This month is Romance Month! All of our articles in April deal with romance or relationships (or both!) in games.
I tend to run several years behind on popular games, so I only recently picked up the first Mass Effect and spent about a week buried in that world, following every plot thread I could find. I admit that I did a little Internet research before making my romantic selection: I have completionist tendencies, and wanted to be sure that choosing too early wouldn’t foreclose possible concurrent romances or companion quests. But in the end, I chose Liara T’soni. Though I don’t identify as queer, my default starting game in a BioWare world is always a female character who romances a female NPC–and has been ever since the first time Silk Fox flirted with my bare-midriffed warrior in Jade Empire and I realized I had the opportunity to see not one but two women with complex motives and snappy dialogue interacting onscreen. Liara is the only option for a queer femShep in the first Mass Effect.
Liara is an asari, who you might call the sex aliens of the Mass Effect universe. Sure, asari have a certain level of power and prestige in that galaxy: a number of the asari Shep meets occupy positions of relative power such as Council member and Consort. But despite their supposedly exalted role in the galactic hierarchy, the asari do double duty as the universe’s preferred sex objects. Their social and physiological construction reminded me strongly of the attractive humanoid aliens in early Xbox Knights of the Old Republic games, the female Twi’leks who frequently appear as dancers and the eerily identical Echani handmaidens. Supposedly mono-gendered, asari are uniformly presented with curvy female bodies and pretty feminine faces. The Citadel clubs are largely entertained by asari exotic dancers; the renowned Consort, who manages a sensitive client network of political and military leaders, is available as a sex partner if Shep goes PUA and negs her. Asari are viewed by other aliens as sexual beings, even hypersexual: if Shep talks to Liara about her species, Liara stammers to defend herself against assumptions about asari promiscuity, informing Shep that just because asari can mindmeldwith any alien species or gender doesn’t mean they will do so at any chance they get. Later, if Liara is with you when you confront the rachni queen, another character may accuse her of wanting to mate with it. On reflection, Liara is a queer choice whether or not Shep is female; the assumptions about asari sexuality echo real-world stereotypes about bisexuality.
Shep’s feelings aside, my own feelings about Liara are mixed. On one hand, she’s a female-presenting character—still rare enough to be exciting—who has an interesting backstory and a cool job; it’s great fun to fight alongside her as she sends clusters of thorian creepers whirling into biotic eddies. On the other hand, she and her kin are so obviously designed to appear both sexually inviting and appealingly vulnerable that I feel troubled when I take the bait. Flirting with Liara gave me the same discomfort I felt interacting with city elves in Dragon Age 2 (and to a lesser extent, Origins). Elves are obviously the sex class in Thedas: they are considered beautiful or at least desirable by many; their beauty is more or less feminine, particularly in 2, when the redesign gave all elves enormous glassy eyes and softly elongated faces. Male and female elves are popular choices in the brothels of Thedas, and an Origins origin story turns on a conflict between an impoverished elf community and human nobles who imagine elves to be sexually available by default. Elves are acknowledged to possess deep spirituality and ancestral wisdom, yet they are oppressed and degraded in urban centers. It is perceptive (though depressing) storytelling to depict the intersection of poverty, racism, and sex work onscreen as it so often happens in the real world.
But that is precisely what troubles me about the sexualization of certain races in BioWare fantasy worlds. Sexual and racial discrimination is written into these games in a way that shows awareness of and sensitivity to real-world social inequality: I don’t need a game to reflect my own world back to me, but I do appreciate that moment of recognition when Liara defends her individual sexuality within the context of her species, and even the revenge fantasy offered by the DA City Elf origin. It makes them seem human.But the games want to have it both ways: characters like Liara may exhibit agency and self-determination, but like most romanceable NPCs, her ultimate purpose is to give in. For that reason and because her entire species is designed for the galaxy’s pleasure, her resistance is largely ornamental. This picturesque struggle with systemic oppression is the best case scenario for the sex class: even if you play the game for purity points, your playable character and yourself are made complicit in the fantasy world’s objectification of its sexualized demographic. But then players are occasionally invited to participate in the degradation of the sex class: the brothel options, the Consort seduction, and certain romance plots allow the player to identify squarely with the oppressive class instead of its vulnerable counterpart. And if you’re a completionist, as I sometimes am, then you (that is, I) may well abuse the option.
I’ve read optimistic research about the ways in which BioWare romances have the potential to encourage player empathy. It’s difficult to pull a romance off if you play as a selfish destroyer; to pursue romance, you usually must listen to your ally’s autobiography, seek out lost but cherished possessions, or settle age-old scores on their behalf before they open up. For better or for worse, in-game romances can be incredibly validating—laugh if you like, but my hetero heart skipped a beat at that first unexpected, unsolicited flirtation from Silk Fox—and the increasingly fluid sexuality in newer gameworlds could be a powerful incentive to empathize with queer points of view. The achievement of romancing a character is also emotionally rewarding when the quest is written with tenderness and a little complexity—just as with any film or text narrative.
But I’m dubious of the salvific potential of in-game love when the player is brought (voluntarily or not) into complicity with game-world social inequalities that echo our own—as though it is possible to imagine a world of nonhuman sentient beings and elaborate alien civilizations which you must save from a great evil, but it is not possible to imagine a world without a class of highly intelligent beings whose lot in life is serve at the pleasure of others—including you, the player.
Hi, thank you for an interesting read. You’ve given me much to think about.
I believe that BioWare are on record that the Asari are explicitly sexualised. The issue with this, as I see it, is less the effect on the story but rather that they defaulted to a female form for said sexualisation. As you say this is a double-edged sword, you get a strong ‘female’ character but also a sexualised one.
However, while Liara might give in this isn’t the case for all characters. Sam Traynor and Steve Cortez are both characters romanceable by queer Shepherds. In a similar manner Garrus and Tali are alien characters who are heterosexually male and female respectively. Tali is portrayed as young and vulnerable, not even adult when you first meet her.
I also think that you’re missing an important bit of the Asari backstory in not mentioning that Asari ‘pureblood’, those Asari whose parents are both Asair, are discriminated against. This puts the Asari promiscuity in a slightly different light, as they are actively seeking non-Asari to breed with. Indeed I believe that in a few places they mention how travelling the galaxy and paying your way as a dancer is almost part of a Grand Tour-like coming of age for young Asari. This could be seen as a post-facto justification, but it could provide interesting stories for BioWare to expand upon.
I’d suggest then that, particularly in light of the third game where BioWare’s world and characterisation has had more time to fully develop, that the Asari hold a slightly more complex position in the Mass Effect world. It will be interesting to see where BioWare take the story of the Asari.
Lastly, my apologies if this comes across as a knee-jerk defense of BioWare, it certainly isn’t meant to be such.
Hi Nick. I haven’t played the Mass Effect sequels yet, so I can’t speak to how the romance plots differ. However–and I’m not arguing that all plots fit into this form–“giving in” is a pretty common structure for game romance plots across the board. The NPC doesn’t want to fall for the PC for some reason–wrong species, wrong politics, not ready for sex, not ready for love–but if the PC plays all the dialogue or quest cues correctly, they “win” the romance and are rewarded with a cut scene or item. A little mercenary, sure, but so are most game mechanics, and I don’t usually have a problem with it. But in Liara’s case, her romance plot aligns a little too closely with pervasive cultural expectations for women, which in the real world are irreconcilable: be sexy and sexual, but only sexually available to the right playable character (as it were).
While I hope the asari characterizations have indeed evolved in 2 and 3, I really hope you’re wrong about the asari touring the galaxy as exotic dancers as a rite of passage and a means of finding genetically superior sex partners. If that’s written into the later games, it would be an interesting bit of embroidery on the existing asari model, but it does not work against their problematic casting as the sex class. The problem is that in spite of their supposedly ancient and powerful civilization, the asari are primarily characterized in this gameworld by their sex appeal and reproductive choices. It’s just a little too similar the way women are legally and socially defined in our own world, and in fantasy fiction I’d prefer to see a little more thoughtful distance or complexity.
I never actually felt that Liara comments indicate she’s unwilling to enter a relationship, rather that she doesn’t enter them often. Certainly though she comes across as young (despite being at least twice as old as Shepard) and vulnerable to pressure and I agree that this does not tie in well with BioWare’s standard mechanical romance plotline.
Largely I think it’s a failure in the writing. She’s a character who’s 106, and effectively Indiana Jones exploring Prothean ruins; yet she’s written as a naive, young woman. Later in the series her competence and confidence are more clear and she’s written more as an equal. It might be that they intented her to have a character arc, but it’s unfortunate how it interacts with her relationship with Shepard.
Regarding the Asari in general, overnight I’ve come to agree with your position on this. In my mind everything stems from the decision to essentially make them human women but with tentacles for hair. Once they do this, and then place only Asari as dancers it becomes problematic. We can swap every Asari dancer with a human woman and the issue becomes more clear. If Asari has been more alien in both form and mentality it would be a more complex and interesting issue.
Taking this further, we only see one Turian woman and we speak to a single Krogan woman in the whole series. The Salarians, a species to whom reproduction is mechanical and a matter of contractual discussion would have been interesting to explore, but there’s very little done here. There’s much more they could have done with this. In the Mass Effect universe sexuality as a whole revolves around humanity and general human men, species are either attractive to humans or either uninterested or not present.
Despite this I can certainly recommend playing the sequels, they’re good fun. There was a lot of furore surrounding the third one, but they are an excellent set of games. They also include an Asari who is both powerful and non-sexual, indeed possibly the only person who is unimpressed by Shepard. There’re still a lot of Asari dancers unfortunately.
Very interesting. I must admit that what brought me to this site was a google search for Asari sexual reproduction, particularly what other people think of the little information that the series provides, and while this is not really hit on, I do think that there is room to inject this bit into the discussion.
What intrigues me most about Asari is their method of reproduction, which is essentially neurological parthenogenesis. I mean, they produce the entirety of DNA but require another beings nervous system as a map to randomize the second set of DNA. Physical features obviously make them mammalian, including a belly button, breasts, and the hint of a birth canal that can be used with humans for intercourse. This, while interesting in its own right is not the greatest part about Asari in my opinion.
All of the main aliens in Mass Effect have well thought out, if shallow cultures. They are sort of like what-if species. What-if a hyper violent sentient species was elevated to starflight? What if a species had an immune system more akin to symbiosis? What if a species was psychic? Obviously there are more, even if the Hanar are largely forgotten, but it really is a nice, and again shallow, exploration of what happens to species that have to deal with *blank* problem/device. The interesting thing of Asari that I’ve been teasing, is their intimacy.
There is no denying from a design perspective that they are the sexualized culture, and yet they are also the ones with the most beautiful of all idiosyncrasies. While it seems more or less that all major species can copulate in some way Asari actually become one being, literally melding their nervous system to form one consciousness. That is sort of the romanticized ideal sexual encounter. I mean, humans are meat bags that plug one end into another, or otherwise stimulate each other. That is a really simple process that makes promiscuity easy, but a deep and intimate connection is difficult to create and maintain. The payoff is nuanced and subtle, not something noticed by someone who hasn’t experienced it, but completely different for someone who has.
So while the Asari race is designed to be the sex class, they are also the intimacy class that is capable of easily, even nonsexually, becoming perfectly intimate with any other sentient organic being. Unfortunately, that too is easy to miss for the majority of the series.
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