After Mass Effect: Andromeda was released late this March, thousands of players downloaded the fifth-most preordered game in the United States (as of March, 2017), and many more streamed into stores to buy physical copies.
“Bangdromeda” was speculated to fix a lot of the issues found in previous games, particularly the lack of gay romance options for the lead male protagonist, but as J Station X reported, players of the game were seriously disappointed.
But honestly? I think both fans and the team at BioWare are seriously missing the point.
Mass Effect: Andromeda Queer Representation Sets the Bar too Low
The original trilogy and Andromeda both treat romances as optional but important parts of the story BioWare tells. These games imagine a future with aliens and fantastical new technologies, and treat gay and lesbian characters as respectable, assimilated members of the society. What is more telling, however, is what this future fails to imagine.
For the incredible amount of detailed lore the game has, we have not yet seen humans or any of the alien species in game have seriously developed notions about gender. The first trans character in the entire series, Hainly Abrams, has an unquestionably problematic monolog.
Even the Asari, the genderless race, are coded feminine; they’re referred to with she/her pronouns, and they were designed with breasts and curvy hips. An overheard conversation in Andromeda clarifies that some Asari do prefer gender neutral pronouns, but this conversation only applies to retroactively address the issue not discussed in the past three games (and ten years).
Representations of sexuality have also been spotty at best. Limited to straight, gay, and bisexual, characters have not been overly fluid in their desires. From the charts I’ve put together, it seems obvious that BioWare is marketing for a particular demographic (see: straight men). When playing as a male protagonist, 75% of sexual partners are women.*
Some unused audio was discovered in Mass Effect 2 indicating Thane Krios as a potential partner for the male protagonist, but admittedly, we can only speculate as to why it was cut. Players choosing to play as a female protagonist in the original trilogy have a pretty even choice between men and women to court, though it doesn’t take much imagination to guess why there was three times more lesbian than gay content.
Even if it was the voices of LGBTQ+ fans that eventually persuaded BioWare to announce a patch, fixing the romance options and dialog post-release still makes queer players feel like an afterthought. What makes representation in video games so important, however, runs much deeper than these surface level concerns. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it is impossible for BioWare to truly fix these issues with a small amount of added content, as the game fundamentally avoids the political aspects of gender and sexuality in a deceptive way. Here’s why:
None of the quests or side quests require our protagonists to take a stand on LGBTQ+ issues. The idea that queer people are assimilated into the society of the future is deceptively utopian. By normalizing queerness, it fails to force players to confront real social issues people today are being killed over. As of the publishing of this article, at least ten trans people have been unlawfully killed this year alone — “representation” by having a transwoman deadname herself in Andromeda is almost worse than no representation at all.
Not to mention the fact that even explicitly queer and humanoid characters are all conventionally attractive, especially when we know internalized fem-phobia, ableism, and fatphobia are serious issues within the LGBTQ+ community. One might argue that physical fitness is an important prerequisite for inter-galactic travel (NASA has some pretty intense requirements), but if we can suspend disbelief for in-game components like mass effect relays, aliens, and reapers, we can certainly do the same to have a diverse set of body types in space.
Gay marriage was legalized in the United States in 2015 after a decision by the Supreme Court, but as you probably know, marriage is not the end of the struggle. LGBTQ+ people are incarcerated at twice the rate as the US general population. Lesbian and bisexual women are three times as likely to experience sexual assault than heterosexual women. A study from 2012 claimed that as many as 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ+. While we don’t necessarily expect video games to confront such colossal issues, depoliticizing all aspects of queerness in this fantastic future is dangerous. We must realize that demanding more gay relationships for one of our astronaut protagonists isn’t the same as asking for representation that matters.
Simply put, we are setting the bar too low. Unless there is a radical shift in the way the narrative of Mass Effect is developed and structured, we aren’t going to see the developers create content where queer liberation is a priority. It will only be continually neglected, as though it’s an inevitability — which is possibly the least realistic idea in the franchise.
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*Going with the codification of Asari as women, we then can say female protagonists romancing Asari characters counts as a lesbian romance subplot, and similarly, male protagonists and Asari romances as straight subplots.
**Contact J Station X for more information about the data used to generate the graphs