Queer Lovin’ Blues Part 2: “Character Matters, Not Race or Gender”

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.

  1. 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. []
  2. I’m not, strict­ly speak­ing, qual­i­fied to opine at length on this sub­ject, being not, strict­ly speak­ing, bisex­u­al. []
  3. As Revan has been deemed by the canon-gods to have been male, this ren­ders any romance with Juhani strict­ly non-canon. []
  4. A clear record-holder for a BioWare game. []
  5. 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. []
  6. 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. []
  7. Though it is debat­able why Shepard, whether male or female, would want to romance Kaidan, who is a rep­re­hen­si­ble, two-faced bas­tard. []
  8. Thanks,Bill. []
  9. A dig­ni­ty they’re only too happy to grant to elves and wiz­ards. []

Chelsea L. Shephard

About Chelsea L. Shephard

Chelsea L. Shepard (formerly Hannah DuVoix) doesn't write for the Ontological Geek anymore, but she used to be our Editor-in-Chief! She is currently earning her MFA in Game Design from NYU and is probably also thinking about Fallout: New Vegas.