Asari Monogamy: Sex and Immersion in Mass Effect 2

Every BioWare game since Baldur’s Gate II has included at least one “romance” story path, wherein the player-character can have sex with a non-player character. I don’t think I’m stepping on anyone’s toes by pointing out that a lot of the romance material has been pretty embarrassing.

Then again, there has yet to be really good sex scene in any video game. I’m not talking about pornography–there’s plenty of that, thank you very much–but rather a scene that contains sex, and is also relevant to the themes, plot, or characters of the game. Neither, then, am I talking about the James Cameron-style non-sex scene from the first Mass Effect game. It’s not exactly a sex scene, because there are no sex-acts in it, and it’s not really a good scene in any case, because it has nothing much to do with any of the characters involved. The spaceman must sleep with some spacelady before the two share a final, impossible mission, and that’s all there is to it; the genre demands PG13 nookie, significance be damned.

Since Mass Effect 2 improves upon its predecessor in so many ways, I was excited to see where the game would go as far as romance. Now that I know, my feelings are very mixed. There are plenty of missteps, but they are missteps in uncharted territory. Other games simply aren’t going there, so it’s worth considering BioWare’s latest, slightly less awkward foray into gamic courtship. Spoilers will most assuredly follow.

For those of you who haven’t played Mass Effect (and who don’t mind the aforementioned spoilers), the series stars one Commander Shepard, a starship captain (either male or female, depending upon the player’s preference). The series forms an enormous, branching narrative in which the known universe and its inhabitants are shaped by player choice. In the first game, a male Shepard can choose one of two sexual partners: Ashley Williams, a xenophobic action girl, or Liara T’Soni, a green-skinned space babe who, like the catlike noble savages in Avatar, happens to be blue. A female Shepard can also sleep with Liara, or can choose instead a walking, talking plywood plank by the name of Kaiden Alenko.

Now: If one’s Shepard schtupped Liara in the original Mass Effect, then Mass Effect 2 will contain this strange reunion:

We learn that Liara has hardened–that she has attained notoriety, and perhaps even infamy. Then there is that kiss (around 0:53 in the above video), one of the strangest kisses in the long and checkered history of kissing, and then we move on, almost as if the kiss has never happened. One kiss–with eyes wide open, for goodness’ sake–and the topic is abruptly closed. Clearly, Liara still cares for Shepard. But are they a couple? Does she expect fidelity? What would it mean if she did?

In a way, that uncertainty is a beautiful storytelling device. I’m supposed to be a human who is in love with an alien, during humanity’s first generation of interstellar travel, right? So how better to put me in that role than to make me radically unsure of the customs involved? What are this alien woman’s expectations? Am I cheating on her if I sleep with some other alien, whose customs I don’t really know either? Or rather, from my lover’s point of view, am I hung up on quaint, provincial human bullshit that has no place on Illium?

At the same time, though, the whole situation is the result of bad writing. I have no idea if Liara wants to be with me, I have no idea whether being with her would actually preclude sleeping with someone else, and (this is key) I don’t have the option to ask. Shepard cannot discuss the issue of monogamy with Liara, nor with any of his other potential lovers, at any point in the game. No one pulls away from an embrace and says, “Don’t you have a bond-mate waiting for you?” Never can Shepard himself pull away and say, “We can’t do this, because I could never hurt Liara.”

Even if I bring my new lover to meet the old one, even if my new lover witnesses Liara kissing me, the topic somehow manages never to come up. And this is a game in which the characters talk and talk and talk, a game in which one of the two major moral paths–the Paragon path–consists largely of resolving tricky situations with words rather than deeds.

I can only speak to my own experience here, but that lack of context pulled me right out of the game. My Shepard wouldn’t cheat–he’s just not that kind of guy–so how can I know what he would do, and thus what I should do, without knowing where he stands with his old lover? I almost felt as though I’d run into a bug in the game, and that I should wait for a patch before proceeding. Yet it was no bug, the Internet told me. An upcoming chunk of DLC might provide a more complete picture (or not), but I wasn’t about to wait around for that, and so proceed I did.

In my next post, I’ll put Asari monogamy aside for the moment, and cover Shepard’s other romantic prospects in Mass Effect 2.

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