Monday, 11 March 2013

In which a feminist obsesses lengthily over Mass Effect

At the time of writing this, it is 7.30 on a Sunday evening and I am sitting in the second floor lobby of my university department building, “writing” my thesis, where I’ve been for three and a half hours now. Being able to use “writing” without the scare quotes would be a bit of an exaggeration- I only managed to add about 200 words to my wordcount today, although in my defence I also taught myself how to use Automap and I did write more than 200 words, I just also had to delete a lot of things. Anyway, it’s safe to say that a statistically very significant amount of my time over the past couple of days has been spent here, or in the department library (which is closed today- how I miss 24/7 library opening hours…), or for a few hours in what can only be described as a personal cell in the university’s main library. Coupled with the fact that I’m also working an internship over the other side of town (more on that at a later date), you might think I have very little time at the moment for silly time wasting.

And you’d be right, of course. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been wasting my time anyway. Two months ago, after a fateful conversation with an old friend, I found myself coming five years late to a video game trilogy that has probably now become one of my favourite things in the entire universe. I have since sunk several weeks of my life into playing- and overanalysing!- Mass Effect.

Let me preface this by saying I love video games, but I’m also pretty selective in what I play. Like with films and TV shows, I have an enduring obsession with a few esoteric things that I’ve come into contact with, whilst having absolutely no knowledge about the “core” stuff I probably should know about if I want to identify as a gamer*. I’m also aware that I could be opening an enormous can of worms by even daring to open my mouth about video games on a feminist blog, and that there’s a whole host of awful, scary issues surrounding women in this realm of culture which I’m mostly not even going to touch this time around. Excitingly, the long-awaited “Women vs. Tropes in Video Games” series started last week, no doubt to the chagrin of game playing misogynist Youtube commenters everywhere (especially since she disabled comments oh my god how dare a woman not be open to abuse from all people at all times), so if you want to follow a series that’s going to give a way better specific analysis then I suggest you keep up to date with that. Here’s the first one!**

Because, you know what, all I want to talk about is Mass Effect. And as anybody who has ever picked up Mass Effect knows, this basically just means that I want to discuss intergalactic alien sex. This is a game which sold its final DLC off advertising stating “you will get to have sex with your favourite fictional character again!”, so rest assured there’s a lot of boning going on. Apart from this, there are two other brilliant things about it:

1)      It’s a hugely immersive space opera set in a richly populated galaxy with a really fascinating history and your interactions with this world actually matter beyond a linear plot path and you meet lots of interesting characters whose lives and struggles also become invested in over the course of the series (and you can also sometimes have sex with these interesting characters).

2)      You can totally play as a GIRL oh my god.

Yep, the Mass Effect trilogy is pretty brilliant at giving you a really wide range of customisation over who your character is. So whilst every runthrough of Mass Effect has a Commander Shepard, and Commander Shepard always saves the galaxy, pretty much everything else in the game is down to you. Right down to your gender, appearance and your first name.

Shepard! Ah-ahhh! Saviour of the universe!
This is incredibly exciting in a way it’s hard for me to fully articulate. It’s not really to do with character identification, although I can see why that would be amazing for some people. Being able to play a game where everybody completely accepts that the most famous and capable person in the galaxy is a woman who grew up orphaned on the streets of Jakarta**** doesn’t make me any closer to being a late 22nd century Indonesian space marine myself, but the fact that she exists in this universe and I can make her exist just makes me feel that much more well-disposed to the rest of the game.

Commander Shepard, like all good RPG heroes, spends most of her time wandering around solving other people’s problems, whether they want her to or not. As this is a space opera, the problems reflect this. Examples are:

·         We have accidentally unleashed a horde of extinct bug-aliens on our ice-world science facility!
·         We are being mind-controlled by a weird plant and also robots are trying to kill us.
·         I am a robot and I want to learn how to live in peace and have feelings, please kill the other robots who disagree with this aim.
·         I hope nothing goes wrong when we set up a nuclear bomb in this alien breeding facility!
·         Our space-wizard academy is under attack from guys who want us to use our space-magic for evil.
·         Humans are going missing from space!
·         Some scientists are doing morally questionable things.
·         Some mercenaries are doing morally questionable things.
·         Gosh, that’s a very big worm and it appears to be shooting acid at us.

As mentioned, this is also a very characterisation-heavy game, and you make plenty of interesting friends and allies along the way! Your squad’s relationships are also pretty important to the game:  

·         My daughter is a sex vampire who I have dedicated four hundred years of my life to hunting down.
·         My dad is trying to kidnap my clone sister who I already kidnapped away from him once.
·         My mum got seduced by a spaceship into helping the bad guy.
·         My dad has spent the last ten years sexually abusing mentally degenerate young women on a remote planet.
·         My dad is dead from robots.
·         My son seems to think that becoming an assassin is a good career path, I can’t imagine where he got that bright idea from.
·         My parents are Canadian and also Canada Canada Canada [not much you can do to fix this one]

 There’s also an overarching plot about saving the galaxy from giant robots but honestly, the game never cares about that as much as it probably should. If you want to hear more flippant summaries of Mass Effect plotlines you should check out MSPixel, which does it much better and with more pictures.

Actually I'm pretty sure I just shot her.
So! Off Shepard goes, swanning around the galaxy with her adorable cheesy space husband (optional) asking inappropriate questions of strangers, either being pathologically nice or pathologically rude to everybody she meets***** and passing the Bechdel test with flying colours whilst she’s at it. In the meantime, the rest of the galaxy exists in a super weird mix of gender tropes. I think it’s probably fair to say that because this is a game that gets so much right so much of the time, the moments it gets wrong become that much more frustrating, and their treatment of women is no exception. One moment, annoying gender stereotypes are being magnificently subverted (your first two squadmates in ME1 are a straightforward shoot-everything soldier woman and a male space-wizard), and then in the next moment they’re suddenly ignored or played straight (all the human authority figures are male; one of your squadmates in Mass Effect 2 is a literally topless woman who… apparently keeps bullets away with space magic?)

I mean aside from anything else, doing strenuous activity in a leather nipple-strap just can't be comfortable. Also did I mention people are constantly shooting at you? Normalising female toplessness is a great project but I don't think it should be pioneered on the battlefield.

And then there’s the aliens.  Now, I have utmost respect for the fact that, whilst making this game, somebody clearly sat down and went “I think we should make sure that sexual reproduction isn’t inexplicably the same across all these different species”. Unfortunately, I have a sneaky suspicion that this thought happened after somebody had decided that there was no money to make different gendered character models for the majority of species, and that they needed a guilt-free way to fill space bars with alien strippers without being creepy or exploitative.

So, we get the Asari:

Liara, I'm about to badmouth your entire species. Cover your delicate ears.

Who are a female-presenting monogendered species with a thousand year lifespan and also the most advanced race in the galaxy. Like all blue aliens, they reproduce using Deep Emotional Bonds and can make babies with any other species. This means that everyone else in the galaxy- including people who otherwise have literally no sex drive- think that they’re the hottest thing ever. Given that asari just look like blue human women with tentacle heads, this is the game asking you to believe that human women are literally universally attractive. The asari also divide their own life cycles into “maiden-mother-matriarch” stages, becausenaturally as females their entire existence is based on their relationship to reproduction at any given time. Asari maidens have three career paths open to them: commando (completely awesome), exotic dancer (… less awesome) or archaeologist (because the game wants you to have a young, innocent space waifu on your squad and having her be a commando or a stripper would make her too powerful). So there are various bars across all three games filled with asari writhing on poles in skintight clothing, because hey! That’s just what they do between the ages of fifty and three hundred! Don’t judge!

I could probably write an entire separate essay on why this guy is so cool and  why it is so cool that he is cool. But let's not make this any worse than it already is.
Moving on. The salarians are the aforementioned no sex drive species. They reproduce by laying big clutches of eggs and only 10% of their population is female. The game doesn’t have any voiced female salarian characters until the third game, and then they look just like the male ones. I’m pretty much cool with the salarians, actually.

The one on the left is widely considered the most attractive woman in the Mass Effect trilogy. No, she never takes off the mask.
I’m also cool with the quarians- the only quarian you meet in the first game is hardcore female engineer (and Shepard’s bestie) Tali’Zorah, and although they do then introduce male quarians in future games, the ratio of male to female characters remains pretty even. They also have a much better ratio of women in authority than any other gender dimorphic species in the galaxy.

Heh heh heh.
The krogan are ultraviolent space tortoises who got forcibly sterilised by the other races a couple of thousand years ago for being too ultraviolent and having too many babies. This sterilisation means that almost all female krogan give birth to stillborn babies and “fertile females” have basically become commodities that the male krogan go to war over. Despite this being one of the most important plot lines in the entire series, you don't find out firsthand what krogan women are like and how they have dealt with several thousand years of dead babies until the third game. This is apparently because they had to spend five years trying to design a character model that you would plausibly believe is a female space tortoise.

 Eventually they opted to have her wearing a lot of clothes so you can’t see she basically just looks the same as a male space tortoise.
Other minor races include the four-eyed angry space totalitarians, floating pink jellyfish, tiny ammonia-breathing mole people, sad eyed lizard people who blink sideways and these giant grey elephant things called elcor who talk in monotone and precede every sentence with a description of the tone it should be spoken in. Every member of these alien species are presented and voiced as male. But then, you don’t meet that many of those species, so it might be a fluke- besides, the jellyfish are using weird technology to translate their speech from bioluminescent flashes and neither the ammonia moles or the elcor have normal human speech patterns either so who’s to say they are male just because they sound male to humans?

Which is fine, if frustrating. But my suspension of disbelief regarding the lack of space women was completely shattered by the one species I haven’t covered:

Oh HAI Nihlus!

This is a turian. Turians are metal faced space avians with mandibles. Apart from these obvious physical differences, they are supposed to represent a species that is very similar to humanity in terms of their life cycles, whilst also being culturally very different (they are imilitaristic and very disciplined and most come across to humans like they constantly have a stick up their arse. Cloaca. Whatever.) They have complete gender equality and both male and female turians are expected to serve fifteen years in the military. They make up a huge proportion of the galactic military, the police force of the city you spend a lot of your time on and just the galactic population in general.

And for five years, every single one of the turians you meet whilst saving the galaxy just happens to be male. It’s explicitly not a case of humans not being able to tell the genders apart, because when they finally did design a female turian for the second-to-last DLC package, she looked and sounded different enough to make it impossible that any of the others you’d seen from the previous games were also women. Specifically, she looks somewhat like she has breasts, because this is the only way to make an audience accept that a character is female (unless you cover them entirely with clothes like Eve the female krogan. But I digress.)

A highly realistic metal faced space-bird lady!

So the people making this game were faced with a difficult logistical choice based on the fact that they could only make a limited number of character models. They knew they wanted a species of gender-equal metal-faced mandibirds, but they could only have one model (technically they do make two but... oh, you know what, just go play and find out). They had to decide: is it more likely that an audience will believe that some of these identical looking characters are male and some are female******, or are they more likely to swallow the idea that there are female birds out there in equal quantities to the males but they just literally never bump into them? They weighed this choice up, and decided that the latter was more credible. People playing this game are apparently more likely to believe that the women are invisible than that they might not be sexually optimised.

To me, it’s stuff like this that really highlights how far we have to go. As much as Mass Effect has shot straight to my heart in the past couple of months, and made me happy in ways both related and unrelated to my unrepentant feminist cogitations, it still terrifies me that we produce culture where the non-existence or invisibility of women is considered acceptable or a necessary trade-off. “Geek culture” has some pretty severe problems understanding the existence of women in reality, most recently embodied in the furore over “fake geek girls” at cons. But women do exist in geek culture, and we exist in the real world too, and believe it or not we are central to our own lives! If companies do want to make video games set in universes where women don’t exist, then that remains their (shitty) decision to make. But please. Don’t set something up as egalitarian, then refuse to put in anything female unless it looks good with tits. I’m not suspending my disbelief any more.

(Whoops, I barely talked about sex at all! Never mind. Next time.)


*Luckily, I don’t actually want to identify as a gamer, just like not everybody who watches films regularly is a “film buff”. I just… play video games sometimes.

**Brief comment on the video itself: it’s clearly starting the series on a really basic, obvious note so I’m pretty optimistic about it in general. One video game which it made me think about, and do hope she covers in the future (although I think it’s possibly too obscure) is the super-pretentious-arty-oh-so-subversive “Braid”, which bases its storyline on messing around with the Mario concept in the most super-pretentious-arty-oh-so-subversive way possible*** Ostensibly, you’re on a quest to rescue a princess (or are you inventing the atomic bomb?) but oh! Cunning subversion of the damsel in distress trope- and spoiler- ahead! Actually you’re the one trying to kidnap her! Yeah, the biggest super-pretentious-arty-oh-so-subversive twist they could come up with is that your damsel in distress needs rescuing from a different random sprite (and also might be a bomb). She still needs rescuing (or, uh, inventing) in the first place, though. Silly woman.

*** It also has some genuinely amazing mechanics to do with time manipulation and I really do recommend it. If you can stand the pretentiousness, that is.

**** OK let’s be totally clear, the game doesn’t actually ask you which earth city your  newly created fictional character spent their childhood in. That’s just a symptom of the rather absurd amount of time I have spent thinking about who I want her to be (I could literally tell you her entire fictional life story, I am that lame). Also I’m fully aware I didn’t spend nearly enough time making her facial structure fit with the fact she’s from south-east Asia, but she’s also from the late 22nd century so  let’s just assume there’s been plenty of racial mixing between now and then.

*****Another example of why my Shep is not a self-insert: she is pathologically nice. I am not.

****** I also just want to point out again: they’re based on birds. Lots of birds have colour-based sexual dimorphism that could have allowed different looking female turians without having to make another character model. But no. Boobs. Are important. Remember this.


  1. Dumb how they can make cool male aliens but only make female aliens that look like attractive humans

    1. What are you talking about? Thane is pretty sexy for an alien.


  3. (please read the whole thing)
    Another point you forgot to bring up: the breast sizes in this game. Video games and comic books tend to turn women's boobs into helium balloons stuck on human bodies. Mass Effect does this sometimes (*coughmirandacough*); in general, however, the women's breasts are widely varied in shape and size. As a busty woman who's tired of Lara Croft boobs popping up everywhere, I have to pay respect to the designers for making realistic boobs.

  4. This is a good article that raises a number of very valid points, but in the interests of nerdy pedagogy, I wanted to address the section on the Asari, and specifically this sentence: "Given that asari just look like blue human women with tentacle heads, this is the game asking you to believe that human women are literally universally attractive."

    If you've played through Mass Effect 2 really, really obsessively (as I have), at one point you'll run across a table full of multi-species males having a bachelor party in that bar on Ilium. There's an Asari stripper dancing on their table. If you listen to their entire conversation (which requires repeated prompts), it becomes clear that each person at the table believes the Asari to look like a female member of their own species. They have a short, confused debate about it. The implication is that, for whatever reason, Asari look the way the person viewing them wants them to look. Given that the Asari are capable of inter-species breeding, it'd be kind of cool if they've evolved some sort of specialized mind control, or something, that allows them to appear attractive to members of other species. Obviously that raises all kinds of questions (e.g. why would a straight female Shepard see Asari as female at all? Why not a hot male adonis Asari?), but still, it does put a different spin on the gender issues involved. Food for thought.

  5. Nice article...One thing it should be noted is that ME1 was designed by Bioware as a homage/love letter/reconstruction of 70s space opera.

    One of the aspects of 70s space opera was the hot alien apace babe but I think Bioware tried to also go beyond the stereotypes...