I've written a blog post complaining about Mass Effect and all of a sudden I feel deeply ashamed. I had to say it though. I just had to.
I took a lot of inspiration for this from Go Make Me A Sandwich and excellent but sadly defunct blog on sexism in Gaming. The stuff related to Mass Effect and Bioware is here but it is all worth a read, even if you don't agree with it all. I didn't but it opened my eyes to a lot of stuff.
People are worried about Mass Effect 3. This is a fact. The recent reveal that Jessica Chobot has a small part in the third game seems to have crystallised a lot of this angst and also provoked a lot of amazement at the response to her reveal. I just wanted to take this blog to explain what Mass Effect means to me and why it’s not so much Jessica Chobot but what she represents which is the problem
Mass Effect 1 felt to me like a game for grown-ups of both sexes. The story and the character design were unlike anything I had experienced in previous games. – bear in mind that I only really started serious gaming again with this generation so if you have examples of this from PS1, PS2 era etc I would be interested to hear them.
Mass Effects two main strengths are its story and characters. There are a plethora of well rounded male characters of various backgrounds and motivations across gaming. The minority of female protagonist will usually be poorly written and over-sexualised. The average video game producer seems to think games are for boys and boys like tits so no matter where in the universe she happens to be a female gaming character will normally be dressed for the pole rather than the battlefield. One factor that made Mass Effect so wonderful to play a game was that it took for granted that it could hold your attention with its story and cast and not by titillation. All the female roles were well rounded, fully clothed and tough as hell. Although Ashley got on my nerves a bit she was a tough soldier, Liara was a scientist and powerful Biotic, and Tali (my fave) was an excellent technician and like the others all shared motivations independent from pleasing your Sheppard. The complexity and genuineness of personalities sharing the Normandy with you was one of Mass Effect’s biggest strengths.
Just as thrilling was the plot. I have raved about this in forums before, but the moment you find the Promethean research base on Illos and get the full story of Reapers from Vigil is my favourite moment in gaming. The utter bleakness of the Promethean’s fate - having their life support systems shut down until only a handful are left is truly horrible. Vigil’s story of the dreadful inevitability of the Reapers posits them as almost a Godlike presence in the universe, an elemental force capable of the complete destruction of life, clearing the universe ready for re-birth. Are the Reapers like farmers, leaving the fields fallow for a new crop to grow, or are they an interventionist God, clearing the universe and starting again with a new big bang, experimenting with different forms of life each time round? Videogames don’t normally ask these sorts of questions, or at least so overtly. The Reapers inspire a huge sense of dread – how can humans possibly overturn what seems to be an inevitable and unstoppable part of how the universe works?
Perhaps this brilliant story was the start of the problem for Bioware. How do you continue a story like this in a medium which demands a successful ending without undermining the dreadful force and inevitable end you have summoned? I would like to see the current galaxy end in a similar fashion to the way the Prothean’s with Sheppard and his crew finding that the Reapers are far too deep and awesome a power to be defeated. It would be interesting to portray them as an inevitable rather than evil force and one the universe needs to be re-born and continue, much like humans must die for others to continue living.
But that’s just me – I can understand why Bioware don’t want to send gamers down this path in a multi-million selling series but I think it is the only way they can maintain the integrity of the story. Bioware seem to have realised this as well and in ME2 you could sense that they were trying to destroy the mystique and threat of the Reapers to make them a more defeatable foe for Sheppard and co in 3. The way the Reapers were introduced in ME1 did not seem to leave much room for them to be defeated and because of this Mass Effect 2 attempted to diminish their power to leave scope for victory. How else to explain the fact the Normandy takes out a Reaper ship with ease when in the first game one ship lays waste the Citadel and countless allied craft? The comparison between Sovereign in ME1 and the ridiculous Humanoid machine you take down at the end of 2 says a lot about how the menace of the Reapers has deteriorated.
However what most worries me is how Bioware’s character design has deteriorated from 1 to 2. I have already mentioned how great ME1’s female characters are, and the way they don’t pander to adolescent sexual fantasies. In contrast Mass Effect 2 introduces Miranda, Jack and Samara, who are woeful compared to Tali, Ashley and Liara.
Miranda’s ass is already an internet meme and however they spin her character’s backstory and try and justify her sex appeal by genetic design her skin-tight costume and relentless ass run opposed to the grown-up portrayal of women in the first game. Jack is another character seemingly designed with teenage boys in mind. The first Mass Effect gave us tough, believable characters so it’s hard to understand why Bioware would have a prominent NPC wear only a leather strap on her top half. How does it stay on? She is a cool character but dressing her like this just makes me think they are trying to give teenagers erections and it kills my belief in the game. Samara is written interestingly but whose idea was it to have her massive blue tits centre screen all game. Why would she buy a suit which doesn’t zip up? Did she put on weight somewhere out in galaxy where there aren’t any shops? Is it a device to distract people before she kills them? And doesn’t she get cold on those drafty space stations? In some games (Bayonetta for example) I can put up with this stuff, but Mass Effect is supposed to make sense, to be a believable universe. Why have a giant codex and lore if your characters are going to dress like bad anime girls?
I know these things are not important to some people who just like to play games to have fun and don’t like to think deeper about them. However for those of us who want to be treated as grown-ups, or god forbid people who want to play and see non-sexualised female characters in games the first Mass Effect is held in high regard. It is a pleasure to not have to block out obvious gamer-bait or stupid sexism and signs that Bioware are forgetting this make people worried about how the series is progressing.
This is why the reveal of Jessica Chobot provoked such a reaction – not because people are averse to her being in the game but because of what she represents. That a game that set out with such integrity is descending to stunt casting and cheap titillation is very sad. Maybe it is all just marketing, maybe Bioware know they have the original fans in the bag so they are using the hype just to attract new sales, but if so they need to throw us a bone because it looks as if they are forgetting what made the first game so special. I don’t hate Chobot and if she is a good actress and adds something to the game then great, however it’s hard to believe this is why Bioware have signed her and her really creepy likeness to Mass Effect 3. People are reacting to her not because of her, but of what she represents, which is Bioware losing sight of what made this series so great. Great grown-up characters, great lore and great story – I really hope there is space left between the multiplayer, space-tits and stunt casting for some of what has made Mass Effect such a perfect experience.