A few words on sex in Mass Effect

Hey, you! There’s a new podcast out there by the Game Taco guys and I’d like you – yes, you! – to listen to it! They were kind enough to invite me onto the show a second time, due to all of us having been involved in Melbourne’s 48-hour game jam. Myself, I hovered at the shoulders of game developers by day, wrote letters about my observations to Kotaku’s Mark and Tracey by night, and helped judge the games at the end of the whole thing. Game Taco’s Smoo and Mr Ak did some hovering of their own, and Anna was the only one actually brave enough to participate as a developer.

So last week, we all gathered to discuss our experiences; forward the podcast to an hour in if you’re interested in just game jammery. Besides that, we also discussed Dragon Age’s assimilation of Felicia Day, hidden object games, a cat MMO (!), and sex in Bioware games. I had massive fun recording this podcast, so yeah, have a listen.

And under this cut, just some additional thoughts on the handling of sex in Mass Effect.

**

“I don’t agree with them putting sex mechanics in the game.”

This is an actual quote, as uttered by me, on the above podcast. It’s a topic we touched on in the podcast twice! I’ve been thinking about it since, my stance on the portrayal of sexual relationships in games.

Wait, I lie. I’d been thinking about it long before that, but a few lines in the podcast made me realise why I’ve been so hesitant to talk about it at length.

Firstly, it must be said: I’m a writer, not a speaker. I feel generally clumsy in speech, even when around people I’m comfortable with. I don’t usually make a habit of pointing out my flaws, but it’s what I think happened  on the podcast; I didn’t express my concerns about sex in games very well at all, leading to some confusion and the Taco team good-naturedly suggesting that I wasn’t making any sense.

This is all by no means a criticism of the Game Taco crew, whose ideas and opinions I hugely respect; I’m actually very pleased they felt they could challenge me the way they did. But it’s the sort of belief a lot of people seem to think I have when it comes to discussing sex in games – that because I disliked it in the Mass Effect series, I must be some kind of repressed, sex-hating loon that becomes a hypocrite by even just being curious about the subject.

I mean, yes, I am sick of Bioware’s repeated method of dumping sex into their games for no real reason. Back when I was playing Mass Effect for the first time, people didn’t ask me anything about my other choices or the game itself, just which character I had romanced. (Kaiden, if you’re wondering, and not because I found him more attractive than the other two. The decision was arbitrary; all were pretty damn yawnsome.) Judging by the endless number of Twitter conversations about Dragon Age that I am privy to, that series’ relationships are also apparently pretty thrilling to some. Having never played Dragon Age, I can probably tell you more about its romantic opportunities than everything else in the entire game combined.

I always wondered why gamers find laughable implementations of sex in their games so memorable. The romances, at least in Mass Effect, were nothing like their real-life counterparts. It felt like a cheap way of inserting some “depth” into a video game. It felt superficial, and I’d feel kind of silly getting flustered over a pixel-male anyway, really. I mean, look at the above picture. Is this really an adult treatment of sex? Silent Hill 2 showed us the psychology and the ugliness of sex; New Vegas’ sex options only add to its characters’ immensely sad stories.

Do the romances of Mass Effect add anything other than something to giggle about like a pubescent teen?

So, I told Game Taco, I was “sick of sex in games”.

Later, when Anna mentioned Alistair of Dragon Age: Origins, I agreed that he would most likely have been the character I would’ve pursued too, had I persisted with the game longer than the two hours I’ve played.

At this point I remember Mark and Smoo kind of frowning and grinning at the same time, Smoo halting conversation to ask, But wait. Didn’t you just say…?

Well, yes. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to avoid sex in games.

Bioware, I feel, has done an embarrassing job of implementing romance in Mass Effect, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to steer clear of every sex scene in every other game I play thereafter. Dragon Age, for all I know, might actually handle the topic quite well; how am I to know it if I simply dodge its sex options? If I’m honest, I’m actually really drawn to games and with sexual themes that look as if they may be portrayed in a mature manner. I was intrigued by Dragon Age’s Alistair as, during my short playthrough of the game, he was the one character whose humour and kindness stood out in the face of my dwarf’s tragic story. I’m really not so narrow-minded. And anyway, what sort of game critic would I be if I didn’t know what I was criticising, if I wasn’t looking for new opportunities for a mostly immature subject to enlighten or challenge me?

I scrambled my words a bit on the podcast.

I don’t disagree with the use of sex mechanics in a game.

What I find more and more intolerable, I’m coming to realise, is gratuity. If I can play a game to its end, sex-free, without it impacting the greater story at all – as is the case in the Mass Effect series, to which sex only adds a slight wash of colour – then it’s not needed. Simple. Sex is inserted into a game like Mass Effect for the sake of making the story seem “profound”, making the game look “mature”. It has the opposite effect in the way that it triggers adolescent, dreamy sighs of bedding the dying assassin Thane, or Butthead-style heh heh-ing about taking the protective gear – and the virginity – of the vulnerable and dishearteningly young Tali. None of it feels particularly adult or even necessary to me.

I tire of gratuity, but I definitely don’t hate sex in my gaming. I’m quite fascinated by the way games treat the subject. So even if a game includes what I find to be a tacked-on “romance”, I’m still going to play it. I’m playing Katawa Shoujo currently and though I’m told you can turn off the sex scenes, why would anyone – even I – want to? The developers put them in there for a reason, and I like to figure out why. And even if I do end up disappointed by yet another useless romance, I’ll have learned as much from it as any game romance done well, if not more so.

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13 thoughts on “A few words on sex in Mass Effect

  1. For the most part I agree; Mass Effect in particular has always been fairly clumsy in its handling of sex. Rather than letting relationships evolve naturally and have sex occur when there’s an appropriate time, they all just decide “welp, we’re about to go risk our lives, time for sex!” and then immediately afterwards proceed on their mission. It’s as if these sexual encounters are treated as a goal, rather than just being a natural component of an evolving relationship and is part of what robs them of any real meaning. That said, Liara in Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC does deserve a mention, as I feel that’s where Bioware did some of its best work, where the relationship between the characters doesn’t feel so forced, and sex when it does happen actually feels more natural.

    On that note, I wonder if you’ve played The Witcher 2 at all? It does a lot right when it comes to sex and the surrounding relationships. It’s still not perfect by any means, but it’s certainly worth taking a look if you haven’t already.

    • I don’t remember anything hugely romantic going on in the Shadow Broker DLC – someone tells me it only happens if you romanced Liara in ME1? That I still had fun with it makes me wonder what the romance adds.

      I have not played the Witcher series. Maybe in a few years’ time, when I’ve reduced my to-play list a little.

      • LOTSB was probably the best part of the game, with or without the romance. In narrative terms the Liara romance in game 1 is Liara pursuing Shep. In LOTSB, it’s the other way around — convincing Liara it meant more to Shep than just a fling and that time hasn’t changed that.

        I confess, I tend to think of the sex as secondary to the romance/emotions. If it’s primary, then it becomes rather meaningless. In DA, the ability to kiss your romance partner (which they didn’t all get) was much more touching than the pathetic sex scenes.

  2. Makes sense to me. Interesting that you should pick out Thane and Tali, though, as I found both of their romance paths to be very touching rather than off-putting. Both shed more light on their characters. Tali’s inexperienced…what’s the new term again…adorkability?…when pursuing romance endeared her to me even more, and Thane’s terror at his impending mortality, which he was only willing to share with someone he was very close with, is a storyline that still resonates with me today.

    Conversely, Garrus and Miranda’s attitude of casual sex, while fine and appropriate for both characters, didn’t really have much impact with me.

    Hmm. As I write this I’m realizing that it’s kind of interesting how you as Shepard end up being forced into whatever depth of romance the partner you’re pursuing is interested in. Kind of like real life, I guess, except that in real life you have the chance for both partners to communicate what they’re looking for in a relationship. In ME, only the other partner gets to set out the terms. And I think I’ve officially gone waaaay too far in this line of thought and need to remind myself that it’s just a game and one can only expect so much from the game devs.

    • I actually “pursued” Thane (if you could call it that, as opposed to just selecting from a small handful of options) in my ME2 playthrough. A lot has already been said by others about how profound it is to initiate a relationship with a dying man and so on, and I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy his character, but I think my original point still stands – the sex happens, and the game goes on with no real consequence to the action. The romance loses meaning in its lack of grounding within the story; it feels like a useless extra limb.

      Tali as a romanceable character, however, just strikes me as a bit creepy. She’s a vessel for wish fulfilment, and I don’t really wish to discuss it further here because I’d rather keep the crudeness of it out of my blog.

      • That’s a good point. For the characters where the sexual relationship goes beyond the casual, the fact that there’s not much more growth in the relationship once you’ve “achieved” (literally in this case…hrm…) bedding them does ring hollow.

        Sounds like Tali is a can of worms (ew, bad metaphor) so I’ll just back away slowly from that one.

        • Yeah… and I’m rather passionate about this because I do love Mass Effect and its story, and the whole romance/sex thing just feels incredibly disjointed. I think some of those characters’ stories could’ve been pretty mindblowing had the relationship evolved as a part of the plot.

  3. I think there’s a point there. What I would note is that in most cases relationships with the NPCs don’t have significant consequences to the game, whether sex is involved or not. The main through-line of the story doesn’t change, just the fates of a few characters (ie. Wrex in ME1).

    Eh, as a rule I romanced Liara in ME1 or stayed celibate (I completed 3 playthroughs, and many partials, ME1 might be my favorite game), and in ME2 I romanced no one (except Liara once LOTSB came out.) None of them really felt “right” to me.

    The problem of making sex and/or romance (they don’t have to be the same thing) integral to a game is the dreaded “but so many people won’t see this content” for those who don’t want to romance.

    As for the leering fanboys, certainly they exist, but I don’t believe in letting their behaviour effect my experience of any part of a game.

  4. Oh, hey. Just stumbled across this, and I wanted to say that I thought your opinion came through pretty well in the podcast. I can’t remember if I cut my mention of it in the edit, but this is the article I though described Liara pretty well: http://www.gamesetwatch.com/2007/12/column_save_the_robot_why_i_ha.php (Yeah, I should really try and remember the HTML code for linking)

    Also, while there both DA and Mass Effect are Bioware games (and therefore try and build attractive archetypes and then individualise them, rather than engage in more complex character building), I do think DA does sex a lot better than Mass Effect, as there’s much more thematic meaning and play in the ways the romances can structure. If you ever get around to finishing DA I’d be interested in reading (or hearing) your thoughts on it.

    And thanks again for coming on the podcast, we had a ball.

    (I wish there was, like, a lower-case exclamation mark for that last sentence. A full stop is a little too unenthusiastic, a normal exclamation mark a bit too giddy.)

  5. Hmm, maybe it was just the decision to romance Leliana, but I felt the romace/sex in Dragon Age was far worse then it was in Mass Effect. It´s been a while though, so maybe I just don´t remember the details.
    Anyway, I like that there´s romances in ME but they do lack in impact.
    What really bothered me most with them though is how easy they are. It takes all but five minutes and you know exactly who´s an option and who isn´t, then you pick who you want and talk to them until the sex scene triggers. It should be hard to even get them to like you. This way it felt a little like I was paying a virtual prostitute by sacrificing time instead of money.
    But still, just having a love story, as obvious, predictable and unrealistic it may be, is still a nice addition in my book. Simply because they´re so rare in gaming. I know I´m just the starving guy treating a bone like a steak here, but well…

  6. Pingback: The Problem with ‘Gaming Journalists’ « Anchorman Mazda's Blog

  7. I want to say I found this blog thanks to Kotaku, and that I enjoy reading Ms Williams work. The reason for this late comment is that I am reading back a reasonable amount of time to find my footing in the continuing saga of this Alive Tiny World.

    I agree that Mass Effect dropped the ball on Sex in the game. I think the main problem is that Sex is all it is.. In Mass Effect 3, I ended up romancing my secretary/computer genius (I forget her name). You sleep with her that once and you don’t have another discussion about the two of you the rest of the game. There is one bonus scene where your together in bed as Shep has a nightmare. (I don’t think this is a major spoiler for anyone) and that’s the end of it as far as I know, but I haven’t finished ME3 as of yet.

    I would have like to see in any of the Mass Effect games to have the characters evolve the relationship as a part of the story. Maybe she’s afraid that Shep is not going to come back from one of the many dangerous missions. Maybe she’s jealous of the mission time Shep spends with James or Kaiden (I play FemShep even though I’m male… don’t judge). Maybe we can get the same raw powerful emotion that we got out of the Ashley or Kaiden love letters that were dramatized pre-release of Mass Effect 3.

    I play games for the story first, game play second. I’ve played games with terrible game play because I wanted to see how the story would play out. I loved Heavy Rain because of the story (even if it does have some glaring plot holes). I think that Sex can be a mature and serious counterpoint in a video game’s story, just as it can be for a movie. But I would implore developers to examine the story and determine if the sex is appropriate for the story, necessary for the story. Don’t put sex in just because you can, this isn’t the 80’s and ticket sales aren’t driven by obligatory frontal nudity scenes.

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