Mass Effect Fail: the stuff BioWare didn’t get right (Part 2)
May 5, 2011 92 Comments
So in my last post I looked at the visual gender fail that is all too common in Mass Effect. A lot of the commenters mentioned Tali, so I’ll just mention that Tali goes in my books as win and not fail, so you won’t see her here. But I’ll save my reasons why for my next post about non-Shep win, since she deserves more space than just a sentence or two.
Some people also mentioned that I was probably reading too much into some stuff, and sure. I’ll agree that’s probably the case. The problem I have is that having gotten an education in Fine Art, I can’t stop seeing this stuff. The bar for what pisses me off is just lower than everyone else’s, and that’s cool. I recognize that not everyone spent five years of their life having the rules of composition drilled into their brain.
Lastly, obligatory spoiler warning. This post deals with the writing of ME2, so there will be a lot more spoilers. And again, commenters if you could please refrain from DA2 spoilers in the comments that would be awesome. (I will play it, honest, as soon as I can not feel like having to choose between food and BioWare.)
(Tough choice, that.)
World-building fail: alien races
The gendering of alien races is the most obvious bit of writing fail. Only two races in Mass Effect have male and female models – the humans and Quarians. The rest of the alien races have only one model. Now that’s not terrible in and of itself – not every species on earth has sexual dimorphism; it stands to reason that not all alien races would be sexually dimorphic as well. The problem all non-Quarian and non-Asari aliens are voiced by men, which genders these alien races as male.
According to the codex, some species – the Salarians, Krogans, and Turians – have males and females – we just don’t ever see the females. For the Salarians, a complex “social code” revolving around reproduction means that very few females are produced and are all kept on the home world for breeding purposes. And for the Krogans, it’s even worse; because of the genophage, female Krogan are kept on the homeworld and any that have proven fertility are fought over as prizes of war. So two of the most prominent races essentially have their women being sexual/reproductive slaves. That’s just… great. Really progressive of you, BioWare.
As for the Turians, the codex mentions that female Turians don’t have the same crest of horns that males do, but otherwise do not differ visually from the males. The codex also mentions that all Turians go into public service at a young age. What it fails to mention is just why it is that we never see any female Turians at all? Similarly, we know from Thane’s discussions of his wife that female Drell exist, but the codex does not mention them, nor do we see any female Drell. Now in the case of the Drell, the fact that they rarely if ever leave the homeworld is a bit more acceptible. We only see 2 Drell in all of ME2. But both games are fairly drowning in Turians, and not a single one of them female. What gives? Is “public service” for female Turians glorified housekeeping back on the Turian homeworld? With the number of Turians you run into in the game, you’d think at least a handful would be female.
As for the others – Volus, Hanar, Elcor, and Batarians, only the Hanar’s codex entry specifically mentions gender, and only then to say that it is unknown whether the Hanar have gender. And of the four races, only the Batarians appear as if they might have sexual dimorphism. The Volus wear pressure suits, the Elcor are giant armored quadrupeds, and the Hanar are sentient jellyfish. So it seems puzzling to me that all of these races would be implicitly gendered as male. I realize that the difficulty in gendering aliens lies with making two different models, but that difficulty need not exist for the Volus, Hanar, or Elcor. Why not split their voice acting evenly between male and female? Or at least throw a note in the codex that ‘hey, some Elcor are female, despite the super-deep voices’?
It’s bothersome because they only race that is ever explicitly sexualized (as a race, mind, not as individuals) are the Asari, who are also the only alien race explicitly gendered as female:
You never see Salarian strippers, or Drell strippers, or (god forbid) Krogan strippers. You never even see human strippers, which is at least something we have a cultural tradition of. No, all strippers in Mass Effect are Asari – which is baffling considering that their background essentially makes them blue space-elves. If they live a thousand years and all have biotic powers, why do so damn many of them work as strippers? Answer me that, BioWare.
Even worse is the fact that Asari can breed with any other race and have some kind of super-sex appeal that makes them attractive to all races, even ones that don’t really have sex, like Salarians. The whole bit about them having one gender is pretty interesting, but why does that gender have to be female? Oh wait, I know. It’s so that you can have hot lesbian alien sex. Right. How could I forget? After all, if the Asari can breed with anyone, then why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to breed with women? Because that’s just hawt.
And then there’s the Asari Commandos, supposedly the most fearsome warriors the galaxy have to offer. Only when you run into them in ME1, they’re only mildly challenging to kill and you NEVER SEE THEM AGAIN. Seriously, even the frigging vorcha are harder to kill than the stupid Asari Commandos – the Commandos at least don’t regenerate so fast that you have to take them down with one shot.
So all in all, when it comes to world-building, D-.
Writing fail: party members
There’s also a fair amount of sexism to be had when it comes to the writing of crew missions and conversations. As I complained in my last post, it’s bad enough that I have to look at Miranda’s ass cleavage all the time, but what made it worse was how every conversation came back to how perfect she was and how she was genetically engineered for hawtness. She’s supposed to be this super-smart, super competent commander, and she can’t stop obsessing over how she looks like Barbie because she had such a terrible father. Give me a break.
[Sidenote: I'll admit that part of my dislike for the writing of Miranda's character is based on some comments made by the BioWare devs in regards to Miranda's design, justifying the sexy costume and camera angles by calling her a femme fatale. Since Miranda fits none of the traditional criteria for being a femme fatale except for being hawt, this made me very cynical when hearing any of her dialogue.]
I also have to say that Miranda’s loyalty mission bugged me in terms of premise. They spend so much of the game building up Miranda as a hardass commander – I mean, the first time you meet her she shoots a dude in the face without any sort of preamble. So why is it that her loyalty mission had to be a touchy-feely “show Miranda’s emotional side” sort of mission?
Why couldn’t she have had a loyalty mission like Grunt’s? Or Garrus? Or, hell, what if Miranda had gone on a Zaeed-style killing spree? Miranda’s mission was well-written, I will admit. The betrayal and the choice to whether to allow her to shoot Niket are interesting, and the dialogue where Miranda wrestles with her doubts about Niket is well-written. Still, it was disappointing that Miranda’s mission was stereotyped, even if it was entertaining and better written than some of the other missions.
Jacob’s loyalty mission, however, was a whole different kettle of fish. Unlike Miranda’s mission, it was not terribly well-written. (Jacob’s dialogue was often clunky or awkward, though the voice actor was clearly doing the best he could with what he was given.) In his mission, you discover that Jacob’s father basically creates a harem for himself and kills off those few unaffected officers who could, ahem, enjoy their company. He lets this persist for ten years until the men he exiled become a serious threat and only then signals for help.
The women are, in the words of the log, passed around the officers “like pets”. And there’s even a snippet of voice recording by one of the unaffected officers about how you can do terrible things to them and then distract them with something shiny and they’ll forget all about how unhappy they were. And, god. This mission was just… painful. I knew what was coming as soon as I stepped into the settlement and saw that it was nothing but women:
No one ever comes out and says the word rape, but it’s there. Even more horrific is that the women who are being taken advantage of are mentally compromised and not really able to give consent in the first place. All of this is supposed to establish what a terrible, awful person Ronald Taylor is and make the moment of truth a tough decision between whether Jacob should tell his father to kill himself or turn him over to authorities. But the whole time I was playing I couldn’t stop asking myself – really? Is this necessary?
We live in a culture where so much of our entertainment is saturated with rape, it’s almost become a shorthand for evil. How do we establish a man as a villain? Have him rape someone! Playing through this mission felt like reading through one of the Sword of Truth novels. It seemed like the writers were saying to themselves, “vanilla rape is too vanilla – what we need is extreme rape”. And the thing is, the bones of the mission are interesting. A situation where officers have to select who will decay mentally and who will not and the temptation to kill to prevent yourself from being one of the people who loses their mind – that’s interesting. All the rape stuff just felt like gratuitous baggage.
This is just my opinion
Okay, so I know there are those of you who disagree with me on this, which is why I’m tacking this on briefly at the end. I think that Jack is a prime example of sexist, over-sexualized character design. I know not everyone agrees (hell, my husband disagrees with me on this point). But the whole time I was playing, I couldn’t escape the feeling that Jack was not designed for me. That she was designed to appeal to a male audience. A male teenage goth audience, specifically. It’s hard to know really what the writers were thinking when they came up with Jack, but I don’t get the feeling that they really cared how women would react to her. (Again, my opinion)
As for her loyalty mission? I’m really not sure how I feel about it. It’s one of the very few times that we see anything approaching vulnerability from Jack, and the only time that I came close to feeling anything resembling sympathy for her. I did at least feel for little-girl Jack even if I hated psychopathic, unrepentant mass-murdering Jack. But I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Sure it provides insight into who she is, but why do we have such an obsession with making strong women “vulnerable”?
Look at the new redesign of Lara Croft where she gets cut up and bruised to show her “vulnerability”. Or look at The Third Birthday where Aya’s clothes get torn off as she takes damage to show that she’s “vulnerable”. So I go back and forth between thinking that Jack’s loyalty mission is a necessary attempt at establishing that Jack is at least a human being and thinking that it’s just another instance of undermining a strong female character (albeit without tearing her clothes off or abusing her physically).