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21 March 2017

Why I’ll play as a woman in Mass Effect: Andromeda

You can be anyone you want in BioWare's series. For me, the choice is simple. 

By Stephen Bush

Our long national nightmare is almost over: the five-year wait for a new Mass Effect game ends on 23 March.

The original Mass Effect trilogy, for the uninitiated, is a set of roleplaying videogames in which you create a character – the hardened space marine Commander Shepard – who is tasked with stopping the destruction of the civilisations of the Milky Way by the terrifying Reapers.

Over the course of the trilogy, the choices you make changes who lives, who dies and who tells your story – is it the grizzled leader of the anti-Reaper Alliance, the liberated artificial intelligence you teach to be a human being, or is it your own consciousness, now uploaded to an all-powerful warship?

Now a new adventure in the same universe, Mass Effect: Andromeda, will take up the story of an explorer, Insert-Name-Here Ryder fleeing the Milky Way galaxy to make a new life in Andromeda. Once again, the choices you make will have galactic repercussions.

With the release date soon approaching, I, like most Mass Effect fans, have entered into a fixed routine. Googling “Mass Effect: Andromeda” to see if a new trailer has been uploaded to YouTube. Drawing up a list of topics on my hand so when people ask me what I’m thinking about I don’t have to explain to them what a Krogan is. Wondering which of the weird and wonderful aliens in my crew are down to bang.

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And most of all: working out who my Ryder will be. In the Mass Effect games, you can choose your race, gender, orientation, hobbies, whether you are professional or hot-headed, laid-back or logical.  (In an exciting new development, your conversation choices at the beginning of the game will change the ones available to you as the game progresses. A calm and collected Ryder will be cooler under fire, but less able to reach out to their colleagues at times of emotional distress.)

If Andromeda is as good as the games before it, I expect to play it multiple times with different Ryders: some friendly and approachable, others cold and mercenary, some in between. But the one thing I know for sure: my Ryder will be a woman, just as the characters I created not only in the original Mass Effect but in Dragon Age, Fallout, Skyrim and a host of other roleplaying games.

Why? There are a lot of reasons. The first is that I am simply bored of tough-talking male heroes in science fiction. In the original Mass Effect games, that wasn’t helped by the fact that the male voice actor, Mark Meer, seemed to have been asked to play Shepard as “Vin Diesel phoning it in”, in contrast to the female actor, Jennifer Hale, who delivered a compelling performance which really made your Shepard sound like a real and complex person.

The second is that, as most videogame writers are men, perversely, the more interesting love interests and plotlines tend to be reserved to women, as the male characters they can fall in love with are better drawn than their female counterparts. Most female love interests in video games fall into two groups. The first are carrying some kind of inner pain – Mass Effect’s Jack and Dragon Age’s Leilana are good examples of this – and the second are convinced the world is beneath them, ala Mass Effect’s Miranda and Dragon Age’s Morrigan. Happily, it turns out that the penis of the leading man is a sort of Goldilocks wand that creates women that are not too mouthy or too silent, but just right.

The remainder of eligible bachelorettes in video games tend to have one character trait: an overwhelming desire to be with your character that is never adequately explained and would be the cause of a restraining order in real life. In the Mass Effect series, the archaeologist Liara T’Soni is the ur-example of that particular romance type.  

To be fair to BioWare, Mass Effect’s publishers, this isn’t true of Ashley Williams, one possible love interest from the first game. She remains just as prickly and anti-alien after you hook up as before. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she is one of the most disliked characters in videogame history.

The male hook-ups are primarily written to be really interesting friends with the optional ability to hook up, which tends to make their love stories more compelling and believable.

The last reason is less flattering to me that the others, and it’s this: when I play a man in these “create your own character” games I inevitably try to re-create myself as the game goes on. This isn’t a good approach to roleplaying as the answer to the question “What would I, Stephen, do in this situation” is inevitably “Die”.

Freed of the entirely self-inflicted obligation to be myself, a female protagonist gives me the freedom to work out an entire backstory for my character, to work out her decisions, what she would do. Which is why while I don’t yet know who Ryder is, I know who she isn’t.