It’s a harrowing feeling realizing how much your favorite game doesn’t like you. Or at least, how much it didn’t like you at one point.
I recently started a full replay of the Mass Effect trilogy as part of Normandy FM, a retrospective podcast on the series that a friend and I started in December. I’ve spent years viewing the Mass Effect franchise as a great example of a game allowing player expression, whether it was in creating an avatar that looked like them, thought like them, or in some cases, flirted like them. But that wasn’t always the case, especially not for people like me: gay men.
I was 15 years old when the original Mass Effect launched in 2007, and as strange as it may sound, its lack of romantic relationships between two men helped me wrap my head around my own sexuality. As its female leads failed to catch my interest, it was a hop, skip, and a jump away from realizing that women in general didn’t either. At this age, I took the absence of romantic stories that mirrored my own as just a sign of the times. The world barely acknowledged my existence, why would I have expected a video game to do it either?
Even so, when discussions of gay representation in Mass Effect came up, I watched people on forums and in comments sections come up with all sorts of reasons why protagonist Commander Shepard, a character capable of committing genocide or fighting through the galaxy under a banner of human supremacy, being a gay man was “too far.” This idea that Shepard, whose morality, ideology, race, and gender were all determined by the player, was some kind of predefined character wasn’t just perpetuated by bigots online, as Bioware itself made similar claims in interviews.
Bioware co-founder Ray Muzyka said in a 2010 interview with IGN that Mass Effect is a third-person narrative and certain things about Shepard were meant to be set in stone. This included…just his sexuality. Not his ideals, appearance, or any of the hundreds of decisions players made. This supposedly defining characteristic that Shepard is a heterosexual by choice only extends to male players, as female Shepards can pursue a lesbian relationship in the original game, and a fling with their secretary in the second.
As a teenager, I heard fellow Mass Effect fans laugh at the notion of a gay man saving the galaxy. Meanwhile, in-game, the Mass Effect universe seemed to be on their side. Despite hundreds of characters you meet in the first two games, not one of the men you meet is even implied to be interested in men in the slightest. Having a party member or passing interaction with an openly gay man would beg the immediate question of “why can’t I pursue them in the same ways the game encourages me to do women?” Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 avoids having to answer questions about its own view of gay men and male intimacy is to silence it, not realizing that same silence is just as damning.
Mass Effect’s heteronormative agenda veers into problematic areas of consent. On several occasions, female characters will touch Shepard in suggestive ways just for finishing quest lines. Characters like Gianna Parasini, who appears in both of the first two games, will “reward” a male character with a kiss on the cheek for helping her. Sha’ira, part of a female-presenting race called the Asari, will embrace the commander as she pleads with him to help her, and if you make certain dialogue choices expression dissatisfaction with her, you can be swept into a sex scene without any expressed intent. Merely reacting positively toward several women in the game seems to merit physical intimacy of some kind in Mass Effect’s eyes.
Completing missions for characters like Shiala and squadmate Miranda Lawson and not being cold or indifferent to them will cause them to stroke Shepard’s arm, and in Shiala’s case express an explicit interest in him. To Mass Effect 1 and 2, a man helping a woman cannot go unrewarded. The galaxy is Shepard’s harem, and in the first two games alone there are nearly a dozen women ready to view even the smallest of gestures as an invitation to assume romantic or sexual intent and act upon it. The games even have associated PlayStation Trophies and Xbox Achievements, further solidifying the game’s view that romance and sex are core parts of the Mass Effect experience.
Having learned so much about myself through the character of Commander Shepard, it felt like Bioware was attempting to reclaim a character it had already surrendered to me. 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. 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.”
This was the reality of being a gay Mass Effect fan for several years. Much of my time was spent on message boards, including the Bioware Social Network, advocating for better representation. I still remember the huge threads for the “Fight for the Love” movement supporting the inclusion of same-sex romance, where both pro and anti-gay comments ran rampant. This anger and sadness that came from being stuck in this debates, just wanting to be seen in my favorite series, would likely have prevented me from ever playing the Mass Effect series now that I’m older and more careful with what I spend my money and time on. But eventually, it paid off.
I still remember in my senior of high school tripping over myself in the cafeteria as I ran over to my friends to show them a tweet from Bioware’s Casey Hudson revealing that same-sex romance for male characters would finally be integrated into Mass Effect 3.
Two men express interest in a male Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 3: Kaidan Alenko, an old friend whose feelings for the main character is written as something he developed between the first and third game, and Steve Cortez, a new character whose romance is both kind of perfect considering the circumstances and also problematic.
Steve asks Shepard why he’s never been with any women who have expressed interest, and it let me say what Bioware wouldn’t let me for two games: I hadn’t had the right moment with the right man. It plays out fairly realistically given that this sort of conversation happens between men who meet outside of queer spaces. Cortez is calculated before expressing interest in Shepard, as he wants to be sure he’s not kidding himself by asking out a straight man, and gives the player the opportunity to reciprocate or turn him down in whatever way they feel fits their character. In a way, it’s written with clarity for both gay men to access, and also for straight ones afraid of being near queerness to actively avoid.
Then conversely, Kaidan just outright admits to Shepard he has feelings for him regardless of what the player has ever done. There’s no consensually questionable touching like almost every other proposition a male character receives in the first two games, just a man baring his heart to another. For someone who had envisioned his character to have an unrequited love for Kaidan throughout the trilogy, to see it finally acknowledged without the clear barriers and safety nets of Steve’s was more than just refreshing, but it was validating. It was proof that all that time I spent only being able to express myself by turning people down in Mass Effect 1 and 2 was no longer necessary. Mass Effect 3 just let me be. I didn’t have to spend an entire game fighting it just as hard as I fought enemies across its vast universe.
Mass Effect sold itself on being a kind of “choose your own adventure” story, one that let you define the stakes, the relationships, and the character at its center, but perhaps it was a sign of the times that it got away with this glaring omission for years. Even more recently, with Mass Effect: Andromeda, a game that has its fair share of queer representation, even beyond the scope of the player, actively featured less content and characters for gay men to pursue, only for outcry from gay players to result in a patch, adding an additional and substantial romantic path for them to choose from.
When Mass Effect wants to be, it is a celebration of diversity in culture and identity, but for gay men, getting a seat at the table has been, and continues to be an uphill battle against a universe dead set on pushing them back down. Replaying the series now as a relatively well-adjusted, 26-year-old gay man, it makes me wonder whether or not anyone cared if I was there to experience it all in the first place.
I love Mass Effect. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget how long it took to feel like it loved me back.