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.