Coming into Bioware’s recent release of its beloved sci-fi saga Mass Effect in Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, I knew that I wanted to re-experience the video games’ journey in a way I had tried and failed to as a young teenager: to cast my Commander Shepard as a proud, gay man. Doing so was a reward in and of itself, but also a reminder of just how far behind seemingly progressive visions of our future can be sometimes.
While Mass Effect has been lauded in the past for its romantic character arcs, and in particular its allowance for female Commander Shepards to pursue multiple female-coded partners across the series — the original trilogy in particular — it took much longer to embrace relationship options for queer male players who wanted to see themselves in their space action hero. It took until Mass Effect 3 for Bioware to add two queer romance options for male Shepards: Kaidan Alenko, a party member in the first and third games, became a bisexual option for male and female players after being explicitly romanceable by female Shepards in the first game, and Steve Cortez, a new character who was exclusively available to male Shepards in Mass Effect 3.
In the near-decade since Mass Effect 3, Bioware developers have said that several queer romance options were struck from the series mid-development due to a fear of backlash. On the plus side, fans were able to use mods to uncover unused dialogue to build more queer romance options for either Shephard in the series. But Legendary Edition, aiming to stay as true to the original games as possible — to a fault, in this regard — did not add any new romance options, queer or otherwise, for its re-release. And so, here was my gay arse, confronted by a challenge: ignore Mass Effect’s push to have you hook up with one (or more) of your squadmates over the course of the first two games, until I could pursue Kaidan as a romantic option in Mass Effect 3. What followed was an exercise in both extreme delayed gratification and a harsh reminder of just how unwelcomed I could feel playing a game series that I loved as it disregarded my experience and desire as a queer man (note: I still love it, in spite of flaws made apparent revisiting it across the nearly 200 hours I spent in Legendary Edition over the last month). To play Mass Effect as a story where Commander Shepard is explicitly a gay, male hero is not just to play the waiting game, but to push back against the series’ almost constant heterosexual assault on your senses.
Everywhere you look in the world of Mass Effect, even beyond its romance subplots, the gaze of straight male sexuality frames your interaction with the series. There are the gyrating, scantily clad bodies of Asari dancers in bars like Chora’s Den or Afterlife in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 — dancers you’re invited to stay and admire as interactable “objects.” Not to mention a completely out-of-nowhere description of humanity’s relationship with the alien species of the galaxy by Shepard in the first game as: “We’ve got oceans, beautiful women, and this emotion called love.” Sexuality, and specifically heteronormative sexuality, is inextricably linked to the texture of Mass Effect’s galaxy, and focusing on the intimate perspective of your party members highlights that lens even further.
In the original Mass Effect, the first in-depth conversation you can have with Asari scientist Liara T’Soni — who you recruit to help defeat her mother, who’s been enthralled by main villain Saren — is a point-by-point breakdown about how her female-coded, mono-gendered race is capable of having (and very eager to have) sex with humans or other alien species. A conversation point you can have with another romance option, human soldier Ashley Williams, involves her asking your Commander if you’d think it’d be funny if she needled the shy Liara about Asari sexuality. When there comes a point in Mass Effect where male Shepards are asked to “choose” between pursuing Liara or Ashley romantically, the conversation is framed with a sense of assurance that you must be interested in one of these two options. After all, you are male, and these are two attractive women, who perceive your prior conversations, even without a romantic undercurrent, as laying the groundwork for you to hook up with them. And if you shut one of them down, well then, it’s surely because you’ve already got the hots for the other woman, right?
— James Whitbrook (@Jwhitbrook) May 17, 2021
Mass Effect 2, which greatly expands your party — and therefore your roster of potential hookups — is less blunt about it, but once my eyes had been awakened to just how straight the series could be for male players, it was hard not to see the influence of romance and sexuality in Shepard’s relationship with members of his crew. Character arcs that abruptly came to an end if you chose not to pursue romance felt common with female characters like Quarian engineer Tali’Zorah, or the edgy psychic convict Jack, as if the game perceived that there was no longer value in conversations with them without the potential culmination in a romantic arc. The game’s tone, pushed into a darker and more mature atmosphere compared to the first game, pushes its story into the moody underbelly of the galaxy, populated by criminals, mercenaries, and, of course, plenty of female sex workers as set dressing.
Coming into Mass Effect 3, even knowing that I could finally engage with these systems the series had repeatedly pushed on me for two games on my own terms, was something of a relief then, and yet still tinged with a sense of frustration. At last, I could carve out my own little queer corner of this story as my own — even if that world still was, for the most part, largely dominated by heteronormative relationships. In light of the existential crisis of the potential end of the universe bearing down on your characters in Mass Effect 3, romance becomes an important subtext of the final chapter of the trilogy, a Hail Mary defiance of impending doom by standing with the people you love in the face of almighty technological onslaught represented by the series’ big bad, the Reapers. Characters around you, from the would-be space-lizard boyfriend of my heart, Garrus Vakarian and the aforementioned Tali, or Normandy pilot Jeff “Joker” Moreau, and the ship’s female-coded A.I., EDI (formerly a disembodied hologram, it EDI gains a sexualized, feminine body, because, well, Mass Effect’s gonna Mass Effect), hook up over the course of the game. And now my Shepard, up to that point gay only in my internal roleplay of the character, was going to be gay textually, too.
Romancing Kaidan as a male Shepard in Mass Effect 3 almost feels like a metatextual acknowledgement of how long it took for Bioware to include male, queer romance options in the series. Although there’s some minor flirting here and there in the game’s opening act you can engage in, a relationship with Kaidan is eventually established over a friendly lunch catchup on the defining intergalactic hub of civilisation that is Mass Effect’s Citadel space station. At first, Kaidan and Shepard reflect on the ups and downs of their weird relationship with each other over the course of the series — from being allies in the first game to his mistrust of you the second, where Kaidan refuses to join you for teaming up with a human-centric organisation Cerberus for much of the game. But settled within the context of the apocalyptic scenario, and watching his friends and colleagues aboard the Normandy pair up, Kaidan’s reflection becomes inwards and intimate. What if, he wonders out loud to you, part of the weirdness of his relationship with you was being unable to articulate how he really felt? What if his career in the Alliance, as a hero of the galaxy, distracted him from the chance of settling down with someone he truly cared for? What if it was all too late, in the face of the end of the world? What would it mean if he didn’t make it clear how he felt for a man he deeply cared for, in spite of their rocky past?
It was a scene that resonated with me, even more so beyond the metatext of its addressing that Mass Effect was making up for lost time with this romance arc compared to others — only allowed to exist in one game instead of growing across multiple entries. If only because, at last, I could respond to him in kind, as I’d hoped and wanted to all those years ago playing the original game for the first time. To say that he wasn’t alone in his feelings, that my Shepard had felt these things too, and wanted to spend what could be the final days of the universe as they know it with the man he loved. There was something cathartic in having arrived at this moment against the friction of Mass Effect’s heteronormative lens that made it hit me emotionally much more than I expected it to.
In a universe trying its damnedest to push me in one heteronormative direction, it felt good to finally be rewarded for all the times I said no by getting to say yes when Kaidan asked if his own feelings were mutual. At last, after all that waiting, after all that conscious disengagement with an aspect of the series as fundamental to Mass Effect as the games’ RPG-shooter combat or its decision-based dialogue, I could finally engage with Commander Shepard, meant to be seen as a player insert, as a reflection of my actual self. It may have taken hours upon hours of shooting and chatting my way through Mass Effect’s galaxy, but it was worth the wait.