We made it!
After sixty-nine hours, and much less sleep than is healthy, I have finished Mass Effect: Andromeda with 94% completion. I’m not going to bother reviewing the game, except to say that the critics were overly critical. Andromeda is enjoyable, thrilling and has a strong story comparable to the original Mass Effect if you don’t spend all day looking for things to complain about.
However, I am going to complain about something – romances. This complaint isn’t unique to Andromeda, but it is specific to Mass Effect. Bioware has cultivated a brand that automatically suggests inclusion. Two separate teams work on developing their main IPs; Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Both games have similar characteristics and mechanics, and both games implement the romance features that have become a Bioware trademark. Pains me to say it, though; the Dragon Age team does it better.
Before I get into this, I should explain that I know video games are expensive. We’re long past the time when three men in an attic in Derby could put together a critically acclaimed title with only a few lines of required dialogue. Expectations are such that most games have to feel like interactive movies and only movie-like budgets can pull it off. Therefore, resources need to be prioritised. In Bioware games, squad members get the largest slice of the dialogue pie.
Unfortunately, this hurts romances; or rather, it hurts romances when Bioware provide so few LGBTQ+ squad member romance options. To date, there hasn’t been a transgender romance option in any Bioware game. I’d like to think it will happen but they’re cautious about how to implement it, as a poor representation could do more harm than good. Gay, lesbian and bisexual players are catered for but in Mass Effect, not particularly well.
Staying in the Background
Over the course of the four Mass Effect games, only Liara, Traynor, Peebee, Suvi and Vetra (three of whom came in Andromeda) are able to be romanced by a female player-character. If we consider Bioware’s own lore, then Liara and Peebee are not technically same-sex relationships due to the mono-gendered nature of the asari. I’m not going to lie, throwing asari into Mass Effect 1 always came across as pandering to an element of Star Trek fans that wanted a bit of blue alien nookie, but with Jadzia Dax replacing Captain Kirk.
For gay males, the options are even worse. Cortez and Gil are the only Mass Effect characters to date that are gay, with Kaidan Alenko (ME3) and Reyes Vidal as bisexual options. Only Kaidan is a squadmate, which means the others lack the breadth of content that a straight option like Cora gets. Again, I understand this, but it presents difficulties in building a decent, believable relationship.
Let’s take Suvi, as an example. You can flirt with Suvi from the get-go, and there’s a cute, amusing scene where Sara Ryder gushes out her words while trying to indicate her interest. But if you’re taking the game slowly to complete as much content as is possible, your romance with Suvi hits a brick wall. After a while, she will no longer have any dialogue, aside from a possible comment on a mission you’ve just done. When your conversations with Suvi result in her asking how it’s going, only for Sara, presented with no new content, to reply she should get back to things it’s difficult to believe in the relationship; perhaps more so since Suvi’s farewell seems to always be “Sound’s good”.
Traynor from ME3 suffers a similar fate. You can respond to her interest following the Citadel coup mission and have sex and then… well, nothing much. A handful of auto dialogue flirty conversations aside, there is nothing else until the end-game (or Citadel DLC, if you bought it). I suppose you could rationalise it that there is an apocalyptic war going on and perhaps it isn’t the best time for romantic overtures, but then what better time to make the seconds count? You can piss away half your war budget on an aquarium after all. Sometimes Shepard’s priorities are not in order.
Dragon Age: Romances
Contrast this to Dragon Age, where virtually every same-sex option has been a squadmate. I can only think of Josephine in DA:I as a non-squad choice. I’m inclined to ignore Dragon Age 2, however, where every romance, except Sebastian Vael, was a bisexual option. DA2 was like an all-you-can-eat buffet at the expense of characterisation and development. Isabela was established in DA:O as bisexual, so continuing that into DA2 is fine but the others… not so much. One particular romance in DA2 strikes me as creepy and manipulative, but that’s another matter.
DA:O introduced bisexual squad options Leliana and Zevran, and DA:I introduced lesbian Sera, gay male Dorian and bisexual Iron Bull. These options all had ongoing content to build the romance. Sure, progressing the romance was gated behind completing storyline quests but not to the extent the Suvi relationship is gated in Andromeda. Indeed, storyline gating is a small part of the Dragon Age experience. While played down in DA2 with the Rivalry/Friendship mechanic, DA:O and DA:I both utilised approval meters. If characters had an overall negative view of your words and actions, then you weren’t getting anywhere with them. As approval increases, more ways to cement the relationship emerge. Non-squad romances (Josephine and Cullen) aren’t restricted by the approval mechanic, which is a quibble, but I don’t doubt that again it is to do with budgetary restrictions due to the extra lines of dialogue required.
Furthermore, Inquisition plays to the romantic aspect of these relationships. Romance Sera and you can trigger brief cutscenes on the roof or balcony whenever you’re in Skyhold. If you woo Josephine, you can take a stroll in the garden. Romances also have unique cutscenes/quests specific to that romance – Sera’s declaration of love, a duel for Josephine’s heart, Cullen’s gift, etc.
Fleshing It Out
In both DA2 and Inquisition, your party can make comments on your relationship with other party members while out in the world. In Inquisition, every party member has at least one exchange with your partner and this adds to the idea that the relationship exists outside the boundaries of dialogue wheels and cutscenes. It’s become an actual thing; a part of both your character and your partner. This leads to some heart-wrenching comments from your partner during the Tresspasser DLC where they openly express their concern for your well-being as the anchor begins killing you. In Andromeda, even with Ryder’s penchant for dying, there is no clear and believable reaction during a mission to Ryder’s situation even from a romanced Peebee.
The original Mass Effect games almost never managed what Dragon Age has done. Andromeda has improved to a small point, but again, it has pushed same-sex relationships onto mostly non-squad characters and consequently confined the relationship to a self-contained box. Gay male characters won’t get to hear their lover bantering with others out in the field because their lover will never be there. Only Liam’s movie night hints that the relationship exists, and is known, to others in your team. You’re also unable to trigger Inquisition-style scenes where you simply spend time with your partner.
Even back in Origins, you could trigger bedding cutscenes while at camp, as well as track down gifts for your loved ones. Mass Effect lacks these details, instead favouring small dialogue changes to standard scenes and portraying the romantic high point as sex.
We’ll Bang, Okay?
And let’s discuss the sex. Bioware has grown bolder over the years; sex between Sara and Peebee is explicit by video game standards, although I’m unsure as to just what Peebee is straddling on. The gay male scenes, however, are very tame in comparison. I can understand not going the whole hog and depicting a full sex act but fading to black as things get heated does come across as a slap in the face for people, especially when girl’s butts, boobs and the oh-so-evil nipple are displayed without a care.
You don’t have to show throbbing male members and penetration to portray satisfying sex with a committed partner. Why not show the intimacy and closeness of two people who have found each other amidst the chaos? There is no reason to shortchange gay male players in this area, only a requirement to be more imaginative as to how you depict the act. Television has managed it over the years, and we know from Dragon Age: Origins that Bioware can do it as well. I’m not saying Inquisition is better in this regard, though, as it refrained from graphic sex depictions, and other than a shot of Dorian’s naked bum, nudity was again reserved for females.
Gay men are shortchanged with possible “fling” options, as well. If we cast aside the mono-gender complications, female Shepard can have a quick encounter with the asari Consort. They can flirt with Kelly Chambers – with no effect on carrying through a romanced Liara save – and later watch the strange, slightly uncomfortable dance scene. In Andromeda, casual sex with Peebee is an option even while pursuing another romance, and Keri T’Vessa is offered as another fling option. For a gay Shepard or Scott Ryder… erm… not much casual fun to be had.
It’s the Details that Count!
In truth, the Bioware team behind Mass Effect could learn something from the team behind Dragon Age. Romances in the Dragon Age series are just better because they’re more romantic. Tiny little details like ten-second cutscenes kissing your lover on a balcony might seem extraneous, but they add something that goes beyond the Mass Effect-style sex-scene payoff. Relationship-exclusive quest content also adds something, especially to non-squad relationships like Josephine. Again, Mass Effect is found lacking. And for those who fancy some no-strings same-sex fun, female characters have more options which leads to imbalance. Most of all, in the next instalment, Mass Effect needs to start making same-sex romantic partners (especially human ones) squad members, so that someone pursuing a same-sex relationship in the game feels less short-changed.