Mass Effect 3 was an awesome game. We can all debate the merits of the ending, but when I played the final minutes, I thought it was a successful finale to a great series. Characters that we had grown to love were given satisfying arcs and Commander Shepard saved the galaxy from the Reaper threat. All in all, it went pretty much as I had expected it would, and I was content.
One of things that I loved about the series was the feeling that my Shepard was the coolest, most hardened soldier in the galaxy. In all 3 games, I played the Vanguard class. In the first game, Vanguards were kind of a bridge class between the Soldier class and an Adept class, taking a bit of good gun play and a bit of good biotics and rolling it into one powerhouse. In the second and third games, the Vanguard gained the ability to charge, which made the class almost like an angry bull, slamming head first into combat and blasting enemies away with shotgun blasts and well placed biotic shockwaves. The third game also introduced Nova, which added a much higher risk and reward style of play. You could charge in and follow by using Nova, but you would be without your shields and at the mercy of anyone that hadn’t been knocked down. As a player, this class was a blast to play. You were always trying to remember to balance your abilities effectively, while also trying to resist the overwhelming urge to charge enemies, because the charge power is just so much fun to use. You could get carried away and end up in the middle of bad situation, but that was all part of craziness of playing a Vanguard.
Because of the class I played, and the backstory I chose, I had certain ideas of how my Shepard looked, how she must think, what she must feel. For the most part, the developers made good decisions in how Shepard carried herself and I had no complaints through most of the series. As the third game came to a close, I had a romantic moment with Kaidan Alenko, and I came face to face with a harsh truth. My Shepard, underneath her armor and her biotic barrier, didn’t look like what I wanted her to look like. She looked frail, small. She looked weaker than I expected, and I was taken aback by how annoyed I was at such a small and seemingly inconsequential detail. But there it was, and I couldn’t quite figure out why I was so heartbroken by it.
After a lot of time and thought, I know why. I feel the way I feel because my expectations crashed into reality. Playing this tank-like, biotic rhinoceros made me feel like she would look like a tank-like, biotic rhinoceros under her armor. Instead of my character looking like Zoe Saldana, I wanted her to look like Gina Carano or Beth Phoenix. It’s a small detail, but I came to the realization that it was as important to me as any story beat or gameplay mechanic tweak. Seeing Shepard so small, so wimpy, broke my suspension of disbelief in her character and what she could do, what she was at her core. It’s kind of ridiculous, but it’s the truth.
To explain my state of mind a bit more, I need to tell you about Shepard’s best feature, her messed up nose. Originally, this was due to a mistake I made in the character creation menu. I was messing with sliders and while her nose looked good from the front, it looked like it had be seriously broken from the side. I hated it at first, but as I played the game, it grew on me. It was a part of her and it made sense. She was a tough, gritty soldier. At some point in training or battle she had her nose broken, maybe multiple times by the look of it, and she didn’t care. That’s just Shepard. And it didn’t matter to anyone she met. Kaidan still fell in love with her, she was still made a Spectre, she could still charm almost anyone she spoke to, and she could still outfight anyone. So her nose became a badge of honor to me. Even when I couldn’t import my appearance properly in Mass Effect 3, I took the time to try and recreate her exactly as she was, broken, flattened nose and all.
So why get caught up on a brief romance scene that showed Shepard in her underwear as a more petite figure than I had imagined? Again, it’s hard to put into words. I felt let down by the developers making her a more classical feminine figure. The message I got was that she was beautiful, but only because she seemed to be skinny with no real muscles to speak of and barely any scars. Her appearance was disappointing to me. It seemed like she was made to be attractive to the player, even if it didn’t fit in with her overall character arc.
The interesting thing is, I felt similarly disappointed in the change of the appearance of Kaidan Alenko. In the first game, he appeared to have relatively normal muscle tone while he became much more muscular in the third game. His class began as primarily support based with biotic and tech powers and, in that first game, he could only wear light armor and use a pistol. He was quite literally the equivalent of a mage class, so a slimmer, more acrobatic figure would make sense. By the third game, it had appeared that Kaidan had been hitting the gym in his free time, becoming a much more stereotypical hunk. He also had slightly altered facial features, including differently shaped eyes, although improved graphics between the first game and the third could account for some of the differences, I suppose, I can't say that that's the only reason he looks so different. So while some may think that I am disappointed just because of how the developers decided to portray a female character, I am also trying to say that I am disappointed that they decided to stay true to stereotypical views of attractiveness in both male and female characters.
At the end of the day, my main issue is that there are other games that portray female warrior characters well and realistically within their own universe. Diablo III has a barbarian class that is large, weighty and still beautiful and feminine in her own recognizable way. The Amazon in Demon’s Crown is muscular and powerful, but still attractive. These characters embody their class and their play style. When you see them, you know their capabilities and what to expect when you pick up a controller or a mouse and keyboard. When I saw Shepard without her armor, I didn’t see the Vanguard that I knew she was. I saw someone less.
In my mind’s eye, Shepard will always have a broken nose and will always look more like a female MMA fighter than a female leading lady. To fight the Reapers, she had to be stronger, faster and more powerful. To become an N7 and then a Spectre, she had to be a soldier with intense and grueling training. All of things, combined with the fact that she was killed and rebuilt make for a scarred, ferocious, battle-hardened woman. That is the image I will take away from Mass Effect, even if it’s not the image that the game left me with in it’s final hours.