Female characters done right: FemShep (Spoilers, of course)

I spend a lot of time complaining about all of the sexism fail to be found in the gaming world, so it’s nice every once in a while to have something to point at as an example of things done right. So BioWare, I know I get down on you for your sexist character designs and for your refusal to promote female avatars as an option in your advertisements. But I can’t stay mad at you forever because you gave me FemShep, possibly the best female character in the history of video games ever.

My Shepards: Teresa (Renegade, obviously) and Alanna (Paragon)

First off, I can’t say how much I love that FemShep isn’t Barbie, like the vast majority of video game women. For one thing, she’s not terribly busty unlike Miranda or Samara, which is awesome. She’s slender, sure, but kicking ass burns a lot of calories. I guess it’s a sad statement about the state of game design when a female flagship character with a flat-ish chest can make me so happy, but there you go.

That’s not to say FemShep is dowdy. So I love it even more that her feminine attributes are never blatantly on display like… well… this:

About as subtle as a brick to the face.

Thank god that they never inflicted that indignity on FemShep. It was bad enough having to put up with Miranda going on about how her looks were part of her genetic modifications designed to “give her an edge”, and it was worse getting shots of Miranda’s ass cleavage or of Jack’s bizarre nipple straps. No, FemShep is definitely female, attractive, and so not on display for your benefit. (Which, of course, makes some male gamers unhappy. To them I say, grow up. You got Miranda, Samara, and Jack. Don’t be ungrateful.)

This is a woman who doesn’t take any guff; she’s out to kick ass and take names:

In a way, it feels to me like FemShep is the realization of the wasted potential found in so many ass-kicking video game women like Samus and Lara Croft. FemShep is not Barbie-fied supermodel who kicks ass in revealing clothing so that male gamers can have their violence with a side of tits and ass. And while the option exists for her to have sexy moments if you pursue a romance, that romance is still on her terms. This isn’t any of the Metroid games, or Dead or Alive, or Tomb Raider. FemShep’s nudity is never a reward for the gamer – it’s part of her story.

As a side note, it is nice to see that the option for romance is still there for FemShep. It would have been easy to make her “one of the boys”, yet another woman who divorces her gender as the price for being a high achiever in a traditionally male role. Sure the romance options were a bit lackluster in the first game, but they certainly made up for that with a vengeance in ME2.

Perhaps the thing I love more than anything else about FemShep is that she’s the boss and everyone knows it. No one ever questions her ability to lead, no one ever makes any suggestions that maybe someone else should be in charge. FemShep is a born leader with the ability to inspire those around her. Despite being surrounded by hyper-competent people, many of whom like Tali, Garrus, or Mordin are leaders in their own right, it feels right that FemShep is in charge.

Guns? She don’t need no stinkin’ guns.

She never winds up playing second fiddle to her team members because in the end it’s all about helping her get the job done. And, ohmigod I can’t possibly articulate how much I love BioWare for this. Honestly, sitting right here I can’t name a single female video game character besides FemShep that is 1) not sexualized 2) in charge and 3) the main character.

And all of this is improved by the massive amounts of choice the player gets in deciding the fate of the universe. FemShep is a character whose decisions affect the entire galaxy, again not a role that you often see female characters in. And she gets to do all manner of epically awesome things. FemShep isn’t just a person – she’s a force of nature. So when people ask me what exactly it is that I do want in games? This. I want this. More of it. A lot more.

With all of this in FemShep’s favor, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever play Male Shepard. Male Shepard is such a stereotyped character – the white space marine messiah figure with a buzz cut and a chiseled jaw. Yawn. That trope is just so tired these days. Give me a female messiah figure who manages to be feminine and still save the universe – way more interesting. The comparison is even more lopsided when you start comparing voice acting. Jennifer Hale’s performance as female Shepard is amazing. Mark Meer is totally bland and uninspiring.

So you’ve got some pretty high expectations to live up to for the third game, BioWare. In the past two games, FemShep has gotten to do some seriously awesome things like kill an ancient machine-god and come back from the dead. Let’s make this a hat trick and not ruin the streak with gratuitous FemShep sexiness, okay? Okay.

167 thoughts on “Female characters done right: FemShep (Spoilers, of course)

  1. ‘Honestly, sitting right here I can’t name a single female video game character besides FemShep that is 1) not sexualized 2) in charge and 3) the main character.’

    GLaDOS, depending on what you mean by ‘main character’.

      • ([Minor] Spoiler Alert!)

        She’s not the protagonist / viewpoint character, no. But she does get the majority of the story arc and character development in the new game, so I’d say that makes her a candidate for ‘main character’. Disallowing AIs makes sense, though.

      • Should first person games even count? It’s not like you can see yourself, so there’s no incentive for those protagonist characters to fall victim to… ‘vulgar sexual expressionism,’ let’s call it. (to avoid another semiotic nerd-out)

        If they do, might I recommend the No One Lives Forever series? It’s basically ’60s James Bond, except you’re a woman. It’s hilariously campy, sand the only game I can think of that has a gunfight in a trailer that’s being tossed by tornadoes.

        But yeah, not much of that stuff coming out recently, except terrible indie games.

        • But in NOLF, the main character is pretty heavily sexualized. Her outfits either show cleavage, midriff, or lots of leg.

          • Out of curiosity, where do you live? It gets pretty hot here in Maryland come summertime, and a lot of women dress in clothes that show leg, midrif and cleavage when it gets warm out. I wonder if that might contribute to my not seeing the leg and midrif stuff as sexualized, since it is so common, here (no matter how common it might be here though, cleavage still strikes me as sexualized)?

            • The little blurb at the bottom of her post says she lives in Canada. 😉

              Though, she’s probably referring to sexualization in reference to how male characters are treated, rather than what she’s used to — and most Western male characters show practically no skin whatsoever. The obvious comparison to NOLF, of course, is James Bond, and it’s really easy to see how leg-and-midriff baring outfits differ from his usual tuxedos, no matter what climate the characters are in. 😉

              • I think I don’t see the blurb due to my reading this via my iPhone.

                I wasn’t at all trying to dispute that the showing of leg or midrif could be sexualization. I was merely pondering why it is that I don’t see it that way. If I were to design a female character who resides in a climate similar to my own, she’d probably be showing some leg and midrif, not with the intent of making her sexier but because that is how women dress around here. I don’t see too many guys wearing short-shorts or belly shirts no matter what the temperature, so I wouldn’t design a male character for a climate like mine, to show leg or midrif. I wouldn’t see either as being done for sexualization purposes, but merely to reflect how the people in this area present themselves. Hence my curiosity as to her location.

          • I thought the whole thing was way too campy to be legitimately pandering, but whatever. I’m wondering, considering that a gender-flipped James Bond would, ideally, also have sex appeal, how would you make that work without pushing it into the creepy level?

      • Sadly, Chell underwent a big overhaul in Portal 2. Even though you don’t see her during gameplay, Valve still felt the need to make her more attractive:

        Which is weird, because sex appeal isn’t really something that the Portal series ever needed imo.

      • Samus from the Metroid series is pretty badass, isn’t overly sexualized, and is the main character. The only game she was over sexualized in was Metroid: Other M, but that game 1. wasn’t made by the same studio as the original metroid games or the metroid prime games, and 2. just was a disgrace to the whole series, I don’t even count it as a Metroid game.

        • The Exile (who is canonically female for a change,) from KotOR II was even better than both of them. Undisputed leader of her group? Check. Major character flaws? Che-eck. Much better romance options than her male counterpart? Atton’s got you covered! Lack of sexualisation? Well, you could technically make her do a lapdance for a Hutt, but still!

          The same game also had Kreia, who may just be my favourite video game character ever, full stop! (You could also suggest her for the lapdance.)

          • OMG Kotor 2 was one of my favorite games /evar/. Even with the rushed development and bad pacing at the end I still really loved it. Female Exile being canon was great (loved her dialogue options). Her, Kreia, and Atton were my favorite characters 😀

            • I’m looking forward to playing this game — I actually ordered it a few days back due to the recommendation. I’ll be playing as a female Exile, of course, and trying my hand at WRPGs at the same time. Should be fun.

              • I’m sure this is too late but I serously suggest that you get the missing content mod. That adds all the elements that got rushed near the end so that it really has some great pacing when it wraps up. The characters are generally excellent and Kreia’s story is just something else again. Takes it to a whole new level of phenomenal. Personally I skipped the plot bit with the Hut because it did not fit with my character concept and its pretty minor side quest that looses you out on some trivial amount of XP you can pick up else ware…I mean I skipped all the pod racing too simply because I don’t like the pod races and you’ll still end up as an unstoppable killing machine (even if you burn a few feats in totally RP related elements).

  2. I’m currently finishing off a FemShep playthrough after a bit of a hiatus, and agree with you on 99% of this.

    But… “Male Shepard is such a stereotyped character – the white space marine messiah figure with a buzz cut and a chiseled jaw. Yawn. That trope is just so tired these days.”

    Who says Male Shepard is white?

      • No disagreement that Bioware’s marketing has white male Shepard as the face of the game.

        But just as FemShep is awesome and very real, so is BlackShep, if you will.

        • Oh, for sure! And I’m super-happy the option exists! It just makes me really sad that BioWare chose a canonical Shepard who is white and male and they don’t even advertise that you can play a Shepard who isn’t white or isn’t male. The ability to play a Shepard who looks like you is awesome – so why limit their advertising to a yawn-worthy white space marine?

          • Ah, gotcha! Yeah, I would have loved to see a bunch of real-world people, then their versions of Shepard, all going forth and kicking Collector ass…

            “I am Commander Shepard.”
            “I am Commander Shepard.”

            …instead of the GenericShepard that we got instead.

            (Thought: Generic Shepard fades into the background, partially because he’s so generic, and the team members overshadow him. Whereas Actual In-Play Shepards, of all their various sorts, are much more unique and identifiable, and wind up really being the leader along with the team members. Or maybe I am overprojecting. I dunno. Now I want to go back and blow up the Collector base again.)

          • If they are using in-game shots: no they should not limit their protaganist to 1 specific type.

            If they are using pre-rendered CGI shit: I imagine it chews up the budget to design multiple protaganists and I can see why they might choose a specific demographic to target.

            If we are talking about the cover art: …personally I dont think they should show a clear protaganist at all for games that allow you to make your own.

          • I remember reading an article about the Nintendo Wii’s early advertising, particularly why they consistently used white males as the example-hand in all of their advertising and tutorial pieces. They said it was to appeal to the largest part of the audience. In China, the examples are usually Chinese men. In the West, they use white men.

  3. Female Shepard rocks so hard. Jennifer Hale should be given an award or something for bringing her to life–not to diminish Bioware’s efforts either of course. It would have been plenty easy to throw in dialog like Sten’s in Dragon Age* where characters have problems with a female combatant or authority figure, but Mass Effect never does that. The only thing I felt was problematic on Femeshep that wasn’t also true of Maleshep was the relationship with Jacob, which given Shepard’s hardass-ness comes across as sexual harassment.

    *Incidentally in my female Warden game my response to Sten’s questioning why the baddass great-ax-wielding Dwarven princess was fighting was complete incomprehension of his incomprehension. I’m glad Bioware at least put that dialog option in.

    • My two-handed sword wielding dwarven princess character in Origins totally didn’t get that, either. As soon as I saw that dialog option, I knew what I had to choose.

    • I kind of saw Sten as a foil for everything the Grey Wardens were expected to be since he had some pretty baffling ideas about more than just gender roles. But yeah, I have to admit that I didn’t use Sten a whole lot after his little “I don’t want to follow a woman” speech.

  4. So, out of curiosity, what is your opinion on sexism in Mass Effect overall? You clearly have issues with how Miranda and certain Asari are presented, how much does the awesomeness of FemShep make up for that, in your eyes?

    • The thing is, if I refused to play any game that had sexist elements, I would never play another video game again. Mass Effect 2 remains one of the best RPGs that I have ever played, hands down, and Shepard is the large part of that. The awesomeness of FemShep makes it quite easy to hold my nose at the stupid female character designs.

  5. On the Male v Female when FemShep does the speech before the section it was really good but when I saw the MaleShep version it sounded so cliche because like you said male space marine is a tired trope and cause Jennifer Hale is a better voice actor. Kinda is putting me off replaying ME2 with MaleShep for the different ending/ carry over decisions.

  6. Doesn’t this still fail given FemShep (surely just Shepard) is still adhering to the current Western idealised body shape, her armour is sexualised (breast plate with breasts?, form fitting etc), and in your implementation of her she is white, cis-sexual, etc…

    • The armor doesn’t bother me because MaleShep’s armor is the same way – it too has the chest plate being separate from the abdomen. And the skin-tight thing doesn’t bother me because, hey, this is sci-fi. Everyone is wearing skin-tight clothing – men and women included.

      As for my Shepard being white… I like to play characters who look like me. I’d like to think that I can still be a strong advocate of character customization that includes gender and race options and still play a Shepard who looks like me without being full of fail.

      • From the first two pics though that you posted Shepard isn’t very busty, however the armour itself is which is surely a major fail.

        • It’s armor. I just assumed that it’s thick or something. And I think it helps that MaleShep’s armor has a seriously big codpiece. (Not to say my opinion is the only one that matters. I can respect disliking the armor-boobs.)

  7. My only problem with FemShe is that she is American (as are most human crew of Normandy).

    So even in future and in space opera, on a verge of cosmic cataclysm, the hero of humanity’s got to be American. /notsigned.

    • The only thing American about him/her would be the accent, I don’t recall his nationality ever being brought up in-game. He doesn’t even have to be from Earth if you don’t want him to be, if you choose certain backgrounds! What about all of the aliens who speak English? Did we force our language on a universe full of aliens who HATE OUR SPECIES? Where does the nitpicking end? The company is American -owned and located in America, giving them easiest access to voice actors with American accents.

      • [nerd]technically Bioware, Jennifer Hale, and Mark Meer were all born in Canada[/nerd]

        • That was a typo, I meantto write “American-owned and located in Canada”.

      • I don’t want to be picky but the fact that his/her nationality isn’t mention doesn’t mean a thing, US-centrism falls so heavily on popular culture that everyone is assumed American unless stated otherwise and yes I would be delighted if Biowere specifically stated Shep origins to be anything but American i.e. Brazilian, Chinese or Russian, that would be awesome. Personally I’m totally biased towards American or English speaking characters with English names, this has to stop in games like right now.

        • The problem is, Shepard is supposed to be a blank slate in terms of background, so players can create that themselves. Not having a defined country of origin isn’t all that different from not having a defined race or gender — they just don’t have the ability to let you define the country of origin in the game itself because of voice acting constraints so it’s left out entirely.

          • No it isn’t, it’s more like everyone assume that character is white (per default) unless specifically stated otherwise, the same goes with American nationality, and somehow the problem you mention isn’t actually that big problem (same argument was already mentioned hundreds times with when it came to adding women as playable character), in ST:TNG English actor Patrick Stewart played captain Jean-Luc Picard of specifically French origin so I don’t see any problem in this matter.

            • (same argument was already mentioned hundreds times with when it came to adding women as playable character)

              Adding women means doubling the number of recorded lines. Adding accents to represent different cultural backgrounds would mean a dozen times more recorded lines (assuming only six potential areas of origin, which isn’t even close to “choose whatever background you want”).

              It’s just really hard to see how they could allow players to choose Shepard’s country of origin without limiting what they can choose.

              • You deliberateky ignored my point about ST:TNG, no i don’t want 6 different voiceovers, one would suffice, just option that specifically exclude my character from being assumed American.

              • I ignored that because giving the character a specifically-marked accent limits players’ roleplaying choices. If Shepard has the same accent as everyone else, the accent can sort of be handwaved as a Translation Convention-esque thing, because pretty much everyone ought to be speaking with accents that don’t sound American due to living in space. If Shepard is given a different accent from the standard Hollywood-created “not-an-accent” accent (which includes, of course, the accents actually used by the vast majority of Americans — we certainly don’t all sound like that, even if we’re able to accept it as not-from-elsewhere), the player can’t do that.

                I mean, it makes a lot of sense to include fixed non-American backgrounds with fixed characters — like, say, Jean-Luc Picard. But Shepard isn’t a fixed character, and fixing Shepard’s background more than necessary isn’t something Bioware wants to do.

          • Play Mass Effect 1 again. Read the background choices carefully. You can’t be American if you were born on a colony planet. My Shepard isn’t American, he’s not even a native of Earth.

            • Whatever you say, but i’m almost sure that most of human population on earth when showed Shepard would consider him/her an American. (it’s even more infuriating that even if she/he isn’t from Earth, he/she is so deliberately American, because even small concession in that matter would make Americans uncomfortable). In fact only Kasumi is character that seems unlikely to be American in whole Normady crew from ME1 and 2.

              • Why are you assuming a nationality at all? Nothing specifies anything. I never assumed to know what country he came from, if he came from Earth at all. You are the one putting that inference there. You are the one assuming that American is the default, unless they specify otherwise. As I said, MY Shepard isn’t even from Earth, according to the backstory I chose in the beginning of the game. He’s specifically not even from Earth. How can he be American?

                He doesn’t have a flag anywhere to indicate an allegiance to a country. He never refers to one. I don’t recall ANY countries being mentioned, at all. The only reasons I can possibly see for your assumption are that he:

                1) Speaks English and
                2) Speaks it with an American Accent.

                By that reasoning, the Council, every Asari, Turian, Krogan etc. I can recall speaking to must be American. After all, they’re speaking American English, too.

              • ME2 is dubbed into many languages, Lawrence. Should I play the game in Spanish, which is my mother tongue, would I be led to think Earth is ruled by Latinos? The answer is no. As with any other sci-fi/space-faring IP, or even medieval/sword-and-sorcery ones, I always assume the language presented to any user is offered in whatever language he or she will understand, because if we were to live in the reality each IP describes, we would know the common tongue. So the game being in American English (or Canadian, technically) is only a translation from the common tongue used in that time. Same as elves and dwarves and everyone else speaks common in Dragonlance and twi’leks, devaronians and hutt speak common in Star Wars. You know, in Spain, the galactical common language is Spanish and in France it is French.

              • Why I assume his/her nationality ? Because Shepard is not a blank plate when it come down to it, everything about him/her is American not just language she/he speaks. When you read ME and ME2 codex’s, it clearly states that Earth isn’t unified under American banner, not that humans abandoned their cultural heritage and happily applied to American culture. The starships names are cities, mountains, battles from all over the world, so I assume that it should be quite unlikely that almost every character I encounter from human military or politics is American.

              • @Lawrence – What else about Shepard screams “American”? Give me examples. I already stated that I don’t get it. Only his or her accent seems to imply a nationality at all, so far as I can tell. Help me understand. What is it about the character that makes him or her so disgustingly American to you?

              • ^
                It’s not a proper answer but to be honest – everything, I can’t believe you don’t see it. You are correct though :it’s disgusting as is whole ME series. It is so US/Canada centric that is disgustingly offensive and intrusive. If you check ME wiki you will see that like 70 % of all human NPCs have English names and surnames, if you count military personnel and authorities number is even higher, way to go Bioware, way to go. And what is Shepard’s ship name ? Bioware you must be kidding me… Normandy , not a decisive battle, hardly a victory, and questionable importance. Oh wait, it’s important to Americans, Canadians and Britons so it should be important to whole humanity, boo-fuckin-hoo…

  8. Though if I recall, ME1 offered a romance between Shep and an Asura. So male Shep got safe, het nookie, while FemShep had hot lesbian sex. Does ME2 offer more options, like a potential male partner, so MaleShep can take a walk on the wild side, or FemShep can pursue a heterosexual relationship?

    • FemShep had a het romance option in ME1. Unfortunately, MaleShep does not have a gay romance option – if you want gay romance you have to play FemShep, which is HUGELY disappointing since BioWare made a point of including both male AND female gay relationships in Dragon Age.

      • They were actually considering letting dudes bone the fishman, Thane, too. I think EA didn’t approve, or something, though.

        • I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense to me. Why allow dudes to boink elves in DA:O and then go OMG DUDES CAN’T BOINK ALIENS THAT WOULD BE WRONG for ME2? Like, wtf?

    • Revan in KOTOR was a pretty good character, but I don’t think BioWare really got the hang of making the female experience as rewarding as the male experience until Mass Effect/Dragon Age. Carth did absolutely nothing for me as a romance option, and when I did a second playthrough as a male Revan I felt like the female experience was just… missing something. I can’t pin it down more than that.

  9. FemShep is the best Shep indeed. I played as MaleShep in the first Mass Effect, but decided to switch it up in the second one. I am SO glad I did, and I’m never switching back.

    Great article.

  10. Have you seen the ME3 design for Ashley? I saw it in GameInformer and thought, “Gee, they sure made Miranda look weird.” But no, that’s everyone’s favorite kick-ass gunnery chief in skin-tight armor with her hair down. 😦

    Speaking of BioWare games, I’m noticing a kind of strange trend of having the most heavily-sexualized female characters be also secretly infertile. Miranda, if you play the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC and read all the secret files on the companions, is revealed to be unable to have children (and also to be engaging in a lot of anonymous Internet hook-ups, which is a whole other weird kettle of fish). Isabela, the sexy pantsless pirate in Dragon Age 2, is also heavily implied to be infertile via her dialogue when you give her a necklace that turns out to be a fertility talisman. What is up with that? It could be an honest attempt at character depth, I suppose, but it seems like a really weird coincidence.

    • ACK! No DA2 spoilers please! I can’t afford to buy it until the price goes down!

      *ahem* That wasn’t something I had noticed, but wow. Weird. Anyway, Ashley hasn’t been an issue for me because I killed her in both of my ME1 playthroughs. (I found her entirely unsympathetic and offensively xenophobic.) So I guess I won’t have to put up with bad character design if that’s what they stick with.

      • Ashley is one of the best things about Mass Effect to me. She is such a believably flawed and realistic character. Due to game mechanics, I almost always had her in my party. This lead to my Shepherd basically turning a blind eye to her bigotry(my Shep was full renegade, except never picked the xenophobic options). While Shep didn’t approve of the bigotry, she also didn’t really say much against it, because Ashley was her friend. This in turn made Shep believably flawed to me.

        One of the great things about a game like Mass Effect is how various choices come together like that to create something so human and believable.

      • Ah, I’m sorry! D: I’ve been so deep into Dragon Age 2 discussions that I wasn’t thinking.

  11. The various Dragon Age protagonists (also Bioware) were often female, in charge, and not sexualized. It’s more obvious with Lady Hawke in DA 2. Both games (especially DA 2) have romance options aplenty.

    • Yeah, I was going to mention Lady Hawke. It particularly got me in the frame-story elements: I suddenly realized I was getting chills because you never hear characters voicing dialogue like “the only one who can save us” etc. and use female pronouns. The epic fantasy hero who shook the world to its foundations, changed everything forever, and now is at the center of everyone’s hopes and fears — sure, we’ve seen that before, a million times. But not the epic fantasy heroine who’s done the same. Being able to play that character made me very, very happy.

  12. So do you think that Bioware make strong female protagonists only because they design their games while having in mind a strong protagonist who have later to be male or female?

    • I think Bioware make strong female protagonists because they write the game for a male protagonist, and then reuse the script because they want to reuse as many assets as possible. But that’s just me – a bit of a cynic.

      I’m very happy to play Shepard – my simple rule of thumb for a game is I only play if I can play a) a woman, who b) doesn’t show midrifff, thigh, or cleavage. Not many games for me, but it saves me a lot of annoyance. Bioware fills this gap, because that’s usually how it works in their games. Their perpetual costume fails for female characters (Morrigan? Velanna? Isabela? Bethany? Miranda? Jack? [I]Really?[/I]), the ever ongoing Mass Effect gay fails and Dragon Age trans fails, etc., are still highly annoying, but it’s an imperfect world, and it seems the only peopel I can trust not to fail are myself and my girlfriend.

    • I think the need to leave gender ambiguous means a stronger character overall because the writers can’t fall back on tired gender stereotypes without ruining the story. I don’t want to make any assumptions about intent, but I do find it pretty sad that from what BioWare devs have sad publically that they seem to be way more interested in positive portrayals of gay people than they do in positive portrayals of women who aren’t the main character.

      • They seem to be pretty into freedom in sexual expression of all kinds. It just appears as though they haven’t figured put how to make a female character who is comfortable in her sexuality without usually also making her offensive.

  13. FemShep is such a fantastic character. There is something special about her that sets her above male Shep. Maybe it’s the superior voice acting. Maybe it’s just that such a strong female character is rare. Whatever it is, she is far more intriguing than male Shep, IMHO.

  14. Valkyrie Profile series; Lenneth is a great example, with Silmeria, Alicia is sorta pansy, but she does come on her own later on and it does make sense in her story, so yeah. Plus all of the characters in that game are actually covered up(iirc), and aren’t oversexualized at all.

    Unless you were talking about something recent, of which i can only think of Ellie in Dead Space 2, but she wasn’t the main character. 😦 Still have a lot of love for her.

  15. My standards are too high for me to enjoy Bioware games, (tried the first two games for about an hour each, and went “yeah, okay 10 year old mechanics and 50 year old SF. Pass.”) but I will admit that Jennifer Hale is possibly the best voice actor I’ve ever heard. Since gender is really only cosmetic, I have no idea why any person ever would play maleShep. It’s baffling.

    Amusing anecdote: My group was talking Mass Effect (they like the series, but I can tolerate that from people that aren’t there for the SF, kinda like those people that liked the Matrix because of the bullet time) and I had a friend that complained that women get the raw deal because Jacob is the most bland romance option ever. Another friend countered the argument by pointing out that bland is lucky for them because Miranda and Ashley both exist.


      Look. ME2 sold 2 million copies in its first week, okay? So just because you seem to hate every RPG ever does not mean that it’s a bad game. In terms of writing, dialogue trees, game mechanics, and graphics the ME games are exceptional. If they’re not to your taste, FINE. Feel free to say so. But the fact that you do not like them does not make them bad games.

      • While Sam doesn’t even seem to know what he’s talking about (unless I’m forgetting the wild popularity cover-based 3rd person shooters in 1997) sales are hardly an indicator of game quality.

        That said, it’s really annoying to try and use a blog post about an instance of a game resisting sexist stereotypes to harp about your own personal pet peeves in game design and worldbuilding or make yourself feel superior for not liking Company Y like all those losers with low standards.

        • Thank you very much sir and/or madam. I get tired dealing with all the logic failures by myself.

          And no, I don’t feel superior to them, just more interested. I have no doubt someone more educated than me would laugh at my, for example, musical tastes. In fact, I know they would: I was seriously into some terrible mallcore shit until my roommates knocked some sense into me, and I thank them for that. (Incidentally, anyone looking for some females in metal that are more than “face of the band” eyecandy should try Julie Christmas)

          Now, Wundergeek, this has been happening a lot. Other people say things, then I say them, and I’m reprimanded for “stating my opinions as fact”. Well, what facts am I stating? That the Science Fiction is a half century old? do you dispute this? Is it the confidence in which I state my opinions, with supposed certainty that angers you? If you think so, read this before we continue. Is it because you only do this when the subject is RPGs? I’d list EVE Online, Warhammer Online, the Grandia series, the Wild Arms series (with a certain exception), the first two Fallout games, Arcanum, V:tM Bloodlines, Dwarf Fortress (if that counts), non-Persona MegaTen games, Phantom Brave (hey, non-sexual female protagonist for you there!), Disgaea, and, fuck it, everything Nippon Ichi has ever made, as good, quality RPGs. That’s just off the top of my head, mind you. I bear no ill-will to role playing games, I assure you. Only bad games.

          Now, I know that my tone can be somewhat grating, (I think that just happens as a natural consequence of Liberal Arts, to be honest) and I apologize if I’ve aggravated you, but you really need to stop making up excuses to be annoyed with me. If you don’t like me then say so.

          One last thing, if you’re really going to keep at this:

          “In terms of writing, dialogue trees, game mechanics, and graphics the ME games are exceptional.”

          Considering that you gave as much evidence for this as position as I have for mine, may I ask you to please refrain from stating your opinions as fact?

          • When you say “my standards are too high for me to enjoy BioWare games”, you are saying that everyone who DOES enjoy BioWare games has low standards. You are not the only person ever to have received an education pertinent to the discussion, but you persist in speaking as if your opinion is the only one that matters since us lowly plebs can’t possibly fathom the true nature of the issue the way you can.

            I’m done arguing this with you. I’m just done.

    • My first playthrough is MaleShep because, like Wundergeek, I like to play a character that I try to have resemble myself, including making all of the same choices that I would. On subsequent playthroughs, I vary the character’s gender/race/etc. and make different choices for a varied experience.

      • Huh. I can honestly say that I have never played a character of my own race or gender if given the choice. It just seems so boring. (but granted, “White American macho space marine” loses its appeal after the 300th go unless the game is very good)

        The only people I know that played MaleShep did it because they didn’t care about their avatar and just picked the default one. The sort of people that mute the game so they can put on the stereo while they play, if you know what I mean. That’s the only reason I can think of why they didn’t restart the second they heard his voice, goddamn.

        • “Huh. I can honestly say that I have never played a character of my own race or gender if given the choice. It just seems so boring.”

          While I wouldn’t say “never”, this is pretty true for me as well. Why play something like myself? A good RPG is an opportunity to experience what it’s like to be somebody else. As a result, I play alot of villains, alot of women, people of other races(whether that’s skin color or pointy ears), etc. I play the occasional “idealized me”, but it’s pretty rare.

          • I’m a big fan of immersion. My first playthrough is ALWAYS me making the choices I would make and only on subsequent playthroughs do I do the bad stuff. I don’t think that makes me weird; it’s just a play style.

            • Definitely doesn’t make you weird. It seems to be the way most people go, overall. If anything, Hazmat and I are probably the weird ones.

            • Exactly how I do it, too. I play me in a fantasy world the first time through. I don’t save all of civilization very often IRL, (only once or twice a year =P) so this gives me the chance to do things as Justin Shepard that Justin Belhumeur doesn’t get to do.

            • I spend a lot of time with the tabletop role-playing stuff, and let me tell you that you aren’t going to get far pretending to be yourself in a pre-industrial world with actual magic. Pretty much everything in modern game design rewards you to for thinking a certain way. Nobilis requires you to think like a Sandman character, Burning Wheel requires you to think like an actual Tolkien character (as opposed to a D&D character), and Houses of the Blooded puts you in the viewpoint of what rpg.net posters once called “Frank Herbert’s American Psycho,” for examples.

              I’m still a bit amused at people that play games specifically genred as “Role-Playing” and don’t actually try to affect a different personality. It’s delightfully surreal.

              • I play a lot of tabletop RPGs as well. They are completely different from video games that are deemed RPGs. No amount of time will ever allow a game designer to let me make whatever choices I want, to say exactly what I want. It’s a different experience. You’re comparing apples to oranges; both are fruits but they are very, very different.

  16. Honestly, I don’t really see FemShep as a “good” female character. While I do understand your arguments, I can’t help but feel that the fact that she is a female adds nothing to the experience. FemShep is just ManShep but with breasts as far as I can see, her being a woman is only coincidental and doesn’t really add much to her character. I can see how, and why, you project her femininity on her story, and in a sense I agree, but I don’t think FemShep really elevated the story from anything other than “ManShep but with boobs”. She could be a completely asexual blob and it wouldn’t maker her any more interesting, no more so than doing the same with a male Shepard.

    Now, if the story had involved various prejudices against woman, societal roles, what have you, actually making her gender matter in the story (not limited to those subjects), I would be more inclined to agree. But perhaps that is a different subject. After all, BioWare wasn’t trying to make a deep, social, gender commentary, they were trying to make an epic sci-fi, well, epic.

    Still, an interesting read. I don’t really think that FemShep is a “great” female character as she has no personality other than the ones that the player imposes on her. She’s just as much of a blank slate as ManShep, just with, well, boobs.

    • Well, here’s the thing. I sometimes like stories that are about Being A Woman (just as I sometimes like stories that are about Being A Man). But I also think one of the most common failure modes for heroines is when the writers go, “oh, our protagonist is female! I guess we have to write a Female Story.” And then it’s suddenly about shopping or babies or boyfriends, instead of saving the world. Or the protagonist gets raped, because that’s how you traumatize a woman. Or whatever. I frankly cheer when I see writers embrace the notion that hey, many of the same things that mark a male protagonist as being a strong, interesting character work just as well for a female one, and you don’t have to girlify everything.

      I guess it comes down to the way that “male” is the unmarked category, and “female” is the marked one. Default is male, so if the character is female instead, you (supposedly) have to change a lot of things to acknowledge that. I prefer the approach of an unmarked neutral default, and then either leaving it that way (suitable for something like a Bioware game, where you don’t want to have to write two sets of dialogue trees and quests and so on), or marking as either female or male (suitable if you’re only telling one of those stories). In other words, the blank slate is just Shep, and what distinguishes ManShep from FemShep — aside from the obvious visuals and voice — is what the player projects onto that base.

      • All of this really. Marie, that was put brilliantly. Often when people talk about how a female character is a ‘man with breasts’ I feel like they’re complaining that she’s not a stereotypical woman because we’ve become so accustomed to the idea of the stereotype being what a ‘real’ woman is.

        • Or that if she’s a woman, the story has to be about being a woman. Whereas a story about a man can be a story about lots of things.

          I mean, there’s a lot of value in (as the original commenter said) telling stories where “various prejudices against woman, societal roles, what have you, actually making her gender matter in the story” are important components. We need more discussion of those things, certainly, not just in analytical contexts but also narrative ones. But we don’t expect stories about a man to “make his gender matter” in the same way. It happens invisibly, because we accept that the kinds of things video games are about (killing bad guys, saving the world, etc) are default/unmarked/male things. It’s only when you try to have a woman do the same things that gender suddenly becomes a relevant topic.

          • I’m not exactly certain how being a man would really matter. Men, unlike women, don’t really have very many restrictions in terms of the narrative roles we’re talking about. (Ex: protagonist, leader, healer, mentor, etc.) The big taboos come from personal behaviour, like wearing ’emasculating’ clothes, being too touchy-feely, etc. The problem is that this isn’t going to be able to justify focus in any series that isn’t explicitly about gender, and it’s a lot easier to make “female [Space Captain/Pirate/spy/samurai/whatever]” more fun than “Wandering Son: The Game.

            I also note that women already have a fuckton of stuff that comments on “being a woman,” in romance, thrillers, Lifetime glurge, or what have you. I also observe that, at least among my circle, the SF/F fangirls are there in part because they don’t want more of the “oh god how i balance carear and babby” boilerplate that gets shoved down their throats the rest of their entire lives.

            • I’m not exactly certain how being a man would really matter. Men, unlike women, don’t really have very many restrictions in terms of the narrative roles we’re talking about.

              There aren’t many narrative roles that men are forbidden from, true, but there are some male-specific expectations they face which could play into videogames if the developers so desired.

              For example, videogame characters do an awful lot of fighting and killing, which are things that “real men” are expected to be capable of without all too many negative mental consequences. It wouldn’t be all that difficult in a more psychological game to deconstruct that and show how those expectations are untenable and cause the protagonist no end of harm while still using some combination of horror and shooter gameplay (most likely with a psyche meter of some sort).

              It doesn’t seem particularly difficult to me to work some of this type of stuff into the framework of a videogame without straying too far from traditional game genres.

              • That’s not precisely what we’re talking about, but sure, if you want to go about it that way, critiquing gender from the sidelines, I think that horror games are actually pretty good at that sort of thing. Not just the classic Silent Hill stuff either. Have you played The Suffering?

      • I’m not saying that every woman in a game must deal with “woman issues”, that’s ridiculous.

        It’s a two sided thing, I think. When making a female character, you could either make her gender not matter at all (just making the female version of a male character) and risk making a blank slate just like any other character. This comes from the thinking of “Oh, everyone is equal, so make the woman do everything the man does” and so you get (what I think is) a bland, generic woman who has as much personality as the male version does. This is usually prominent in RPGs since the gender switch is mainly to give people options.

        You could also make the character’s gender matter. I don’t mean to have the character get raped or babysit or whatever, the subject covers a wide variety of topics. This applies just as well to men, though you’d be hard pressed to find an example. While it’s not entirely related, I think this;


        covers a good deal of the subject. However, again, you’d be hard pressed to find a good example of any character who’s gender is integral to the story, in either sex, going back to the blank slate that many developers fall back to.

        Honestly, it’s not so much that we need better female characters, it’s that we need better characters in general.

        • I still don’t like your use of ‘blank slate’ or that a character somehow can’t have depth without something like gender being the focus on who they are. I /like/ gender being incidental for women, in a gaming world where almost every woman is a stereotype and an insulting one at that. ‘More focused on gender’ does not equal a better character, so we’re not gonna agree there.

          I’d rather creators fall back on the idea that Shepherd is Shepherd. Shepherd who happens to be a woman instead of a Woman who happens to be Shepherd. She’s not a female version of a male character (male is /not/ the default), she’s a character who just happens to be female. And that’s wonderful, because she’s recognized as a human being, a person who is defined by who they are instead of what they are. In a sea of stereotypes, ones enforced on women much more harsher than men for the sheer fact of there being so fewer women represented.. that’s pretty great.

          • (Gurh, I wish I could respond to two people at once, it’d be real convenient)

            I still don’t like your use of ‘blank slate’ or that a character somehow can’t have depth without something like gender being the focus on who they are.

            I’m not quite trying to say that, though I can see how I’m coming off that way. I completely agree with you that “more focused on gender” does not equal a better character, a bad character is a bad character no matter what gender they are.

            Bleh, I’m probably not making as much sense as I’d like to. I think we’re talking about the two different sides that I was talking about, and while I have nothing wrong with a well developed character who happens to be female, I would be interested to see a well developed character where being female is integral to the development, whether it be dealing with “woman troubles” or any other situation. The video, while again not entirely related, does go into detail like that.

            • But see the problem I keep getting hung up on is the designation of ‘man-only’ traits with ‘woman-only’ traits. In that video, it implies that Lightning from FF13 is a bad character, with the further implication is that she’s a bad character for having ‘mannish’ traits. See, there’s the idea that to be a good female character you have to be feminine in some poorly defined manner. I feel like characters that don’t conform to femininity enough are treated like outcasts because happen to have some traits that are stereotypically associated with men.

              My problem is that I don’t believe there is a such thing as a personality trait ‘for men’ and another set ‘for women’ that are not simply socially constructed. And I feel we’re reinforcing that the social constructions/gender roles are necessary with the implication that a woman without the feminine ones are less of a character for lack of them.

              • In that video, it implies that Lightning from FF13 is a bad character, with the further implication is that she’s a bad character for having ‘mannish’ traits.

                To be fair to the video, she’s chucked in with a bunch of male characters as an example of “tough guy with softer side” — I don’t think that her gender had anything to do with the criticism.

                I mean, I don’t think she’s really the best example of a character who’s defined by that trope — in my eyes, she’s entirely awesome both in FFXIII and Dissidia Duodecim — but criticizing that character-type doesn’t inherently mean one thinks the characters thus criticized aren’t feminine enough, particularly when male examples are included as part of the critique.

              • Mm, perhaps, it seemed like another one of those ‘man with boobs’ critiques (and boy does Lightning get quite a few of those, ugh x.x), especially she was like the only woman in that list. But yeah I can see that it’s more criticizing the general archetype now.

        • I’m not saying that every woman in a game must deal with “woman issues”, that’s ridiculous.

          The point I was trying to make is that when game designers decide to make a female character’s gender “matter,” they usually assume that means the story has to be about Woman Issues, which will then of course (everyone assumes) only be of interest to female gamers. Whereas killing bad guys and saving the world are Man Issues, aka Universal Issues. It could also go the route of Dragon Age, where 99% of the time the protagonist’s gender doesn’t matter, and then 1% of the time you have Sten telling a female Warden that he won’t follow a woman — but I didn’t feel I gained much from that experience. I like the fantasy that people might follow a female leader without making an issue of it. Maybe if we have more stories like that, people will start to see female leaders as familiar things, rather than something needing special comment.

          This comes from the thinking of “Oh, everyone is equal, so make the woman do everything the man does” and so you get (what I think is) a bland, generic woman who has as much personality as the male version does.

          Well, as someone pointed out elsewhere in this thread, Bioware protagonists are blank slates to a much higher degree than many other RPGs because they specifically design in a fashion that lets the player decide what kind of personality their avatar has. I haven’t played the ME games, so I’m speaking from the experience of Dragon Age here, but I can play a callous, uncaring Warden or Hawke, a witty and flirty Warden or Hawke, or a stick up the uh, noble upstanding Warden or Hawke. 🙂 Most games either define the character for you (as in the example you linked to), or leave the protagonist a complete blank slate, with no meaningful dialogue or action choices at all.

          What I like is that Bioware, operating on the “you decide what your character is” model, does indeed assume that everyone is equal. A female protagonist can face the same hard choices, and answer them as effectively, as a male one can. My argument is that we shouldn’t see that as a male character with a female paint job; we should see it as a character, who doesn’t automatically have to change simply because the player chooses to make their avatar male or female. I think it’s telling that myself and a lot of my female friends breathe a giant sigh of relief that we finally get to play a strong character who’s a woman, rather than a Woman who’s Strong (the capital letters usually seeming to accompany that angle of approach); we crave more stories that treat women simply as people.

          • …they usually assume that means the story has to be about Woman Issues…

            Which is a damn shame, really. While some scenarios would be very interesting dealing with the things that women are associated with (I.E. like the motherhood in the battlefield example the video gave), it’s a shame that developers/writers can’t think outside that box. It’s all a growing process.

            Maybe if we have more stories like that, people will start to see female leaders as familiar things, rather than something needing special comment.

            See, that’s where I think we’re on the flipside of what I’m saying. I don’t mind stories with female leaders just being leaders, that’s fine. I’m just thinking how the story can be developed even further to where the character his/herself is not just “the leader”, which is how I feel FemShep is developed. FemShep isn’t a female leader, she’s just a leader that happens to be female, which I don’t really think is a good character in general.

            (bleh, I don’t think I’m making as much sense as I want to…)

            Bioware protagonists are blank slates…because they specifically design in a fashion that lets the player decide what kind of personality their avatar has.

            That’s why I don’t really see FemShep as a good female character, she’s just a character that happens to be female. I have no problem with blank slates, I enjoy my schizophrenic good-ass short Brown-haired Shepard, but saying that the female version of my chizophrenic good-ass short Brown-haired Shepard is a good one simply because she’s a female that’s a leader? I don’t buy that.

            we shouldn’t see that as a male character with a female paint job; we should see it as a character, who doesn’t automatically have to change simply because the player chooses to make their avatar male or female.

            I find that very poignant and very well said. We’re on the same type of wave, just on different wavelengths I think.

            …we crave more stories that treat women simply as people.

            Again, I fully agree with you, but again I think we’re on two similar sides of the same coin. I’m arguing/discussing that if a developer wants to make a female version of a character, they shouldn’t just make a cop-out and make the woman have a man-personality with boobs, but make the situation integral with who they are, whether that means dealing with “woman issues” or making her deal with certain situations that could show the struggle. This could be related to her gender or not, just make her a well developed character and not just “the man with boobs” (moobs?)

            We’re both asking for well made characters, just in slightly different, yet similar, ways. It’s all a learning process, really.

            • I have no problem with blank slates, I enjoy my schizophrenic good-ass short Brown-haired Shepard, but saying that the female version of my chizophrenic good-ass short Brown-haired Shepard is a good one simply because she’s a female that’s a leader? I don’t buy that.

              I read the original intent of the post differently: FemShep is a good female character not (solely) because she’s a leader, but because Bioware lets you play a female leader character WITHOUT undermining it the way games normally do — i.e. reducing her to T&A fanservice for the male gamers. They don’t perfectly succeed at this; put the same DA:O light armor on a male Warden and a female one, and the former gets full torso coverage while the latter inexplicably bares her midriff. But in general, I can play my heroic ass-kicking FemShep or Lady Hawke or whoever without having to ignore BOOBIES! being shoved in my face the entire time. Furthermore, the romance side plots are in my (and therefore my character’s) control; me and my avatar do not become some other guy’s reward for doing well. These are the kinds of considerations male protagonists get all the time, and I love that Bioware’s approach (“let’s write a heroic character, and let them be male or female”) means women get to enjoy them, too.

              • …and I love that Bioware’s approach (“let’s write a heroic character, and let them be male or female”) means women get to enjoy them, too.

                But that doesn’t mean that she is a good female character. She’s still a blank slate, and she does pretty much exactly everything the male Shepard does, which is why I have a hard time accepting FemShep as a truly “good” female character. She may be a well written character, BioWare are good writers (by video game standards), but I can’t really see how she’s a good female character. Sometimes those differences between men and women can be used to a writer’s advantage.

                The fact that FemShep doesn’t give out fanservice is, in my mind, purely coincidental.

                Here’s a hypothetical; If FemShep did give out some fanservice, would the author consider her a good character? This is a legitimate question, I would like to know (hinthint wundergeek :P) because if the answer is “no” then it shows that she’s not a character that stands on her own, just a blank slate for people to fill their own personalities.

              • I’m not wundergeek but how does that show that? A woman being reduced to fanboyservice on simple fact of existing while female (which is what most women in gaming contexts are reduced to) would sort of exclude who don’t want to feel like they’re just there to give men something to get an erection to :\ It’s exclusionary.

              • “I’m arguing/discussing that if a developer wants to make a female version of a character, they shouldn’t just make a cop-out and make the woman have a man-personality with boobs,”

                I must ask, why is a neutral personality or a non-stereotypical female one one a ‘man-personality’. Why do men get to have claim to certain traits and? This sounds like the same gender-policing as I hear in real life, if but more subtle, that if you’re not appropriately feminine or doing appropriately feminine things you’re somehow not a real woman. There’s not only one kind of woman, human beings are varied creatures.

              • I’ve mostly stayed out of this one because I’m not sure there is a right answer to this one, but personally I think FemShep is a good character BECAUSE of being a blank slate. Shepard is one of the few characters out there without any sort of gender stereotyping at all and holy shit is that refreshing. I’m not understanding how that’s a drawback in any way.

          • Oooo! Oooooh! I just thought of a sort-of-possibly-good way to say what I was trying to say. Okay, here goes;

            I don’t want a blank slate to be used as an excuse for a “good” female character. A blank slate, while perfectly fine in certain games, is not a good character.

            Does that make sense? I hope so, I’ve been struggling to think exactly what I’ve been saying here.

            • Apparently we’re limited in how many steps the reply tree can go, so I’m posting my response here instead.

              Shep — assuming s/he is anything like the DA protagonists — is not actually a complete blank slate. I use that term for somebody like, say, Chell in the Portal games: Chell has no personality, because she doesn’t interact socially with anyone. The only “character” she has is what I project onto her, out of my own imagination. But Shep, as you say, is a well-written character — because s/he has dialogue, and may make a variety of choices. So it isn’t so much that a Bioware protagonist is a blank slate as, a Bioware protagonist is a fairly cunningly-constructed set of characters, set up in such a way as to let the player enjoy both choice and scripting at once.

              For me, if FemShep or the Warden or whoever were reduced to her sexual attributes at some point in the game — and ManShep or a male Warden was not — then yes, it would undermine her as a good character. I put it in those terms because it isn’t a binary: good character/bad character, one or the other. It’s a question of total effect. If I’m inhabiting a story where what matters about my avatar is that she’s strong and smart and ruthless (or whatever type I’ve chosen out of the options), and then there are scenes that say, no, what matters is that she’s wank material for gamers who Aren’t Me, then that weakens the character. It undercuts the story I was experiencing, in a way that makes me feel robbed and demeaned.

              By way of illustration: there was an incident some years ago where Harlan Ellison and Connie Willis (two very well-respected SF authors, if you’re not familiar) were onstage at the Hugo Awards. During their patter, Harlan grabbed Connie’s breast — a move she was not expecting, and which offended a lot of people in the audience. As someone said at the time, it basically sent the message that Connie Willis may be a SFWA Grandmaster, a brilliant writer and great name in the field . . . but in the end she’s still a pair of tits, free for the grabbing. It undercuts the respect she deserves. I feel the same way about female characters in video games, if I’ve been mentally projecting myself onto them, enjoying their accomplishments and great deeds — and then something in the game says “yeah, but they’re still tits and ass.”

              • But Shep, as you say, is a well-written character — because s/he has dialogue, and may make a variety of choices.
                -However, I stated that I don’t feel that s/he is a good character, and that’s why I have a hard time feeling that FemShep is a good female character, let alone a good character in general.

                In comparison, I feel that Samus is not a well written character, but still a good female character. Her actions speak louder than whatever word come drooling out of her mouth (Ugh, Other M…), and while her being a female is not central to the plot, it does serve to personalize her and to an extent give us insight on her character (What is this Other M you speak of? I know of no Metroid: Other M (MoM. How friggin’ subtle…))

                With Samus, if she was a silent male protagonist, I don’t think many people would find her interesting. He would be lost with the many other space marines meant to put the player’s personality on. With FemShep, she’s interchangeable with ManShep, at least the way I see it.

                ….well shit, I think I just made an extremely subtle allusion to how “men prefer their women to keep their mouths shut”.

                I’m going to go bang my head on the wall right now.

              • Samus is an OK character, but FemShep beats her hands down! Samus’ nudity is used as a meta-reward for gamers, so how does that make her “better” than FemShep? I’m lost here.

            • Gah, I keep having to reply to you in weird places.

              I honestly don’t see your distinction between a good character and a well-written one; to me, those things are inextricable. (So long as “good” refers to quality of characterization, and not their moral choices.) A good character is one with interesting and believable motivations, complex interactions with other characters, etc. — and those things are created by good writing. (“Writing,” I should specify, means more to me than just the words of dialogue. It’s also choices and behavior and so on. This is probably where I should mention I’m a novelist; it means I consider pretty much every aspect of a story not created by an actor to be part of its writing.)

              What fascinates me about Bioware’s work is how they manage to offer me both consistency and choice at the same time; so long as I don’t go out of my way to pick wildly disparate dialogue and actions, I will end up with a mosaic of small choices that forms a coherent picture. Those pictures, in my experience so far, don’t leave me dissatisfied, or feeling there was something more I wanted but didn’t get. I may have example-specific quibbles — frex, in DA:O there’s one narrative thing that bugs me about playing a female human noble Warden in a romance with Alistair — but those have to do with interactions of specific choices, rather than the general presentation. It’s pretty clear that you want something more out of the experience; what I can’t tell (because I don’t know what it is that you want) is whether it’s an issue with the game’s writing specifically, or with the Bioware model of customizable protagonist more broadly. Either way, I don’t fault you for it; if they didn’t satisfy you, they didn’t satisfy you. (And like I said, I haven’t played ME myself.)

              • @wundergeek ; So Samus giving off some bikini skin after completing the game in under a certain amount of time immediately denotes her entire character into fanservice? C’mon, it was the 80s, 30 years ago! And even then, it’s not as if that partial “fanservice-y” skin was shoved in anyone’s faces, it was at the end of a game that I doubt most of the fanbase saw. (Other M aside…..ugh…)

                Even if Samus did give off fanservice every now and again, I don’t think that undermines her entire character (depending on the extent of the fanservice), and if that happened we’d basically get Bayonetta, an ass-kicking sexy woman who shows off what she’s got to show you that you can’t have this, boyo! Though Bayonetta is another topic for another time.

                @Marie: funnily enough, there’s another video from the same guys who did the previous one I showed;


                Again, it’s sortof related. When I say well-written, I mean that how either Shepard speaks or how they partially interact with their environment is well made. That doesn’t make them a good character. A character can say good things at the proper time, but that doesn’t mean that the character concept him/herself is good. Shepard is well written, but s/he is hardly a good, consistent character with defined personality traits, which is to be expected from the game.

                what I can’t tell (because I don’t know what it is that you want) is whether it’s an issue with the game’s writing specifically, or with the Bioware model of customizable protagonist more broadly.

                Yeah, that is true, I am horribly pessimistic about the state of video game writing. It’s a little bit of both, really. And I would like to say, I enjoyed the Mass Effect games, though the arbitrary two-dimensional Good/Evil system did tick me off, though that’s another topic for another time.

              • Okay. We’re going to have to agree to disagree here. I’m not going to have this argument if you’re supporting Bayonetta as a positive character. That way lies Internet Crazy and I don’t feel like doing Internet Crazy today.

              • “FemShep” isn’t a character. Commander Sheppard is the character, and the character is sexless. Samus, on the other hand, does have a gender, and a personality (hinted at and implied, not outright stated) which makes her a strong protagonist.

    • Female Shepard has more personality by the virtue of a better actor portraying her. Also, it strikes me as more interesting for a woman to be in this role of galactic savior simply because it’s less common, and, in the other notable instance–Samus Aran–the heroine is either barley characterized (most of the series) or written in a very stereotypical manner (Other M).

      I think what you get out of Shepard does largely depend on what you put into the character, though. Mass Effect, like most Bioware games, requires actual role playing, unlike many RPGs where the role is laid out for you. It means thinking seriously about what the character would do in a given situation, whether that’s confessing your love to Tali or punching al-Jilani in the face a second time.

      • Samus, as much as I love her in any game that’s not Other M, also has a dubious pedigree as a bonafide Positive Female Character, considering that her (near) nudity was a reward for finishing the game under a certain time. Which is sad, because she kicks a lot of ass too.

        (I punched al-Jilani in the face too.)

    • I’ve read through most of this discussion and I think what Jumplion is saying is that FemShep can’t really be considered a “good female character” because her character isn’t fully fleshed out (by design the player has a hand in shaping her character) and she isn’t designed to ONLY be female (players also have the option of choosing to play a male Shepard; I’m going to blatantly assume female is the default 😛 ). It’s like saying that a female PC (player character) in Neverwinter Nights is a great female character because you chose all the dialogue options that really resonated with you. Am I right, Jumplion?

      That said, I agree somewhat: should a blank slate character be accepted as a great female character? My pedantic side says no. However, most of me agrees with what wundergeek says… and I think an important part of it is how Shepard was implemented. She’s a great female character because she doesn’t fall into any of the regular pitfalls that female characters do (especially the other ‘blank-slate’ ones). The biggest one for me was that playing a female Shepard didn’t make me feel like I was getting an inferior story, and that I should’ve been playing a male Shepard. In fact, after playing FemShep I personally believe that only a female Shepard makes sense; the male one is the impostor: “FemShep but without boobs”, if you will, and not nearly at the same level of badassness. (I’d always played male PCs prior to Mass Effect, being a guy and all, so Mass Effect was an experiment for me. After finding that playing a FemShep was actually pretty awesome, I tried doing the same in other RPGs. Bloodlines, for example, let me down by making me feel like a lot of the little things would’ve “fit better” if I’d been playing a male PC.)

      FemShep also has, in my opinion, the better voice actor doing her voice, so you don’t get the feeling that the designers skimped on her either. There isn’t a bunch of sloppy pronoun goofs where she’s constantly referred to as a “he.” And she doesn’t have that ridiculous bum waggle that is so prevalent with female characters.

      Besides, I found that FemShep really blurred the line between a fully fledged character and a “blank slate” for me. I found her to be a much more awesome character than the usual blank slates you play in games like those in the Fallout series. Perhaps the reason why was as simple as the addition of VO for her, but I found my FemShep rapidly gained a character of her own. She did what she wanted to do and I found myself approaching each choice with, ‘what would Shepard do,’ not with, ‘what would I do,’ or, ‘what do I want Shepard to do.’

      As a final minor nit-pick, I too dislike the “man with breasts” label. Why does it never come up that ManShep is just “FemShep but without boobs”? Nothing that Shepard does is distinctly male just as, as per your argument jumplion, nothing she does is distinctly female, so both labels are equally nonsensical.

      • Rob says:
        “…And she doesn’t have that ridiculous bum waggle that is so prevalent with female characters.”

        I have an interesting, if tangentially, related story regarding this.

        That ‘bum wiggle’ females do is actually learned behaviour. Females pick it up from watching older females walk and internalize it. It comes from moving ones feet slightly inward while walking which causes the hips to swivel back and fourth.

        A friend of mine tells me that she completely missed that lesson and was tromping around “like a guy” until she was thirteen when her grandmother took her aside and made her walk around putting one foot directly in front of the other (which is a very exaggerated version of how women internalize this) for eight months until she had completely internalized “walking like a lady”.

        In games its particularly asinine to have that ‘bum wiggle’ still present if the female character is portrayed as running – because females don’t do this when running, they revert to flinging each foot out in front of them in the same manner as males because its easier to maintain balanced if your not crossing your legs in front of you and it eats up more ground.

  17. Someone may have already said this, but I imagine the reason they highlight the generic male Shepard is due to the fact that he is so generic, so it works out because in the ads and such it’s easy to picture your own version of Shepard in his place. If he was really unique it would be hard to encourage people to make their own, you know? Plus it does appeal to the majority of gamers (who are guys) more, as well as the those interested in Star Wars or Star Trek that kinda see him as an off-shoot of Luke or Captain Kirk.

    Anyway, personally I choose a custom male Shepard since I’m a guy, and I generally make the character similar to myself in appearance since it makes the dialog options even more engaging. Also, IMO, the male voice lead is good at getting emotions and feelings across, especially since I picture Shepard as a strong, Paragon character that cares, but is serious and focused so that he keeps his team close and will do anything to save humanity. Idk, I’m too attached to making my character look like myself to have another one, or to play through it again. I kinda prefer having the one story, especially since (if it were real) you wouldn’t get to replay it and find out what would have happened.

    In closing, I apologize for my rambling, just got out of an essay final haha

    • I’m starting to dislike the whole ‘majority of gamers being guys’ thing, since more and more that is becoming a thing of the past. There are pretty much just as many gamer women as there are men out there, and even if it was a little less, it’s still not really okay to use one kind of person as a default. And also, women can appeal to men too, and they don’t even have to be sexed up to do it, it’s not as if men can’t like women leads. I would’ve liked it better if they had just used something else for the covers, something more neutral instead of a face, I think it would’ve worked better.

      • Personally I was happy with the Collector’s Edition cover, which showed the N7 armor slightly damaged with some blood, it really made the character more relatable (since you could imagine your own Shepard being MIA) and it fit better for the story than the standard cover.

        Heck, it may sound kinda lame compared to the armor cover, but they could possibly go the Harvest Moon route and show both, maybe in a “last desperate stand” kinda way. That’d be kinda cool, even though it wouldn’t exactly flow with the story

        • Yeah those suggestions sound pretty awesome. 🙂 I like your idea about the Harvest Moon route especially.

      • It also would be super-easy to slap default FemShep on the cover next to default MaleShep. They went to the effort of designing a default – why not use it? Then both of your defaults would be white, but it would be slightly less full of fail on the gender front at least.

  18. Get lost, the thing about female shepard is that iits so unrealistic , in real life in any sort of leadership role women would never be the forerunners, its just male pride and as we all know men rule the world, so dont be haters and just accept that fact.

  19. “As a side note, it is nice to see that the option for romance is still there for FemShep. It would have been easy to make her “one of the boys”, yet another woman who divorces her gender as the price for being a high achiever in a traditionally male role.”

    Doesn’t she share 90% of her dialogue with the male version of Shephard? It seems that all this ‘femininity without gratuity’ is simply a biproduct of her being a male character with a slightly more concave midsection, especially when you look at how awfully mishandled the rest of the female cast is.

    • Uh, she ‘shares’ her dialogue with him because she’s.. Shepherd. She’s not a male character, she’s just not a stereotyped female one. I am getting quite tired of the neutral = male mindset, or that a woman has to fit certain requirements before she’ll be called a real woman character.

      • I think the point bhlaab is trying to make is that there’s little indication that Bioware even considered fem!Shep when writing the story (outside of the romance options, anyway). It’s hard to commend Bioware for the character when it seems unlikely they’d have ever have written her the way they did if they weren’t using male pronouns and imagining generic!Shep while they were creating her.

        (…which, to be fair, is a different question from whether the character’s good — fem!Shep can be awesome without Bioware deserving much credit for the awesome)

        • Why is it hard to commend them for it? If anything, thinking gender ambiguously is a /good/ thing when creating female characters because, to us, the stereotypes have become normalized and we rely on them too easily (Hi Samus from Other M). And it’s not like her armor got turned into fanboyservice in double standard fashion of stuff like WoW.

          I’m all ears for better suggestions, but if you don’t have any then sometimes you have to settle with ‘at least she’s not a stereotype’.

          • Because it’s all too easy to imagine that Bioware couldn’t make an officially-female character like fem!Shep — that she’s only as awesome as she is because she’s a skin-and-voice mod for the already-developed generic male Shephard. I’m honestly not sure that there’s anything they could do with the Shepard character that would be better, though, because the player needs to be given the same options for both characters… at least to me, it seems to have more to do with whether fem!Shep seems like an exception or not.

            • she’s only as awesome as she is because she’s a skin-and-voice mod for the already-developed generic male Shephard

              What I hope for is that more people come around to the way I see it, which is that the dialogue and narrative options are developed for generic Shephard, and then both male and female types are skin-and-voice mods for that core. Because if we can get people thinking that way, then more people might go out and write games with officially-female protagonists who get to be awesome in the same way — instead of writing Women who are either femininely stereotyped or walking fanservice.

              • I guess my problem is that, considering the problems with every other female character in the game, I don’t think Fem!Shep would have been the same character if Male!Shep wasn’t an option.

                If there were a bunch of other awesome women without gender-markers floating around, too, I’d be more inclined to think they specifically chose to avoid letting gender influence Shepard for ideological reasons rather than practical ones (ie. differentiating the two Shepards would cost more).

              • But that is clearly not the case, they start with the neutral male Shepherd and then make him a girl and swap some pronouns. The rest of the awful female cast all but prove that had they started from any other point gratuitous sexualization would have been plastered everywhere.

                So no, I’m not going to give Bioware credit for refraining to write a bad character. I’m also not buying that generic neutrality is a positive force in gender politics. It’s more like an insincere attempt to swerve around the issue instead of meeting it head on.

              • Because stereotyping is a more positive force? I’m pretty sure neutrality can get around that, and the sexualizing double standard too. I see nothing wrong with defining someoneby their character before their sex. And the conversation won’t go anywhere if you’re not really giving suggestions.

              • “No conversation with you ever goes anywhere, Lilith.”

                Because that was the most productive response /ever/, Bhlaab. Yeah, you showed me. Hypocrisy is funny, don’t pretend I’m the terrible person shutting down the lines of conversation when you turn around and do the same thing. You’ll never get anywhere /just/ tearing something down, sometimes you have to offer something back or else you’re just left with an empty space, nothing to build on or go ahead with. Gender neutrality isn’t the be-all end-all solution, but no one said it was. I think it’s a good step in the right direction for how characters are built. But yeah, you do it your way, let me know how that pettiness works out for you.

                Anyway, Ikkin, I was having a difficult time with it but I think see your point of view about how the treatment of the other female characters sours a lot of the game. If she feels like an exception, I guess it does feel rather half-hearted. I think Bioware does try to be better though, and that’s nice and shouldn’t be discouraged.. but you’re right that giving full credit can come across as ‘good enough’.. when in this game’s case it’s not really something that should be settled for after all.

        • Which is a good point, and if Bioware had designed a female character from the first, they might have done it differently. However! That fact is only bad reflection on the (probably male-dominated) company.
          It amazes me that most men seem to think women are another species. Women are people. Men are people. They SHARE 90% of their pysche, and it is very natural that FemShep and MaleShep should share 90% of the same dialogue. After allowing for widely dispersed peronsality bell curves, and the social expectations of the era regarding gender.

  20. @LilithXIV: (couldn’t find the reply button, guess it got too far in the post. What can I say? I love to rabble on.)

    On your first response I…..didn’t quite get what you said. From what I read of the article, it seemed that wundergeek was putting down characters like Miranda and Samara simply for the fact that they had instances of fanservice, and, while I know what I’m about to say is just personal opinion, I found their stories interesting despite that. Samara had an interesting mother-daughter relationship, Miranda wanted to protect her sister from an abusive father.

    I must ask, why is a neutral personality or a non-stereotypical female one one a ‘man-personality’. Why do men get to have claim to certain traits and?
    I’m speaking more in terms of how the designers/developers go at it, which is how I see BioWare approaching FemShep. Just my opinion on that.

    This sounds like the same gender-policing as I hear in real life, if but more subtle…
    Ah shit, am I really sounding like that? I’m not trying to enforce any gender-policing or whatever, though it may sound like that upon reflection.

    And on more reflection, I think my response to your first response shows that even more…..ugh…

    Whatever, let’s throw that sub-sub topic away, I’ll try to state my main point that I got from this article; I don’t think FemShep is a good female character because she is a blank slate. She’s not a good character because she has no character other than the one that the player imposes on her. Similarly, I don’t see how she’s a good female character because of that. She’s only as good of a character as the player makes it out to be.

    Aaaaaaaannnnnd…I still probably didn’t get my main point across. Drat. It’s like, I know what I want to say, but I have no idea how to put it in words. Darn poster-block.

    • And keep in mind, I wouldn’t really consider ManShep a particularly good character either, just better written than most protagonists which is, again BioWare’s specialty (this applies to FemShep as well)

  21. I definitely agree with you. There was no doubt in mind that I wanted to play as a female character. The male character is overdone. I even played as female in Fallout 3 & New Vegas.

    • Cass and Veronica from New Vegas were pretty decent female characters, too. I liked Cass for having traits you would normally associate with male game characters (alcoholic, foulmouthed, conservative, unhealthy caravaneer) and I thought the way Veronica’s homosexuality was understated was well done, too.

  22. Mm, well I’ve had similar issues with trying to formulate my own ideas to be honest. So I know how frustrating it can be. Mm, for the fanboyservice thing I think Wundergeek’s issues with Miranda and Samara is more of an issue of over-exposure. With how often female characters are sexualized it makes one feel like they’re not there for the women in the audience but are there for the men, to service them sexually through visuals in numerous ways, to be ogled first and be a dynamic character second. It begs the question of why they needed to be servicing in the first place and why it was such a priority that it needed to be put in?

    That kind of stuff can turn women off, it’s like a message that women only get to be in the game if they’re being objectified.. and it can get really frustrating and tiring to keep seeing it. As I like to call it, a ‘price of admission’. Surely a woman character can be great despite the fanboyservice, but sometimes that’s not enough to satisfy someone who’d rather have ‘without the service at all would be nice’. Especially when it’s such a double standard that’s mostly only applied to women and in a way to be excessive.

    • Ugh, that was meant to be a reply to Jumplion a post or two up but oh well x.x

    • I agree with most of your points, it’s not like I’m denying anything you’re saying. I think I just disagree with how women would be implemented in a game where they have character, either related to their gender or not, rather than just the spawn of a blank slate. Female Shepard is not a good female character. She may be a good character in general depending on how you see it, but I can’t see her as a good female one. Just having a good character that happens to be female doesn’t cut it for me, though in some cases it can work (Alyx Vance, I think, is a good character whose gender isn’t a primary factor of her characteristics, but serves to enhance her character)

      But whatever, I’ve really been rambling for too long. Agree to sort of agree/disagree, I guess?

      • Mm, guess we’ll have to for now, it does seem like a rather complicated situation to address XD. I don’t exactly think your interpretation of a good female character is anymore wrong than mine though, for what it’s worth.

  23. I’m just wondering, have you seen Ashley Williams’ redesign for Mass Effect 3? They seem to have zerosuit’d her a bit:

    To think that’s the same Ash who used to wear that massive armour. It’s bad enough they had to design characters like Samara, now they’re going back to wreck what they already got right.

    Fittingly, Kaidan (who could only wear light armour in Mass Effect 1), now wears the heavy armour.

    • As long as Kaidan’s armor still has the giant codpiece then I guess I won’t complain toooo much. I mean, that codpiece was huge. But yeah, that’s pretty disappointing.

  24. @wundergeek (forgive me for stretching this conversation out a bit, but I just love to have the last word :P)

    Okay. We’re going to have to agree to disagree here. I’m not going to have this argument if you’re supporting Bayonetta as a positive character. That way lies Internet Crazy and I don’t feel like doing Internet Crazy today.

    I’ll concede to that, sure. I don’t want you to think I’m attacking your views or anything, I’m just seeing this subject in a different light.

    To clarify, I don’t think Bayonetta is really a positive character so much that she is an interesting one to say the least. She is heavily sexualized, my god is she fanserviced a lot, yet she takes command of the situation just as FemShep does and nobody challenges her to that (as far as I’ve played). But that’s another discussion for another time, I’m sure.

    Don’t get me wrong here, this was an interesting article, and from what I’ve read on your previous blog stuff it’s pretty interesting. I’ll keep an eye on this one, I will.

  25. I would consider Faith, from Ubisoft’s Mirrors Edge, a non-sexualized and in charge main character. Although I am not a big fan of that game (parkour does not bode well in first-person video games).

  26. Err, Mirror’s Edge was developed by DICE, the Swedish developers probably best known for the Battlefield series. But yeah, I’d forgotten about that one. I actually really liked that game, especially the first-person perspective. When I first started playing I got such a rush from running along walls, vaulting fences, and just generally keeping my momentum going. It probably helps that I have dreams about free-running, so it was kinda like a dream come true. 😛

    My sister didn’t find the story anything special (I didn’t mind it, personally), and I wish they had done more of the cutscenes using in-game graphics from the first person perspective (I really liked the one in that office with Faith interacting with her sister) rather than using those simple animations. But I found the gameplay pretty solid.

    And it certainly did not hurt that Faith looked pretty cool and kicked ass. 😀

  27. Just read an interesting blog post by a writer for the Mass Effect series, which I felt was related to the argument we were having about how FemShep doesn’t qualify as a good female character:

    I don’t want to assume that because someone plays FemShep, their Shepard is automatically kinder, more sensitive, or interested in flirting. That kind of assumption is what gave us games where all the women are archers or healers, because gamers were ready to see a woman in a game, but not ready to see one in armor hitting things. […] This kind of assumption feels particularly egregious to me when it’s Shepard automatically giving a different line for gender reasons — when it’s the writer directly putting words into the mouth of the player’s avatar. It’s a little easier to justify having an NPC really react differently to a female Shepard, of course, because then you’re not inflicting sexist opinions on Shepard — you’re just saying, “This particular person in the galaxy happens to treat men and women in different ways.” […] But is it fun? My assumption — and we all know how well those work — was that women who buy our game and select FemShep are coming from real-world lives where they often are treated differently or stereotyped for their gender, and that just like I, an asthmatic and out-of-shape dude, enjoy playing Commander “I headbutt krogan warlords and Vanguard-charge armed commandos before elbowing them to death” Shepard, those women would enjoy playing a Shepard who wasn’t asked if she was planning to take maternity leave and have kids, or if she worried about her figure in that armor, or how she felt about the genophage as someone who could one day be a mother herself.

    He goes on to ponder whether that’s really the right thing to do however, and put out a call for opinions. It’s interesting to see that there was a fair amount of thought (at least on Patrick’s part) about this issue.

    • (Just in case my first post here has been forgotten, I feel compelled to re-iterate that I’m on the side of FemShep being a good female character.)

  28. The debate back and forth between whether or not Fem!Shep was a good character or not was really pretty interesting. My suspicion is that everyone (trolls excepted) is right. Fem!Shep as a blank slate AND female is a phenomenally refreshing change of pace if all you ever get is female stereotypes. Thats great the first time, and the second and probably the third time you get this in a game, but is it great the ninth time? The twelfth?

    The thing is she (or he if you play Male!Shep) is not really a character with any depth. S/he has a personality but nothing particularly backing that personality. This is a protagonist that does not really grow or change in meaningful and significant ways due to the things that have befallen her/him. The character is just a shell into which the player inserts personality but their is no meaning behind that personality, no life experiences that really defined it – its essentially a disembodied personality.

    If this where a novel I suspect that it would be one with a pretty shallow protagonist. Even in Space Opera I want something like Elizabeth Moon’s Once a Hero**, which has a pretty compelling female protagonist (and an interesting sub plot where the main male character has to deal with being unable to fulfill societal expectations of masculinity that serves to contrast the protagonists story).

    That said this is a game not a novel and it may be that this art form does not really allow for particularly in depth protagonists in general, male or female. In a movie or novel the authour writes out all the actions but we want to be able to control our avatars and forcing us to perform certain actions purely based on childhood or other defining life experiences denies us the ability to do that. It may be that we are more or less forever stuck being pretty much disembodied personalities that do interesting things but must look to the NPCs stories for compelling stories involving character development and growth.

    ** I highly recommend Once a Hero if you at all like Space Opera. Its part of a series but, while the other books in the series where OK none of them come even close to Once a Hero in terms of the quality of the story – its really just this one book of the whole series that the protagonist really deals with her past and develops as a character – its very easy to just read this novel alone. .

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