Welcome to the very first edition of Random Encounter. Running as a counterpoint to our retro games column Visual Memory, this new monthly feature tackles the issues facing gamers in the here-and-now. Podcaster, reviewer and hardcore gamer Olivia Cottrell kicks things off with a matter very close to her heart…
All the Mass Effect news lately – especially the trailer featuring the female version of Commander Shepard – has gotten me thinking about the first game in the series. Mass Effect introduced me to gaming as a hobby (some might say an obsession), but why did I latch on to that particular game when I had played others before it and have enjoyed others since? What made Bioware’s space opera so special? Which buttons did it press that others didn’t?
To answer this, let’s revisit my very first exposure to nerd culture. I started out as a Star Wars fan, introduced to the films by my brother and parents who didn’t know, or didn’t care, that this universe was ‘not for girls’. I played with model X-Wings, I staged lightsaber fights with brooms, I wrote fan fiction. And I found a little of myself in that universe. Princess Leia was never afraid to fight for those she loved, she dressed practically and stared down Sith Lords. Along with Xena: Warrior Princess, and Miss Frizzle, she remains one of my all-time heroines.
Then I grew up a little more, and started playing video games. I loved first-person shooters, especially those with sci-fi themes. (In the days before I could browse Game Informer or IGN for myself they were, overwhelmingly, the games I had access to, because I relied on my brother to buy them). Halo and Half-Life stood out as particular favourites, and I spent many hours blasting merrily away at aliens. But something didn’t feel quite right about these games. I could never really feel at home in the role of the hero, because the protagonists were, without exception, men. Competent, heroic, capable men, yes, but men in every single instance, save a few role-playing games where my character didn’t talk, wasn’t really in cutscenes, and always felt like an observer of the world that she saved. In every game I played I was reminded that this world was not for me, and that my place in it, if I had one, was not as the hero.
Then, one day in 2007, I picked up Mass Effect and created Commander Diana Shepard.
Commander Shepard speaks- actually speaks!- with authourity. Commander Shepard expects to be obeyed. Commander Shepard is entrusted with the fate of the galaxy and does her duty unflinchingly, no matter what she herself stands to lose in the process.
And Commander Shepard is a woman.
While there is much to criticise in the role of women in the Mass Effect series (off the top of my head: the creeping sexualisation of the non-player female characters, the lack of female aliens with the exception of the Asari, who are ‘blue skinned space babes’) the fact remains that, in the female version of Commander Shepard, the game presents a competent, respected military hero who is also a woman. Thanks to Jennifer Hale’s superb voice acting and, consequently, the character’s increased role in cutscenes and dialogue, Shepard takes an active role in the world around her and feels like a living, breathing avatar for the player in the very truest sense. Because she shares male Shepard’s animation rig, she moves and sits in a way that has more to do with power than titillation – unlike other female characters in the game, the camera never rests on her breasts or rear, never tells us that Shepard is there for gratification. This kind of feminist escapist fantasy simply doesn’t exist in other games and, while other developers have picked up the idea of the fully voiced player character, Mass Effect was the first one that really got to me in a meaningful way.
It was a revelation. For the first time, I could play as the Master Chief-esque space marine I had always wanted. And as myself! Not as I really am, of course, but certainly more like me than, say, Gordon Freeman, Link, or Luke Skywalker. I also realised how very lacking other entertainment (and Mass Effect itself, in other areas) was in this respect. Once I had started to see it, I couldn’t stop.
This is why most of my articles have a feminist slant, why I am in a frenzy of excitement about Mass Effect 3 – and why I still have Commander Diana Shepard from 2007, all ready and waiting to finish her story and save the galaxy from the Reapers. It’s also why I’ll probably cry when the game is over. Without Mass Effect, I would not be writing this.
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