Mass Effect 3 is the last chapter of the Mass Effect Trilogy, an Action-RPG science-fiction franchise widely recognized as one of the most revolutionary sci-fi sagas of this generation. The game itself won the 2012 Best RPG award and several Game of the Year awards –although considerably less than the second chapter of the series-, selling over five million copies in the first year, three of them in the first five weeks from its release in March 2012. Although well accepted by the critics, several ongoing controversies have arisen from the Mass Effect fan population about the game’s finale, and its alleged disrespect towards the player’s choices throughout the game, an element that was stressed in the previous games as ‘what made Mass Effect unique’. The finale has been subsequently altered with the release of the Extended Cut DLC a few months later, with Bioware making an unprecedented mea culpa that reflects the growing importance of player feedback in the gaming industry.
This critical review will focus on the issues of gender and sexism in the Mass Effect universe and attempt to demonstrate that Mass Effect 3 not only uniquely strays from the stereotypical depiction of women in videogames, acting as one of the first truly gender-neutral product of the gaming industry, but also plainly presents us with a universe in which women play a central role in the developing of the story. We will look into these issues from three different perspectives, starting with the general view of females in the many races populating the galaxy, on to the specific characters the player encounters and finally analyzing the possibility of ourselves playing as a woman.
The Races of the Galaxy
As the Milky Way is populated by a vast number of sentient species, the “galactic government”, also known as the Council is ruled by four species, one of them being the humans –that gained power at the end of the first chapter of the saga-, the others being the Turians, Salarians and the Asari, the latter two being considered the most advanced, powerful and evolved species known. Speaking of gender and sexism, the Asari, an all-female race of attractive blue skinned aliens are of course the primary argument of both pro-feminist appraisal and sexist critique to the game: many reviewers depict the Asari simply as “a race of blue women a male player could feel attracted to”, criticizing their mono-gendered nature, their pleasant looks and their ability to procreate with everyone –of any race and any gender- as the sexist depiction of femininity in the Mass Effect universe.
What is hardly recognized by critics and reviewers of the game is, however, that the Asari might as well be the symbol of the superiority of matriarchal society over a more primitive patriarchal form of societal organization. The Asari, unlike most patriarchal species are a peaceful, democratic race, the first in the galaxy to achieve space colonization, stronger both militarily and economically than almost any other living civilization, and with a lifespan of over a thousand years, widely regarded as the leaders of the galaxy during the events of ME3. Asaris reproduce through the merging of one’s nervous system with the partner, but unlike other species, they do not combine their own genetic material with that of their counterpart: the former is merely recombined via the latter, causing the entirety of an Asari’s offspring to be other Asaris.
The obvious conclusion to this specie-preserving reproductive cycle can be only one: if not stopped by external factors –such as the Reaper invasion featured in the saga- eventually, the entire galaxy will be populated entirely by Asaris. Nothing, in the setting of the game hints at their nature of females with a sexist point of view: Asari soldiers are as strong as any other military force, many if not all Asari characters the player encounters are strong willed individuals with personal agendas, and the entirety of them strays from the stereotypes of the ‘’damsel in distress” or the “overly sexualized sex toy”, making up for a vast portion of the game’s politicians, soldiers and villains. The other races of the Council have been subject of yet harsher critiques, as female Salarians or Turians were completely absent from the first two chapter of the saga, and finally appeared in ME3.
However, while the Turians are undoubtly a patriarchal race of warriors, it is clearly stated that Turian females have the same rights as any male in their society –Nyreen Kandros, the only female Turian present in the game is ex-military and later on the absolute leader of a resistance movement-, and Salarian society is depicted as matriarchal-clan based, despite the fact that the race is 90% males, with the females acting as the entirety of the race’s ruling and political class and clan leaders, proving furthermore that half of the galaxy’s strongest races are dominated by females and the other half are completely gender-neutral. Lesser races, although there is no depiction of Drell, Elcor, Volus or Batarian females, are also gender-neutral (such as the Hanars and the Quarians, the latter showing to have a government formed by 3/5 female admirals) and the Rachni, a space-faring insect-like race believed to be the most ancient living life form in the galaxy, are again led by Queens, drawing a distinct line between matriarchal societies –seen as peaceful, progressive and advanced races- and patriarchal ones, which not casually coincide with the more young, violent and socially-backwards forms of sentient life.
Like the first two chapters of the Mass Effect trilogy, in ME3 the player encounters a vast amount of female characters with the possibility of interacting with them. Many of these characters are not in any way over sexualized and do not conform to the standard stereotypes of women usually found in mainstream videogames. Although notable examples of such strong and independent characters can be found among NPCs such as Aria T’Loak, the ruthless leader of Omega, the Salarian Dalatrass or Urdnot Bakara/Eve, the only female Krogan encountered, an easier understanding of how the creators of ME3 focused on creating credible and realistic interaction between the player and other female counterparts can be found analyzing the members of Shepard’s squad, recurring and playable characters throughout the game.
Before this however, it is important to open a parenthesis in favor of Urdnot Bakara. This character, which many critics referred to as the most detrimental depiction of a female in the game, is the last fertile member of a race plagued by an artificially created genetic disease that sterilized the Krogan population, and as such is an extremely valued individual. Yes, throughout most of the missions involving Bakara she is referred to as simply “the female”, yes she is treated at the beginning as a prize and yes, her face is hidden by a veil not unlike a burqa in our society, but what is easily understandable paying attention to the dialogs is that she is an extremely strong willed individual. After her liberation she immediately takes power in her clan, and although subtly, dictates the political decisions of her entire race through the means of diplomacy and cunning. This is something that the male members of her species were long considered to lack, leading one of the male characters formally hostile to the Krogans to admit that ‘the brain of the Krogans can be found in their females’. Being a skilled warrior and capable politician, her depiction is all but sexist and her veiling does not appear anymore as more than a societal accessory to the careful critic.
Shepard’s crew has been a notorious breakthrough for diversity in videogames as its male-female ratio is 1:1 and so is its human-alien ratio. Every character has its own back-story and its own unprecedented depth that leads the player to feel a strong emotional attachment to them, which can lead to a love interest –for the first time, even a homosexual one, both gay and lesbian- and which opens another topic in our discussion. Although some of the female possible partners for our characters have been considered to represent a male player’s sexual desires, these figures –although some of them wearing skin-tight clothes and often being extremely good looking- are often characterized by a deeper psychology than other male characters. EDI, the artificial intelligence moving around in a voluptuous robot body is not a flirting Barbie doll, but embodies the much greater concept of a synthetic life form interacting with her organic creators to understand their behavior;
Liara, the young Asari archeologist is not less useful in combat than the muscular human soldier James Vega, demonstrates in many occasions to be more than able to take care of herself and furthermore is the Shadow Broker, the most capable information gatherer in the galaxy, commanding a vast number of war assets on her own. So on, there is nothing in the dialogues, back stories, behavior or apparel of the heroines of the crew that assumes that they were intentionally created to satisfy an all-male audience, but rather suggest that these female characters are as vital –if not more- than the male ones, for achieving the victory in the ongoing war.
A rare feature in the gaming industry is the non-existence of a canon hero. The player can therefore create his own character, of whatever ethnicity, sexual orientation, psychology, past and of course, gender. What makes ME3 special amidst other videogames, and even in comparison to ME1 and ME2 is that whether you play as a man or a woman, the attitude of the characters one interacts with does not change. Admiral Anderson’s will pat Shepard on the belly telling him/her that he/she’s gotten “a little soft around the edges”, the men of Shepard’s crew will respect a female commander as much as they would a man, and Shepard’s physical and diplomatic abilities will not be altered by the character’s gender. Even the slight dialogue changes that occasionally happened during the first two chapters of the trilogy are completely eradicated, and on the other hand, it is often even argued that the female version of Shepard is more credible as a leader, better voiced and less clichéd. There are no skin-tight suits, nor lighter armors. Female Shepard is a soldier, a hero in full body armor with no cleavage nor high heels in a galaxy in which one’s gender is as unimportant as one’s skin color, constantly contrasting the prejudices that affect the main character for being human, and not for being a female.
While critics insist that ME3 is more easily approachable by a male audience, one must not fail to recognize that despite a number of unjustified differences of behavior towards the player have been present in the past games according to the gender of the character (such as being called ‘a Hero of humanity’ as a male and ‘Beautiful Commander Shepard’ as a female by a fan in ME1 or being able to be a lesbian in the first games but not to be gay), these features have been removed to present the final chapter of the saga as a truly gender-neutral game, not only in the in-game setting and in-game relations between characters, but also in our perception of Shepard and her surroundings. Female Shepard is never perceived as an object of desire –on the contrary, her attitude towards her romantic interest has been regarded as particularly dominant-, and is in no way inferior to her male counterpart.
Analyzing the role of the female gender in ME3 from a broader perspective –the entire population of the galaxy-, in Shepard’s immediate surroundings and finally in the main character’s itself, it is very likely that a few features of this title could be deemed as being the natural consequence of our not yet gender-neutral modern society and its influence on the game developers, but it would be in our opinion erroneous not to recognize the revolutionary efforts made by such developers to make ME3 into a game equally enjoyable by both male and female players through the means of creating a universe in which the female gender is almost completely free of the social stigmas of our world, and fail to perceive the subtly feminist depiction of this universe, originating in the careful analysis of its cultural aspects and character psychologies.