Mass Effect paved the way for more inclusive games. Although that was not the intention

Aside from gaming enthusiasts, few people have heard of it, but within that world, Mass Effect is just as beloved as Star Wars. In the first five years, 14 million copies of games from the trilogy were sold. The long-awaited enhanced re-release Legendary Edition shot to the top of the sales charts last month as expected: Mass Effect is still relevant.

Not only did the game get a lot of positive response from gamers in general, it also spread like wildfire through communities that often can’t match the predominantly white, heterosexual male protagonists of games. For them, Mass Effect was a revelation.

Space hero Commander Shepard battles the genocidal Reapers with the help of a diverse team of humans and aliens. So far, the plot line sounds rather traditional. But unlike in Star Wars, each player can decide for themselves who Commander Shepard is, what he or she looks like, who he or she falls in love with. Shepard can be female, non-white, non-heterosexual.

“We had no idea at first how important Mass Effect would be, not just for women and LGBTQ gamers, but for everyone,” said reissue director Mac Walters from his office in Edmonton, Canada. He played a key role in the team that wrote Mass Effect – ten men, a huge number for a blockbuster game.

“In our games, humanity is the outlier of the galaxy. We wanted to encourage players to think about our shared experiences as people, rather than our differences,” said Walters. At the same time, the game was very individualistic: “Each player could make their own choices and character.”

Getting more out of interaction

It was only after the game came out that Walters understood how much gamers craved a game in which they could express themselves, for example in conversations with characters in which they recognized themselves. “Suddenly, all the fans knocked on the door who wanted to get more out of the relationships you could have in the game, both friendly and romantic.” Players praised the conversations you could have with the other characters about their backgrounds, emotions and experiences, and the way they were intertwined in the game. Citadel, in which you throw a party with your team members, is still one of the most popular expansions Bioware ever made.

Slowly the realization subsided that they were making something that was perceived as very important in less-represented gamer communities. “Of course you have to keep your creative freedom as a maker, but the importance of what we did came in. We still feel a great responsibility to give every player a place.”

Games with a ‘character creator’, where you choose your gender and can shape your appearance, already existed, but mainly in niche games. In addition, the main character’s dialogues were often shown only as text. But Commander Shepard, the main character of Mass Effect, had a female voice, if you so chose. The game also resembled a playable Hollywood movie. With a character designer.

The first Shepard to make Pandu Supriyono (24) had a dark complexion and a flat nose, just like himself. “Not because there weren’t many games at the time with a main character that looked like me, although there was. But because it was possible. With that first Shepard I made choices in the story where I kept asking myself: what would I do?” says Supriyono. “Later I played it from my fantasy. I made up a whole story for each Shepard.”

“I think I spent more than an hour in the character creator,” says Daniëlle Suurlant (37) with a grin. „I could suddenly be a woman, not a generic one white dude. Awesome.”

The idea of ​​having a player both shape his own hero and give that hero a voice: it seems obvious now, says Walters. “But it was controversial internally. Were we going to use a female and a male actor for every line of dialogue Shepard uttered?” The amount of choices available meant that an incredible amount of dialogue had to be recorded.

“Nobody had done that before in a game like this,” recalls Walters. “Now that I look back on it, I see the impact of that decision. The fantastic way that voice actors Jennifer Hale and Mark Meer spoke to Commander Shepard – it enhances the sense of ownership of every decision you make as Shepard.”

Choosing a man or a woman is no longer a special feature in games, although not all main characters are voiced.

Not broken’

For transgender people, Mass Effect had an extra charge. “I didn’t know I was transgender, but I did enjoy being a female Shepard,” says Lyra Willow Tilder (25). “I suddenly had an outlet.”

“Most games have men in the lead role, but for me it felt different that I could choose to be a man,” says Emile Koelhuis (25), who was not yet out of the closet as a transgender man at the time.

“What I also liked was that Shepard had features of PTSD. In Mass Effect 3 he has traumatic nightmares, just like me. And yet Shepard will always be the hero, he will not be written off as ‘broken’.”

The fact that you could choose to enter a non-heterosexual relationship in the game was important to him. Koelhuis would have preferred to see more bisexual male characters. “I was disappointed that Kaidan, with whom you can enter into a romantic relationship, only came out in part three. Also because you could hear the outside world whining: see, they only made Kaidan bi to please the LGBT people.”

For example, the reactions have not been entirely positive. There was a clear development from game to game in how comfortable the creators felt with non-heterosexual romance – a character originally planned to be bi became straight, individual “romances” for non-heterosexual characters sometimes went less deep than heterosexual relationships.

“The animations for the female Shepard in parts 2 and 3 were also clearly based on a man’s movements,” observes Daniëlle Suurlant. “That was hilarious when she got into a dress, but I thought it was a shame.”

Are there things Walters would have done differently? “Sure it is,” he says. “But you made the game you made. I prefer not to think about it too much afterwards.”

Ultimately, he thinks it is especially important that you listen carefully to the widest possible group of people. “We wanted Shepard to be someone with a history, whose future was completely filled by the player. So I wrote Shepard not as a “male” and a “female” version, but as a universal hero. I sought input from everyone. Even the woman guiding the voice actors often had great feedback: ‘hey’, she would say to me, ‘this sounds like you’re thinking of a male Shepard’.”

It is precisely this lack of interpretation by the makers that the players who NRC spoke boasting. Walters: “That this trilogy has offered so many people a space to be themselves – that is humbling.”

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