Game Pile: Mass Effect’s Romances

When you make things on the internet, for the public consumption of an audience, it affects your brain.

I have not replayed many games since starting this blog. The original purpose of the Game Pile was to get through a very large collection of games (which is now more than half complete, even with new games added to it), which meant there was a measure of tour guide speediness to it. A game got played, and I moved on. Games that took a long time had to be sandwiched between playthroughs of other, much smaller and faster games, because I Had To Make Progress On The Pile. This I think served to make games that were long that I ‘had’ to finish more frustrating, and soured me on those games. Large games didn’t tend to get large articles, and I usually found myself working on overviews or general impressions, or, perhaps, asking the question ‘is this worth it?’

Consider Mass Effect, a trilogy of big beefy games like this. My memory is that the first is a tedious slog, the second a much faster, more tightly focused experience I enjoyed a lot more, and the third is bound up in the question of ‘is the ending any good?’

It’s something of a disservice to these big games, though not one I feel bad about at all, where whole chunks of the game get to carry the conversation (here) while other chunks of the game just skate on by. I don’t think that I dedicated much time at all to talking about the romances in all of Mass Effect, despite those being such an enormously important part of the game, and you know, the centre of a ridiculous firestorm from the equally stupid time of 2008.

So I made a list.

Tier 5 – Anyone But Ashley

Wow, everyone who chose to keep Kaidan alive dodged a bullet here didn’t they.

There’s a lot of criticism of Ashley that I feel is misdirected. For example, there are complaints that she looks like a stripper, or that her uniform being pink and white in some versions is bad, or that she’s brash and obnoxious. None of those are necessary marks against the character. I mean, Gwenpool is brash and obnoxious and wears pink and white and she’s awesome. Execution plays a big part. There are some folk who claim that Ashley’s disliked because she’s a strong woman, and you know what? Maybe! I bet there are a lot of people who focus on the ways she makes them uncomfortable as a woman in power, and use that as their reason to deride her.

The reason Ashley is at the special extra bottom of my list is that she’s a big ole racist.

She isn’t, diegetically: Racism isn’t about looking at entirely different species with different biological needs, and if we start dealing with aliens, it’s going to be a huge pain in the ass when people start using ‘racism’ to refer to not wanting alien greys to slurp out our brains or whatever. Racism is about the human social construct of race, which isn’t even divided up by skin colour (like, c’mon, there were pamphlets about ‘stealth Jews’). Hating and fearing and distrusting entirely different planets’ people for having different, inscrutable opinions and values to your own isn’t the same thing as inventing bullshit reasons to treat other humans like garbage.

But Ashley definitely does it in a racist way.

The way Ashley ‘defensively’ shoots Wrex because you’re arguing with him, thaaaat’s really uncomfortably like the ‘he had a gun’ or ‘he was hulking out’ conversations we hear from uh, actual racists. Calling people who are in the same room as you ‘dogs’ is pretty bad behaviour, even if they don’t necessarily know what a dog is. We know from her history that despite stellar performance and consistently excellent grades in all tests, she kept getting refused transfers to serve on ships, which, if there’s no reason they’re putting down officially in your paperwork, they think you’re a fucking asshole, Ashley.

The comics try to claim it’s because command is prejudiced against Ashley Williams because of her extremely distinctive surname making them realise she’s the granddaughter of the first guy to surrender to the Turians.

yeeeah sure, Ashley.

Plus, let’s set aside how she compares to real world racists: Ashley’s attitude of ‘we don’t need other cultures to do shit’ is just fantastically unhelpful to have when your job is going around the galaxy and interacting with other cultures a lot. Even just keeping a lid on it would be better. I don’t remember Ashley having some especially high level of expertise representing some reasonable choice. And like, dating coworkers is already dangerous with power differentials and all that, but it’s gotta be worse when your girlfriend is an actual liability that can sink negotiations by being a shithead at people.

By the way, one special extra note: Ashley brings up religion to you so you can talk about it with her, which drew criticism from Christian media critics who said that it sucked that a religious character was also an unlikeable, superior, xenophobic jerk.

Oh well, if the hat fits, folks.

Tier 4 – Miranda

Okay so after all that harsh talk about Ashley, this one’s a lift right.

I drew a line between Ashley’s xenophobia and how she acted like a racist because it’s important to remember that it’s not as simple as whether or not the character is right to trust the Citadel cultures in the Mass Effect Universe. If being against aliens makes you a racist and Cerberus wants to promote humans it’s real hard to see Miranda as not, y’know


That’s why it’s important to bear in mind that Cerberus, in this stupid, stupid universe, actually have something of a point. The Citadel Council uplifted the Krogan to fight the Rachni (a culture uplifted by the Protheans), and then realising they’d fucked up, unleashed an honest-to-god actual plague on them that resulted in over a millenia of stillbirths and steady cultural decline. And this isn’t just an example of any given culture in the Citadel being stupid: The Salaraians built the Genophage (because the Krogan would see it as a disincentive to misbehave), while the Asari explained its importance to the Krogan (because nobody would be stupid enough to deploy it) and the Turians deployed it (because yes they fucking were). You needed multiple parts of the Citadel Council to make this millenia long genocidal war crime happen, and in light of that, yeah I can see it making a lot of sense that most cultures would regard the Citadel Council as untrustworthy for the protracted long-term health of any given spacefaring culture.

With that in mind, it’s not like the central concept for Cerberus – a human-survivalist organisation willing to ignore an untrustworthy power structure – makes you necessarily into a space Nazi. Don’t get me wrong, Cerberus absolutely jumps off that cliff around the point they let space Cthulhu warp their inscrutable unchallengeable leader’s brains.

Remember that conversation about power differentials? Miranda is one of the only characters in the series who isn’t required to be there. She can bounce when she wants, and in Mass Effect 2, she’s actually technically in charge of you (which, you know, watch how far you let that extend). Miranda is meant to be genetically perfected in the context of the Mass Effect universe, which is, hilariously stupid, but it does make sense when you consider she’s what her extremely basic asshole father thinks is perfect.

It’s a sign of what a different time it was that she’s meant to be straight though, I mean, there’s mommy issues written all over her backstory. Though I guess there is that interest she has in becoming a mother, and this being the distant high-tech spacefaring future of whenever, clearly nobody’s deduced technology as complicated as a turkey baster, or, you know, trans rights or whatever. Man, these games were hilariously, embarrassingly straight. More on that later.

Anyway, I never pursued the Miranda romance in the game, but she seemed like someone who actually had opinions about that. Like she’d size up Shepherd and ditch him if she didn’t like something about the situation. Not the same player-centered sexuality you see with other characters. Plus, she has an Australian accent! That goes on the list, along with the creep from Far Cry 3! Oh it’s not a big list.

And isn’t that the best way to experience the Mass Effect romances? To never pursue them and instead imagine a much better version of what they probably would be? Certainly beats… whatever’s happening over there, with Jacob. Way over there, that dude has, yeesh, problems.

I like Miranda! Like, the tentposts of her character all stand on their own and they’re largely there in the game – someone with a complex personal relationship space, a sense of professionalism, a withering sense of humour, and a willingness to turn away from a bad ideology when she comes to understand that. That’s, that’s not bad!

Tier 3 – Liara

Oh uh yeah, Liara’s fine! I didn’t do much exploring here because I just wanted to know how, like, the Asari thing works? And it’s a lot more like that Asari reproduce asexually but use a psychic impression of their partner as the salt to generate some sort of single-use egg key. Which, you know what, neat, that’s a legitimately interesting thing, because it removes a lot of biological incompatibilities and doesn’t require making the whole species collapse in on itself until it can find another culture to breed with.

It is neat the way that language breaks down describing what Liara is, in human sexuality terms, because while we use pronouns like she and her for her, she’s from a monogendered society, and they don’t have any reason to have words for gender. She’s the only option for a ‘lesbian’ romance from a FemShep in the first game, which makes sense when Shepard’s looking at it, but also, Liara’s… not… gay? Because in her culture, there’s no need for ‘gay’ as an idea? Sex and sexuality isn’t even tied to genitals!

There’s also an interesting conversation about whether the Asari are mind-affecting in a proactive way, like when there’s this bit where the Salarians, Turian and Humans are looking at an Asari and each are pointing out her features that appeal to them specifically? Is that because Asari are telepathically slurping on your brain juices to think they’re cool, or is it that these cultures with a shared genetic history (the reapers, don’t worry about it) are all just evolved on a concomitant line that means they have a shared pool of memetic interests that the Asari evolved into?

There’s also the question of if Asari do have gender the way that humans do (which, why, but whatever), then surely there are trans boy Asari? Which sound like they might be super cool, but also like the last people I want handling that are are 2008 Bioware.

Oh uh, hm, I didn’t actually talk much about Liara as a romance option.

I didn’t, but I bet she’s just super nice.

Tier 2 – Thane

What do you mean he’s straight.

What the hell.

Tier 1 – The Absolutely Not There Gay Tali Ship

This is why I didn’t pursue any romances in any of the Mass Effect games. I played a FemShep, and I played through it once. While playing, I watched Tali and Shep interact, with this very stable platform of common interest, of talking about their problems and their lives – obviously, Tali sharing more than Shep – and it created the impression that Tali never got listened to, and my Shep was just… always willing to listen to her. You know, because I had a genuine interest in Tali and Tali’s stories, and she didn’t make that experience painful or tedious, and so I just liked being around her, and liked listening to her, and so did Shep.

She was always willing to interrupt what she was doing to pay attention to Tali and her problems. Just vigilantly checking for when there was an opportunity for time with Tali.

Oh heeey, you don’t look like you’re doing okay.

I’m listening.

I’m here.

You can tell me anything.

And that continues and starts to escalate until we go from ‘protecting Tali from the Geth in Mass Effect 1‘ to ‘sure, I’ll fight off a planetary invasion for you babe, I’ll liberate your world, dear god will she notice me now, you know, you know, you don’t have to, just, you know, maybe think about it.’

This did not get my Shep to side against the Geth though. Legion’s a friend.

And that’s the story that played out in my head, as I played the game. My Shep never romanced anyone, because she was busy crushing on Tali, who was, as strange as it is, straight. Like, she in her culture had a concept of binary genders, and a specific vision of how that binary gender related to her attraction and sexual interest, but she was also a xenophile who found interaction with other species attractive, and – and – she’s into Garrus, and he’s a fucking bird, his genes are probably like XZ, they don’t even share a protein base but he uses ‘he him’ pronouns and that’s what does it for her –

I’m fine.

It’s fine.

Anyway, yeah, I didn’t think much of the romances that were actually in Mass Effect, but I really enjoyed not doing them and imagining better versions!

Oh and everyone who got real mad that Tali, under the mask, looked like a generic hot lady, have you not seen the way this universe works?

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