If I start out rhapsodizing about how much I love the Mass Effect game franchise from Bioware you’ll not want to continue reading this post. Yes, I lurves it. But that’s not why I’m here today. I’m here because I’m Commander Pax Shepard, and Mass Effect is my favorite game franchise in the galaxy. The internet loves Commander Shepard to this day and there is no shortage of squee out there for the female player character option. The #femshep tag gets a lot of use even now that the games are aging (though aging gloriously well, like Helen Mirren). Hell, I love Femshep as much as anyone. But I love Shepard beyond gender designation. This is important to me—and I’ll talk about why in just a bit.
Some background on my play style: I came to the Mass Effect party late as I have with gaming generally. I’m only now working my way through ME3 (mostly casual gamer). My playthroughs have been on normal difficulty, the 2nd two games as the Infiltrator class focusing on high damage and using my crew skills actively as I can. Every shot has to count in the bigger battles and it’s fun to hang back, scope, focus and watch my cooldowns so I can take stuff down hard and fast. While the 1st game is kind of clunky at times mechanics-wise (it is older, after all and those endless elevator rides are hilarious), the story kept me coming back and back and back.
I say all of the above to note that there are many aspects of this franchise that have earned my loyalty, including the game mechanics. I don’t care how awesome a story is, if I cannot get past horribad gameplay, I’m not going to bother. Mass Effect wins for me on many levels—epic scope, memorable characters, amazing soundtrack music, beautiful and strange worlds. The biggest win, though, is being Commander Shepard for three glorious games. I’ll say here: yes, I love so hard that I can play through saving not just Earth, but the entire galaxy as a woman. Being Pax Shepard created an immersion factor that has won out over any other gaming experience I’ve had.
A couple of months ago, I was having a spirited conversation about Bioware Games and Mass Effect in particular. A friend noted that it really ticked her off how in the games, Femshep was just DudeShep with boobs. She was too patently badass. There was only one body type to choose from in character creation (but that was true for the male option), and the female Shepard’s base game model was the same exact one as the male avatar’s, just with different voice acting. It upset her that the motions/gestures for the female model were the same as for the male—that they even mostly had the same lines of dialogue. I get that, but in the end, I told my friend THAT’S WHY I LOVE HER SO MUCH!!!!1!11
Sorry, ALLCAPS frenzy there but it’s so true. Pax Shepard (my Shepard) is much more believable to me because of the very reasons that bothered my friend. In this universe, it’s no big deal that Shepard is a woman. She is a soldier—like any other soldier. Like Ashley Williams, like Jacob and James. Like anyone else in who has ever served in the Alliance Military.
And that is important to me. To experience a world where someone is N7 material not in spite of the fact she is a woman or because of the fact that he is a man is so awesome. Yes, Femshep avatars have only one body type—and normally that would tick me off too. But N7 is the job code for the highest-ranking Alliance Military personnel. Shepard is spec-ops. I’d hope she’s in good shape if she’s out there protecting us from the Reapers. And while she still has boob-plate armor, it’s more believable to me than others—reasonable proportions, covering her in believable ways. She looks like a special forces soldier in a military sci-fi game. And I love it. As far as other cosmetic concerns go, players can customize Shepard’s features extensively. I’ve seen such a diverse array of galaxy-saviors in playing and reading about this game that it warms my heart.
The fact that the primary distinguishing factor between Femshep and Dudeshep is voice acting can’t be overlooked. The character models may shrug or swagger or shoot or lean in all the same ways, but at no point in the game did I ever doubt I was anything but Commander Pax Shepard, Alliance Military, and oh right, a woman. Jennifer Hale, the goddess of a voice actor who gives Commander Shepard her personality in the most believable and at times, heartbreaking way is the biggest draw for me. From what I can tell, Mark Meer does a wonderful job with the male Shepard voice acting, but since I heard Hale’s voice (and she’s in SO many other games!), the deal was done. Femshep it was, and I have not regretted my choice once.
All of this is to say—I didn’t want it to be a big deal that my female Shepard is saving everyone’s butts time and time again. I didn’t want her gender to define her—and in my playthrough of the game, that held. The choices I made (lots and lots of Paragon points but Renegade when it counted), the romance options I chose (a whole other story of Bioware win for another post), and ultimately my gaming style were not “N7 For Her” choices—they were the choices of a soldier doing what she needed to keep her world safe. That is the future I am dreaming of and working towards. Where battles are won not because of or in spite of my gender or race, but because of the choices I make as a member of humanity. And Mass Effect, as a franchise, gives me a beautifully believable glimpse of this world.
In the immortal words of Commander Shepard, “I should go.”