Sleeping with a Trope: Sex and Character in Mass Effect 2

I want to be as clear as possible about two things. First: Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers.

Second: I come to praise BioWare, not to bury them. As I said in my previous post, very few game designers are tackling the issue of sex at all, let alone well. Even if it sounds like I’m beating up on the Mass Effect games–and even if I am, in fact, beating up on the Mass Effect games–it’s only because BioWare’s huge, branching narratives have so much as-yet-unrealized potential, as far as sex, love, and coupling in video games. If these games did not contain the seed of something truly remarkable, then there would be no reason to complain. That said, there are currently plenty of reasons to complain.

For example: If you want to play a gay male Shepard, then you’re out of luck. The necessary material simply isn’t in the game. If you want to play a lesbian Shepard, then you do have some options–none of them particularly satisfying, and none of them coequal with the romances available to heterosexual Shepards. The lesbian options are:

1. A series of weirdly silent booty-calls.
2. Celibacy, by your own choice.
3. Celibacy, by the choice of your love-object.
4. Death.

As BioWare explains it, the game lacks meatier queer options because they, the designers, “still view it as… if you’re picturing a PG-13 action movie. That’s how we’re trying to design it.” Which is pragmatic. PG13 action moves are a known quantity. They sell. Their tropes are familiar to besuited studio execs and deep-pocketed teenagers alike.

But an action-RPG is not a PG13 action movie, because PG13 action movies (1) are linear and static rather than branching and elastic, and (2) last around two hours rather than twenty. In a BioWare game, there’s room for a lot more variance. The queer stuff could be in there without any of your more homophobic customers seeing it, or even knowing that it’s available.

And also, it’s bad enough that games have ratings of their own, courtesy of the ESRB. Do we really need to drag another ratings board–the MPAA, those perpetually offended cultural dinosaurs–into this discussion? As soon as you conceive your project as “a PG13 action movie,” and start subtracting content in order to meet those parameters, you’ve surrendered creative control to a small, fussy group of unelected officials. Your profit margin is held at knife-point.

Well, you know, ratings boards seem to say, if you were to shorten the female orgasm in this scene, then we wouldn’t have to make it illegal for minors to see your film, and then maybe your film could actually make some money. Not that we’re telling you to change the content of your film or anything.

Self-censorship under duress is still censorship. In a way, it’s the very worst kind of censorship, because it demonstrates that otherwise worthwhile artists are really and truly interpolated–that expression is less free than we might like to think, because Tipper Gore and Jack Valenti are the ones who actually decide what does and does not make the cut. It’s a feedback loop of cowardly omissions, and it’s really not a cycle that BioWare should be perpetuating. They themselves have set the proverbial bar much higher than that.

All of that being said, what are would-be queer Shepards actually missing? What are the core romantic possibilities in Mass Effect 2? Since my primary Shepard is male, I will exclude those who are unattainable to him (Jacob Taylor, Garrus Vakarian, and Thane Krios) from this discussion. I have yet to experience those arcs for myself, and I don’t want to judge the content of a video game solely by YouTube clips of someone else playing it.

So, with that qualification, let’s get to it:

Samara and Morinth are a mother and daughter who are visually identical, but morally opposite, and their roles as potential lovers reflect this dichotomy. A romance with the morally upright mother results the aforementioned courtly rebuff: “Another time, another life.” A romance with the morally corrupt daughter–who is an “Ardat-Yakshi,” essentially a cross between a sociopath and a succubus–furnishes Shepard with the aforementioned violent death.

Miranda Lawson is a Bond girl. I thought I was the best, Shepard, but I’m nothing compared to you. Let’s have sex somewhere other than a bedroom.

Jack‘s romantic storyline is a rescue fantasy. She’s been through a lot, but Shepard can save her, if only he will (1) take on her emotional baggage, and then (2) proceed to a tender sex-while-crying sequence. Casual sex will not save her, but then again, neither will friendship; only four parts listening to one part sexing will do the job.

Tali’Zora vas Normandy née Neema is the most interesting of the bunch, for my money. Tali is a quarian–that is, a member of a species whose immune systems are too weak to allow for survival outside of their homeworld, and who therefore wear full-body “environmental suits” in order to protect themselves from infection. This means that Tali is essentially wearing a veil–which, along with her “sexy accent,” sets off every Orientalism alarm in my theory-addled brain. It also means that, if a human and a quarian are to have sex, they must first take some precautions.

But strangely enough, the player cannot offer any material assistance on that front. You can only say that you’re willing to wait for her, which isn’t actually a sacrifice; the way the game is structured, you can’t consummate any full-on romance until just before your final mission, so you’d be waiting regardless. Your contribution, were you allowed to make one, could have been a simple one: Buy such-and-such an herb, which you can only get from such-and-such a store, or on such-and-such a planet. Even something as cursory as that would have gone a long way toward making the affair feel like a loving relationship between equals, rather than a conquest. As it stands, waiting for Tali has a slightly sexist subtext–namely, that making sex safe is a woman’s responsibility, and that a man has only to keep it zipped up while she, the woman, makes the necessary (and somewhat mysterious) preparations.

Indeed, the other problem is that, whereas Tali approaches sex like a person–she is nervous, she has to worry about the effect it will have on her body, she makes jokes to hide her discomfort–Shepard can only approach sex like the flawless, untouchable Übermensch that he is. He can be a kindly superhero; he can be patient as well as unstoppable. But in the end, his sexuality is the bluntest of all possible instruments: It humbles Miranda, it redeems Jack, and it lures Tali out of her shell, not to mention her veil.

BioWare has gone out of their way to complicate Shepard’s moral behavior, but simultaneously, they have made his sexual behavior straightforward to the point of being Messianic. His gun can err, but his penis cannot. Even if Shepard makes a bad sexual choice–sleeping with Jack too soon, sleeping with Morinth at all–he still has sex like a leading man, all swagger and wink and quip.

Maybe there won’t be a really good sex scene in a video game until a video game allows its hero to have disappointing sex, or awkward sex, or in other words, bad sex. Of course, such an event would be well outside the vocabulary of a PG13 action movie–which, honestly, could only be a good thing for the Mass Effect series, and for video games as a medium.

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