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Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Luv in Space! Part 2: Mass Effect Romances

Welcome back! 

Well, it's been a couple of days since Part 1--non-blog writing distracted me from the internets, but I'm sure the prospect of more funny soon will allow you all to forgive me. 

So! Let's not waste any time with an intro--if you're confused, read Part 1--and get right down to talking about love. And sex. And censorship. I don't think I even need to say that this involves a lot of Mass Effect and a lot of spoilers. If you haven't played the games in a while, do so; meanwhile, the Mass Effect wiki, available here: http://masseffect.wikia.com/wiki/Mass_Effect_Wiki is a solid source and a handy way to figure out who and what the hell I'm talking about. 

I previously outlined a few basic 'pros' and 'cons' of the love interests by describing their personalities and a few strengths and weaknesses. Bioware needs some serious applause for its effort in developing rich, interesting people for us to both hang with and fall for (read: attempt to bone) in both of these games. When you romance someone in Mass Effect, you take them with all their flaws intact. That means Ashley will always be a xenophobe, Liara will be soft and unexpectedly wounded, Miranda will be uptight and snobbishly administrative, and Jack will be bugfuck crazy in every way possible. However, this does mean that the pre-scripted character conflicts you run into will be that much more difficult if you are fond of the characters. For example, Ashley trying to pop a cap into the loveable Wrex, Miranda and Jack bitchfighting, and Liara whingeing about being alone for two years and trying to break it off in a weak, 'give me love and attention' kind of way, or even the Miranda/Jacob sexual tension are all things you'll run into anyway, but they're more frustrating if you have to be involved directly. 
On one hand, this can be really annoying, because we want our videogame romances to do the right thing, or at least not be as annoying as real people. To be fair, some of these problems really reflect North American society and its common relationship problems, so you could argue that they're more realistic this way. However, given that Mass Effect is set in the and I'm going to break down the romance issues in list form, because, surprisingly, the problems in some individual romances are actually the same issues in others--just with different mustaches. 

Problem 1: Daddy Issues.
Hoo boy. For the record, if you count a grandparent and a 'female' male partner who acted as a father, then Ashley, Liara, Miranda, and Tali all fit the bill. Hell, if you count the 'Mom' issues between Morinth and Samara--which are essentially the same--all this makes for one messed-up cast of babes. The only characters who weren't a) abandoned, b) trying to live up to, or c) trying to get away from Big Bad Dad's history are Kelly Chambers, the most normal and well-adjusted human being EVER, and Jack, who was so badly abused by Cerberus that 'Daddy' might as well be the corporation. Having trouble with your father or father-figure is acceptable and common, but for every single female who wants a piece of MaleShep to showcase this behavior is a little much. 
The men are almost as bad. Jacob definitely has Daddy problems, Thane's are expressed through problems with his son, and Garrus has C-Sec to be a replacement for a Daddy. (Given that his failures at C-Sec are spoken of in the same kind of way as the other stuff, frankly, C-Sec can count as a Dad.) The only one issue-free is Kaidan, and given that he is basically a less-messed-up Jack, you can still sort of count Jump Zero as a father-figure to escape. 
Granted, in their plotlines they all get a chance to resolve this, which is more than I can say for real life. The stories are interesting and rich, but when Daddy issues (and a few Mommy issues) are in every single story line, you start to worry about the characters' mental health and ability to be in a grown up relationship just a little bit. Everyone has something they have to get over, and parents are part of it, but sheesh! 

Problem 2: Previous Relationship Drama. 
This one is a bit better in the sense that it's more representative, sorta. Miranda, Liara and Tali are virgins, Ashley is ambiguous but implies not having had any serious relationships, and Jack and Kelly are adventurous. Samara and Morinth don't count here, because one won't sleep with you and the other will eat your soul if you try to get your funky mind meld on with her. Kaidan and Garrus are not virgins, but are sort of inexperienced with serious relationships, and Thane has a dead wife that he never really gets over. Jacob, like Kelly, is a Normal Human Being, but won't talk about the fact that he and Miranda had a thaaaang a long time ago, or at least, won't talk about it much. I dislike the fact that some of the women are token pure virgins--though admittedly, they all have solid reasons for it--while the guys have a bit more variety than either 'slut' or 'virgin' in their background. And, as I'll get to in a minute, don't you dare fall for or date more than one of these people at a time. As with Problem 1, I blame our romance film culture, especially here in North America, for this particular paradigm and its pernicious proliferation. 

Problem 3: Commitment, Commitment, Commitment. 
Relationships are work. This is no surprise. I have an amazing one myself, but it got there through blood, sweat, and tears. You definitely get the blood, sweat, and tears handed to you in a game, which is fine, but the way that both male and female characters waffle on commitment (hi there, Liara, Jack, and Garrus...) is both compelling and annoying. Still, all of the characters--at a certain point in the romance--pretty much force you to be either VERY SERIOUS about the relationship, or give you the option to go to hell. There is no casual dating for the Shep, apparently. 

Problem 4: Character Inconsistencies with the Rest of Life. 
This one is a minor problem, really, but things like Ashley's horribly forced love of poetry, compared to Garrus' display of a sweet and vulnerable side show that some unexpected character developments work, and others make you stab your eardrums out with a fork. Still, the imperfections that all of us writers have are probably to blame, and if not that, well, you can bet it's probably the editors. Obviously, no game is perfect, and getting over the faults of your zeitgeist is one of the most difficult parts of good sci-fi. A few romantic inconsistencies, such as Jack's adventurous past and her status as a monogamous male-only option, really grate. However, a little sloppy writing or just a loose end can be overlooked, because with all the time and love lavished on characters and crewmates, really, I just can't tear down Bioware's writers for this too much. 

Problem 5: Somewhere, a Writer or Editor was Too Conservative. 
As both a member of the community (someday I will get used to saying that) and a strong supporter of LGBTQ rights, I have a duty to be sort of consistent in saying that suppressing romance options for both sexes is really not fair. As a writer, though, I am terribly disappointed by some of the cuts here because there were some incredibly interesting options that you just don't get. FemSheps get sexytime but only with Asari. Kaidan was supposed to be bi, which would have made him a lot more interesting, and the same thing goes for Miranda; Jack's lack of availability as a female romance option is just puzzling. All of the story richness, extra romance possibilities (both past and present), and little details that sexual diversity bring were also lost in these cuts.
However, Mass Effect 3 does promise to offer male-male romance options, so I, for one, feel a bit of hope. It would be nice if girls could get some non-alien action too--not that Liara isn't a cutie, but by making female options essentially 'alien only', well, there are some unpleasant subtle implications there. 
Also, I don't want to turn this into a feminist fist fight, so I'll just point at the stereotypical female archetypes above, and mention that apart from Kasumi and (in the first game) Tali, you can romance ALL THE THINGS with a vagina but not all the things with (some sort of?) penis. 

Problem 6: Sex Only Happens When We're About to Die. 
Jack offers you casual sex but if you take it, you're fucked for a real relationship with her; Kelly will dance for you and cuddle you, but sex is ambiguous there. You can get a little something blue and tasty from the Consort in the first game, if you act dense. Other than that, the Commander only gets a little dick/pussy when you're both on your way to the end of the world or something really life-threatening. That's a pretty sex-negative attitude, and considering the universe and the many sexual standards and morals that are set up elsewhere for the various cultures, it's downright unrealistic. I don't need to say that threesomes are out of the question, but I will cast a longing look at Dragon Age for its sheer gutsiness, excellent character development, and quiet embrace of far more sexual diversity. Come on, EA/Bioware, good people have sex too. 

Problem 7: If You Cheat/Break Up with Someone, YOU GO TO HELL AND YOU DIE. 
Now we get to the fun part: Drrrrrraaaaamaaaaaa! Drama drama drama jealousy jealousy drama. The designers have gleefully threatened us that if a romance in the first Mass Effect is, uh, interrupted by cheating in the second game, we will pay for it, and painfully. 'Negative consequences', from these people, means 'you are totally fucked'. In the first game, if you try to romance Liara and Ashley at the same time, Ashley throws an epic shit-fit and stomps off, although Liara is all 'I can share, I'm good', which would have been an interesting balance. In Mass Effect 2, oh god...you can date pretty much every girl there, and remember that Miranda romance I mentioned? And the Miranda/Jack catfight? Yeaaah, if you romance one or the other and choose the wrong side in the fight, one of the girls will dump your sorry ass. That's sort of fair, and one can't help but appreciate the way the game forces you to be either a saint or an asshole, because cowards never get the girl in real life, either. However, even though Liara says she is fine with any new romance options you pick after her--if you were romancing her before--and gives you her blessing, Mass Effect 3 may not reflect that same peaceful attitude. And even if she is nice about it...well, good luck getting the same response from Ashley. You're going to need Mordin's help sewing your bits back on, buddy. 

So, why is romance so hard to write well? We all love it in our stories, but sometimes it complicates them unnecessarily. Much as I have reamed out the stories' faults--and I have been preeeetty unrelenting--I have to say that the romances flow naturally and seem to fit the stories. If you don't romance the characters, you lose out on their unique personalities and insights, too. However, it's hard to stray from norms and expectations, pretty damn hard to write for those 'abnormal' (read: statistically less common) relationships, and even harder to make sure that character development is enhanced by the love, as opposed to harmed or stopped by it. A few more battle scars, more richly developed relationship histories, more alt-sex identities, and a bit less family trauma would be welcome changes to the scene.

So! Thanks for sticking with me through a very long two-parter. Remember, Mass Effect 3 comes out soon, and you can bet you'll be hearing about the love resolutions in that opus very soon!

Next time: more info about And the Stars Will Sing, including some very exclusive origin info. And, yes, as time goes on, you'll get to see some self-critiques of work too, including the dreaded romances. So long for now!


  1. I know that this is an older post, but Miranda is not a virgin, Liara and Tali are but not Miranda, if the banter with Jacob and her attitudes about sex are anything to go by.

    1. My mistake there, but she still seemed very closed off. The whole virgin/whore thing is kind of overused in Mass Effect--for the female characters, at least. And Miranda isn't a virgin, but she mentions having been close to few people, and additional easter egg content reveals that she has tried online dating (unsuccessfully) and is also infertile. In a way, she's a foil for Jack, which is fine, but it's still vaguely discomfiting that they confirm to that virgin/whore thing.

      (Incidentally, the dichotomy doesn't *actually* mean sex trade worker vs. actual young virgin; it refers to the behavior--chastity vs. promiscuity, and the way both of those tend to be framed in society.)

  2. I have to disagree on making every character bisexual just to give romance option for Shepard. I feel that when it comes to sexuality, it is a trait of the character, not the player's expectations. There is a difference between what the player wants, in this case to define their character, and the defining traits of other characters. If they are going to have characters encompassing the full spectrum of sexual identity these characters should exist on their own, not simply to meet the players needs, but because it reflects a part of who they are. Hero of their own story and all of that.

    As for Jack, she is someone who has suffered an inordinate amount of sexual trauma, so much so that I feel that the writer's exploited the Rape as Drama trope to the breaking point. That doesn't mean that she has to be straight, bisexual, asexual or lesbian. My take is that she is just trying to figure out herself, including her sexual identity and Shepard provides as safe space for that.

    Kaidan is a troubling example. It seems to me that the writer's lacked the courage to make him bisexual from the start or else they caved in to fan demand and made him so. Either one is troubling. One shows a lack of courage, the other smacks of what I call "James Bonding," (as do other examples in-game), where characters exist to prostrate themselves romantically/sexually to the hero, regardless of their own character development and serve only to fulfill the reader's sexual fantasies.

    As for writing romances, I think it has to do more with the underlining binary structure of software, where YES/NO statements dominate the structure. Writing a third option is much harder to sustain throughout a single title, let alone several.

  3. I get what you're saying, but specifically for Jack, if she's just opening herself up to be safe with Shepard, she should still be able to initiate a romance with FemShep.

    Regarding Kaiden--he *was* written as bisexual; they had to cut the lines. I looked into it. I don't understand why making a male character bisexual is "caving into fan demands" and that's a bad thing, when literally every female character is romanceable.

    My biggest issue is that sex-locking characters prevents players from participating in their romance storylines for absolutely no reason. A renegade FemShep would probably romance someone like Jack. The "binary structure" of software doesn't hold up when there are many, many conversations with more than two options.


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