Friday, March 1, 2024

Mass Effect’s forced male heterosexuality still chafes, over a decade later

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately on Mass Effect Legendary Edition, BioWare’s remastered compilation of the sci-fi RPG trilogy that debuted in 2007. It’s a phenomenal collection, bringing together three of the most highly acclaimed titles of the Xbox 360 console generation, their assorted DLC packs, and giving it all a visual overhaul into glorious 4K HDR.

For many players, the release of Legendary Edition will mark the first time to play the series all in one go, without years of waiting between instalments, or without elongated periods of platform exclusivity – pity the PS3 owners who didn’t get the original Mass Effect until five years after the 360, or the Wii U owners who bafflingly only got Mass Effect 3, rendering the continuity of decisions made in previous games a moot point. For others, it will mark the first time to play these much-vaunted titles, period, allowing them to see what the fuss has been about.

Largely, that fuss remains justified – the world-building, ambition, and scale of the Mass Effect universe are second to none. The games represent some of BioWare’s finest work – a sprawling starscape of worlds, with fully realised politics, lore, and cultures that stretch back millennia and spark the imagination. While some of the mechanical elements of the games now feel a little clunky, even with the Legendary Edition’s upgrades – just have a quick trawl of social media to see how many people still hate the controls for the Mako, as one example – for the most part, these are games that have deservedly stood the test of time.

There’s one big exception to that though – Mass Effect’s stilted approach to romance options, especially in the first two games, and particularly if you’re playing as the male version of Commander Shepard, the series’ space-borne hero. Back in 2007, the original game disappointed many LGBTQ+ gamers by only allowing male Shepard to date women – either the human Ashley Williams, a fellow soldier, or the asari scientist, Liara T’soni. The female Shepard could choose between the male Kaidan Alenko, another soldier, or Liara.

This always felt like a double-edged sword, a sort of flawed approach to queer representation. While allowing FemShep to date men or women gave lesbian or bi/pan women players the freedom to entrench themselves more authentically in Mass Effect’s world, it presented negative tropes that bisexuality in women was somehow more natural than in men, or worse, that the option to have same-sex female relationships was really more for a straight male player’s fantasy than it was for queer female players.

It wouldn’t be until 2013 and the release of Mass Effect 3 that male Shepard would be able to romance men. The game introduced Steve Cortez, a human pilot and exclusively gay, and finally – after spending an entire trilogy together – allowed Kaidan to be wooed by ManShep. An overdue addition to be sure, but one that even at the time felt like it had to be dragged out of the developers by a literal half-decade of pointing out the hypocrisy in only allowing FemShep same-sex romances.

Sadly, the situation hasn’t been improved in 2021, 14 years on from the dawn of the saga. If I want Kaidan to be my space boyfriend in game – and I do – I still have to work my way through two entire games, and relatively lengthy ones at that. In some ways, knowing that Kaidan isn’t romanceable until Mass Effect 3 makes it all the more frustrating – I spend entire missions with him, saving each other’s lives on hostile alien planets, taking down squadrons of Geth troopers together, forging a battlefield romance that spans the stars – only it isn’t a romance. Outside of combat, for now, Kaidan is at best a bro – no homo, dude. Not for another couple of games at least, when he can finally be won over, when he is inexplicably and suddenly open to a gay relationship.

This chafes all the more when it’s clear the option to date same-sex partners was (sort of) always there. Modders have uncovered audio files buried in the Legendary Edition that indicate same-sex dating options. There’s a rather large caveat here – the production model of the games meant that Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale (the voice actors of ManShep and FemShep, respectively) both recorded a tonne of dialogue, much of which wasn’t used or was recorded as, effectively, a “just in case” scenario. Still, it seems the lines exist, and it’s frustrating to gay or bi male players – or anyone who would want to play their version of ManShep that way – are denied any chance to put them to use until the very end of the trilogy.

Back when the Mass Effect series was originally being released, BioWare attracted umbrage from right-wing figures – particularly in the US – after early reports of its “sex scenes” were wildly misconstrued and the games became a focus of yet another manufactured culture war. You could almost understand a small-c conservative business balking at the idea of the sort of vitriolic coverage they would have attracted had male same-sex relationships been possible too – not that it would justify the cowardice, but it might at least explain it.

As we approach two decades from the original games’ release though, during which time LGBTQ+ representation has, thankfully, genuinely improved in western media, it feels less of an explanation. That’s especially true for a vast remastering project like the Legendary Edition, where the resources required for a 4K HDR overhaul are already considerable – would putting those audio options to use really have been such an undertaking? We’ll never know, sadly.

For now, I’ll be going back to saving the universe, trapped in a metaphorical foxhole with Kaidan as we bunker down against the greatest threats civilisation has ever known. For now, he’s just a battlefield bro. But come Mass Effect 3, that boy is going to get wooed like you wouldn’t believe.

Matt Kamen

[He/Him] Matt Kamen is a veteran media writer based in the UK, specialising in video games, film, and comics. If found, return to nearest coffee shop.

One thought on “Mass Effect’s forced male heterosexuality still chafes, over a decade later

  • Gay fans of BioWare have supported the company passionately for years, and they refuse to do better by us at every turn.

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