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 ( and food culture at Scenes of Eating ( Her preferred genre of video game is "elves with swords."