This month is Romance Month! All of our articles in April deal with romance or relationships (or both!) in games.
In Part 1 of this article, I explored how some big names in gaming don’t know how to treat queer romance (Hint: Treat it the same as straight romance.), and as a result end up treating them like hollow tokens and thrown bones. Then, because I am literally unable to stop bringing it up, I wrote a brief supplement to this piece about how Fallout: New Vegas is perfect in just about every way, particularly in its treatment of queer issues1 on my personal blog. This time, I’m going to take a look at BioWare, who, by nature of trying to tell actual stories with actual characters, tend to come closer to depicting queer characters with actual dignity.
Guest writer Albert Hwang has already written a survey of BioWare’s romantic spread, and has done a good job of listing the queer elements included. In fact, Albert has done such a good job of enumerating the romance options that I was forced to trim large portions of this piece so as not to be redundant. Basically, go read Albert’s piece for a list of the characters with whom the PC may queer it up, then come back here to find out what it all means.
It seems as though BioWare is incapable of pleasing everyone; the developer has weathered its fair share of controversy regarding romance in its games (particularly the infamous Sexbox controversy), so on one hand it makes sense for them to play it safe when it comes to who it allows the players of its AAA games to sleep with. If there were no queer content in BioWare’s games, that would be another issue altogether. But queer content there is, and unfortunately it has not always been handled with the finesse and respect that art actually trying to make a statement must possess.
In almost every BioWare game where you can play the the Romance Game, characters are either straight or bisexual. The notable exception in this case is Mass Effect 3, which we will get to in a little bit. On the surface, this seems to be wishful thinking on BioWare’s part, thinking wistfully of another world where it doesn’t matter who you love, or a “post-orientation” world in short. This may very well be the case; for all their ineptitude and trepidation, BioWare do seem to want to include LGBT* characters in their games. However, if the developers dream of a world beyond prejudice, a world of equality, they have a poor track record in presenting such a utopia to the players. In intellectual properties that focus heavily on racism, religious persecution, and the wholesale slaughter and demonization of certain species, I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief that social taboos over who it is and isn’t acceptable to pork have been relaxed in these games.
Then there’s the gay-lien problem. Permit me to explain what’s soon to be the hottest new phrase on the internets. A total of five times now, BioWare has given us the opportunity to romance (or in the cases of Juhani, Samara, and Morinth, have romantic interactions with) non-human, female-identified main-ish characters. Each of these characters has been available for female-identified PCs to romance, placing them within the queer spectrum. Also troubling is that these characters have frequently been the only queer romance options for their respective series. The equation of queer with alien, implies that the audience (which as far as I’m aware is made up largely of humans) is being conditioned to equate queer with the alien/otherworldly/unnatural. A progressive, helpful trend this ain’t.
In fact, with the exception of Jade Empire, which featured no aliens of any kind (thereby making it impossible for them to fuck up?), BioWare seems largely intent on ensuring that the only same-gender attraction was with characters outside the PC’s (usually human) species. This isn’t equality so much as it is fetishism. Though I hesitate to make this essay about bisexuality itself2, I will say that bisexuality, especially in female characters, has a long history in media as being useful shorthand for “Sexy to menfolk.”
Unfortunately, it seems as though a lot of BioWare’s ovations to queerness fall more into the fanservice category. From the all-female asari, whose promiscuity is the stuff of in-universe legend, to the fact that out of all of BioWare’s male-identified characters, only six of them are romancable by male-identified characters (with only one being male-exclusive), it does not seem as though BioWare concerns themselves too much with actually appealing to the gay male demographic. For much of the company’s catalogue, then, it’s apparent that any queerness was put in by straight men for the benefit of straight men.
Knights of the Old Republic was a bit of a surprise in that it contained not one, not two, but two and a half romance options (!) for its players. Juhani, a cathar Jedi the player must save from the corruption of the Dark Side, is the first openly gay Star Wars character ever. This is kind of a big deal, but you may notice that I’m referring to her as a half-option. This is because, like the gay romances in Fable discussed last time, there is no fanfare with Juhani’s love story. It isn’t possible to “consummate” the PC’s relationship with her (like it is with the hetero options for Carth and Bastila), and as she is one of the few potential squad members it’s possible to kill before recruitment, it’s possible to skip her romance story altogether. This almost defeats the purpose of including a queer character and giving her the potential for feelings for the character.
To make matters worse, Juhani’s romance arc itself, what there is of it, is overly reliant on the patriarchal mindset. Recall I mentioned that the player must rescue Juhani from the Dark Side to unlock her as a party member. Upon first meeting her, she attacks the player and forces hir into a duel. When Revan (the PC) is inevitably victorious, ze chooses to either spare Juhani or put her down. Over the course of the adventure, Revan must listen to Juhani recount her tortured past and be all sympathetic and Nice Guy-like (a typical BioWare romance, in short). Eventually, Juhani will express gratitude for the player’s compassion and confess to having feelings for a female Revan.3. Sadly, BioWare’s unwillingness to commit to celebrating queer relationships in KOTOR was far from the last time they would pause on the threshold of progress.
Where KOTOR caused the Geiger counter of progress to tic ever so slightly, the more recent Star Wars MMO, The Old Republic, has regressed. Romances for the PC were included since the game’s 2011 launch, naturally, but of the twenty (!) romancable NPC companions made available to the player, none of them were options for PCs of matching gender. Over a year later, Jeff Hickman, TOR’s executive producer, explained that integrating same-gender romance into the game “…will take a lot more work than we realized at the time…” I am willing to accept that certain pieces of content must be deprioritized in a development cycle (especially considering that BioWare was hard at work at the time getting the game ready to make the shift to Free to Play). However, Hickman’s statement makes it sound as though the company is dragging its heels in implementing a feature that should have been implemented when they were coding the rest of the twenty romances into their game4.
The Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion, released over a year after launch, finally opened up options to romance same-gender characters on the planet Makeb. And only the planet Makeb. This, understandably, caused quite a bit of controversy; in the entire Star Wars galaxy, there is precisely one (1) planet on which queer individuals can get their queer love. BioWare has spoken of its desire to bring the gay to other planets, as according to Hickman “allowing same gender romance is something we are very supportive of,” but over a year later nothing seems to have come of that support.
The next BioWare game after KOTOR, Jade Empire, did a surprisingly good job of including LGBT* characters in the party and as viable romance options. Of the three romance options, refreshingly only one is non-queer; Silk Fox (F) and Sky (M) are both receptive to the interest of the Spirit Monk (PC) regardless of gender, and it is even possible for a male Spirit Monk to win the affections of both Silk Fox and Dawn Star (F), which leads to a threesome before the Big Showdown and a kind of polyamorus arrangement promised afterwards (such openness is almost completely unknown in BioWare’s ouvre). Jade Empire’s progressive attitude was an indication early on that not only does BioWare want to feature LGBT* characters in their games, it sometimes manages to meet with success.
Now we come to the Mass Effect series, and my goodness do I have much to say about it5. I wish I could say that the developers of Jade Empire took the lessons they learned there and applied them to their sci fi epic, but if anything BioWare retreated from their desire for equality in their games. Mass Effect famously gave the player three potential partners, Ashley, Kaidan and Liara, but only one, the blue one, was able to look past Shepard’s gender and find something there to love. This is doubly frustrating when one considers that Shepard was originally supposed to be able to romance any of the three; much of the data still exists in-game and many mods have made this feature available. Unfortunately, Bioware chickened out.
In Mass Effect 2, BioWare apparently reconsidered their policy of giving players a token queer romance option for Shepards of one gender, and famously reversed course. This time, with the deluge of new, memorable characters available for romancing, they daringly chose to withhold same-gender options altogether, except for the case of Yeoman Kelly Chambers, a pansexual woman who serves as Shepard’s personal secretary. Worse still, it is impossible for romantic encounters with Chambers to have a true, meaningful impact on the game, as successfully romancing Chambers prevents Shepard from having a romance with any of the other characters and also does not grant the Paramour achievement. Now, this might seem regressive and problematic, giving Commander Shepard the option to sleep with hir secretary and not even acknowledging it as significant, but that misses the point. For you see, Kelly Chambers is human. For the first time since the legitimately helpful Jade Empire, a female PC can put the moves on a non-alien NPC of matching gender! Forget for a moment that all the real romances in the game are hetero-only; forget that for much of the game Liara, the token gay-lien from last time is inaccessible; just take a moment and bone your secretary, Commander. You’ve earned it.
More to the point, Chambers’ portrayal implies heavily that, as pansexual6, she has done the nasty with many, many individuals across the entire spectrum of species. When asked by Shepard about her proclivities, Chambers replies “Character matters, not race or gender.” By themselves, these words are great, and I wholeheartedly endorse the attitude. However, the Mass Effect series as a text does precious little to back these words up at all, and its efforts don’t do nearly enough to paint Chambers as anything more than candy for the male gaze. Kelly Chambers, then, is nothing more than a re-hash of the harmful stereotype of promiscuity among bisexuals, a stereotype already hard-coded into the asari. Instead of being a symbol, a woman who looks beyond a galaxy’s worth of differences and prejudices to see what is good and beautiful in all people, to quote the oft-quotable Tycho of Penny Arcade, “Yeoman Chambers is getting sexed!”
Mass Effect 3 was the title where BioWare seemed to finally get a clue. This is the game where many (though not all) of my criticisms of BioWare’s corporate actions fall silent, as it was in Shepard’s final adventure that the developers at the longest of lasts seemed to get it. ME3 was the first in the series to include two gay humans for Shepard to romance (One each, so as to prevent the player from getting greedy). Still more incredible, not only were players able to properly consummate the relationships, the stories themselves were genuinely moving and meaningful. Also, as Albert has pointed out, Diana Allers (who replaced Kelly Chambers as the token hanger-on half-romance) and Kaidan Alenko were added as options for both kinds of Shepard7.
But as BioWare giveth, so must BioWare taketh away. Even in Mass Effect 3, the best (from a queer perspective) BioWare game since Jade Empire, prejudice and problematica show through. All of Mass Effect’s queer humans whom Shepard may romance are drawn from the lower ranks. Samantha Traynor (the runner-up for my personal favorite romance of the series) and Yeoman Chambers function as Shepard’s secretary, reminding us that the glass ceiling looms overhead even in space. Cortez is a lowly shuttlecraft pilot, whose involvement with the player’s adventures is to drive you to the party and wait around until you’re done. None of these characters were deemed important enough to follow Shepard into combat. Apart from Shepard, then, the gays cannot be heroes.
Now we come to a pair of series with whom I have only passing familiarity. I’m given to understand that both the Dragon Age and Baldur’s Gate series are exceptional in their gameplay and storytelling, though I regrettably have played neither enough to speak about them at length. My understanding is that, on the queer issues front, the Dragon Age series is kind of good, as many of the PC’s companions are receptive to the advances of Wardens and Hawkes of any gender.
Albert’s article talked a great deal about the Baldur’s Gate series, and their general lack of same-gender romance options. I have it on good authority, however,8 that despite the same-gender lovin’ sea being markedly devoid of fish in the games proper, a plethora of mods (not to mention the Enhanced Editions of both games) have been created to address this deficiency. In fact, a lot of mods have added a lot of queerness to a lot of BioWare games, for example restoring content left in the first Mass Effect that permitted the romancing of Kaidan and Ashley by Shepards of any gender. I think the fans are trying to tell BioWare something. Unfortunately, BioWare doesn’t seem to be listening.
Through this piece I’ve tried to demonstrate the condition of queerness in AAA gaming. So far, BioWare has a pretty good track record, though that statement must carry with it an asterisk the size of a nerdy analogy for something the size of a football. Though they’ve made many attempts to include LGB characters in their breathtakingly-crafted worlds, more often than not BioWare is either unwilling to give them the same place as their hetero counterparts, or unable to look beyond their patriarchal conditioning to realize that their portrayals, far from being helpful, are hurtful. For queer gamers, the message is clear: we’re an afterthought. It took three games for Shepard to get a proper, same-species, same-gender romance partner, and players in The Old Republic still have to make a trip to the space-bad part of town to carry on illicit same-gender affairs. At the end of the day, BioWare and other AAA developers are less hesitant to let us fuck aliens than people who share our gender. That’s less controversial somehow.
It’s one thing to say with your art, “Hey, this is how the world should be. Something’s wrong, and it ought to be fixed.” To make a point of bringing it up constantly is great, so long as it’s an issue that bears that kind of enthusiasm. Obviously, I think queer visibility is one of those issues, and I’m encouraged that BioWare has made inclusion such a goal. But equality means that everyone is equal all the time, and frankly BioWare isn’t doing enough. To make the statement BioWare has been making regarding LGBT* rights, that they should be a thing, is nice, but the characters’ inclusions, rather than real, proactive steps, feel more akin to the hollow tokenism of Skyrim than a bold, meaningful statement. It’s already a guarantee that a BioWare game will sell stupidly; BioWare endangers nothing by including such “controversial” material as a female-identified person who likes other female-identified people in their games, especially when other controversial subjects such as the aforementioned racism and religious intolerance get an entire game’s worth of exploration. In denying queer people the dignity of their struggles for visibility and acceptance against a world stacked against them9, BioWare has wronged us more than their high-minded “inclusion” could ever help.
- This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that as early as 1998 Interplay’s Black Isle studios were blazing the trail for queer inclusivity with Fallout 2, which featured many queer characters, some of whom the player could marry. [↩]
- I’m not, strictly speaking, qualified to opine at length on this subject, being not, strictly speaking, bisexual. [↩]
- As Revan has been deemed by the canon-gods to have been male, this renders any romance with Juhani strictly non-canon. [↩]
- A clear record-holder for a BioWare game. [↩]
- I think it important to state for the record that, as Shepard, I had a deep, romantic connection with Liara, Thane, and Traynor, and dalliances with Sha’ira, Kelly, and Diana. [↩]
- Pansexuality denotes attraction to people regardless of gender identity or expression. This distinction may seem trivially similar to bisexuality, attraction to both male- and female-identified persons, but would probably carry much more significance in a world where humans are not the only species. [↩]
- Though it is debatable why Shepard, whether male or female, would want to romance Kaidan, who is a reprehensible, two-faced bastard. [↩]
- Thanks,Bill. [↩]
- A dignity they’re only too happy to grant to elves and wizards. [↩]