Playable Perplexities: Shepard

I’ve been on a bit of a lull in gaming lately with the completion of the Mass Effect Trilogy being the last thing to leave an impact on me.  Now, I’d have done a review long ago… but I haven’t actually played the games myself (I know, don’t tell me, I’m working on it!).

What I did do, was watch my boyfriend play each game multiple times over the years. Even while I’ve been playing Dragon Age 2, which I’m doing now, I’d find myself looking over at what he’s doing in Mass Effect and ignore my game almost completely. And though I’ve seen how the series plays out, I still have it on my list to play after I’ve finished DA2.  That should say something right there.

Hail strange alien!

Coming at the series as a spectator and STILL being emotionally invested in all the characters took me by surprise.

It took me a long time to figure out just what kind of article I wanted to write, and how. So, quite a bit later, I’m writing an article about Shepard. I started off wanting to talk about how absolutely THRILLED I was to find out that the game box offered reversible cover art with both genders of Shepard.  And when I say thrilled, I mean damn fucking excited.  I was singing praises over something so small, and something that countless people should have thought of before, and yet here it is, in 2012, box art that represents both genders of a playable character.

I wanted to talk about why this was important, and why I was sad it took so long.  About how this was a reflection of what is currently happening around gender divisions in popular media – it’s getting better, but we can’t just leave it at that.

Hero shot!

I used to be of the mind that a character that was created to be customizable and either gender was a cop-out in character design. Making yourself in a video game wasn’t anything to write home about as far as equality. Because the character wasn’t solely female it wasn’t important and shouldn’t count when looking at “strong female characters”.  I mean, there’s still so many games with male only leads.

“Why aren’t there female leads? Guys don’t have to play chicks, but I have to play guys, its stuuupid!”

If we make more games with female leads, then we alienate the other half of the conversation. Forcing men to play female leads because we were forced to play male leads won’t make anything better.  If you write a character as male, make it make sense, don’t just make him a dude because ‘that’s the default’.  Don’t just make it a chick because its edgy and ‘we need more chicks’. Its just bad form.

My friends!

I could have picked a slew of other games that included characters written for either gender, but I chose Shepard as the face of what I want in the future of gaming.  Shepard, male or female, is the perfect embodiment of a well rounded hero. The strength of the character, to me, is that no part of the core character is tied to gender.  None.  The only thing that changes is the pronoun.  The story is about Shepard’s choices and Shepard’s relationships.  How people react to Shepard, and how Shepard reacts to them. No bullshit.

Shepard is probably the most real character I’ve seen to date, and that is…depressing?  Maybe I’m crazy for thinking that maybe this issue should have been fixed?  I mean, we’ve had years and years of writing and media that had a chance to get it right, but, its taken until 2012 where I finally feel I can actually connect with a character that I am controlling.  There’s been some notable exceptions in good character writing for both genders (mostly male, though) but nothing coming close to Shepard’s unique lack of gender division.

If sci-fi RPG shooters were a genre that everyone could get behind, I would hope that as many people as possible buy this game and play the crap out of it.  EA may be a sort of sketchy publisher, but they somehow have managed to let Bioware do their thing without wrecking everything.  Mass Effect 2 was a little on the shaky side, but they brought in some rad characters, so I have very little to complain about.

To be honest, I don’t actually want to touch the whole ending debate that the internet was having.  Everyone had their own investment in the game.  But my only complaint was the lack of resolution with some of the characters.  These are the people that Shepard has spent years with, and died for, and the ending fell a little short in that regard. But lets face it, no ending would have been perfect for a story like this. There’s always someone who will have a problem with any ending, because, again, everyone got something different out of the game. Because it appealed to so many people. Because it had well written, believable characters.  Because it was respectful of the topics it involved. Because of reasons innumerable.

Things are looking a little grim out here.

But you do get my point right?  People were so attached to this character and the world that they went nuts about the ending when the whole thing was over. I don’t mean to speak for everyone, but that is how I felt. Its hard to let go of a story you are attached to.

I hope Dragon Age 3 continues along the same vein of improvement that Mass Effect followed, and I’m looking forward to what else the Mass Effect universe has to offer beyond Shepard.  This game was a gem, and I find myself whining like a spoiled child when other games I pick up don’t have the same level of richness.  I just hope some new game developers follow Bioware’s lead and take a good long look at the characters they are presenting to the world, because I will be looking back with a much more discerning eye.

(and I hope you will too!)

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