Mass Effect 3 has been so horribly marred by the firestorm created by its ambiguous conclusion that it seems like critics have skipped over other aspects of the game. And now that this hurricane has settled (at least until the extended cut is released and everyone finds more reasons to hate it), and also because I’m just plain tired of talking about it, I’d like to talk about something almost as uncomfortable – the space birds and the alien bees of this sci-fi experience.
During the first two games, the romantic relationship aspect wasn’t the primary focus, but the subplot was prominently placed in the story. In fact, in Mass Effect 2, the relationship storyline was engulfed by the larger suicide mission plot, infusing it with the feel of desperation. It felt like when someone asks you what you would hypothetically do if you only had one day to live; the characters in this game believe their numbers could be up and so they have no time to take things slow. This main tension gave the subplot a dramatic passion, and these two stories melded together superbly, resulting in a big moment of bittersweet intimacy.
But then, in Mass Effect 3, I felt like Bioware (rightfully) threw romance by the wayside, and would’ve considered leaving it out altogether except they knew fans would gripe about that for the rest of their lives and the decision would’ve destroyed a major series subplot. There’s also the alternative that the developers just didn’t execute this plot well, in part because, as far as I’m aware, this was the first Mass Effect game in which Shepard can talk serious relationship with individuals who do not reside on the Normandy. But there’s really no way to know Bioware’s intention for the romance plot at this moment, so I won’t dwell on that.
When my Commander Shepard first received word from his lost love, Miranda Lawson, to meet her on the Citadel, I felt almost as excited as I imagined Shepard himself would’ve felt. Here was my chance to continue the saga of this tragic love of an ex-Cerberus officer and an Alliance man. A semi-meaningful conversation ensued, in which Shepard ensured Miranda that he still wanted her in his life, and then she mentioned she was worried about her sister, and they parted ways (also, I’m impressed with how much characters move around in Bioware cut scenes now – this effect livens up these typically static video game scenes). After that, though, the story was mostly downhill. She rarely had any meaningful input into the story, and Shepard spoke with her twice more. During the third rendezvous (technically third, since the second time Shepard spoke with her via hologram), the conversation wheel almost reluctantly gave me the option to put all our cares aside and make out. I chose that option, and the scene felt more funny and awkward than anything else (though this was partly because my girlfriend was in the room and we were making fun of how the camera always seems to find a way to pan over her derriere). Other than the differences in interaction between Shepard and Miranda (hand-holding and concern for each others’ safety and such) nothing was terribly significant about the romance plot, which contrasts with how this was treated in the first two games. This portion of the plot was handled as though the writers were afraid to touch it, which made it somewhat uncomfortable and unfulfilling, but I’m not convinced this is entirely an argument against the game.
The first game I remember playing that granted the opportunity to develop non-platonic relationships with other characters was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. This was an interesting experience, because – well, I was a teenager and wished I was could be as smooth with the ladies as my Jedi avatar – but mostly because it made my character and the others feel more alive, like they weren’t simply dolls with voices, but were capable of feeling strong emotions for each other, to the point of infatuation and love. Ever since then, I’ve supported this feature in games because it continues to make characters feel more alive, and continued to do so as I played through the Mass Effect series (and as I said before, this was particularly meaningful in the second game). But sometime during Mass Effect 3, I couldn’t shake the notion that this was sort of silly – Commander Shepard was a heart-breaker whose affection was coveted by all the characters capable of a relationship with him. I reminisced back to Mass Effect when Shepard flirted with both Ashley Williams and Liara T’Soni before the two approached him and made him choose between them in a nearly Jerry Springer moment, and again when Liara confronted Shepard in Mass Effect 3 about his feelings for Miranda; this all felt absurd and slightly sexist (though any combination of male and female NPCs can vie for the love of either gender of Shepard, so the game is not as sexist as it appears from my male heterosexual Shepard’s point of view). Why couldn’t Liara have had a fling with that guy from the Shadow Broker DLC in part because Shepard ran off with Miranda Lawson? What if Ashley met someone (or didn’t meet someone) and decided that her infatuation with Shepard was just a phase? I want these characters to feel more realistic instead of simply biding time while Shepard is away, fawning over him and waiting for the return of their one true space commander lover.
Some people likely enjoy the way the game is already set up – it’s nice to feel like the player character is so attractive and confident that he or she can woo anyone on the ship, but this gives the characters a feeling of artificiality, revealing the seams of the game mechanics that dictate their behavior, and can make them come off as needy and dependent. It would be nice to see certain characters even spurn the protagonist’s advances under certain conditions (I’ve heard Samara did this in Mass Effect 2). Maybe some decisions the player makes outside of romantic dialogue could cause a love interest to reevaluate affections for the protagonist and decide that he or she and the protagonist are not kindred spirits, after all. As disappointing as this might be to some players, the feature gives the other characters a new layer of complexity and presents the illusion that they have more emotions and independent thoughts that don’t involve swooning over the player character, battling for affection with everyone else at whom the protagonist bats eyelashes. This is not The Bachelor with aliens; this is a serious space opera with characters that are supposed to convince players of their own authenticity and emotion.
It’s possible the whole paramour experience in Mass Effect 3 would’ve differed and felt more substantial if my Shepard stuck it out with Liara or chose to romance anyone on the ship with whom he could frequently interact. Still, save some moments where this aspect of the series locks perfectly into place with the rest of the narrative, romance dialogues in Mass Effect seldom appear to be more than a kind of fan service. And fan service isn’t Bioware’s selling point – story is the bread and butter of every single Bioware advertising campaign and the reputation upon which the company has established itself. And to salvage the story and characters while leaving the romance system in the game, I need to feel less like the Normandy is the set of a reality show featuring contestants who duke it out to date the suave Shepard, and more like I’m interacting with people who must actively decide whether or not to pursue a relationship. Video gamers demand the ability to make meaningful choices in games, but I’m taking this a bit in the other direction – give other characters the ability to make meaningful choices, even if this causes some sociopathic Shepards to meticulously browse Match.com between missions.