Digital Homosexuality And Player Responsibility

by Scott Nichols

This article was originally published on GamePro’s website June 22, 2011. Since GamePro shut down and its web archives are no longer available, I have decided to re-post it here so that it is still available online as a resource. The article’s published title was “Mass Effect 3 Romance: Shepard’s Choice”, which honestly I was never very fond of, so I have given it back the original title I had intended when submitting it. The content of the article is identical to what was published.

As we learned last month, Mass Effect 3 will (finally) include same-sex romance options for both male and female Shepard. To say the least, the announcement left the Internet aflame with both supporters and detractors. And while the reactions aren’t exactly surprising, they are, how should I say, curious given the circumstances. After all, the Mass Effect series is built around player authorship. How could giving players more choices be a bad thing?

Well, if you ask the detractors, it’s all for the sake of a consistent story. After all, even in a science fiction universe with sentient jellyfish, monotone elephant-creatures performing Hamlet, and ancient robo-organic hybrid monsters from deep space, the idea that even one character could turn out to be gay or bi in the third act would really push a player’s suspension of disbelief.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to make flippant remarks. Both plot and character consistency are an important part of any narrative. However, saying that an option shouldn’t even be in the game implies that Bioware is solely responsible for the game’s narrative, and that simply isn’t true. Mass Effect isn’t the type of game where you can play it once and say definitively “yes, this is what happened.”

Sure, in the end players will always fight Saren and the collectors, but leading up to those confrontations are events with various outcomes due to their choices. Really, the series is already littered with potential inconsistencies. Did you use both paragon and renegade actions throughout the course of the game? That’s a potential inconsistency. Did you rescue the last rachni, a species that almost destroyed the galaxy, while fighting to stop the similarly galaxy-destroying Sovereign? That’s another potential inconsistency. Did you choose a romance option in both games? Depending on what you think of Commander Shepard that could be a potential inconsistency too.

Note that I said they are only potentially inconsistent though. That’s where the player’s narrative responsibility comes in. With a game built around choice, it is the player’s responsibility to ensure that inconsistencies don’t occur just as much as it is the developer’s. And if they do occur, it is then solely the player’s responsibility to justify those actions.

But what of the other characters? Commander Shepard’s actions and choices are decided by the player, but Bioware executive producer Casey Hudson told PC Gamer that “we’re not introducing any new characters that are going to be love interests.” Clearly this means that Bioware will have to change existing characters to retroactively make them gay or bi and accommodate offering both male and female same-sex options, right?

Well, no, not necessarily. And I’m not just talking about the fact that Hudson corrected himself two days later on Twitter, saying that there would be new same-sex love interests after all. Having existing characters as same-sex options could still be possible without changing them, because in order to change the characters their sexuality would have to already be defined.

I know, I know, Garrus already can hook up with female Shepard and Ashley seems to fancy male Shepard. But when playing as a male Shepard, I can’t recall a single time when Garrus or Kaiden made any reference to their sexual orientation. Likewise with Ashley when playing as a female Shepard. As far as relationship options go, these characters are blank slates.

Perhaps Garrus is still trying to figure out his feelings, calibrating if you will, or was intimidated by male Shepard constantly flirting with female crewmates (or more accurately, the female crewmates constantly flirting with Shepard). Meanwhile, Ashley’s bigotry and xenophobia toward alien races could be an outward projection of her difficulty coming to terms with her own sexuality. Nothing that has already been established about the characters would need to change, it would simply be a matter of filling in the blanks.

I’m not saying that this is how same-sex romances in Mass Effect 3 will play out, but it does illustrate how they can be integrated into existing characters without inconsistencies. At that point, it becomes the player’s responsibility how Shepard interacts with each character. If you don’t want Garrus to hook up with a male Shepard, then don’t flirt with Garrus.

If a same-sex romance option ruins a character’s consistency in Mass Effect 3, you only have your own choices to blame.

I am reminded of the excellent piece Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw wrote on his experience with Dragon Age II. After an Anders-specific quest, he recalls being given the option to kiss Anders, and heartily accepting. “Thinking about it, there is nothing about this that doesn’t make sense for my version of Hawke.” For his version of Hawke. Does that mean that no female romance options should have been given to a male Hawke in Dragon Age II? Of course not. Other players may have different experiences and make different choices, but for his version of Hawke a same-sex romance was the clear and consistent choice.

As for my own Commander Shepard, I don’t know yet how his romances will pan out in the third game. I saw his role as the first human Spectre to be an ambassador for the human race. His fling with Liara was strictly political, a “romance” of convenience to ensure strong relations between the human race and the Asari. But with her absence in the second game, my Shepard grew close with Tali. They were both engineers, so they shared similar interests, not to mention both Miranda and Jack had a bit too much emotional baggage for my tastes.

But how can I say what will happen next? The relationship with Tali formed as a purely emotional one, since her appearance is obscured by her environmental suit. Now that their relationship has turned physical, perhaps their romance will make Tali too sick to fight, forcing a breakup for her own safety and the safety of their mission. Or perhaps he just doesn’t feel the physical attraction needed to sustain their relationship and will move on elsewhere. I don’t plan on Shepard starting a same-sex romance in Mass Effect 3; in fact I don’t plan what his next romance will be at all. But if a same-sex option is present that is consistent with how I see Commander Shepard I certainly won’t ignore it.

Of course, there’s always the giant elcor in the room: there already are same-sex romance options in Mass Effect. At least if you played as a female Shepard. No, I’m not even talking about Liara. There are enough people who pretend that the whole “all Asari just happen to look female” excuse is a legitimate cop out. Which, by the way, it isn’t. No, I am talking about yeoman Kelly Chambers, who is more than happy to show off her bedroom skills for a female Shepard in Mass Effect 2.

Where was the outcry for narrative consistency then? There was some, but it was relegated to fringe discussions by those openly expressing homophobia. It wasn’t until male same-sex options were announced that the outcry reached mainstream levels of discussion. As much as I want to believe the discussion is actually about narrative consistency, the lack of argument consistency from those against it suggests otherwise. Because same-sex romance options break the consistency of a male Shepard just as much as they do for a female Shepard. Which is to say, not at all.

I can’t predict what will happen in Mass Effect 3, but when I play I know that it will be my responsibility to ensure Shepard’s actions are consistent with the persona I have attached to him for the past two games. That same responsibility falls on every person who plays the game, whether they accept it or not. If a same-sex romance option is inconsistent with how you see the characters, well, that’s why it’s an option and not a requirement.

Videogames are an inherently interactive medium, where narrative responsibility is shared between the developers and the player. Some developers are more hesitant to share that responsibility than others, and if the negative reactions to Mass Effect 3’s same-sex love interests are any indication, I can see why.

Choice and interaction set videogames apart from other mediums, and those who aren’t prepared to take some narrative responsibility for those choices might as well just watch a movie instead.

Images were credited to Maddithong, GameBlurb, and The Frip of the Dead.