Choice without Choice: Sex and DLC in Mass Effect 2

About a year ago, I wrote a couple of posts about sex and coupling in Mass Effect 2. Part One dealt with the game’s strange approach to monogamy, and Part Two was an attempt to catalog all of the romantic options available to Shepards both gay and straight. I had intended to write a Part Three after playing the much-ballyhooed “Lair of the Shadow Broker” add-on, which promised to address at least some of the plot issues that had been bothering me.

But I made a mistake: After playing “Lair of the Shadow Broker,” I played another Mass Effect 2 add-on called “Arrival,” a tacked-on, poorly written solo mission that commits what I consider a cardinal sin for any non-linear game: It forces the player-character to walk into a very obvious trap, makes it clear that the player-character (somehow) does not see the trap coming, and then tries to leverage that unavoidable mistake into the story as a hard-won lesson.

It’s not like watching the hero of a horror movie open a door that has a killer behind it. It’s more like having a book you’re reading sprout wings and start pounding itself repeatedly against a window pane. It’s  a guarantied way to make the protagonist look like a gullible, unrelatable simpleton, and to instantly derail a long-form narrative with the cheapest of cheap ploys.

After playing that little gem, I promptly uninstalled the game and stopped thinking about it for a while.

In fairness, “Lair of the Shadow Broker” is not nearly so maddening. It provides some well-paced action movie dialogue, it throws in some well-placed set-pieces, and it fleshes out several of the game’s core characters. It even (minor spoiler) introduces a new alien race to the Mass Effect universe, and provides a reasonably plausible explanation for why we’re just now hearing about said species.

But does it make Shepard’s relationship to Liara any more clear, or compelling, or for that matter, intelligible? The short answer is that yes, it sort of does, but at the expense of player agency. The longer answer will contain lots more spoilers.

You see, there was this great moment where Liara confronted me about romancing Tali, and I thought yes! this is what I came for! The issue was being addressed. It was just a quick exchange, but hey, it was something. I pressed on, and I think there was a car chase or something, and I kissed Liara during a boss fight, and it was all lovely, because I thought that it was leading to a big decision: Liara or Tali?

But the decision, when it came, was no decision at all. While I could tell Liara that I was going to stick with Tali,  I couldn’t tell Tali that I was going back to Liara, for the simple and probably budget-driven reason that the DLC pack didn’t contain any new conversations with Tali. If I wanted to be with Liara, I had to lie to Tali–or more accurately, I had to simply not discuss the matter.

Or in other words, if I’d wanted to be with Liara, then I would have had to stay in the same state of frustrated indecision that had bothered me in the core game, and that the DLC was supposed to resolve.

As it happened, I got to act out the one romantic path that interested me most. But critically, I didn’t choose it. I simply went with the one and only plot-line that BioWare had actually writtenSo I suppose that this series on sex in Mass Effect 2 now ends on an inessential, half-hearted note. Strangely appropriate.

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