Video games give us a chance to live out fantasies beyond imagination — becoming magical heroes, travelling distant galaxies, owning a house. But they also give us a chance to see ourselves, exploring aspects we might not be as comfortable doing so in our real lives at a given moment. Mass Effect was one of those games for me — but revisiting its new remaster in 2021 is going to hit differently compared to the journey I first took 14 years ago.
The Mass Effect trilogy is Bioware’s third-person shooter/roleplaying sci-fi saga, in which players are cast as Commander Shepard, an elite soldier who discovers a galaxy-ending threat of invasion and gathers a team of myriad specialists to confront it. Mass Effect’s primary pitch to its audience was that it was a game about choice. Make your Shepard! You decide their personality, their gender, their appearance! Your choices shape the story! In the years since its release, the game is largely fondly remembered for its approach to both romance and representational diversity, including beloved queer characters like the alien researcher Liara T’Soni or Specialist Samantha Traynor.
The relationships Shepard could have with members of their crew, as male or female iterations of the character, are still lauded as some of the strongest relationship arcs contemporary game franchises of its ilk have seen. If you were a queer man, however, romance in Mass Effect could be hard to find.
When I first played Mass Effect in 2007, I was still a young teenager questioning my sexuality. Games were one way I could explore being queer and what that part of my identity was to me. I would play The Sims and set up households of men who could flirt and fall in love with each other. In RPGs like Fable, it was as simple as holding hands with a male NPC enough until they could marry me. But these were optional curiosities, not necessarily the driving thrust of a narrative experience. There were no real outlets in the medium’s mainstream titles at the time that let me consider my sexuality and explore characters who were like me, outside of glancing at ripped video game heroes that were designed with heteronormative masculine power fantasies in mind, rather than as objects of attraction in a male gaze. But things changed with the way Mass Effect was being controversially discussed in the run-up to its release.
In a time when queer romance options in games have become more common, it’s hard to forget that even just over a decade ago, the concept of sex in blockbuster games, especially queer sex, was hugely controversial. The general public’s view of games in the late-aughts still lived in the shadow of the infamous “Hot Coffee” scandal of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
So the first Mass Effect, tame as it might appear today, was groundbreaking at the time for its depiction of intimacy, especially its queer-coded options. Female Shepards could romance Liara — a blue-skinned alien from a female-coded, mono-gender race called the Asari — and beyond that, there were two human characters, Ashley Williams and Kaidan Alenko, who could be pursued by male and female Shepards respectively. But that small progression attracted the ire of mainstream commentators who still viewed video games as a hobby primarily for young children.
The now infamous “Sexbox” news cycle — a puritanical moral campaign that decried the appearance of digital nudity in the game, despite its mature rating — turned Mass Effect into a hot topic of debate. The fallout of mainstream attention from outlets, particularly Fox News, didn’t just cast a shadow over the first game, but the eventual sequels and their approach to relationship options and sexual encounters, queer or otherwise. In the meantime, Mass Effect drew attention not just from right-wing commentators in the U.S., but even my circle of friends at school across the pond in the UK — who, as a bunch of nerdy teenaged boys, were naturally very interested in the thought of a game with alien sideboob.
As my eager friends dreamt of romancing alien beauties, I wondered privately if the choices available in the game meant there might be a chance I could try to get involved with one of the game’s male party members. Three of the original six party members in the first Mass Effect were romantic options — the aforementioned Liara, Ashley, and Kaiden. While Liara was available to Shepards of either gender, Ashley and Kaidan were heteronormative choices, meaning only male Shepards could romance Ashley, and only female Shepards Kaidan. But as a 16-year-old, I didn’t know that. So, as I played away from prying eyes, my male Commander Shepard, Lucas — named for George, in honour of the other sci-fi love of my life — tried to strike up a romantic relationship with Lieutenant Alenko.
Emphasis on the tried.
Romance in the first Mass Effect was simplistic. Between missions, you could pace your ship, the Normandy, and have conversations with your party members. The more you progressed in the story, the more their conversations deepened, and if you were polite enough to them, you would eventually trigger the option to express romantic interest with one of the three available characters. Having accidentally triggered those options for Liara and Ashley just by picking polite responses in dialogue, time and time again I talked to Kaidan and found no such option.
I heard him tell his story over and over, about him struggling with his past as a biotic — a specially enhanced human who could use powerful psychic abilities, enhanced by implants installed as a young boy — hoping that hearing it enough would get me the option to comfort him, or open up to him. If my Commander Shepard was meant to be an extension of myself, and if I was gay, I frustratingly wondered, why couldn’t I fall in love with this man?
It was only then that I looked it up in a guidebook (14 years ago really was a different time) to see what I was doing wrong, only to have my heart crushed. Not only was Kaidan unavailable to male Shepards, there were no male romance options for them at all. All my friends at the time were playing Mass Effect, debating who was going after Ashley or Liara as much as they would any of its plot points. I couldn’t just not romance someone and feel left out, or reveal that I’d tried to flirt with Kaidan, so under a weird sense of peer pressure, my Shepard eventually struck up a romance with Liara.
I pushed my own confusion and anxiety aside — along with the fact that I myself as the player felt no attraction to her, or as I was slowly realising, women in general. I jokingly told friends that the three or so seconds of her butt you could see in a consummation scene was hot, and I moved on, remaining in the closet, whether it was real life or aboard the Normandy. In fact, in that first playthrough of the game, I left Kaidan to die on the planet Virmire, saving Ashley from certain death in one of the game’s major binary branching choices. An act of spite, admittedly: I was embarrassed that he, and Mass Effect, had rejected me, so he got to babysit a nuclear device. (Sorry, man. I fixed it in the next playthrough.)
As the Mass Effect trilogy continued into its second and third entries, romance became a defining aspect of the series; the options in the sequels expanded, new characters in your crew meant new potential paramours. The series’ evolving story also meant the chance to reconnect with past lovers, as your Shepard’s personality and plot choices carried over through all three games, growing your connection to the character. Players were encouraged to engage in a romantic subplot in every playthrough — doing so in each game unlocked an achievement (or a trophy on Playstation platforms, account-wide metagoals that reflected in-game triumphs). My own Shepard continued to despondently romance Liara, first in Mass Effect 2‘s iconic bonus story campaign Lair of the Shadow Broker, and then when she returned as a full-time party member in Mass Effect 3.
The third game became the first in the series to finally offer official gay romances for male Shepards — Kaidan, who could return if he survived Virmire, became a bisexual option available to female and now male Shepards, joining the Normandy’s new shuttle pilot, Steve Cortez, exclusively romanceable by male Shepards. As beneficial a move as it was not just to gay male players, but to bisexual men (a likewise underserved minority by the series, and elsewhere), I never tried either option myself. My Shepard, across over a hundred hours spent in these three games, was invested in their story with Liara at that point. I could, and did, play alternate runs of the series with a female Shepard, and romance male characters that way (like Turian mercenary Garrus Vakarian, the space bird-lizard after my own heart).
I played on PC and dabbled with fan-made mods to unlock cut dialogue options to romance Kaidan as a male Shepard in the first two games, but it never sat right with me for one reason or another. They weren’t part of the “real” story I had experienced. Again, they seemed optional. They weren’t as Lucas, the version of Shepard I had made for myself and grown attached to all the way back in 2007. They weren’t me.
By the time the trilogy came to a close in 2012, I had accepted that I was no longer questioning my queerness. I was gay, and I didn’t irrationally persecute myself as less than for having tried to pursue relationships with women, either in games like Mass Effect or in real life, only to find myself romantically uninterested. I would come out in fits and starts in the long years after, to friends, to colleagues, to some, if not all, of my family. If people asked, I was open. Playing games still took up a huge part of my free time anyway, and as the medium has matured and progressed intermittently — not just in issues of wider representation but in particular LGBTQ+ representation — I’ve been more and more able to see myself in the series and worlds I loved.
But as much as I love Mass Effect, I’ve never really gone back to it after the years where it was still an ongoing series (outside of Mass Effect Andromeda, a successor sequel released in 2017 where you play as Ryder, an explorer of the titular galaxy entirely unconnected to Commander Shepard). The series was, mostly, a happy memory — a cherished one, but still a memory. That is, until this week. After what has been almost a decade of fans asking for it, on May 14 Bioware is releasing Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, a bundle of the first three games in the series and their extra downloadable expansions, remastered with new graphics, enhanced resolution and framerates, and new gameplay refinements. But for all the cosmetic and mechanical changes Legendary Edition brings, Bioware has confirmed that one thing has not changed, disappointingly: the romance options.
Many players, myself included, had hoped a Mass Effect remaster would go back and allow male Shepards to at least have a relationship with Kaidan in the first game, utilising the long-hidden unused audio that’s formed the basis of fan-made mods to give players who chose him a relationship arc across the trilogy like the arcs that could be experienced by Shepards who got involved with characters like Ashley or Liara. It’s not to be, however.
In the run-up to Legendary Edition’s release, Bioware developers shut down the idea of making any narrative changes to the games for the remaster — especially changes that could’ve required recording new dialogue, as properly integrating a male Shepard/Kaidan romance into Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 would. They also specifically publicly addressed a long-believed-to-be “cut” Kaidan queer romance dialogue from the original game. It was clarified that a relationship with the character for gay and bisexual Shepards was never planned until Mass Effect 3, and that, as “it wasn’t intentional in the original,” including it now would go against Legendary Edition’s intent of being as true to the source material as possible.
One thing that has changed in all those years, if not Mass Effect itself, is who I am, and how I perceive myself as a gay man. So how can I return to Mass Effect and experience Shepard as a true extension of myself this time around? By making it respect me. By pushing back against the series’ heteronormative systems that actively encourage predominantly straight romance choices. By not engaging until I can do so as my choice and deliberately disengaging from romantic subplots until my Shepard can be his true self in Mass Effect 3. By, heavens forbid, “missing out” on things like achievements (the romance-based ones return for Legendary Edition, and are amplified even), conversations, and scenes.
“Existing in a world that pretends you don’t, yet insists you take part in all the pleasures it offers, even if they’re not aimed at you, requires a level of vigilance in choice and interaction not required of straight players,” Kenneth Shepard writes in the 2019 essay To Be Gay in Mass Effect Is An Act of Rebellion. “Getting through Mass Effect 1 and 2 with your identity intact as a gay man is an act of resistance. It’s to look a heteronormative world in the face and say ‘no, you will not define who I am in this universe.’”
The last time I played Mass Effect, I was unsure of who I was — ashamed, even. Revisiting it in 2021, I have no reason to be as embarrassed as that teenager was, desperately trying to fumble his way into Kaidan Alenko’s arms no matter how much that first game wouldn’t let him. When I recreate Lucas to journey through these games all over again this week, he’ll be as proudly queer as I am, biding his time until the right man in a big wide universe eventually comes along.