Mass Effect Still Feels Confined By Its Heteronormativity

Mass Effect was ahead of its time in 2007 with its depiction of queer romance, although it was stunted by an execution that felt startlingly heteronormative. Gay relationships were confined to female characters, ensuring that the sexual encounters at the end of their arcs still held some form of appeal to straight players who simply wanted to watch two women get naked and embrace one another.

I romanced Liara T’Soni, who is monogendered, but her anatomy is the typical slender, attractive body you’d expect to see in the majority of women across the entire trilogy. Due to this, it felt like a lesbian relationship viewed through the eyes of heterosexual men, with the angles and execution for more intimate scenes leering on certain body parts like an awkwardly produced adult film. It feels woefully archaic today, especially when you take a step back and analyse the series from a wider perspective.

Ahead of Legendary Edition, Bioware made a vocal point to highlight that it would be removing gratuitous buttshots and other camera angles that focused on female bodies across the trilogy. The game would no longer awkwardly transition to Miranda’s behind as she divulged information about her traumatic past, while a number of other changes have also been made to ensure that Mass Effect feels more suited to the modern era – beyond juvenile choices such as those mentioned above, it remains one of the greatest RPG experiences ever conceived.

But even with these changes, the core identity of the series can’t escape its evident heteronormativity. It bleeds through the narrative and thematic foundations and across character designs that, even when tweaked, are still developed to incentivise the male gaze in a world that is often depicted as being ruled both by men and for men. FemShep not being given equal footing alongside her male counterpart until the third instalment is one such example, with a curated design providing her with a new level of agency just as the trilogy was coming to a close. To some, it was too little too late, with the remaster finally giving both genders a chance to shine in a way they simply couldn’t all those years ago.

Despite its inclusion of queer romance options in the first game, I feel they are viewed as being on lesser footing than their heterosexual companions. I wrote about love triangles in the first game recently, touching on how Liara and Kaidan confronted me after I had been flirting with each of them throughout the campaign. It was an accidental fumble on my part and I managed to resolve the situation with minimal conflict, but what really mattered were the words being said and exactly how they were expressed. Kaidan expressed disbelief in Shepard being attracted to other women, making queer relationships out to be lesser while also failing to recognise Liara’s identity as a monogendered alien.

My view on Kaidan changed after this. The man has a right to be hurt because of how I treated him, but acting as if Commander Shepard falling in love with another woman is a lesser form of companionship feels unwarranted, especially given that Kaidan himself is developed into a queer romance in the sequels. Romantic relationships between two men have often played second fiddle to lesbian relationships across all manner of media, because they are more susceptible to bigotry due to the fact that straight men can’t oogle them like they can two women, finding some form of pleasure despite claiming to morally disagree with it. It’s hypocrisy of the highest order, and Mass Effect’s hesitance to embrace such relationships in its early days is endemic to gaming culture at the time and how it perhaps wasn’t ready for such diversity. Even today it faces opposition, and Mass Effect’s dated heteronormativity only serves to highlight how far we’ve come in the medium since it first arrived on the scene.

Mass Effect could have avoided pitfalls into archetypal female character designs while also doing more with its queer relationships at the time of release, but it was dealt a hand and played the cards in a way that was befitting of the era. Andromeda built upon these foundations rather effectively even if the overall experience was heavily flawed, and I imagine Mass Effect 5 will continue that trend to create a space opera that is diverse, inclusive, and not afraid to explore such themes in a more comprehensive way. Gamers will accuse it of being overly political and in your face, even if the original trilogy is drenched in politics both human and alien that you must navigate whether you like it or not. Many of my memories of Mass Effect are clouded in a fog of nostalgia, so I’m excited to work my way through the trilogy to see what other surprises await, and I sincerely hope it abandons many of the tired tropes that hold the first entry back in 2021 more than they ever have before.

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