Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Same-Sex Romance and Mass Effect’s Iterative Fiction

mass-effect-commander-shepard-1357Few game studios can go pound for pound with RPG developer BioWare when it comes to designing rich, immersive game worlds. The best of BioWare’s work lovingly swaddles adequate gameplay in elaborate fiction, and despite their upcoming foray into the MMO space, they’ve demonstrated that they needn’t rely on established properties to do so.

With its two most recent franchises – Mass Effect and Dragon Age – BioWare’s banked heavily on gamer choice carrying over from one entry to the next. The relationship between Dragon Age and Dragon Age II exists but is quite loose when compared to the galaxy-shifting decisions that connect the two Mass Effect games.

Characters importing from one game to the next is not an entirely new idea. BioWare did it in the Baldur’s Gate series and other games before then have certainly included the feature, but the complexity of the Mass Effect universe and its tangled web of choices make for one hell of an import.

One choice that’s gotten Mass Effect a lot of humorously negative coverage has been its portrayal of sex. Remember the whole “Sexbox” thing? Yeah, that was the fault of Mass Effect’s whole “have sex with an asexual blue alien” thing. Strictly speaking though – despite its sexual smorgasbord – Mass Effect (unlike Dragon Age) has never allowed for same-sex relationships.

Until now.

Mass Effect 3 executive producer Casey Hudson tweeted the following on Sunday:

“Happy to confirm #ME3 supports wider options for love interests incl. same-sex for m&f chars, reactive to how you interact w/them in-game.”

This is a wonderful step for the Mass Effect series, as BioWare’s taken warranted criticism for completely ignoring homosexuality in ME when they included it in Dragon Age (they took some unwarranted criticism for how that worked out, too). It is a bit odd that medieval dragon hunters can shack up with the same sex but space-faring soldiers can’t. Negating an entire mode of perfectly valid* behavior doesn’t jive with a game whose greatest strength is its role-playing.

Navigating your Shepard through the Mass Effect universe is the reason to play these games. Mass Effect 2 did not win awards for its shooter mechanics. It garnered critical praise because of its cohesive setting, which provided believable context for some truly delightful characters. These characters lived or died in Mass Effect 2 based not only on your combat prowess but your dialogue choices, your decisions under pressure. While most game stories are merely excuses to play the next level, Mass Effect’s story is the reward for each encounter cleared. And that reward receives its value from the strength of the canon**.

Including a major behavioral choice*** option like same-sex romance this late in the series could rupture the three-game character arc BioWare’s trying to deliver. It begs all sorts of questions: Why didn’t my Shepard exhibit any of this before? Are any of my squad members gay? Why didn’t they say anything? What do the different people/races of Mass Effect think of homosexuality?****


The potential incongruities highlight a pitfall of story-centric game design. Games are experiential, no matter how much text they have you read, so developers generally focus on improving mechanics and adding new gameplay features for sequels. When you’ve gone to the painstaking lengths that BioWare has to link your mammoth fiction to your choice-driven gameplay, iteration risks upsetting the rules your writers laid out in the first place.

A minor example: the original Mass Effect explained away ammunition by cleverly-designed weaponry that would overheat instead of run out of ammo. BioWare felt they needed ammo for the sequel, so they created “heat clips” that needed to be expelled from the weapon much like depleted ammo cartridges. This didn’t reshape the Mass Effect universe, but it does illustrate how gameplay changes can bleed into the latticework of encyclopedia entries that is the Mass Effect codex.

Mass Effect also received a fairly structural overhaul for the sequel. The influence of Shepard’s new boss the Illusive Man’s influence extended to its mission structure, as well as the frequency and type of rewards players received. He divided the game into more distinct chapters, which played into the episodic nature of ME2’s “Assemble a Crew” story. How ME3 will vary structurally remains to be seen, but it’s safe to say that Shepard will have more behaviors to exhibit than ever before.

Allowing Shepard to be gay does not ruin Mass Effect. It lends believability to an already well-realized world, and there are far too few gay characters in games as it is. However, a less-than-perfect implementation could make it feel as if everyone in the universe suddenly discovered that gay was a thing you could be, and that’s not believable.

I trust BioWare. They’ve yet to do me wrong. Here’s hoping that – gay, straight, whatever – they do Shepard right.

* One might argue that BioWare tried to play it safe by excluding homosexuality in their RPG-shooter aimed (no pun intended) at the Lowest Common Denominator Shooter Fan who that may or may not approve of it. One might argue that.
** Yes, yes, I know: discussions of “canon” are generally the domain of nerdy message boards, but Mass Effect relies on its strong fiction to rise above the rest of the third-person shooter muck.

*** I am not trying to say that homosexuality is strictly a “choice”. I do not believe that. However, there’s something interesting in the idea that players will be choosing to make their Shepard gay or straight. Does that simplify a complicated issue?
**** This is by far the most interesting question. It’s also the least likely to be dealt with in any great detail.