or Tali? Miranda or Jack? In fact, when given the choice between abandoning Ashley or Kaidan, why did I select Ash, whom I knew I could pursue? I could answer that! But it played out as just indifference: not being interested, despite trying to be a comforting friend to many of these women who played significant roles in Sebastian’s life. It probably makes no sense that this Shepard would be closeted in this future world where Cortez can rattle off about his husband’s death without any fear or shame.
Then! It happened. On the Citadel, Kaidan invited me to dinner. I had already seen him nearly killed, and standing in his hospital room, those awkward pauses were back again. He expressed a desire to find someone, and, finally, that tension proved to be real.
I agreed to be his “someone”.
Later, bringing some alcohol to my room, he made a minor note about why this passion was not expressed previously: “You were always so focused on the work back then. The mission was everything.”
It wasn’t. I was an openly gay man playing a character who did not have the tools to properly express his character, and therefore was projecting my own knowledge of what it is like to live a closeted life — the shame, the guilt and the sheer terror of not knowing how to take that first step. To others it seemed I was apparently just focused on my work, putting out of mind everything else; in reality, the opportunity never presented itself, because the world in which Sebastian lived did not give him that chance until nearly the end of the series. The writers seemed to want to acknowledge the previous inability to romance Kaidan, and he may well have perceived me as a workaholic (saving all life as we know it is a full-time job, I imagine). But Sebastian threw himself into his work in order to distract him from his crush.
***Spoiler about the end of the game follows***
At the end of the game, I watched Joker and EDI, a couple I had brought together despite the fact that one was human and one was AI, put their arms around each other while staring off into the sun of the planet on which they crashed. I almost teared up watching Kaidan leave that same shuttle. In the game’s last playable scene, Sebastian had sacrificed himself so that organics and synthetics could live together, without fear. Watching Kaidan leave that shuttle behind Joker and EDI, after watching Sebastian give him a goodbye kiss in London, I felt gutted: Sebastian had finally come out, and now I was watching his lover start on a new life without him. It felt like such a momentous occasion in his life that was just as quickly ended.
Sebastian saved the universe by deciding to synthesise organic and synthetic life, a deus ex machina that seemed less important as I found myself at a loss for what that meant for his romance with Kaidan. I, as a person, did not particularly find Kaidan compelling. The romance, on the other hand, felt correct for Sebastian, a man who chased his dreams; whether those dreams were of Kaidan Alenko, or of seeing the galactic community come together and end their hostilities. Ultimately, his sacrifice read as someone who felt so undeserving of that particular love with Kaidan, that he was willing to give himself up. He was willing to sacrifice everything to ensure that other people could continue living without the kind of fear that ruled his life quite firmly for the first two games.
***End of spoiler***
Given this series’ own evolution of its concept of male same-sex romances, I am not entirely sure how often this phenomenon can be replicated. I would hazard to guess that the politics of our own world influenced Shepard’s romantic interests. As time progressed, so did Mass Effect‘s sexual politics. The way it played out, however, I was not merely watching Sebastian come out of the closet, his thoughts echoed my own. His particular journey was a necessity born out of the game’s own options.