On Mass Effect
I’ve just finished the first Mass Effect game for the second time (no ME2 spoilers please, am just about to start that now). While the driving around random planets in a tank with bad controls was as annoying as before I enjoyed this play-through a lot more than my first one a few years ago.
The major difference was that I was playing a female Shepherd. The game gives you a choice of sex for your main character, but the script for each is virtually identical. So other than affecting who your character can get romantically involved with, that choice shouldn’t make any difference.
Oh but it does.
Despite the box art and all the promo shots, it seems clear to me that the game was written and directed with a female protagonist in mind. From the very first scene, where Shepherd strides purposefully through the Normandy, something about the way it is presented just fits a female character better.
Then there’s the morality system. The game eschews Bioware’s traditional light/dark or good/evil dichotomy and instead uses a system of paragon/renegade. Neither is evil. Shepherd is more tightly defined as a character than that: you can’t have her shoot civilians for no reason then go and side with the baddies. Instead your choices revolve around how you get the job done: whether you’re more Jean-Luc Picard or Mal Reynolds. Crucially, they’re measured separately, so while enough of the moral choices you make are mutually exclusive to stop you maxing out both aspects of Shepherd’s personality, you’re not punished for being somewhat inconsistent. Whereas the first time I played Mass Effect I followed the Paragon route almost exclusively, this time I knew I wanted to be primarily Paragon, but mixed things up a little.
See, with female Shepherd, that makes sense. With male Shepherd, it didn’t. The reason for that: voice acting. Don’t get me wrong, the male character is perfectly well voiced, but he sounds like either the action hero if you play Paragon, or a snarling space-thug if you play Renegade. Both are decent enough, but if you try and mix the two your character starts to sound more than a little schizophrenic. The female Shepherd is more subtle, less extreme, so taking different approaches to different situations works a lot better. You can believe that she’d go from offering to help to threatening someone in the course of a single conversation. That frees you up to play a much more interesting character.
So instead of just picking the top-right Paragon response every time, I thought about my Shepherd, her background, and how she’d react. She was ‘raised’ on Earth in an inner-city slum, later joining the Alliance only to get half her unit killed on Torfan. That’s one of a number of backgrounds you can choose for your character. On top of that I built her personality: she feels guilty over Torfan, even though she did what had to be done, so now she strives for redemption, and to do better in the future. As such, she’ll help out strangers, she feels she owes the world that much. But at the same time, she has no truck with criminals – she won’t just forgive everyone and give them all second chances. As such while she goes out of her way to aid and help the innocent, she let Wrex execute the crime lord Fist, helped Garrus track down and kill a doctor that had been harvesting body parts, and made sure the scientists that arranged for a thresher to kill some soldiers so they could study got what was coming to them.
She also doesn’t have much time for politicians. She’s career military, with a great respect for both her commanding officers and for those who serve under her. As such she’d be rude as hell to Udina but would never dream of talking back to Anderson. Interestingly, this also meant she started off as quite sympathetic towards the Council; after all, once she was made a Spectre she was under their direct command. They were her CO. She got a bit frustrated with them towards the end of the game, but still saved them in the end.
Building up that sort of complex personality was something that just worked better with a female Shepherd, and I’ll be interested to see where staying true to that will take her in the somewhat bleaker Mass Effect 2.