Diversity, and the obligations of game developers

10 April 2010
5:25 pm

BioWare is again being questioned about the lack of same-sex love interests in the Mass Effect franchise. When 1UP writer Tracey John spoke with project lead Casey Hudson and BioWare head Ray Muzyka, she just wanted to know, in a game built so much around choice, why couldn't her female Shepard have a romance with the female quarian Tali'Zorah vas Neema. Tali is a potential love interest available to male Shepards in Mass Effect 2, but female ones are locked out. BioWare's response, as it's maintained ever since the first whispers of a lack of same-sex characters in the sequel began floating around, is that the player experience in the Mass Effect games is much more tailored and less open-ended. In comparison to Dragon Age: Origins, which came out a few months before ME2 and did feature two bisexual characters, "Shepard" isn't the same blank slate provided to players in other BioWare games. BioWare made clear from the start that Mass Effect was meant to be more of an interactive film than a traditional RPG, giving players an engrossing and involved story instead of the open sandbox that comprises most of their other titles.

Ray Muzyka: Sometimes, in some of our games, we are going to have a defined character with a more defined view. Almost like a third-person narrative — where Mass Effect is more in that vein, Dragon Age isn’t in that vein; you could see the differences between the two. It’s just part of the design and the choices made for each game. It doesn’t mean that we’ve in anyway changed our philosophy toward enabling choice. We love giving players choice, and we are going to continue to enable that for future games. That’s a commitment for some of our franchises. For some other franchises we’ve had more defined characters and sort of approaches to things, and they’ve had a more defined personality and a more defined approach to the way they’ve proceed through the game and the world.

While this explanation makes sense to a certain degree, in BioWare's particular case it's a little confusing. Of the titles BioWare has developed, they've had more which included some sort of LGBT romance option than games which didn't, even going so far as to inject a lesbian character into George Lucas' decidedly heterosexual Star Wars universe. It's been so predominant with the developer that it's considered something of their hallmark, involving LGBT player romances in games long before titles like The Sims or Fable really made it mainstream-appropriate. Even further, the original Mass Effect did allow for a lesbian romance in the form of asari Liara T'Soni– while the official explanation for this is that the asari are all "mono-gendered," that particular shade of monochrome is patently feminine.

Further complicating things, the original Mass Effect also included full programming and voice work for same-sex player romances with both of the heterosexual choices; the voice actors recorded lines clearly created for the purposes of a same-sex romance; this shows that there was the intention to include this as a plot path for some point into the development of the game, which for whatever reason was disabled when it was officially released. The option has been added again by player-created modifications to saved game files, but the assets and voice recordings were always in the game in a locked form. Additionally, there have been unconfirmed reports that a voice actor for the Polish translation of the game had been asked to record male/male scenes and was apparently uncomfortable doing so. Mass Effect 2 has no lesbian option, whether by virtue of mono-gendered aliens or otherwise; it does include three romantic interactions with other characters, though: a bisexual female named Kelly Chambers, and two other asari named Samara and Morinth– however, these interactions are simple and non-sexual and don't grant the "Paramour" achievement that you obtain by romancing the main love interests. Again, though, this is only LGBT if your Shepard is female. While saved game files can be imported from the first game, which includes references to your love interest in Mass Effect 1 (as well as potential interactions with them in Mass Effect 2) if the female character romanced Liara in ME1, she's seemingly turned straight for the sequel.

Given these incongruities– which have never really been explained– coupled with BioWare's past history of including characters with diverse sexual interests, it's more than a little boggling which decisions they've elected to close off to players in this particular franchise.

One of the biggest responses to this criticism by other players has been, "Are developers obligated to compromise their vision of a game to satisfy the choices of consumers?"– the obvious implication being that game developers are being pushed into including gay and female characters by the mean PC police. It's an interesting subject that Bitmob brought up while discussing upcoming espionage RPG Alpha Protocol. As Jeffrey Grubb explains, in Alpha Protocol the player is depicted as a James Bond-esque super spy who cannot be female or gay. As a player, like with Mass Effect, you're presented with a shell that has many facets of its identity pre-defined for you already; you can choose to make some variation within the framework already decided by the developer, but sweeping alterations to that character's fabric aren't possible. This has been the case with most video games since their original creation, usually with far more linearity imposed upon players; for the most part players didn't complain about this, following the plot rollercoaster along its rail and enjoying the ride. But as Jeffrey points out, this is the paradox that studios like BioWare find themselves in: the more choices you give players, the higher expectations those players have that more and more diversity will be available as a choice. It stops becoming a question of forcing developers to abide by political correctness and token inclusions of different races and sexual orientations, but turns into consumers pointing out and questioning why certain options are included and others are chopped off.

Another common remark is, "You can pretend your Shepard is whatever sexuality you want, that doesn't necessarily mean everyone else will be interested in him." From an internal roleplay that certainly makes sense, but unfortunately the game itself doesn't allow you to express that to any characters. Jacob Taylor is a human only available to female Shepards; at no point in any conversations are you able to express sexual interest in him, even if that interest would be turned down since the character is straight. Even the ability to make such an expression would be a positive thing: as in real life, I wouldn't think that every man would be sexually interested in me, but I still can ask them out all the same. Interestingly, later on in the game you engage Mordin Solus, the salarian scientist and doctor, in conversation where this point is driven home: the party member explains that as a scientist he understands various species react to stress (IE, your mission in Mass Effect 2) in a variety of ways and that he's used to being sexually propositioned by people when they're trying to deal with such things. Through no prompt in conversation by your player, Mordin tells you that in case you were considering it, he's not interested. It's a funny interlude, though a bit disappointing that the only responses you can select are varying levels of "oh god what makes you think that?" In Dragon Age: Origins, Alistair is a heterosexual party member, but your character can still tell him that you're interested; the result is a polite let down as he tells you thanks, but no thanks. It wouldn't be hard for BioWare to include something like this, while still avoiding potential controversy. It would allow players to roleplay the character they want, without feeling forced into a liaison with a partner whose gender they're disinterested in, or having to avoid the romantic options completely.

Mass Effect 1 allowed for a lesbian love interest and no gay one, while Mass Effect 2 doesn't include either. Players do have the right to ask for an explanation as to why this is, especially when BioWare has made so many other games that did unapologetically feature such choices. In the end, unfortunately it feels that the ultimate reason has less to do with creating a defined character as it does creating a more mainstream-pliant franchise: Mass Effect is undoubtedly one of BioWare's most popular games, and that popularity has given the company the clout to create games like Dragon Age: Origins that do allow for more open-ended character choices.

Casey Hudson: We actually added a lot more romance options because we have new characters and multiple options already in the romances. So we kind of pulled back and said, "Well, the love interest is part of the story and it helps you care about the characters in a different way." We still view it as… if you’re picturing a PG-13 action movie. That’s how we’re trying to design it. So that’s why the love interest is relatively light.

Though Mass Effect 2 is rated M, its project lead viewed the romances as PG-13; for whatever reason, homosexuality is apparently not PG-13, even when depicted with the same sterility as the game's heterosexual relationships. Whether or not I disagree with that stance, BioWare seems set on it. I can buy the concept of a more linear, more cinematic experience and I can buy the politics of a highly successful developer being concerned with including a controversial romantic interest in their decidedly mainstream franchise. I'd just personally prefer BioWare admitted that was the case, rather than dance around PR spin of "defined characters" and "cinematic narratives."

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