Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Mass Effect Series's Shepard's Gender

Well. March 6th looms, and you know what that means. Or if you don't, you will, after finishing this paragraph, because I am about to say it. March 6th is Mass Effect 3's launch date, AKA the day The RPGenius will cut off all forms of human contact for however long it takes to complete this final installment in Commander Shepard's trilogy of ass-kicking. And since this is the last rant scheduled to occur before that day, what better way to celebrate the Mass Effect series than a rant that complains about it? A lot of things, really, but I can't be bothered to do any of them, so you're stuck with this.

A common aspect to Western RPGs is the option for a player to choose the general traits of the game's main character at the game's beginning. You almost never see this in Japanese RPGs,* but that can be a real benefit to them at times, since a malleable protagonist is more difficult to strongly connect to the plot. One of these traits of the protagonist that the player has the option of determining is the character's gender. Typically this decision doesn't actually change all that much about the game's proceeding's, save for the protagonist's potential romantic options--in Dragon Age 1, for example, one of the love interests for a male hero will be Morrigan, while a female protagonist will be able to court Alistair instead.** Sometimes the gender of the protagonist doesn't even affect that much--it's basically negligible in Fallout 3 and Baldur's Gate 1, for example. Either way, it's usually an enjoyable little feature, I suppose, and usually the only harm I can think coming from it is what I implied before--the fact that leaving so much of a protagonist up to choice means less potential for him or her to get significant character development. Otherwise, I generally don't think much about this feature.

There is, however, one game series where this gender ambiguity is problematic to me: Mass Effect.

Now, just to reiterate what anyone who reads these rants with any regularity already knows: I am not a gender-biased kind of person. And I am all for feminism, for female empowerment in my video games. I have many times mentioned in my rants mentioned dissatisfaction with how many more male protagonists there are than female ones. I am always annoyed when female characters aren't allowed to fulfill anything beyond a cliched, traditional, often insultingly limited female role. I hate the way video games force female characters to dress in ridiculous, ineffective outfits clearly designed only to arouse a male audience. I don't deny that gender may have an influence on a person's character, but I oppose the notion that it is the defining trait of that person's character, and that a character role has to be gender-specific. That's why I've made rants of admiration for Wild Arms 3's Virginia as a female effectively fulfilling a particular brand of heroic role that most would associate only with males, and for Tales of the Abyss's Ion as a male effectively fulfilling a damsel in distress role. So I hope you will believe me when I say that my statement below has, to the best of my ability to gauge, absolutely no gender bias associated with it.

Commander Shepard needs to be a man.

I'm sorry, but it's just how it is. The female model for Shepard just doesn't work for the feats Shepard performs during Mass Effect 1 and 2. The best piece of evidence for this is in Mass Effect 2, concerning the battle against the Shadow Broker. If you have played it then you will recall that the Shadow Broker is...big. He's real big. He is to a Krogan what a Krogan is to a Salarian. There are times during that battle--awesome times--when Shepard goes in close for hand-to-hand combat, striking physical blows and body-slamming the big jerk. Well, seriously, now, let's look at this. It's only barely believable that the male model of Shepard could summon enough physical force to knock the Shadow Broker around as well as he does, and the male model of Shepard is a decently sizable guy with some (not really enough, if you ask me) muscle tone to him. The idea that the female Shepard model could perform the exact same physical feats is...well, it just lacks credibility.

I am NOT saying that females cannot be strong, large, and capable of great feats of strength. Hell no. I fully believe that a woman could, with comparable training and naturally gifted physique, do what male Shepard does in this fight (at least, I believe it as much as I believe he could). But not the woman that the female Shepard is. Because Bioware, for some idiotic reason, decided that the female Shepard would conform to stupid societal expectations rather than to common sense and the Shepard character history, and have a less solid frame and show basically no indication that she even exercised regularly, let alone went regularly into combat situations and had relevantly recent military training. I believe that the physical prowess to knock the Shadow Broker around isn't limited to a man--but I believe just as strongly that it sure as hell ain't possible that some casual soccer mom could manage it.

I mean, for God's sake, look at her. Now look at the Shadow Broker. Now compare them when put face to face. How the HELL are we supposed to buy that she could physically attack that guy and have any effect at all?

The Shadow Broker fight's my main line of argument here, but only because it's where the discrepancy is most noticeable. There are plenty of other occasions in both Mass Effects that have Shepard engaging in physical activities that rely on a body type and level of physical fitness that female Shepard just doesn't have. And hey, again, I do admit that there are times when I find myself thinking that the male Shepard should probably be a bit bigger or more noticeably strong than he is, but at least he's got something to him that he can throw around. The female Shepard model just doesn't work.

Maybe I'm being a little too nitpicky on this; I can't rightly say. I mean, if you look at the Fallout games, which also let you determine protagonist gender, it's not like your female character is physically impressive, and those games involve lots of similar action to Mass Effect. And yet...it just doesn't seem the same. For one thing, the build of the female models is fairly comparable to the male ones; you don't have the female protagonists so significantly less sturdy than their male counterparts. And the physical demands just don't get so glamorized with Fallout characters as they are with Shepard. One of the many ways that the Mass Effect games emphasize what a badass Shepard is is by showing Shepard's physical feats in dangerous and combat situations from time to time; Fallout just slow-motion captures killing blows (ones which are already usually pretty ludicrous, as opposed to the realism that Mass Effect tries to convey). Then look at Dragon Age--there's a fair difference between the male and female models, yes, but the parts that emphasize physical prowess do so using weapons and abilities more than just physical power and endurance. Knights of the Old Republic, you've got Jedi, who fight using the Force and nearly weightless weapons more than they do with any physical prowess. Baldur's Gate, everyone's too damn small on the screen to really tell anything anyway and the fighting is again not emphasized the same way. So I don't know, but I don't THINK I'm holding Mass Effect up to any standards that I don't hold up to the other Western RPGs I've played where gender is an option.

I guess the problem really just is that ME wants to convey that sense of realism in its confrontations, particularly those it emphasizes in special scenes, and this winds up just really emphasizing the (completely unnecessary, not to mention morally questionable***) differences they've made between the male and female Shepard models, making one fairly viable and unfortunately making the other one realistically unsuited for the demands that will be placed on it. A female model with a better physique would have been just fine, and made a lot more sense for the character anyway.

It's all the same to me for my playing style, since A, I am a hardcore Shepard - Tali fan and thus need Shepard to be male anyway, and B, male Shepard's voice actor has a feeling of a strong, demanding, and capable presence (at least in ME2; I've mentioned before he kind of came into his own in that game after a less impressive performance in ME1), which is what Shepard is regardless of how you play the game, while female Shepard's voice actress sounds like a tired, mentally detached traffic cop at the end of a long day. It doesn't affect my run through the game either way. Still, this is one of those inconsistencies that bug me, particularly when it really shouldn't be there anyway.

* Games where you choose at the beginning between 2 or more characters of different genders (such as Star Ocean 2, or Children of Mana) don't count. These are games with multiple possible protagonists that you choose from, not games with a single protagonist whose gender does not significantly change the protagonist's role and personality in the game. You can choose between a few different characters at the start of Seiken Densetsu 3, for example, but each one has a different character history, different beginning, different personality...you're picking which already complete person will be the hero, rather than determining the characteristics of the 1 hero of the game, like you do in Western RPGs.

** Man, did the male protagonists ever get screwed over in that trade-off.

*** Because, I mean, seriously, what reason COULD there really be for having the exact same character, who has done and must be able to do the exact same things, be smaller and have less physical presence, that doesn't boil down to mild sexism and/or fanservice? If anyone's got one, and it's reasonable, then I'm all ears.


  1. Having not played the series, couldn't physical prowess be attributed to the power suit (or what looks like one) that the character is wearing?

  2. To my knowledge, there is no indication that the body armor of the ME series has any strength-boosting capacities like the Power Armor of Fallout. It's never implied in the game's narrative or information archive, and the 3 ME tie-in books and comic book I've read make no mention of such a thing, either, while they do briefly describe other functions of the futuristic gear of the series (such as the built-in shielding).