BioWare's not one to shy away from intimacy in their games, even when it's caused controversy.
Mass Effect 2 is no different, allowing player-characters, both male and female, to romance members of their squad. Playing as a female protagonist, my Commander Shepard had the option to woo a few of the men on the team, as well as as a mono-gendered (yet decidedly feminine-shaped) blue alien Asari.*
However, through the course of the game my Shepard had eyes for only one character, the charming, likable female alien, Tali'Zorah. No matter how hard I tried — believe me, I tried — my lady Shepard could not seduce her.
While I was at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last month, I spoke with Mass Effect 2 project lead Casey Hudson and BioWare head honchos Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka (in separate interviews) about restricting the intimacy of certain characters in the game. If the game's about choice, then why can't I pick the mate I want?
Me: Tali is my favorite character. But my Shepard is female and totally in love with her. Why can't my character engage in a romance with her? Why not have the option to have homosexual relations?
Casey Hudson: Everything new that we add still requires extra content. Some people might argue in a case like that you could just have the same kinds of scenes that just work with different characters. But we wouldn't really want to have it that way. You'd want to take a proper approach to designing those scenes, otherwise you'd see the same scene. So we kind of pulled back and looked at where we had to draw the line in terms of how much content we make. How much should we support? We actually added a lot more romance options because we have new characters and multiple options already in the romances. So we kind of pulled back and said, "Well, the love interest is part of the story and it helps you care about the characters in a different way." We still view it as... if you're picturing a PG-13 action movie. That's how we're trying to design it. So that's why the love interest is relatively light. ... That's another thing we did better than we did before. We really lock you into character. Tali is really interesting because the whole idea of her character and what she's concerned about and her experience and age — we kind of factor all those things, and we designed the love interests really around the particular characters because they're all quite different. So her (love scene) is a little more innocent and fun.
Me: (Same question.)
Ray Muzyka: In all of BioWare's games to-date, we've enabled a lot of choice. So you look at games going back to Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate 2, Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age, of course... In future games we are going to enable more choice as well. That choice can come as a lot of things, it includes relationships, it includes having an impact on world events, among other things. It's an important part of our games.
Sometimes, in some of our games, we are going to have a defined character with a more defined view. Almost like a third-person narrative — where Mass Effect is more in that vein, Dragon Age isn't in that vein; you could see the differences between the two. It's just part of the design and the choices made for each game. It doesn't mean that we've in anyway changed our philosophy toward enabling choice. We love giving players choice, and we are going to continue to enable that for future games. That's a commitment for some of our franchises. For some other franchises we've had more defined characters and sort of approaches to things, and they've had a more defined personality and a more defined approach to the way they've proceed through the game and the world.
Some game franchises are going to be slightly different but that's part of our effort to diversify the portfolio and enable some franchises to have some more choice and some of them are around defining a more specific character, sort of a first-person versus third-person kind of narrative, but we know how important it is to our players to have that choice and we are going to continue to support that. We believe in diversity and we believe in enabling choices for our fans, it's important to us.
I got the PR spin, for sure. Though perhaps for a big franchise like Mass Effect, which is meant to appeal to the largest audience possible, homosexuality was considered to be too controversial for the general public (see the backlash against the female Shepard-Liara scene in the first game). Hudson did say, "We still view it as... if you're picturing a PG-13 action movie." So would including homosexuality make it "rated R"? Meanwhile, Muzyka suggested that different franchises offer different choices depending on the definition of the character, and for Mass Effect 2, the option of homosexuality wasn't one the developers decided to offer to players.
What do you think? Do you think that BioWare played it safe this time by leaving out the option for homosexual relations? Did you feel you missed something when you didn't have the option to romance same-sex counterparts?
*I'm not counting the Asari. Try having sex with Morinth and see what happens.
Reprinted with permission from Tracey John.
Tracey John has written about video games for MTV Multiplayer, Wired, Time, Massively and ToyFare, and is currently an editor at UGO Entertainment.