Bioware Is Trying to Make Romance More Diverse, but Has a Long Way to Go

(Image from Afterellen.com-credit to them)

Mass Effect: Andromeda is out, and early reviews are mixed, as one would expect in a game that is continuing a series that many people love. The original trilogy was…well, a trilogy. It had an ending (which many people hated!). I didn’t play ME3, and I haven’t played the new game either. I very much enjoyed the second installment, but I didn’t have the console to play 3 when it was released, and then the negative feedback hit concerning the ending. I mistook it for an overall criticism of the game; or perhaps I was afraid the (allegedly) awful ending would ruin my memories of the series. In any case, I rarely finish a game, so I’m not sure why that deterred me.

But I don’t want to talk about whether the new game is good or not. I want to talk about the idea of Mass Effect, which allows you to choose between playing a male or female character (affectionately truncated to ManShep vs. FemShep in the video game community). Both choices have been excellently voice acted, though many people prefer Jennifer Hale’s rendition of the character, at least among my friends. She does do an amazing job, but I’ve tended to play as ManShep.

Ok, brief history time: Bioware has had an interesting relationship with gamers that have wanted to have more diverse (sexually) characters in their games. In the first Mass Effect, you could sort of have a same sex relationship, if you played FemShep, but only because of how Asari work (see below). In the second game, they played it safer, basically making everything hetero-normative. Then, in the third, they tried to open it up more, allowing a male-male pairing, but it was pretty lackluster by most counts. The latest in the series, Andromeda, has included more same sex pairings, to mixed reviews.

I think Bioware is trying to allow people to engage in a variety of sexual orientations, but they aren’t totally sure how to pull it off properly (maybe hire more writers that actually experience these feelings?). Whether you play as ManShep or FemShep, you can romance crew members of either gender, and each iteration has tried to be more inclusive in this regard. I’m going to set aside the troubling notion of romancing subordinates (though that would also be interesting to examine!) and focus on what Bioware is doing right here and what misses the mark.

Let’s start with the right: I like the idea of allowing players to decide whom they wish to romance and what sexual orientation their character has. In theory, it allows players to experiment with different roles, which is what a roleplaying game is all about. More importantly, it might increase representation among groups that have been grossly unrepresented in gaming: members of the LGBTQ+ community (note: I do not mean to exclude any of the groups that have since been included in this acronym…I use + to indicate them).

Furthermore, I think there can be value in presenting the choice of romantic partners as if gender were irrelevant, if only to get people to consider that as a possibility. Perhaps the world would be a better place if this were how things worked, and maybe in the Mass Effect universe, gender is no longer a barrier to romance. Cool.

However, if that’s what Bioware is trying to achieve, it misses the mark in several important ways. Let’s start with the most common complaint on this front: The Asari. The Asari are a race of aliens that have only one gender…which just happens to have the appearance of attractive human women (but with blue or gray skin!).

Mass Effect has tried to correct this a bit, with the most recent game in the series adding the notion that some Asari identify as masculine. As the linked article notes, such Asari do not actually appear in any of the games, but good for Bioware to at least acknowledge the issue. I think they are sincerely trying here, and I give them a lot of credit for that. Maybe they shouldn’t have started with the idea of “space babes” in the first place! Anyway, I’ll let this go now…

As for the number of options of characters to romance, one might argue that in the real world, people who are gay have less options for romantic partners too (statistically speaking), but then, this isn’t a real world. It’s a game. So, the realist argument may not hold water here. Bioware could simply allow people to romance anyone, and treat all romances the same, regardless of whether you are playing ManShep or FemShep. Romance whomever you wish, and have the scenes play out the same.

That could be very interesting, if the goal is to look at the future in a certain way, but it certainly would not capture what it’s like in today’s world to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Their romances are often not the same, precisely because of social conventions. The essential love is close enough to the same and deserves the same respect. But living as a transgender or homosexual or bisexual person is likely not the same as living as a heterosexual, cisgendered person, and treating these relationships as if they would be just like choosing what clothes to wear probably misses the point and would not actually help represent the views of players who are transgender. As a hetero-cis person myself, I’m not going to pretend to know how best to represent these differences. I’m just saying that ignoring them is probably not the best approach.

Beyond these issues, it would probably minimize sexual identity to present romances in such terms. Making every gender choice interchangeable suggests that there are no differences among us, but as feminists like Catharine MacKinnon have noted, the “treat the same the same and treat differences differently” approach doesn’t work well in practice. There are too many differences in people, and this approach tends to make sexism and other issues pretty easy to defend. Instead, MacKinnon suggests that we look for power imbalances, which we all recognize as being exploitative when not appropriate.

Of course, this suggestion gets us back to the original issue that I decided to set aside…why is a military commander romancing his/her/their crew, when an obvious power differential makes this very problematic?? Guess I never fully set that aside after all….

Anyway, Bioware is in a tough position, trying to represent all viewpoints while also trying to tell a particular story about a particular character. Hopefully, they find a way to get it right….eventually.

More on Grim Dawn

In my Halloween games post, I noted that people should be playing Grim Dawn, by Crate Entertainment. This was a game that I kickstarted because I really enjoyed Titan Quest, which is a Diablo clone style game that brought some interesting new elements to the genre. Sadly, TQ didn’t do enough to keep its development team together, even after a great add-on/expansion pack. It’s still available for cheap on Steam, and probably GOG. If you haven’t played it, go get it. The settings include Ancient Greece, Babylon, and China, and it’s just a fun game.

Grim Dawn picks up many of the best elements of Titan Quest, and then takes it all a bit further. Let’s start with class options. Like TQ, Grim Dawn has you choose a primary class at level 2. You do this by spending points to build up a base ability in the class itself, a bit like working on your character’s potential to perform in that class. This will allow you to purchase higher level skills within the class (using the same points; so you have to balance increasing potential with actually using that potential to buy skills or upgrade them!). This creates some intriguing decisions. Do you upgrade your favorite skill to make it more powerful, or build your potential so you can get another skill?

At level 10, you may choose a secondary class, allowing for different class combinations. Want to have a fire mage who can also wear heavy armor and swing a sword? You can do that. Put points into demolitionist and warrior. Want to have lots of pets helping you out? Be an occultist/shaman and grab all the pets. These are your choices, and if you are like me, you will have about 8 different characters, trying out different combos. Some will work better than others, but you’ll keep trying out new ones all the time.

Beyond the purchased skills, items can give you new skills as well. There are times where I find myself holding onto items that have inferior stats just because of the cool skill I’m allowed to keep as a result. While the actual item loot is varied and interesting, there are also add-on drops, which can be combined together in order to create cool additions to all of your items. For example, you might have a crossbow and add an item to it that increases your fire damage. Some of these add-ons also provide new skills. The possibilities appear to be practically endless, adding more decisions to your character development.

If all of that seems overwhelming, I guess sometimes it can be. But in general, the game does a good job of adding things slowly enough that you learn about them before you become confused. You’ll be making these decisions with a bit of agony, due to the opportunity costs, but rarely any pain due to confusion about what will happen if you try a particular item. There are plenty of stats on your character sheet that you can check as you swap out items. And yes, you can have alternate layouts on the same character and switch between them on the fly for different situations. I never use this option, but it’s there.

How about the setting? Well, this is a subjective taste thing, but it’s dark. It’s a desolate world, where undead wander what were once lush farmlands, and everyone is pretty much despairing that it’s the end of days. I’m not a huge fan of such settings, in general, to be honest. I play Fallout despite the setting, for example, not because of it. I like the quirky fifties nuke-punk stuff, but not the post apocalypse setting in general. Too dark for me. Grim Dark is similar, but a bit more gothic, I guess…for lack of a better word. Perhaps steam punk would be more accurate, since there are flintlocks and such. IDK…imagine a fantasy world set in the 1700s or 1800s, and you’ll be close to the feel of the world…well, if you add in an apocalyptic event!

Some people will love this setting, but even if you don’t, this is a game worth playing. It’s not expensive (on sale constantly for about $15), and it’s got a LOT of content to it. According to Steam, I’ve put in 122 hours (what? That can’t be right! Steam lies!!! Ok, that could be right….I find this game relaxing). I’m not near the end with any of my characters. So, it’s got a lot of playability to it.

Anyway, give this game a chance. It deserves it, and I want a sequel!

What Games Should You Be Playing for Halloween? (PC version)

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Halloween is my favorite holiday. I’ve had a Baba Yaga wallpaper up for over a month, and my house is fully decorated! Last year, we threw a party for the occasion, but unfortunately, this year our jobs got in the way for various reasons. But that won’t stop me from watching scary shows/movies and playing creepy video games. So, I thought I would share some recommendations about games you could play this Halloween, if you prefer an interactive spooky experience! As an aside, if you prefer a haunted house, and live anywhere near Sandusky or Cleveland Ohio, I highly recommend visiting Elyria’s Hauntville. It’s one of the best haunted house experiences I’ve had because they let you go in with just the people you came in with (even if that means just two of you!). Personalized spooks! Now, on to the games….

(note: these are PC games, though some might be on console as well. Most links are to Steam, but Anchorhead is free to play online. Also, Steam puts games like this on sale for Halloween, most years.)

Grim Dawn– This is what I’m playing the most right now. Made by Crate Entertainment, which is made up of a bunch of the people who made the Titan Quest game, this is a fantastic action RPG in the Diablo mode. The setting is gri…..uhhh, dark. It’s otherworldly demons and zombies and mutated beasts, and it’s always nighttime, and gothic. It feels a lot like the first Diablo game, which in my opinion had the best atmosphere. The setting reminds me a bit of the Duskwood zone in World of Warcraft, if that gives you a reference. Gameplay is solid. These guys know how to make you feel like you are really hitting things. If you played Titan Quest, the gameplay and skill trees will feel familiar. The setting is very different, however, and it has some neat updates to the model. Highly recommended.

Anchorhead– This is an interactive text game, which means that it’s all reading and trying to solve a mystery by typing things like ‘get lantern’, ‘light lantern’, and ‘start crying’. These games can be difficult if you haven’t played one before. But if you gamed back in the 80s, you remember Zork, Hitchiker’s Guide, and a bunch of other great text-based games like this. Anchorhead is set in the Lovecraftian town of Anchorhead Maine, where your husband has inherited a new, creepy house from a distant relative….be careful! This is really well written; a great example of the genre, and a nice atmosphere for Halloween.

Vampire: Bloodlines– For a brief number of years, Troika was my favorite developer. Made up of former Black Isle members (Black Isle made the Icewind Dale games), Troika made Arcanum, Temple of Elemental Evil, and Vampire: Bloodlines. These were all very buggy at release, but also fantastic once fixed. All three hold up well, but Vampire takes the White Wolf tabletop RPG and turns it into one of the most atmospheric first person action RPGs you’ll ever play. Worth the price of admission for one scene in particular, which is famous among gamers and perfect for Halloween. Either way though, you’ll be playing as a vampire, tasked with walking the fine line between human and beast in a gothic modern day setting. GREAT music in this one (for example: Cain, by Tiamat).

Amnesia: Dark Descent– First person, atmospheric, survival horror game. This one is the most straight up scary game on this list, most likely. It’s meant to frighten you, though. That’s it’s whole job, and it does it well. Journey into the underground to solve a mystery. Turn off the lights for this one.

Dead Space– How about a similar game in space? Actually, Dead Space is more of a shooter than Amnesia is. You’ll be killing most of the monsters you find here. Plenty of jump scares and atmosphere though, as you find yourself on an abandoned space ship trying to figure out what happened. Not quite as good as System Shock 2, which has a similar premise, but it’s a newer game. SS2 is still well worth playing, especially if you use texture updates. But Dead Space does a pretty great job too! This one is available on consoles too, if you prefer. In fact, that’s how I played it, and it’s great on consoles.

System Shock 2– Since I mentioned it, I might as well list it. This is one of the best games of all time, regardless of theme or genre. It’s a fantastic experience that uses sound better than any game out there, in my opinion (the Thief games, which were made by the same company, come close though!). Definitely play this one….then play it again in a few years. Never gets old. The linked version has the updated textures.

Darkest Dungeon– Here’s an indy gem of a game. Part RPG and part management/survival game, DD is set in a Gothic, Victorian, Steampunk type world. Oooooozing with atmosphere and cynicism. Your characters go insane at the horrors they witness. The developers must love the Cthulhu game. This game has a ton of content for the price, too. High replayability, since it’s a bit of a rogue-like as well.

Well, that’s my list of games you should be playing for Halloween this year. It’s far from complete. You ought to look into the F.E.A.R series as well, especially if you like movies like The Ring, with creepy ghost girls turning your world upside down when you are just trying to engage in some paramilitary combat. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are great for a feeling of desolation and exploration around Chernobyl. I hear Outlast is good, but I haven’t played it, so I can’t say. If you have some other recommendations, let me know! I love scary games.

Oh, if you like console games, give the Fatal Frame series a shot. All of them are great games in the survival horror genre and will help you reconnect to the feelings you had when playing the first Silent Hill game….hopeless terror. Enjoy!