A game that’s serious about LGBTQ+ community, relationships: Mass Effect (Review)

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I often tell people I was born with an Atari 2600 controller in my hand.

One of my earliest memories was my parents showing off the Atari at my grandparents’ house to my aunts and uncles. Games of Berzerk, Missile Command, and Space Invaders lasted long into the night. My sister was nearly born at home, because dad just needed to get one more game of Space Invaders in.

Gaming, while I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, was a very male space. Hardly any games featured women protagonists, and virtually none featured LGBTQ characters.

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This screen shot of Mass Effect shows how you can customize your own ‘Shepard,’ the main protagonist.

So being a very closeted trans girl, I’d jump at the chance to play any game that offered the option to be a woman. I reveled in the realm of ass-kicking while playing as Chun Li or Cammy in Street Fighter 2. or Joanna Dark in Perfect Dark.

Sadly, I didn’t have a Play Station, so never raided tombs as Lara Croft.

After I transitioned, console gaming fell away in favor of PC and strategy games, then returned in 2014 with Xbox.

I picked up Mass Effect 3 in 2015, realizing immediately: this was the game the 15-year-old, closeted “me” dreamt about.

FPS games are, to be blunt, a dime a dozen. But Mass Effect means more to me, because it relies so heavily on player choice and relationships between its characters.

For example: let’s say you are shaping the protagonist, Commander Shepard. Do you want to go full Captain Kirk, and teach aliens about this Earth thing called kissing? That’s doable!

Want Shepard to be a bi or gay man? Hell yeah, he can be! What about making Shepard a queer woman of color who saves the galaxy multiple times over? Oh, you bet your ass you can.

Mass Effect 3’s developer, BioWare, smartly avoids the trap of the “Strong Female Character” cliché in creating Female Shepard (or FemShep, as she is commonly known). BioWare give her equality, and more:  they invested in one of most prolific and best voice actors in the business with Jennifer Hale.

With Hale’s performance, you feel confidence and strength, and also passion in tender moments. You hurt when Shepard hurts. Yes, Shepard can be a no-nonsense space marine, but she can also goof off with Garrus on the Citadel, watch sappy space romance movies with Tali, joke around with EDI, or have in-depth philosophical conversations with Samara and Thane.

The characters of Mass Effect 3 are the very heart of the series. One reason I think “young me” would have loved this game as a kid is because most of the characters are, essentially, misfits trying to find their way in this galaxy.

There’s Ashley Williams, a marine whose family was blacklisted by the Alliance Military and who is determined to protect her family’s name. There’s Kaiden Alenko, who in his own words is “a messed-up kid” who was also once a guinea pig in a failed corporate experiment.

Garrus Vakarian is a failed police officer who never seems to live up to his father’s expectations. Wrex is a krogan bounty hunter who was nearly killed by his own father over political disagreements, Dr. Liara T’Soni is an intellectual archeologist who has difficulty connecting to people and prefers spending her time at ancient dig sites. Tali is a quarian kid on a pilgrimage to bring something of value back to her community. 

Those are my kind of people.

It feels all the more real because in Mass Effect 3, your military superiors do not approve of the company you keep on your ship. The politicians are looking for an excuse to undermine and ignore you, to preserve the status quo. Later in the game, they will beg you to save the galaxy when vengeful ancient machines (Reapers) show up to wipe out all of life.

When it’s all said and done, the misfits will have earned well-deserved respect, will keep hanging out with who they want to hang out with, and will love who they want to. The world and the galaxy will be a better place for it.

Speaking of love, Mass Effect 3 builds potentially romantic relationships, not just friendship, into the game – including same-sex relationships.  For example, FemShep can romance Liara — who despite being written as female, is part of a mono-gendered species known as the asari.

In the game’s initial 2007 release, same-sex relationships posed a complicated challenge. A Fox News freak-out led to a nerfing of same-sex relationships in Mass Effect 2.

By the time Mass Effect 3 came out in 2015, BioWare refused to heed the nattering nabobs of negativity at Fox News. They invested even more in relationships. Both male and female Shepards had multiple options for same-sex relationships.

BioWare continued to expand on relationship choice with Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect Andromeda. We all hoped the new Mass Effect: Legendary Edition would restore even more of the cut same-sex romances, but the release in February featured only a few changes.

What Bioware missed, the fans created. They remoded the original Mass Effect to restore the relationship options for Male Shepard and Kaiden. Fan art emerged of FemShep and Liara settling down to raise “lots of little blue children.”

It can still be tough for women and LGBTQ+ people to find places in video game culture. But as Mass Effect 3 shows, a segment of the gaming community does celebrate diversity of relationships.

A cis male told me his favorite romance of the trilogy was one between FemShep and a male alien named Thane. That’s when I knew this game was something truly wonderful and unique, because it encourages players to replay and discover relationships they haven’t explored.

The “15-year-old me” didn’t get the chance to enjoy the freedom that Mass Effect 3 enables. I didn’t have the option to explore the game world as a woman, or to forge my own relationships as a bisexual.

That’s why I hope the Mass Effect series continues. Queer kids of the future deserve to know there is a place in gaming for them, a place where they can both save the galaxy and meet the love of their life.

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Author Aime Wichtendahl is an author, parent, activist and Hiawatha City Council member. You can reach her at info@aimewichtendahl.com.

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