Thoughts on Dragon Age:Inquisition from someone who probably won’t finish it

So here’s the deal. It pains me to make this admission. I love BioWare games, and I am something of a completionist. I have played some pretty terrible games in the name of completionism. Hell, I played all of Lightning Returns in the name of completionism. However, I’m probably not going to finish playing Dragon Age: Inquisition.

I tried! Believe me, I tried. I tried to the tune of playing 20 hours, then starting over and playing another 15 hours… and I just can’t. Seriously, folks, Dragon Age: Inquisition is the worst PC port of a console game that I have ever played, and I’ve been playing both PC and console games for a long time. The UI is just insanely bad, inventory management is punishing, and combat is about as exciting as waiting in line[1].

So even though I make a point of trying not to write about games until I have completed them (or mostly completed, in the case of Lightning Returns), I’m going to call it and write about my impressions of DA:I.

Spoiler warning, obviously, but only if you think shit no more than 20 hours in even counts.

Stuff that is bullshit

Because I like to end on a positive note, let’s start with stuff that I didn’t like. Which can be mostly summarized as “Vivienne”.

First, while I appreciate that BioWare’s developers were trying to make a character who is beautiful, empowered, and romantically appealing while also being a black woman – they really, really dropped the ball on Vivienne’s character design:

viv

God dammit, BioWare. THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS. This is literally one of the worst pairs of breasts I have ever seen in video games. Everything has texture in your graphics engine except for the weirdly lustrous plastic of Vivienne’s breasts, which are perfectly spherical and somehow never fall out of that dress, despite that all of the garment tape in the world would not prevent at least some areola peeking out.

Dammit, even Samara had breasts that were less bullshit than Vivienne’s, and that was previously one of the high (low?) bars of awful BioWare boob design.

The thing that sucks most is that Vivienne’s promo art was gloriously free of bullshit boob window:

Vivienne_inquisition_promotional

Why couldn’t we have had that Vivienne? I’ll take a tiny bit of stomach over a boob window big enough to fit a corgi through any day.

So anything positive the BioWare devs might have been trying to do flew right out the damn window, because every time I returned to base to talk to Vivienne, all I could focus on were her bizarrely artificial breasts. Instead of portraying a black woman who is complex and intelligent and attractive, Vivienne winds up as just another objectified black lady. (Literally. Because she is an object. You will never convince me those breasts are real.)

Second, Vivienne also had me throwing major amounts of side-eye at BioWare’s writers.

(It’s important for me sidetrack a moment here to note that I was playing as a Dalish Elf mage. Elf, because why would you play as anything but an elf if “elf” is an option? And mage, since – what with all of the demon-possession shenanigans that go along with magery in the DA setting – mages are automatically the most interesting character type. (Warriors don’t have to worry about accidentally turning into demons whenever they hit people, after all.) With all of the Dragon Age games, the writing is just more interesting if you’re playing a mage, because all of a sudden all sorts of shit gets really personal.

…anyway, back to Vivienne.)

So at the outset of DA:I, the mages – who had previously allowed themselves to be kept in golden cages and basically enslaved – have gotten tired of that shit and have had themselves a nice little rebellion because freedom! Yeah! And then you meet Vivienne, who immediately starts lamenting about how isn’t it a shame that the old system has broken down. You know, that system that incarcerated mages “for the public good” and effectively had no real checks against abuses by those in power who were supposed to look after the well-being of those supposedly “in their care”.

And according to Vivienne, this really is just the worst! Because now those stupid mages are going to run around, letting their magery hang out everywhere, and they’ll go drunk with power and let themselves get possessed by demons so they can go on blood-magic fueled murder rampages. Right? Of course. Because that’s what you do when you don’t have a bunch of murderous, mage-hating fuckheads in full-plate hanging over your every goddamn move. Way to go, you stupid freedom-wanting mages! There go our property values.

…yeah. Holy internalized oppression, Batman. That is some Bill Cosby-level respectability politics.

Naturally, as a mage myself, I tried to challenge her on the… uh… problematic implications of her view that the Circle needed to be reformed and all those pesky mages locked down right away. At which point Vivienne started accusing me of being “just as bad” because everyone knows that the Dalish are child-murderers!

Which. What? No. Just. No. Please, Vivienne. Just go die in a fire, or something. Okay? Okay. Great. (Also, BioWare character designers? Go to your room and don’t come out until you’ve thought about what you’ve done.)

Stuff that I hated but wasn’t bullshit

There was another character that I also hated, but it felt a bit unfair to lump him in with Vivienne because I kind of felt like I was supposed to hate him: Solas.

solas

In addition to looking like a constipated egg with pointy ears, Solas had the most terminal case of mansplaining I have ever encountered in a BioWare game. (And let me tell you, there have been some serious contenders over the years! Like Anders “let me mansplain your magic to you, Merill” in Dragon Age 2, or The Illusive Man and his serious love of “deeply” cynical Ayn Randian monologues in Mass Effect 2 and 3.)

First, let’s talk about how the way to win Solas’ approval is to listen to him talk about his magical research, which is about as exciting as watching paint peel. I went into my first playthrough thinking I would romance him, despite the whole constipated egg thing, because we were both outcasts! And elves! And mages! We had so much in common! Except it’s hard to have a relationship with someone whose idea of romance is “listen to me talk about how amazing I am, and then maybe you can tell me that I am amazing if you want”.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was when he started trashing the Dalish as know-nothing posers. And when I broke in with, “uh, standing right here. Still Dalish”, he doubled down by elfsplaining my own fictional culture to me. At which point I said, “fuck you, I’m going to go romance Cullen, the relentlessly hetero Teutonic guy, because literally anyone would be better than you”, and restarted my game since I’d already passed on my chance earlier.

And yet, even after all that, I still feel that Solas is a feather in the cap of the BioWare writers, because I just couldn’t shake the feeling that he was wearing an invisible fedora whenever he opened his mouth. I’m sure when I’m not playing that he tries to talk to Vivienne about ethics in magery.

Stuff that I loved!

Dorian

Let’s start with Dorian, who is fucking amazing. Can we just take a moment to appreciate how amazing he is?

dorian

Oh, Dorian. I hate mustaches, but I could never bring myself to hate you. I mean, look at you pulling it off with that mustache and fabulous hair and the inexplicably-one-sleeved robe you’re rocking there, you glorious zero-fucks-giving bastard.

I would have romanced Dorian in a heartbeat if he weren’t completely and irrevocably gay. Which, you know what? Cool. Because that whole “I’m gay, except for you because you don’t count because we’re soouuullllmates” trope that you see in a lot of games and other media always struck me as kind of creepy anyway.

Even better? If you don’t try to romance Dorian or Iron Bull (who is also a romance option for female protagonists), the two of them actually hook up partway through the story! And I’m actually sad that I didn’t get that far, because dammit that is just awesome.

Krem

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Krem, who is second-in-command of the Chargers – Iron Bull’s mercenary company – and also trans.

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Krem met up with Iron Bull pre-transition when Iron Bull saved his life, and it’s never treated as a big deal. And later in the game (alas, again I did not get that far), Krem tells the story of his transition, and it’s allowed to just be a thing that happens. In other words, Krem is just a normal (for Dragon Age values of normal) mercenary who happens to be trans, and is out and accepted. And it’s kind of horrible to realize this, but I think this might be the first time I’ve ever encountered an out trans normal-ass character in a video game – so good on BioWare for thinking to make a character like Krem.

My oooonly quibble is that he is voiced by Jennifer Hale – a cis woman. And yes, I do appreciate just how amazing Jennifer Hale is. (FemShep 5evvvvaaaaaa!) However, there’s a lot of amazing talent out there and it would have been nice to see such an important trans role go to someone who is actually trans. Jennifer Hale being who she is, she totally killed it! It just feels like a missed opportunity.

Cassandra

Cassandra is interesting, because she was part of the story framing device in Dragon Age 2, but actually returns for Dragon Age: Inquisition as a playable character.

Cassandralarge

I didn’t expect to like her as much as I did! She’s rigidly inflexible and a total hardass – which combined with the whole “religious zealot” angle made me think I was going to wind up totally hating her. But she also gives the fewest fucks of anyone in the party, except perhaps Dorian[3]. And even better, she makes no apologies for being completely and totally awesome.

Since I was playing a female character, Cassandra wasn’t a romance option – although I flirted with her anyway – mostly because flirting with Cassandra consisted of telling her “you know you’re amazing, right?” and her getting annoyed and asserting that it was all just her job or that someone had to do it or somesuch.

I also greatly appreciated that Cassandra is not conventionally attractive. She’s scarred, and dirty, and her jawline is decidedly masculine. And yet, if she had been a romance option, I would consoled myself about my inability to romance Dorian by romancing her instead. And given that Cassandra is both a party member and a member of the ruling council of the Inquisition, she’s definitely written as one of the strongest romance contenders – which is pretty cool.

Last: CANONICAL MISANDRY

The last thing I loved about Dragon Age: Inquisition isn’t so much a character as a writing/design decision by the BioWare team.

At the beginning of the game when the Inquisition is formed, a ruling committee is formed consisting of the protagonist, Cassandra, Leliana, Kirkwall’s former Templar Knight-Commander Cullen, and a new diplomat character – Josephine. Which means if you’re playing a female protagonist, your ruling committee looks a little something like this:

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SWEET SWEET MISANDRY.

Best of all, Cullen doesn’t crack any jokes about the level of estrogen, or about periods, or about that time of the month. He just accepts that the best people to fill these jobs happen to be women and moves on with his life. Ruling council of mostly women? Whatevs. That’s just how it is.

And predictably, some dudes think this is just the worst thing ever, which makes me love it even more. My Male Tears mug was starting to get a little empty.

[1] To be fair, that’s a sport here. Canadians call it “queuing”, but I haven’t assimilated enough to find it amusing yet[2].

[2] It’s been nearly 9 years since I moved to Canada and I’m still not tired of expat jokes.

[3] And now I want someone to draw fanart of Cassandra and Dorian arguing about who has the fewest fucks

Open Letter to BioWare Part 2: I am a female who wants to give you money for your games. Please stop treating me like shit.

[This is an open letter to BioWare. Like the previous open letter I posted about this topic, this has been sent to the folks at BioWare. Unfortunately, my first letter’s only response was an autoresponder promising that it would be forwarded to a human. I have yet to receive a response, and considering that it’s been nearly a month I’ll assume that one isn’t coming.]

Hi, BioWare. This is wundergeek again. I haven’t heard from you since my last letter, but I was really hoping that you might have taken some of what I said to heart about the depth of loathing and betrayal that I feel about this awful Liara statue that Kotobukiya is producing.

You’ve made some pretty positive steps in recent titles. The variety of same-sex relationships in Dragon Age and DA2 was awesome, and I’m thrilled to bits that there will be a gay romance option for both men and women in Mass Effect 3. And while there were some problematic elements to the contest to choose the FemShep on the ME3 Collector’s Edition box, I’m willing to believe that your heart was in the right place and that you really were trying to reach out to the legions of fans, female and male, who love FemShep and want to see her get the love that she deserves.

With all of this positive progress, I really wanted to believe that the backlash that you received would convince you that this awful perversion of a great character by Kotobukiya was a mistake and a cheapening of a great brand. On the facebook page, you said you wanted to know what the fans thought, and we told you. There were thousands of comments posted in less than 24 hours. I would have commented myself had I seen the page before the comments were closed not long after the page was put up.

And I definitely wasn’t alone in my dislike of Kotobukiya’s vision of Liara. Thousands of us voiced our dismay, that you would take one of Mass Effect’s strongest characters – male or female – and turn her into an over-sexualized figure in a cheap grab for a few more bucks. Liara is an adult, a brilliant scientist, a powerful biotic, information broker, and total badass. This reduction of a strong, funny, awesome female character to a collection of sexy bits… this isn’t just a betrayal of your fans. It’s a betrayal of your own writers. I really feel for them, because if Liara was a character I had written, I’d be pretty pissed too.

The backlash was huge, negative, and spread across several fansites – including The Escapist, Daily Joypad, and even Kotaku. There was also a lot of backlash on your own forums – backlash that spread across multiple threads. Hundreds, if not thousands of people spoke out against Kotobukiya’s version of Liara, and most of their comments can be summarized thusly:

DO NOT WANT. This is not my Liara.

So after all of this, I had hoped that your desire to solicit feedback from fans was genuine and that you would take this anger to heart, that you would tell Kotobukiya to modify the design of the statue to at least partially mollify your many, many angry fans. Even after all the times you’ve let me down lately, BioWare, I still hold out hope that you’ll listen to your better nature. You have it in you to be so very good, it really pains me to see this kind of stuff.

But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that, nope, you weren’t really interested in soliciting fan feedback after all. You never intended to take fan feedback to heart in the first place; this was all a clumsy attempt to generate buzz for licensing tie-in to rake in cash from male gamers who would happily pay $55 bucks to stare at some random Asari with balloons tacked to her chest who happened to have stolen Liara’s Shadow Broker outfit. Because here’s the pre-order for the figure.

Were you trying to slip this under the radar? I hope not. I hope it’s nothing more than a simple case of the many fan sites I read being tired of the story and not picking up on the pre-order. I want to believe that, but after all of the awfulness you’ve put your fans through recently, I’m not sure that I can bring myself to believe in your good intentions anymore, BioWare.

I beg, implore you, even. Please reconsider. Scrap this awful, awful doppleganger of a beloved character. Consign the Kotobukiya statue to the trash heap and get it re-designed right, in a way that honors the spirit of the character. I’m not against a sexy Liara figure, when it comes to it. But I want a figure that honors the strength and intelligence of her character without simply putting her bits on display for horny male gamers.

Don’t just do it for me. Do it for all of your fans that you claimed to want to listen to who have told you that this is something WE DO NOT WANT. Mass Effect is a beloved franchise with thousands, if not millions of fans. We are not the people who think that video games are creating rapists, or making children stupid, or causing the moral decline of our society. We are people who love games, who specifically love your games and want to give you money for your games and merchandise based on your games. Rather than alienating your fans by asking for feedback and then ignoring it when it goes against an established marketing plan, how about you try actually listening to us? Because again, we’re the folks who are prepared to give you money! You have a vested interest in listening to us, right?

And if you decide that even after all of the hurt and anger your fans have expressed over this issue you still want to push forward and bring this godawful Kotobukiya Liara to market, then do us a favor. Next time, be up-front in your pandering. Have the balls to admit that you’re selling boobular figures to horny male nerds because you think they’ll buy anything with breasts and it’s an easy way to make some quick cash without having to do any of the work yourself. As much as I hate the pandering, this dishonest pandering is even more distasteful.

Ever your devoted fan,

wundergeek

New Liara Figure: DO NOT WANT

Or – An Open Letter to BioWare – Why this blatant pandering to the (straight) male portion of your audience represents a betrayal of your female fans.

(I realize the second title isn’t as catchy.)

Dear BioWare,

I think it’s no secret that I’m a huge fan, and that I’m slightly obsessed with the Mass Effect series. I’ve been a fan since the Baldur’s Gate days, but I think you guys really found your voice with the KOTOR series and have continued to hone your craft more and more with each game. Dragon Age: Origins snags the honor of the first PC game that made me cry, and I am so in love with the Mass Effect series that I’ve finished 3 games of ME1 and 2 games of ME2 and I cannot freaking wait for ME3. (Seriously. Hurry up, please.)

One of my favorite things from Mass Effect 2 (that wasn’t FemShep) was the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC. At the time, here’s what I had to say about Liara:

Okay. So I’ll confess that Liara wasn’t exactly my favorite character in the first Mass Effect. … But I couldn’t escape the feeling that she was a bit fetishized for male audiences since her innocence and youth were constantly played up and the dialogue between her and Shepard is decidedly awkward in many places.

So I was definitely pleasantly surprised at the transition Liara had apparently undergone between the first Mass Effect and ME2. Rather than being some awkward innocent pining after Shepard, Liara had come into her own as an independent character with her own goals – goals that didn’t necessarily align with Shepard’s. That was great in and of itself – it’s always refreshing to encounter female characters who have goals of their own rather than just being like I WANT WHATEVER THE HERO WANTS TEE HEE.

Even now that the afterglow of having finished my first ME2 playthrough has faded (at least as much as it’s ever going to), the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC remains one of my favorite parts of the game. Liara is an awesome, competent, not-sexualized female character who has her own agenda – which is exactly what I have been asking for by writing this blog. I can’t emphasize how important the not-sexualized aspect of that is, either. See, Liara should look like this:

See? Awesome sci-fi female character in a non-sexualized pose displaying emotion that’s not OH GOD PLZ SAVE ME HALP or I AM TEH SEX.

But that doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t also look like this:

Again, awesome. Again, non-sexualized. Competent? Definitely. Badass? Yup. This, too, is acceptable.

But not this. Never ever this:

WHAT THE CRAPPING CRAP. THIS IS NOT MY LIARA AT ALL.

Seriously, what the hell is it? What is this pose? Her back is arched, her ass is thrust out, and she’s squeezing her tits together to make her cleavage look huge – none of which, I might add, will help you aim better. In fact, I’m going to go on a limb and say that it would present a bit of a handicap.

Honestly, let’s do a little comparison between Liara in the game and this b.s. Liara statue:

Let’s review. You didn’t do so hot when it came to female crew in Mass Effect 2. There was Miranda of the ridiculous ass cleavage, Jack of the absurd leather nipple-strap, and Samara the Space MILF. Besides Tali, Liara was the only female who wasn’t Shepard who got to wear some damn clothes without having to fork out extra cash for a DLC that would fix their various wardrobe issues.

So what happened? Were your male fans upset that Liara wasn’t sexy enough? Because I just don’t understand this blatant pandering. Even after you said that FemShep would only be on the collector’s edition cover of ME3, I was still encouraged and elated that you were making such a step at all. You’ve been talking with your fans this time around – letting us choose the FemShep we wanted on the cover, promising a FemShep trailer… It made me think that you were maybe, finally turning over a new leaf.

And then this. I feel upset. I feel angry. I feel betrayed.

I mean, come ON! You guys aren’t Atlus, here.

You said on your facebook page that you wanted to know what we thought of this statue? Well comments are closed, otherwise I would have commented, but I hate it. I hate the design, I hate the concept, I hate everything it represents.

I think the most upsetting part of all is that I can’t refuse to vote with my dollar because there’s nothing else to vote for. This kind of pandering is the sort of bullshit that tells us female fans that we do not count, that we are not welcome. This Others us, pushes us to the margins. And I can’t even ‘take my ball and go home’, because there’s nothing to go home TO. As angry as you make me, as upset as I am with you, you’re the folks who make games that insult me the least.

So, come on, BioWare. I don’t want to be this angry with you. You guys are masters of your craft. The art, the writing, the game play – you guys are industry leaders in all of these things. When are you going to see that you don’t need bullshit sexism to push your titles? Your games sell because they’re good games, and anyone who says that they’re not going to buy ME3 if it doesn’t have enough hawt T&A in it is lying. Anyone who has played ME1 and ME2 is going to buy ME3 because we know it will be awesome and we want more Shepard.

Please, I implore you, if you sell a Liara statue – make it something true to the design and the character that you created, not this dumbed down, sexualized version of an awesome character just so you can make a quick few bucks. BioWare, you’re so much better than this.

Sincerely,

~wundergeek

Mass Effect Win: Awesome things that aren’t FemShep

Okay, guys. I promise this will be my last post about Mass Effect for a while. I just wanted to round up with some non-FemShep related awesomeness, lest people think that the only reason I played the Mass Effect games was an unholy obsession with Jennifer Hale.

Now I’ll have to add here, since I do mention some of the ME2 DLC, that I was pretty selective in what DLC I was willing to pay for. I didn’t pay for extra costumes, even though it would have been a worthwhile investment for Samara, Jack, and Miranda. I also didn’t spring for the Kasumi DLC. So if there’s something that you like particularly about a DLC not mentioned, it’s probable that I never played it.

Lair of the Shadow Broker: SO MUCH WIN

Okay. So I’ll confess that Liara wasn’t exactly my favorite character in the first Mass Effect. She was pretty useful mechanically, since my first playthrough was as a soldier, and it wasn’t like she was actively offensive like Ashley. (I know, I know. Some people love Ashley. Her xenophobia completely turned me off.) But I couldn’t escape the feeling that she was a bit fetishized for male audiences since her innocence and youth were constantly played up and the dialogue between her and Shepard is decidedly awkward in many places.

So I was definitely pleasantly surprised at the transition Liara had apparently undergone between the first Mass Effect and ME2. Rather than being some awkward innocent pining after Shepard, Liara had come into her own as an independent character with her own goals – goals that didn’t necessarily align with Shepard’s. That was great in and of itself – it’s always refreshing to encounter female characters who have goals of their own rather than just being like I WANT WHATEVER THE HERO WANTS TEE HEE.

But the thing I especially loved about Liara’s motivations in Lair of the Shadow Broker is that the mission is essentially a “save the damsel” mission turned on its head. I love the fact that Liara is out to save Feron, her (male) friend that helped recover Shepard’s corpse and was captured by the Shadow Broker in the process. What’s even better is that Feron is just Liara’s friend, not anything more. It turned the “save the damsel” stereotype on its head in every way possible, which was thoroughly enjoyable.

Yes I realize how weird this makes me.

The premise of the mission completely rocked, and BioWare delivered on execution as well. I wouldn’t have believed that the Liara from the first Mass Effect could have been capable of becoming the new Shadow Broker, but I could certainly believe it of the Liara you encounter in ME2. The emphasis that they placed on Liara’s biotic powers was certainly cool, especially when she pulled stunts like jumping two stories out of a window. But I also really appreciated, again, the fact that Liara was being written as someone who had found an identity separate from Shepard, despite their interests coinciding for the sake of the mission.

There were also some really great character interactions between Shepard and Liara, one of my favorites being the car chase and the banter between the two of them. It was something straight out of a comedy action film, and I found it especially cool while playing FemShep since it’s the sort of banter you associate with either Male-Male or Male-Female action heroes. Certainly not the kind of dialogue you’d expect out of two women.

In addition to badass Liara, we also got to see a female rogue Specter-turned-terrorist – yet another example of an non-typical gender role. I realize this is dating me, but I was a bit reminded of Dennis Hopper’s villain from Speed – the cop-turned-terrorist. The Specter in Lair of the Shadow Broker might have had slightly more noble intentions (possibly), but the fact remains that “terrorist” is a role that still gets cast almost exclusively as male. Calling the Specter a “rogue agent” makes it a bit more normal for her to be female, but the fact that she isn’t sexualized at any point during the mission still makes her atypical in my books and pretty awesome as a female villain.

And of course, who could forget the completely fucking awesome moment at the end where Liara is standing in front of the bank of monitors as she takes up the mantle of the Shadow Broker?

It was so unbelievably epic and very well done. And the whole mission really gave Liara a new depth that you don’t see often with female characters. So from start to finish, Lair of the Shadow Broker gets two thumbs up from me.

Tali: simultaneously competent, endearing, and pretty badass

So I know that there has been the assertion on the part of some that Tali is an attempt to appeal to moe fanboys. And here’s the thing. If anyone said that about Liara in the first Mass Effect, I’d probably nod and say “yup”. But Tali? No friggin’ way.

Here’s the thing. In the first Mass Effect, Tali is definitely a bit naive, and certainly displays signs of having been sheltered. But when you think about Tali’s background, having been raised in an isolationist environment as part of the Quarian Migrant Fleet, her actions in the first game are very much consistent with the logic of her background. But even while I would call Tali from the first game sheltered, I would never call her “vulnerable” or “incapable” or “cute”. As a Quarian newly on pilgrimage, Tali decided she needed to take steps to take down Sarin, the biggest threat in known space besides Sovereign at the time of her pilgrimage. Just to put that in perspective, that would be like an Amish teenager deciding that they wanted to take down, I don’t know, Osama bin Ladin (if he weren’t dead) or Qadaffi or something.

Also, please remember that while anime and gaming are both subsets of nerddom, the overlap is NOT as high as you might think. Being an ex-anime geek and a gamer, I know that the vast majority of gamers in my sphere of friends are not at all conversant with anime tropes. And for the most part, anime tropes don’t translate well to Western culture. So the whole Tali = moe? I’m not buying it. Especially not when you consider the Tali you encounter in Mass Effect 2:

In Mass Effect 2, Tali has outgrown the uncertain, sheltered worldview that she had in the first game. She is a competent, confident leader in her own right. During her recruitment mission, almost her entire team dies helping her to accomplish the objectives set out by the Quarian Admiralty Board. But rather than beating herself up, the only moment of regret that Tali evinces is when she says that she hopes that the data she obtains was worth the loss of life. At no point does Tali beat herself up, at no point does Tali whine that she made mistakes, or that this is proof that she shouldn’t have lead the mission. She doesn’t question her skills, and she doesn’t second-guess herself. Tali’s team members willingly die for her, which establishes her as the kind of leader people trust enough to sacrifice themselves to preserve.

That sort of quality isn’t common. Miranda outright says that she doesn’t have it, and Samara often talks about how she’s used to working alone. So the fact that Tali is someone who can command that sort of loyalty from her own people gives her extra dimension and makes her a very excellent female character.

(I lied a little) The romance with Garrus

Okay, I lied a little when I said this was non-FemShep related win. So I’ll keep this part brief. In my Renegade playthrough, I had intended to romance Jacob, but he is apparently super-difficult to romance and something went wrong. So I wound up romancing Garrus, since I decided my FemShep would be more likely to trust someone she knew from before.

Anyhow, I found the romance with Garrus to be very cool because it was a nice reversal of typical romance gender roles. Shepard, being Shepard, was of course very smooth, very confident, very self-assured. And Garrus was, endearingly, unbelievably awkward in his responses.

It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen much in typical romance stories. Pretty much every romance comedy ever has arrogant or very self-assured male characters romancing nervous, insecure, or outright neurotic female characters. So seeing the tables turned was cool, and very, very funny. Yet another instance of good writing on BioWare’s part too, since I’ll admit that I was reluctant to romance a non-human, but in the end it wound up feeling very genuine.

And that’s enough of that.

I promise that now that I’m done rambling about Mass Effect that I’ll move on to other topics.

Mass Effect Fail: the stuff BioWare didn’t get right (Part 2)

So in my last post I looked at the visual gender fail that is all too common in Mass Effect. A lot of the commenters mentioned Tali, so I’ll just mention that Tali goes in my books as win and not fail, so you won’t see her here. But I’ll save my reasons why for my next post about non-Shep win, since she deserves more space than just a sentence or two.

Some people also mentioned that I was probably reading too much into some stuff, and sure. I’ll agree that’s probably the case. The problem I have is that having gotten an education in Fine Art, I can’t stop seeing this stuff. The bar for what pisses me off is just lower than everyone else’s, and that’s cool. I recognize that not everyone spent five years of their life having the rules of composition drilled into their brain.

Lastly, obligatory spoiler warning. This post deals with the writing of ME2, so there will be a lot more spoilers. And again, commenters if you could please refrain from DA2 spoilers in the comments that would be awesome. (I will play it, honest, as soon as I can not feel like having to choose between food and BioWare.)

(Tough choice, that.)

World-building fail: alien races

The gendering of alien races is the most obvious bit of writing fail. Only two races in Mass Effect have male and female models – the humans and Quarians. The rest of the alien races have only one model. Now that’s not terrible in and of itself – not every species on earth has sexual dimorphism; it stands to reason that not all alien races would be sexually dimorphic as well. The problem all non-Quarian and non-Asari aliens are voiced by men, which genders these alien races as male.

According to the codex, some species – the Salarians, Krogans, and Turians – have males and females – we just don’t ever see the females. For the Salarians, a complex “social code” revolving around reproduction means that very few females are produced and are all kept on the home world for breeding purposes. And for the Krogans, it’s even worse; because of the genophage, female Krogan are kept on the homeworld and any that have proven fertility are fought over as prizes of war. So two of the most prominent races essentially have their women being sexual/reproductive slaves. That’s just… great. Really progressive of you, BioWare.

As for the Turians, the codex mentions that female Turians don’t have the same crest of horns that males do, but otherwise do not differ visually from the males. The codex also mentions that all Turians go into public service at a young age. What it fails to mention is just why it is that we never see any female Turians at all? Similarly, we know from Thane’s discussions of his wife that female Drell exist, but the codex does not mention them, nor do we see any female Drell. Now in the case of the Drell, the fact that they rarely if ever leave the homeworld is a bit more acceptible. We only see 2 Drell in all of ME2. But both games are fairly drowning in Turians, and not a single one of them female. What gives? Is “public service” for female Turians glorified housekeeping back on the Turian homeworld? With the number of Turians you run into in the game, you’d think at least a handful would be female.

As for the others – Volus, Hanar, Elcor, and Batarians, only the Hanar’s codex entry specifically mentions gender, and only then to say that it is unknown whether the Hanar have gender. And of the four races, only the Batarians appear as if they might have sexual dimorphism. The Volus wear pressure suits, the Elcor are giant armored quadrupeds, and the Hanar are sentient jellyfish. So it seems puzzling to me that all of these races would be implicitly gendered as male. I realize that the difficulty in gendering aliens lies with making two different models, but that difficulty need not exist for the Volus, Hanar, or Elcor. Why not split their voice acting evenly between male and female? Or at least throw a note in the codex that ‘hey, some Elcor are female, despite the super-deep voices’?

It’s bothersome because they only race that is ever explicitly sexualized (as a race, mind, not as individuals) are the Asari, who are also the only alien race explicitly gendered as female:

You never see Salarian strippers, or Drell strippers, or (god forbid) Krogan strippers. You never even see human strippers, which is at least something we have a cultural tradition of. No, all strippers in Mass Effect are Asari – which is baffling considering that their background essentially makes them blue space-elves. If they live a thousand years and all have biotic powers, why do so damn many of them work as strippers? Answer me that, BioWare.

Even worse is the fact that Asari can breed with any other race and have some kind of super-sex appeal that makes them attractive to all races, even ones that don’t really have sex, like Salarians. The whole bit about them having one gender is pretty interesting, but why does that gender have to be female? Oh wait, I know. It’s so that you can have hot lesbian alien sex. Right. How could I forget? After all, if the Asari can breed with anyone, then why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to breed with women? Because that’s just hawt.

Ugh.

And then there’s the Asari Commandos, supposedly the most fearsome warriors the galaxy have to offer. Only when you run into them in ME1, they’re only mildly challenging to kill and you NEVER SEE THEM AGAIN. Seriously, even the frigging vorcha are harder to kill than the stupid Asari Commandos – the Commandos at least don’t regenerate so fast that you have to take them down with one shot.

So all in all, when it comes to world-building, D-.

Writing fail: party members

There’s also a fair amount of sexism to be had when it comes to the writing of crew missions and conversations. As I complained in my last post, it’s bad enough that I have to look at Miranda’s ass cleavage all the time, but what made it worse was how every conversation came back to how perfect she was and how she was genetically engineered for hawtness. She’s supposed to be this super-smart, super competent commander, and she can’t stop obsessing over how she looks like Barbie because she had such a terrible father. Give me a break.

[Sidenote: I’ll admit that part of my dislike for the writing of Miranda’s character is based on some comments made by the BioWare devs in regards to Miranda’s design, justifying the sexy costume and camera angles by calling her a femme fatale. Since Miranda fits none of the traditional criteria for being a femme fatale except for being hawt, this made me very cynical when hearing any of her dialogue.]

I also have to say that Miranda’s loyalty mission bugged me in terms of premise. They spend so much of the game building up Miranda as a hardass commander – I mean, the first time you meet her she shoots a dude in the face without any sort of preamble. So why is it that her loyalty mission had to be a touchy-feely “show Miranda’s emotional side” sort of mission?

Why couldn’t she have had a loyalty mission like Grunt’s? Or Garrus? Or, hell, what if Miranda had gone on a Zaeed-style killing spree? Miranda’s mission was well-written, I will admit. The betrayal and the choice to whether to allow her to shoot Niket are interesting, and the dialogue where Miranda wrestles with her doubts about Niket is well-written. Still, it was disappointing that Miranda’s mission was stereotyped, even if it was entertaining and better written than some of the other missions.

Jacob’s loyalty mission, however, was a whole different kettle of fish. Unlike Miranda’s mission, it was not terribly well-written. (Jacob’s dialogue was often clunky or awkward, though the voice actor was clearly doing the best he could with what he was given.) In his mission, you discover that Jacob’s father basically creates a harem for himself and kills off those few unaffected officers who could, ahem, enjoy their company. He lets this persist for ten years until the men he exiled become a serious threat and only then signals for help.

The women are, in the words of the log, passed around the officers “like pets”. And there’s even a snippet of  voice recording by one of the unaffected officers about how you can do terrible things to them and then distract them with something shiny and they’ll forget all about how unhappy they were. And, god. This mission was just… painful. I knew what was coming as soon as I stepped into the settlement and saw that it was nothing but women:

No one ever comes out and says the word rape, but it’s there. Even more horrific is that the women who are being taken advantage of are mentally compromised and not really able to give consent in the first place. All of this is supposed to establish what a terrible, awful person Ronald Taylor is and make the moment of truth a tough decision between whether Jacob should tell his father to kill himself or turn him over to authorities. But the whole time I was playing I couldn’t stop asking myself – really? Is this necessary?

We live in a culture where so much of our entertainment is saturated with rape, it’s almost become a shorthand for evil. How do we establish a man as a villain? Have him rape someone! Playing through this mission felt like reading through one of the Sword of Truth novels. It seemed like the writers were saying to themselves, “vanilla rape is too vanilla – what we need is extreme rape”. And the thing is, the bones of the mission are interesting. A situation where officers have to select who will decay mentally and who will not and the temptation to kill to prevent yourself from being one of the people who loses their mind – that’s interesting. All the rape stuff just felt like gratuitous baggage.

This is just my opinion

Okay, so I know there are those of you who disagree with me on this, which is why I’m tacking this on briefly at the end. I think that Jack is a prime example of sexist, over-sexualized character design. I know not everyone agrees (hell, my husband disagrees with me on this point). But the whole time I was playing, I couldn’t escape the feeling that Jack was not designed for me. That she was designed to appeal to a male audience. A male teenage goth audience, specifically. It’s hard to know really what the writers were thinking when they came up with Jack, but I don’t get the feeling that they really cared how women would react to her. (Again, my opinion)

As for her loyalty mission? I’m really not sure how I feel about it. It’s one of the very few times that we see anything approaching vulnerability from Jack, and the only time that I came close to feeling anything resembling sympathy for her. I did at least feel for little-girl Jack even if I hated psychopathic, unrepentant mass-murdering Jack. But I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Sure it provides insight into who she is, but why do we have such an obsession with making strong women “vulnerable”?

Look at the new redesign of Lara Croft where she gets cut up and bruised to show her “vulnerability”. Or look at The Third Birthday where Aya’s clothes get torn off as she takes damage to show that she’s “vulnerable”. So I go back and forth between thinking that Jack’s loyalty mission is a necessary attempt at establishing that Jack is at least a human being and thinking that it’s just another instance of undermining a strong female character (albeit without tearing her clothes off or abusing her physically).

Mass Effect Fail: the stuff BioWare didn’t get right (Part 1)

Female Shepard is an easy example of what BioWare got right with the Mass Effect series, but that doesn’t obviate the massive amounts of gender fail that can be found throughout both games. So I thought I’d take a look at the things that stuck out to me as irksome. Obviously, spoilers will abound for the Mass Effect series – though I’ll request that commenters tag spoilers for DA2, which I haven’t played yet. (Thank you.)

Anyhow, I had planned to make this one post but discovered that I can’t fit everything I want to say into just one post, so I’m splitting it into two. Today’s post focuses on gender fail in character design; next time I’ll look at the gender fail in writing. And then I’ll come back and talk about the few bits of non-FemShep related gender win, just to end on an up note.

Gender fail: character designs

I’ve bitched about Matriarch Benezia in a previous post, so I won’t revisit that particular rant except to say that it’s pretty ridiculous that a female villain is showing more cleavage than her daughter, who is supposed to be a potential love interest for the protagonist. As bothersome as I found Benezia, though, BioWare actually managed to design female characters that were even worse in Mass Effect 2: Miranda, Samara, and Jack.

Jack, of course, wears those ridiculous nipple straps. I made a point on my second playthrough of doing her loyalty mission first, despite caring nothing for her as a character, just because I wanted to get her a goddamn shirt. Samara’s outfit is unbelievably cleavagey, and with Miranda you have to choose between a white outfit that emphasizes her tits and crotch or a black outfit that is so tight you can see her belly button. Great. That’s bad enough, but then we constantly get bombarded with camera angles and shot compositions that emphasize their bits even more.

See, there are some pretty predictable ways in which humans look at images. The closest thing to the camera will be a natural focal point. The center of the image also tends to be a focal point. Because humans are very face-oriented, we tend to follow lines of sight if we can see someone’s eyes. And strong lines often lead a viewer’s eye along that line. So with these basics of composition in mind, let’s look at some screenshots:

Miranda’s pretty infamous because at THREE DIFFERENT POINTS in her conversation tree, you get presented with a closeup of Miranda’s ass cleavage – which is just ridiculous. Yes, yes, I get that she’s beautiful. Do you have to constantly wave her ass in my face? Even worse is the fact that she’s constantly talking about her genetic modification, which includes her hawtness. Because her hawtness is part of what gives her an edge, and btw did you know that she was genetically engineered to be hawt and OH MY GOD I GET IT STFU ABOUT BEING HAWT.

Sadly, Miranda is the most tame of your non-Tali female crew. Samara is even worse. Miranda only shows a little bit of cleavage. Samara shows off half her chest, which is considerable given that her bazongas are even bigger than Miranda’s. And with Samara, it always seems like she’s either being shot from boob perspective (from below looking up) or that she’s standing in ridiculously sexualized poses that have her arching her back or curving her spine while simultaneously cocking her hips. Sometimes she doesn’t look so much like a badass Asari warrior as she looks like Bayonetta painted blue with some headtentacles:

YOU’LL HAVE TO CLICK THIS ONE TO READ MY NOTES. IT’S RATHER BIG.

The thing I find especially baffling is that Samara is wearing much less clothing than her daughter Morinth, who is supposed to be this terrifyingly badass sexual predator that microwaves your brain with sexy. Shouldn’t their character designs be reversed if that’s the case? Because really, I have a hard time being intimidated by Samara when her every move seems calculated to provide a wank-factor.

Samara is pretty awful, cleavage down to the middle of her chest, constant stripper poses, unrealistic sphere boob, terrible camera angles. Just about the only way that you could get a character worse than Samara is to have a female character with no shirt at all. Which is exactly what BioWare did with Jack:

CLICK FOR LARGE VIEW (Again, this one is large.)

Okay, can the nipple strap school of character design die now and forever? A leather strap is not clothing. TATTOOS ARE NOT CLOTHING. Yes I get that she’s supposed to be a “bad girl”, but this is just ridiculous. Unless she’s using industrial-strength body glue, there’s no way that thing would cover up her nipples 100% of the time. Then again, Jack is a powerful enough biotic that maybe she just keeps it in place biotically. It seems like a bit of a waste of her biotic superpowers, but maybe she wasn’t feeling challenged enough. Or something. Anyway, if I had to pick “worst character design in a BioWare game ever”, Jack would win hands down. (She’s even worse than Morrigan, which is saying a lot.)

Like Samara, they just can’t seem to resist putting Jack in shots where the camera angles practically scream OMG BEWBS. But honestly, Jack is such a despicable human being – she’s completely selfish, amoral, and totally unsympathetic. I fail to see the appeal of Jack as a romance, or even as a quick roll in the hay. What Jack needs is a bullet between the eyes for the good of the whole galaxy, so this whole JACK IS SEXAY thing is totally lost on me. But that gets into the writing fail, which I will have to tackle next time.

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.

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