The Sex Class in BioWare Worlds 5


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.


Sara Davis

About Sara Davis

Sara Davis is a recovering academic living in Philadelphia. She blogs about book business at Scribal Tattoo (http://scribaltattoo.wordpress.com/) and food culture at Scenes of Eating (http://scenesofeating.com/). Her preferred genre of video game is "elves with swords."

  • Nick

    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.

  • Nick

    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.

  • Tom

    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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