Mass Effect: Perfect Digital Romances
Given the impending release of Mass Effect: Andromeda and my longtime devotion to the original trilogy, I’ve been thinking a lot about my experience with the Mass Effect series lately. My two playthroughs differed wildly; I was all about the rookie mistakes the first time through (RIP, Wrex), and though my Shepard was a more confident (and more male) soldier the second time around, there was still an egregious error or two that shifted the course of the narrative. Dramatic deaths, detonated bombs, and destroyed Normandys aside, I’ll admit that there’s one element of the series that keeps me coming back mentally: true love.
[pullquote]”Show me one person unsure of their own sexual orientation who wasn’t attracted to Link at some point during their adolescence and I’ll show you a filthy liar.”[/pullquote]Mass Effect wasn’t the first game that drove me to fall for an NPC. (Show me one person unsure of their own sexual orientation who wasn’t attracted to Link at some point during their adolescence, and I’ll show you a filthy liar.) But it was certainly the first to do it so intentionally, and so masterfully at that. No matter what you look for in a partner, there’s someone perfect for you on the Normandy, whether you’re into grizzled assassins from other planets or genetically enhanced and absurdly attractive human biotics. It’s as if BioWare combined the elements of LucasArts adventures, top-of-the-line First Person Shooter titles, and Mystery Date. And when I finally got talked into playing through the trilogy a few years ago, I found that combination irresistible.
The first time around, I went the Femshep route. The paramour achievement in ME1 can be achieved through a relationship with one of two NPCs; in Femshep’s case, your choices are Kaidan Alenko, a milquetoast Canadian biotic, and Liara, a brilliant asari scientist. Though Liara certainly has her charms, I found Kaidan’s rebellious streak, so often concealed beneath his beefy, blandly handsome exterior, just appealing enough to give a dalliance a try. And I do mean dalliance; I abandoned my relationship with Kaidan in ME2 as soon as drell assassin Thane showed up. Thane, however, was not long for my Mass Effect world. In a decidedly anticlimactic portion of the final battle, he was murdered by a swarm of space bees. I shed a single tear and moved on to ME3, where I met Samantha.
Samantha Traynor, the Normandy’s newly hired communications specialist, had nothing in common with my Femshep’s previous partners. She was shy, sweet, and quirky with a pretty British accent and a knack for getting the crew out of jam after jam after jam. The courtship of Shepard and Samantha was almost painfully sweet, even with the shower scene (because why wouldn’t there be a shower scene?). After Femshep initially connected with Traynor, the two of them flirted clumsily and frequently on the bridge of the Normandy, and I could never get enough of their banter.
What sealed Samantha’s fate as my favorite fake girlfriend of all time was the speech she gave when she said goodbye to Shepard before what was almost certainly going to be a suicide mission. (Spoiler Alert: Shepard dies at the end of Mass Effect 3. If you played well enough, your Shep will gasp their way back to life, but you don’t reunite with whoever it was you chose to love after that.) I still nearly tear up when I remember what Shepard and Samantha say to each other:
Traynor: “…even if we don’t end up with the house with the white picket fence and the two kids. Sorry, stupid joke.”
Shepard: “That sounds pretty good to me.”
Traynor: “OK, good, because I wasn’t really joking. I want a big house, white picket fence, and a dog, some kind of a retriever. I’m thinking two kids but … are you writing this down?”
Shepard: “I’ll remember.”
Traynor: “You damn well better. Whatever happens, I love you. Now, go save the world again.”
For years now, I’ve been joking that my relationship with Samantha was the second most rewarding romantic relationship I’ve ever been part of. So the slate of love interests available to Maleshep when I eventually decided to play through the series again had big shoes to fill. (Big, doe-eyed, expensive toothbrush-using, British shoes.) From the start, my Maleshep was far more of a renegade than my Femshep had ever been; he was also a shameless flirt who pursued as many partners as possible, from the asari consort on the Citadel in ME1 to foul-mouthed firecracker Jack in ME2, and that misplaced subplot in the form of an onboard reporter in ME3. But the renegade status didn’t last too long. There’s something about indiscriminate killing and barbed insults that just doesn’t fit with how I play video games. That may have something to do with how my Maleshep’s romantic life progressed through the trilogy.
Similar to Femshep in ME1, you’re offered two choices for your paramour path: Liara, the aforementioned asari, and Ashley Williams, a fiery soldier who’s at least medium racist. I wanted to do things differently as Maleshep and initially, that plan included letting Kaidan die and Ashley survive when given the choice in the endgame. However, Ashley’s intolerance for alien races left a bad taste in my mouth, and Kaidan was still nice to look at, so Kaidan survived and the crew bid Ashley goodbye. I ended up with Liara, who comes on a bit strong in ME1, but I figured that appealed to my devil-may-care Shepard’s sensibilities.
Tali has her introduction in the first game, but really comes into her own in ME2. That’s when the quarian nomad becomes an option for romancing, and while I was not immune to the charms of Yvonne Strahovski-voiced ice queen Miranda, I couldn’t resist Tali. She was endearingly awkward and endlessly clever, and as the friendship between her and Shepard gradually transitioned into romance, I came to enjoy ME2 even more than I had as Femshep. Granted, that may have had something to do with my improved skill in other areas of the game; there were fewer casualties on my team, and I didn’t forget to detonate any bombs the second time. But it was also tied up with how strong the dialogue writing is in Shepard/Tali scenes. That was a motivating factor when I stuck with Tali in 3. Briefly, I was tempted to go back to Liara or take up with Steve Cortez, the series’ first gay man. But then Tali walked back onto the Normandy and all bets were off.
Looking back, I think it’s fair to say that Femshep gets a bit of a raw deal, particularly in the first two installments of the trilogy. Sure, there’s no other love interest so pure and perfect as Samantha. But Jack, the tattooed biotic with a perpetual sneer and a boundless supply of snark, has the potential to be just as fun. And she is for Maleshep. There aren’t many crew members with whom Shepard is able to have a casual fling, but if you play your dialogue wheel right in ME2, your Maleshep can sleep with Jack without ever getting serious about it. And there’s no consequence of this decision; aside from a pointed remark when you reunite in ME3, your one-off never gets mentioned again. There’s something baffling about Jack, though, something that will forever frustrate a number of Femshep players: she reads in every possible way as queer, but she isn’t. Femshep can’t even get a flirtatious smirk out of Jack, despite the fact that a future with her seems just as logical as one with Kaidan or Traynor.
[pullquote]”I think it’s fair to say that Femshep gets a bit of a raw deal.”[/pullquote]With Andromeda, it looks as though BioWare may have caught the wave of frustration regarding Jack. If pre-release promotion tells us anything, it’s that most of the paramour options are female aliens. (Personally, I have my eye on the first female turian we’ve met outside of DLC.) It’s impossible to say if any romantic possibilities will satisfy me the same way Samantha or even Tali did. Regardless, I’m excited about what my Mass Effect future may bring, and I’m not ashamed to admit that the love of an alien woman is forever on my mind.