The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) wrapped up June 18th, but in its three day span it brought us more information about the most anticipated games and most beloved series of the year than the other 362 days bring us combined. One highlight of the E3 coverage was Bioware’s announcement of the fourth game in the sci-fi action RPG series Mass Effect.
While Mass Effect: Andromeda takes place in the same universe as the first three Mass Effect games and brings back some familiar elements (like that damn Mako), it takes place in the Andromeda Galaxy rather than the Milky Way, and will not revolve around the trilogy’s hero Commander Shepard. Instead, an entirely new human protagonist will take his/her place.
When I saw the N7 logo and heard the familiar chimes play at the end of the trailer, a wave of nostalgia passed through me. I actually played the Mass Effect games after they’d all three been released, but the effect they had on me and my life is irrefutable, so I figured I’d take a few moments this Friday to honor what I unabashedly call my favorite video game to date.
In Mass Effect, the player can customize their character’s race, gender, and appearance. The female Commander Shepard, voiced by Jennifer Hale and affectionately nicknamed ‘Femshep,’ was one of the first female protagonists I played who really resonated with me. Yes, I’d played Tomb Raider growing up, and I’ve made no shortage of female Elder Scrolls characters in my time, but no other female playable character in a game has made the same impact on me as Femshep.
There are a few factors that play into this. First, as I mentioned, Jennifer Hale is a phenomenal voice actor who brings humor, strength, empathy, and nuance to her performance in the trilogy. Without her skillful portrayal of Femshep, I doubt Manshep’s female counterpart would have received anywhere nearly as much love from the fans as she did.
In addition, Femshep’s story arc breaks from storytelling tradition. There are literally millions of stories about one man saving the world from imminent doom, but how often do we see a woman take that role in a game? And how often is she able to do it not as a brusque anti-hero, but as a compassionate and generally well-adjusted human being?
Of course, playing Paragon is a choice, which is another thing that helped Mass Effect succeed. The player is in total control of Femshep’s abilities, what she says in conversation, which missions she takes, and with whom she starts/maintains relationships. If Mass Effect weren’t a choice-based game within a rich and well-designed universe, her character would not feel nearly as relatable. (Those of you who are already starting your rant about the ending, stay with me.)
On that note, the friendships and romances available to Shepard bring another layer of meaning to the experience. In all three games, Femshep is given both male and female romance options (the Asari gender debate aside). And Manshep has male love interests in the third game. This romantic and sexual fluidity allows the player to see their lives represented by the hero character. LGBT people–and particularly bisexual, asexual, and trans folks–rarely see themselves depicted on any screen, so seeing themselves reflected in an accomplished and important character is incredibly meaningful.
Of course, it’s not just Femshep who fans find inspirational. Kaidan, Ashley, Garrus, Liara, Thane, and the other characters in the game each have passionate followings, because their personalities and back stories were carefully and intricately constructed. (And come on, have you heard Garrus’ voice?) Bioware chose not to shy away from those relationships, even releasing downloadable content after the end of the trilogy that allowed the player to get closure from those relationships regardless of how their playthrough ended.
Mass Effect certainly hit some stumbling blocks along its journey. As I touched on before, the ending left something to be desired for many players. The sexualizing makeovers female characters like Femshep, Jack, and Ashley received from game to game were puzzling for lots of folks (do biotic implants also refer to…well, implants??), and the lack of gay male romances in the first two games was frustrating for some as well. We can only hope that Bioware has learned from those mistakes.
But at the end of the day, I’m as excited for ME4 (which Bioware insists we NOT call it) as I’ve ever been for a game. And since it’s not coming out until ‘Holiday 2016,’ I have plenty of time to complete my…would it be the fourth playthrough? Eh, who’s counting…