In the video game adventures of Commander Shepard, being a gay man was neither a matter of biology nor choice.
It was a matter of programming. And the programming of Shepard's first video game, 2007's Mass Effect, made being gay impossible.
And then things changed. The programming changed. You can play Shepard as if he is a gay man in next month's Mass Effect 3.
Why? The people who make the game wouldn't say it's because they are advocates. Not quite. They have another reason.
"We got feedback from players that they wanted more choice," Ray Muzyka co-founder of Mass Effect studio BioWare told me during a recent interview. "We respond to that feedback and try to make our games better based on what our players are asking for."
Muzyka and his fellow BioWare founder Greg Zeschuk do not come off as activists or overtly progressive individuals. The games from their company, however, have become flashpoints for discussion about sex, gender and sexual orientation. Their Mass Effect and Dragon Age games, flagship titles from mega-publisher EA, are some of the only video game blockbusters that include straight or gay romance. But both men, a pair of physicians-turned-video-game hitmakers, discuss what outsiders may view as an overtly-liberal or progressive agenda as, well, more of a customer-service project or architectural choice.
"It's surprising that people think it's that big a deal," Zeschuk said. "If you're creating this kind of content, it's very natural to provide all the options. So that's always kind of funny."
The kind of content BioWare makes is role-playing games. They've been doing this for over a decade and they've routinely given players choice: about what weapons to wield, what fighting style to pick, what gender to be, what color of skin to have and, gradually, which kind of sexual orientation they might be.
Outside the video game world, of course, the very idea of choosing one's gender or sexual orientation is controversial. Gay and transgender rights' activists have long argued that what some see as choice is really born identity. Not in video games. In video games, you can pick… but only if they let you. Only if the people who make video games who are essentially the gods of their worlds, let something be possible.
In Mass Effect 1 you could be straight. Or, you could sleep with a blue-skinned alien named Liara who was technically mono-gendered but appeared to be the kind of blue-skinned alien that would have been a lover to Captain Kirk on that spiritual predecessor to Mass Effect's multi-cultural sci-fi drama, Star Trek.
By Mass Effect 2, you could be gay, but only if you were female, a step either toward more progressive depictions of sexuality and/or one that stopped at the threshold of what a straight male player might find titillating.
In Mass Effect 3, out in early March, players who play as a male Commander Shepard can finally sleep with a male character. This follows on the enabling of straight, female-female and male-male romance options in BioWare's recent Dragon Age series. (And, before that, in their Jade Empire game.) And it poses the question of whether the BioWare doctors must at some point feel that they are making a political statement with their games. After all, we live in a time when each State in the Union's vote on allowing or disallowing gay marriage is itself a political statement.
Here we have games whose god-like designers are actually implementing, at a more fundamental level, the ability for a gay identity to even exist in their world. And they're saying, finally, yes it can. Political statement?
"We're neutral," Muzya says. " It's the player's choice. It's a role-playing game."
"Yeah," Zeschuck followed, "It's a choice based on preferences."
"We let players take on a role and really immerse themselves on how they feel they want to be playing the game," said Muzyka. "Be true to that. Be true to your ideal of a game of choice."
"If there's a political bent to it, it's very Libertarian," Zeshuck said. "It's like… yeah, we make the choices available. You decide what you want to do. We're not pushing any particular direction with most of our stuff."
Sex and sexual orientation are not the same thing, and it's really the former that has earned the M-rated Mass Effect some of its more notorious press. Specifically, the original game was slammed on Fox News for supposedly being nothing more than sci-fi pornography, despite showing little more flesh than an edgier prime time network drama. That experience, more than any blowback regarding sexual orientation, seems to irk the doctors and compels them to reassure people that nothing their games have is all that outrageous.
"It's all very appropriate," Muzyka says of the sex in the series. "It's all very well-integrated. It's not surfaced in a way that you should go this way or that way."
"There's something about the tonality and how we present it," Zeschuk added. "We don't kind of snicker and make fun of it. It's like a serious part of a serious game. The game itself obviously has humorous elements, but the actual relationships are dealt with in a mature and very adult way."
Every time a feature is added to a game, it requires more work. That means that it is literally more laborious to create a virtual world that lets you be male or female. It's more work to let you sleep with one character, and even more work to let you fall for another. The economical game designer might skip a lot of this stuff, and even BioWare can feel that temptation, one Muzyka says, they've resisted.
"A few years ago there was a debate among the team members that, yeah there's more of an expectation to enable more content so, essentially, our games have to be bigger to enable these choices to occur," Muzyka said. "You have to have different paths. You have to have different playthroughs. It actually adds up. It's more expensive to do that." (In this context, "expensive" refers to developer effort, not cost to the players. The price of a game that lets you be gay or straight doesn't go up!)
The corners BioWare may have considered to cut are not being cut. Hence, among other things, a Commander Shepard who now might be a gay man.
"We are doing it as a service to our fans, because we think it's part of the expectation of a role-playing game," Muzyka said. "It's part of the expectation of a BioWare game because of the way our games have been for the last couple decades. We've had that kind of choice going way back to Baldur's Gate back in the 90's. It's been refined. We think it's a good thing to offer players. Choice is always a nice thing, when it works. When it's high-quality."
BioWare today is, alongside Rockstar and a handful of other big-name game studios, an outlier. Most games, as violent as they are, remain sexless and void of talk or depiction of any sexual identity other than straight. The doctors know that puts them on the edge.
"I would say, our entire career, one of the frustrations has been not just in this but in all kinds of areas we've been held to a really high standard," Zeschuk said. "It's always, ‘we can totally innovate everything. We can do this. We can do that.'
"Can't we just make a game and you'll say whether it's good or not? Why do we have to be the one carrying all of this weight?
"On the other hand, we created that ourselves by stepping forward and saying this is what we're going to do."
And they're doing it, with what appears to be a muted agenda and a total lack of retreat.