Digital Homosexuality And Player Responsibility

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.

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