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Intimate Space: The State of Queerness in Mass Effect

How BioWare's science fiction story slowly but surely saw an inclusive future.

In Mass Effect’s vision of the far-flung future, humanity has integrated into a galactic society. Long gone are the otherings and dissension of modern-day Earth, as humans take their place in the stars beyond. At least, that’s the future it posits on the surface. In practice? Mass Effect is an unambiguously heteronormative franchise, especially with its first two games. While developer BioWare painted an idyllic portrait of humanity freed of its petty squabbles, the active exclusion of queer characters and identity shouted over the series’ silent status quo.

Mass Effect’s relationship to queerness has been messy, to say the least. To much of the general public, their image of BioWare’s RPG series is largely tied to screenshots shown of a female Commander Shepard and Liara T’Soni sex scene plastered over a Fox News segment back in 2008. The outcry against the misrepresentative story was the beginning of the series’ approach to romance, sex, and identity becoming a pillar of the conversations surrounding it. 

Mass Effect’s romance with Liara T’Soni skyrocketed the series into the mainstream eye, for good and ill.

The franchise is generally considered inclusive, but it took time to get there. In Mass Effect, a prominent same-sex romance between female characters is possible, and that relationship carries across the trilogy. However, Mass Effect 2 features no new “official” queer romances, only a casual fling between Shepard and her secretary. Mass Effect 3 finally shows the series catching up with its reputation as a diverse and inclusive franchise, adding a new sapphic relationship and two romantic paths for queer men, which were the only two in the franchise

Presumably, Mass Effect: Andromeda would have taken the lessons learned from a trilogy finding its footing and allowing queer sexualities to exist alongside straight ones and doubled down. And it did, eventually. The fourth game launched with close to equal romances for any pairing a player might want for protagonist Pathfinder Ryder — except for gay men, who had to fight their way to an equal shake of things. Changes and additions would likely not have come had it not been for fans advocating for representation, and those fights have led to Mass Effect becoming a more inclusive franchise, even if it has tripped in myriad ways to reach that point.

Gay men had to wait three games to finally have a shot at love in Mass Effect 3.

The inconsistency has made queer fans’ relationship to Mass Effect more complicated than it’s ever needed to be. Much of this is due to the friction between the game’s marketing, which sold that the series ostensibly allows players to customize a character who serves as their stand-in within the universe, and BioWare leaders who were making public statements that Shepard wasn’t envisioned as gay. BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka explained to IGN that the developers made these decisions because the studio views Shepard as a “pre-defined” character rather than a self-insert for players to craft freely. 

More recently, with the release of the 2021 Legendary Edition remasters, this notion seems to be dropped almost entirely. The Commander’s face and body are obscured in the game’s promotional art, a distinct change from previous marketing rollouts that featured male Shepard prominently. The company also allowed fans to customize the art to their liking to fit their relationship with the universe and the character at its center. It’s a shame it took the studio over a decade to reach that understanding — especially because the franchise has had a profound effect on some queer players gaining a better grasp of their own identities.

Queer spaces for queers in space

Expressing your sexuality through romance is one thing, but what does Mass Effect actually capture about queer life? That, too, gets complicated, as the series took three games to acknowledge queerness outright. Mass Effect exists over a century into the future, but in each game, you don’t see something that really equates to a “queer space.” 

Cornelia Cartwright, a fan who describes herself as genderfluid transfeminine, says the distance the series puts between queer identity and queer culture has been a sticking point for her.

Mass Effect: Andromeda’s queer crew is apparently close, but only off-screen.

“As a queer person, my queer identity has a lot to do with community, and Mass Effect depicts queer characters as islands,” she says. “This is not an original thought, but the ‘token gay’ [trope] is unrealistic because queers flock together. The great pain of being closeted is how it deprives you of community. Being out means that most of your community will be other queer people.”

Mass Effect: Andromeda has only brief hints of queer characters coming together, as Gil Brodie, the Tempest’s chief engineer and a gay man, makes a pointed comment that he is good friends with the other queer people on the ship: Vetra Nyx and Suvi Anwar, a queer Turian and a lesbian human respectively. However, that doesn’t manifest in anything beyond banter, and all three characters’ stories don’t have any meaningful overlap.

But even if queer spaces don’t explicitly exist in Mass Effect, the series still touches on queer experiences. Unfortunately, its attempts have been fraught. In Andromeda, Gil is a gay man part of a colonizing initiative meant to find a new home for humanity. Questions of repopulation come up as a result. Gil, who is in the midst of an identity crisis, wonders aloud about the prospect of being a father, a gay man, and what his place in the initiative is beyond his career as an engineer. As Gil ponders these questions, a female friend named Jill asks him to platonically co-parent a child with her to aid the initiative’s repopulation efforts. 

Gil’s story in Mass Effect: Andromeda explores queer parenting and surrogacy, but the conclusion leaves much to be desired.

If you’re playing as a male Pathfinder Ryder and enter a relationship with Gil, however, the subplot navigates their relationship as possible fathers to a child via a surrogate. Ultimately, the decision revolving around parenthood is taken from Gil and handed to Jill. Instead of being a story of two men choosing to find stability and family within the Andromeda galaxy, Gil’s story shifts to a gay man being pressured into reproducing because the success of the initiative demands it. What at first seems to be an interesting futuristic take on queer parenting and surrogacy ends up swerving into the most heteronormative version of itself, placing all his value on his ability to reproduce while sweeping his own internal struggles about whether or not he wants to under the rug.

While Gil is already sure of his identity, Mass Effect 2 has an instance of a character coming to grips with what it means to be attracted to aliens — specifically alien women. 

Nef, who appears in party member Samara’s loyalty mission, is a young girl on the Omega space station who fell victim to Morinth, an Ardat-Yakshi. These Asari have a genetic condition that causes their minds to overpower anyone they telepathically link to, which is a key part of their mating. The mission investigates Nef’s death, and her journal entries imply her attraction to Morinth was the beginning of her own self-discovery. This came under fire as a “bury your gays” trope, given that it was one of the few instances of queer relationships in the game.

Brian Kindregan, a senior writer on Mass Effect 2 who wrote the mission and Samara’s arc, tells Fanbyte that the scene was meant to capture the anxiety of being young and learning about yourself. This initially made him resistant to some of its criticism.

In Mass Effect 2, the player investigates the death of a girl named Nef who was murdered in the midst of her own self-discovery.

“There were some people who were criticizing that, and I thought, at the time, that it was unfair,” Kindregan says. “I was like ‘well, look, when you’re a teenager and you have lots of feelings and you’re trying new things, you’re always going to be confused.’ Anything you think will make you stand out is gonna be a source of anxiety.”

Kindregan eventually grew to appreciate that Nef’s circumstances in a microcosm might have felt true to the characters involved, but existing within the framework of a franchise that wasn’t including many queer experiences could make all the difference in perception.

“Over the years as I’ve thought about it, I thought maybe the human/alien thing would’ve been fine,” he says. “But in a way, even if it’s motivated by who the character is, I think making an issue of something or bringing up something, even if you, the writer, don’t share it but you think the character does, in a universe where it’s not dealt with much immediately does paint it in a different way. I think it was the context around the line that I didn’t think of at the time, and over time, have come to realize.”

Sexuality is only one side of the queer spectrum. When it comes to gender identity, the series has only really approached this once in Mass Effect: Andromeda, and the result was met with immediate criticism at the game’s launch. On the planet Eos, Ryder can meet a woman named Hainly Abrams, who would tell the player she’s a trans woman, including telling them her pre-transition name, right after meeting. 

A few weeks after Andromeda launched, BioWare released a statement on the controversy, claiming the implementation of Hainly’s identity was, “not included in a caring or thoughtful way.” A patch was then released, modifying the order of the character’s dialogue so she would only reveal her previous name after the player completed her questline. 

Polygon criticized that Hainly told Ryder her previous name immediately without provocation, saying it made “little sense” for her to divulge this information to a relative stranger, especially since she expresses discomfort with the name in the same conversation.

Conversely, Stacey Henley, a transgender woman and features editor at TheGamer, tells Fanbyte she had conflicting feelings on the scene.

Hainly Abrams is the first explicit transgender character in the Mass Effect series.

“BioWare is attempting swings when no one else is,” Henley says. “With time to reflect on it, it shows you the value of consultation. I think I’m happy that BioWare is the type of company that is prepared to raise these issues and attempt to tackle them. I think it was a bit of a misfire in terms of how it was written because it felt like it was written by people who hadn’t met a trans person before who were saying, ‘wow, in space, anything can happen,’ as opposed to, ‘we’re trying to show different sides of humanity, and we have a huge cast of characters.’ And that’s a great way to try and make sure everybody has someone they can see themselves in.” 

Much of Mass Effect’s integration of queer identity is explicitly through romance rather than allowing characters to be queer outside of that. In the first two games, being a gay man is exclusively expressed by turning down women, but it’s all internalized rather than something the game recognizes. Brendan Routh, a fan of the series and a bisexual man, points out that, even as the series has made steps to allow players to play queer characters, Mass Effect’s acknowledgment of queer identity has often been reactionary to romantic entanglement.

“I think even games that let you be queer have this agnostic tendency towards your [player character]’s sexuality, and you can’t really confirm it outside of engaging in romance options,” Routh says. “I would love if more games simply included dialogue options where you can express an interest in a certain gender or even just flat-out say ‘I’m gay/bi/pan/etc.,’ especially in turning down opposite-gender romances.”

Steve Cortez gives Shepard a chance to express his identity as a gay man, even if they’re just friends.

In Mass Effect, learning about a character’s sexual identity often requires the player to first initiate a romance. But there’s a rare occurrence in Mass Effect 3 where that is refreshingly not the case.

In one scene, Commander Shepard and shuttle pilot Steve Cortez meet in a club. Steve asks about Shepard’s relationship history, and Shepard can say he hasn’t met the right woman, or he can say he hasn’t met the right man. While this can lead to a possible romance between them, the conversation can also end with the two dancing platonically, without even touching the subject of a romantic relationship. It’s one of the only moments where a player can explicitly speak their identity as a gay man into the text, but its binary nature complicates things if you’re playing a bisexual or pansexual character.

It does, however, capture a moment common for queer people navigating spaces that aren’t explicitly queer. Steve is trying to determine whether or not Shepard is interested in him because the Commander hasn’t been able to say it explicitly. For so long, Mass Effect has, by design, touched on such few queer experiences. Something as small as watching a gay man navigate whether he’s found queer camaraderie, or possibly more, stands out as a microcosm of the queer experience in a series that has done everything in its power to hide it.

“…even though we’re both women?”

While the implementation of queer identities hasn’t led Mass Effect to integrate much of queer culture, by the time Mass Effect 3 came around, there were at least a few relationships where queer players could express their sexuality. To most of their credit, these are some of the series’ better love stories in terms of content, payoff, and depth.

The Liara romance gets mixed up in some of Mass Effect’s early erasure of queer identity.

There’s a lot of baggage to unpack around Liara T’Soni, who is part of an alien species called the Asari. This monogendered race greatly resembles human women and, for the trilogy, at least, uses feminine pronouns. 

The series attempts to confront that in Mass Effect: Andromeda, in a scene where the player passes by an Asari and an Angaran character discussing pronoun usage within Asari culture. The Asari says the gender binary of other species isn’t relevant to them, and some opt to use male pronouns or even gender-neutral ones. Mass Effect 3 began to entertain this, as Shepard can meet Liara’s “father,” Matriarch Aethyta. Despite using feminine pronouns, she asserts that she is Liara’s “father,” as she wasn’t the one who gave birth to her daughter. Shepard can point out that if she were human, both parents would be called “mother,” to which Aethyta flatly responds, “well, I’m not human, am I?”

The fluidity of Asari gender identity present in Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda is forward-thinking compared to what it had to crawl through to get there, as the species’ presentation is rife with feminine stereotypes. It also allowed BioWare to attempt to write Liara’s romance off as not queer because Asari are monogendered. Shepard, if female, can respond to Liara’s advances in the first game by questioning her desire for what appears to be, by human standards, a sapphic relationship. 

But BioWare insisted that, despite Shepard being in a relationship with Liara, the Commander was still a “defined” heterosexual character. It presented a relationship that was, in every way that mattered, queer, but the explanation was twisted to excuse the lack of a male seeking male romantic relationship alongside it. The game was recognized as inclusive and groundbreaking, yet its developer weaponized the same relationship it received praise for.

Samantha Traynor, the Normandy’s comms specialist, board game expert, and the only romance option to turn a male Shepard down.

While Liara’s relationship with Shepard has more weight in the plot, Samantha Traynor, the Normandy’s communications specialist in Mass Effect 3, takes on a more flirtatious and lighthearted approach and is notably devoid of the same erasure attempts that hang over the Asari. She’s also the only romanceable woman in the trilogy that a male Shepard can’t have, as she will turn him down by saying he’s not her type. 

While Liara and Samantha are recognized as “official” romances in the trilogy, there’s another that debuted in Mass Effect 2 that is largely considered a fling. Kelly Chambers, a human woman who is Shepard’s secretary in the second game, sits in a weird space among the various love interests across the trilogy, as she doesn’t activate the game’s romance trophies and achievements unless she is also pursued in Mass Effect 3. By that point, she’s only marginally more fleshed out than Diana Allers, a reporter that the Commander can have secret sex with. 

Kelly’s fling is the only new queer romance in Mass Effect 2, which was during the time period where BioWare was still referring to Shepard as a pre-defined character who wasn’t envisioned as queer. ​​Though it may not fit neatly into what the game views as a “real” romance, it can still feel like one and hold importance. A female Shepard gets a lap dance from Kelly and cuddles with her. The dance music can almost drown out the sound of BioWare representatives telling fans and press that Shepard is straight.

Kelly Chambers was the only new queer romance in Mass Effect 2, but she wasn’t technically considered an official romance until Mass Effect 3.

“The right moment with the right man.”

From Liara’s fleshed-out romance to fleeting moments with Kelly, same-sex relationships have existed for queer women in the Mass Effect series from the beginning. The same can’t be said for queer men, and it took a lot of fighting to change that. Fan movements like the Fight for the Love initiative, a play on Mass Effect 2’s “Fight for the lost” tagline, on BioWare’s (now shut down) official forums pushed the studio to be more inclusive during the original trilogy’s era. 

While BioWare hid behind notions of Shepard being a “pre-defined” character, fans petitioned and argued for Shepard to be allowed to be gay leading up to the launch of Mass Effect 3. In 2011, then Executive Producer Casey Hudson tweeted that male Shepard could pursue men romantically in the final game in the trilogy. When the news dropped, fans on BioWare’s forums and other sites like Fextralife rejoiced. It was the end of a years-long fight for player expression that opened the floodgates for unambiguous queer representation in the Mass Effect universe.

Mass Effect 3’s focus on personal and substantive romantic relationships compared to its predecessor’s transient connections means there’s less of a valley between the quality of its two gay romantic relationships. Steve, who embodies the game’s themes of grief, is introduced to Shepard as a man mourning the loss of his husband who died during the events of Mass Effect 2. His relationship with Shepard is all about living in the now instead of staying stuck in the past. While there’s certainly reason to be wary of entering a relationship with a widower grieving the death of his partner in the past year, the connection is solid and built upon the dire themes of the game.

Even when he’s not a love interest for female Shepard, Steve Cortez’s identity as a gay man is intrinsic to his storyline.

Since Steve is a newcomer in Mass Effect 3, he and Shepard hadn’t met until that point, allowing the game to skirt around why that male romance wasn’t yet possible. The same can’t be said for Kaidan Alenko. As Kaidan is present in previous games, Mass Effect 3 does some retconning to make the relationship work, revealing him to be bisexual and looking for a new connection with someone he cares about at the end of the world. The relationship is altogether better for it, skipping over the sloppy hookup nature the series is known for and instead leaning into the tragic, fatalistic themes of Mass Effect 3. But it is a recompense for a group of people BioWare made calculated efforts to exclude.

Fanning the flames

So what was the holdup? Why did it take BioWare three games to start including same-sex relationships that weren’t also carrying the weight of technicalities? According to some people at the studio, the team was worried about a potential scandal — something the first game was no stranger to.

The original Mass Effect’s sexual content was the subject of a handful of controversies. Fox News ran a dishonest segment for its millions of viewers saying its frankly pretty tame sex scenes “[left] nothing to the imagination.” Conservative blogger Kevin McCullough published some outrageous and false descriptions of the game’s sexual content, claiming Mass Effect allowed players to customize the “breast size” of characters they would pursue sexually. McCullough later apologized, but still insisted the game was “offensive.” The female Shepard and Liara romance even resulted in a temporary ban in Singapore before it was lifted. The game was successful in spite of this, but the impact still lingered.

Kindregan, who also wrote Jack, a squadmate in Mass Effect 2, explained the character was envisioned as pansexual and would have been a romance option for male and female Shepard. He says so much of Jack’s relationships with others was detached from notions of appearance and gender, instead based on trust, so it seemed natural she would look beyond those ideas when it came to romance.

Jack cares less about gender and more about trust.

“Her main thing in dealing with other people is, ‘Are you gonna try to kill me? Should I kill you first? Can I trust you? How much do I trust you?’ When you look at it like that, there’s nothing in there about aesthetic or gender or identification,” Kindregan says. “I’m not an expert in the terminology. I’m not even sure if in 2008 I had heard the term ‘pansexual’ yet. But it was still that concept in my mind.” 

Though originally framed as pansexual, the development team was wary of the potential controversy with same-sex romances. Jack became a strictly heterosexual romance despite making references to male and female sexual partners in the final game. In an interview with TheGamer discussing Jack’s altered romance, Kindregan specifically noted that Mass Effect was “pretty heavily and really unfairly criticized” by Fox News in a report damning its depictions of nudity and sex. Kindregan explains to Fanbyte that he had believed this side of the story was already public knowledge, and was surprised by the internet’s reaction. 

Kindregan says he may have given the wrong impression by pointing out the Fox News segment specifically. 

“In the interview, which, TheGamer reported accurately what I said, I don’t know if it was me misspeaking or internet sensationalism, but a lot of other sites picked up the story and said ‘Jack was changed because of a Fox News segment.’ If you read my words in that Gamer interview, what I was doing was trying to give the context of the times. I did call out a specific Fox panel, but I was trying to say, ‘there was backlash for the first Mass Effect, and that was the context of the time. That was one of the concerns.'”

Ultimately, more than any specific controversy or call made by a suit higher up, Kindregan says Jack’s reframing was more a reflection of the early 2000s. It’s no excuse, he says, but it’s the truth.

“I think there was concern about backlash that would distract from the game and the community of the game,” Kindregan says. “And I know that’s not exonerating to say, but at the very least, I don’t think that it was a case where there was some evil executive with a big cigar going, ‘We’re not gonna have any of that in our game.’” 

Kindregan doesn’t think removing Jack’s romance for female Shepard was “the right answer,” but also recognizes he didn’t have the “burden” of making those kinds of decisions. While the choice wasn’t his, Kindregan says the team was “extremely sad” when the decision was made, and that as times change, those moves are always going to be viewed with more scrutiny.

“As years have gone on, I, as a creative, have definitely learned that there are things in hindsight…you look back 10 years, 20 years ago, and go, ‘what were they thinking?’ And truth is, I know it sounds like an excuse, but there are times when the context of the times are different,” he says. “That doesn’t make it okay. It’s just another factor to consider.”

Considering the way Jacob’s romance concludes in Mass Effect 3, maybe gay men dodged a bullet.

TheGamer’s report prompted a tweet from Mass Effect 2 Lead Animator Jonathan Cooper, who revealed Jacob Taylor, another party member in the game, was meant to be romanceable by both male and female Shepard, with an original romance scene evocative of the film Brokeback Mountain. But the romance was cut on the grounds that, “America [wasn’t] ready for it.”

Regarding those comments, Mass Effect 2 and 3 Lead Writer Mac Walters echoed Kindregan’s sentiment that no one higher up told the writing team to cut queer romances in an interview with The Verge.

“No one has ever come to me and said we can’t do this because the media says so,” Walters says. “Never.”

Instead, Walters says changes to characters were made as part of a “compromise” within the team to pursue the developers’ visions and preserve creative freedom as they worked together to “build a great character or story moment.”

While these romances never made it into the final game, remnants still exist in the code. The same can be said of the original Mass Effect, which features nearly complete romance voice lines for a same-sex relationship with Kaidan and female party member Ashley Williams. Over the years, BioWare has been upfront that these unused voice lines weren’t necessarily intended for the final game. Instead, they were just part of the recording sessions for Commander Shepard actors Jennifer Hale and Mark Meer, which had both actors record the entire script, with gender-specific lines only being used where the team intended.

No remaster can mask the original Mass Effect’s heteronormative framework.

“The cycle continues.”

When revisiting these decisions for the Mass Effect: Legendary Edition remasters, Walters explained to Game Informer that, even with most of the voice lines present, Kaidan wouldn’t be made into a gay romance option in the first two games. The remaster would remain in step with the originals, aside from mechanical tweaks or scene edits like simple camera shifts

In a post-launch interview with Electric Playground, Walters explained further that altering romances, even for one character like Kaidan, would pull at threads further on in the trilogy beyond voice lines, which required coding around and compensating for.

Some queer fans have taken onus with the decision. One group created a petition asking for some of these romances to be restored via a post-launch patch. The petition is part of an online campaign to make the Legendary Edition inclusive, and those behind it have consulted with modders to compile an extensive tech write-up breaking down what changes or assets are missing to make those same-sex romances compatible within existing code.

Certain characters like Kaidan have more content than others, making it possible for fans to use some voice lines to mod the game. Despite BioWare’s apparent intent, romantic interests like Jack and Jacob are missing a fair bit of romantic dialogue in the code. Voice recording sessions would be required to make any additional romance work, but modders argue editing tools to switch pronouns in voiced dialogue could be used as a workaround, along with some animation alterations.

James Wright, the organizer for the petition, tells Fanbyte that the fans rallying to see these romances complete in the remaster have been using social media campaigns to get BioWare’s attention. 

Even after moving on from many of the regressive views of the original trilogy, Mass Effect: Andromeda still needed a fan movement fighting for equal representation for queer men. And the fear is that these same technicalities might show up in the next Mass Effect game BioWare teased at the 2020 Game Awards.

“The criticism thrown at this effort is, ‘why are you guys so angry about these games that came out so long ago?’ What we’re mad about is that the same decisions that happened then are still happening now,” Wright says. “This stuff has an impact in real life. So many fans just look at this as ‘it’s just a game, why are you so upset about this?’ Sometimes this is the only place where we find identity and see ourselves.”

More queerness in games:

Wright believes getting more mainstream media representation is one of the first steps for queer identities to become normalized. And popular video games like Mass Effect are part of that vision. As of this writing, however, the Make MELE Inclusive initiative hasn’t received any direct response from BioWare. The studio’s silence has spoken volumes to the petitioning group.

“LGBTQ representation can never come at the speed of straight or cisgendered comfort. Because if it does, it’s never gonna get here,” Wright says. “The loudest voices will always be the negative ones. These company decisions will always be motivated by not rocking the boat, by not actually taking a stance and saying, ‘hey, here’s how it is. The future is inclusive.’ […] Whether or not they intended it to be malicious, at this point, it really doesn’t matter. Because the end result is the same: this is a culturally acceptable queerphobia.”

Reyes Vidal was one of the original romance options for a queer male Ryder, but the game still lacked a party member option at launch.

Two steps forward, one step back

After so many years of messy queer representation, Mass Effect: Andromeda tried to make amends. Between the male and female versions of Pathfinder Ryder, queer romance options were near equal to their heterosexual counterparts. But it wasn’t without a hitch, as queer men were still given the short end of the stick. 

At launch, Andromeda had only two romance options for men seeking men: Gil, who was still around for most of the game as the engineer of the player’s ship, and Reyes Vidal, a charming rogue only seen on one planet. While both relationships were about as substantial as Steve and Samantha’s were in Mass Effect 3, neither party member could be taken on missions like most others could. Playing as a gay man would lock you out of the game’s “Matchmaker” achievement, which required players to complete three different romances across multiple playthroughs.

Anna Davidson, who is also part of the Make MELE Inclusive movement, was there at ground zero of another fan movement to make Angaran squadmate Jaal Ama Darav a bisexual option. They were among the first to use the #MakeJaalBi tag on social media before it became the rallying cry for a larger movement of queer fans seeking representation in Andromeda

“My initial response when I realized the lack of male romance options for a male Ryder was shock, but also feeling like I was an idiot,” Davidson says. “I felt stupid for having hoped for better because I had been aware to a degree of the bi-erasure in the trilogy — I’d only been aware of Kaidan and Jack at the time — but I had somehow managed to get my hopes up for Andromeda.”

Eventually, other fans took notice of the #MakeJaalBi tag, and a larger movement sprouted. Just under three months later, BioWare patched Andromeda so Jaal would be a romantic option for male Ryder. In the initial patch notes, BioWare cited that the team consulted members of the LGBTQ community both inside and outside its studios.

“The relationships with your crew are some of the most loved and cherished parts of our games, so we wanted to make sure we got it right,” BioWare wrote. 

A fan movement and a few patches later, a queer male Ryder had a romance option on his squad.

Davidson says they were emotional when the announcement was finally made, as it was proof that when queer fans banded together, they could make a difference. The victory felt “truly unprecedented.”

“I’m pretty sure I cried,” Davidson says. “As someone who is bi (and later realized I’m very much not a cis woman and very trans), it meant the world to me. It was a celebration.”

Comparatively speaking, Davidson says BioWare’s silence regarding the Make MELE Inclusive initiative has been confusing and “odd,” as the developers seemed more willing to have a conversation with fans about similar issues when Andromeda launched. 

“We campaigned for months with Make Jaal Bi but we got responses from the devs at the time,” they say. “We got responses from Mac Walters and Michael Gamble letting us know that we were being heard and that we weren’t muted [on Twitter]. […] I don’t know what happened between Make Jaal Bi and now to change how they feel regarding interacting with us, but all I can do is hope that despite the silence, they’re still hearing us once again and hopefully discussing the matter behind the scenes.”

The addition of Jaal helps make a more even playing field for most sexualities. Both male and female Ryders have three full-fledged same-sex romances, though a fling with an Asari reporter does give queer women another option. Playing as a female Ryder attracted to women means you can romance Peebee, an Asari researcher interested in the new tech the Milky Way citizens have found in Andromeda, as well as Vetra, a Turian smuggler. Beyond squadmates, a queer lady Ryder can also enter a relationship with scientist Suvi, who is strictly a lesbian option similar to Samantha in Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect: Andromeda found small ways to implement romance, like letting you and your love interest cuddle during move night.

On top of all these relationships, Mass Effect: Andromeda takes a note from Dragon Age: Inquisition by allowing characters to turn down Ryder entirely, rather than not allowing the player to flirt with characters if they can’t culminate in a full-blown romance. These rejections allow both players and NPCs to express their identities, even if it doesn’t lead anywhere. After the series largely assumed players were heterosexual until spoken otherwise for two games, Andromeda shows a bit of maturity in how Mass Effect views its players and the characters they may choose to woo.

Looking to the future

Since Andromeda is positioned as a new beginning, talking about its relationships and queer presentation holistically is difficult because none of these characters’ stories are complete. This raises questions about what ground the series still has to cover. 

While Mass Effect’s queer relationships have all had their own baggage, the series has gotten better about including them after community pressure. But there are still sides of queer identity the series has yet to touch on. Jacqyline Frost, a trans woman and fan of the series, told me she hopes future Mass Effect games will be more open to non-binary characters — but doesn’t want it to rely on non-human alternatives, like science fiction often does.

BioWare teased the future of the Mass Effect series at the 2020 Game Awards.

“They could definitely stand to have some human non-binary characters too,” she says. “Aliens and robots are kind of a cop-out, and it’s ridiculous to think that in this galaxy where gay relationships and trans people seem to be pretty universally accepted, that there’s nobody who rejects the idea of being a man or woman or uses different pronouns.”

Both Shepard and Ryder are referred to by either male or female pronouns, so as far as the games allow, they cannot be outwardly non-binary and go by alternative pronouns. But BioWare does at least seem open to the idea of allowing players to create non-binary protagonists in the future. Åsa Roos, the UX lead at the studio, spoke at Sweden Game Conference in 2019, saying that while allowing players to create characters who are non-binary would require implementing additional voice lines that acknowledge them as such, that isn’t a reason not to do it. The studio is “working on that.”

On the note of transgender characters, most Triple-A RPGs, including Mass Effect, don’t usually offer a way to play as an outwardly trans protagonist when it comes to character creation. Last year’s Cyberpunk 2077 allowed players to create a character with customizable genitalia, but then tied the character’s gender to whichever voice they chose, disregarding their physical presentation. Some fans, like trans woman Madeline Potter, say the physical representation of trans bodies isn’t enough if it doesn’t also come with the backstory of a life as a transgender individual.

Character creators have come a long way, but how can games represent identities beyond the gender binary?

“I can say that I want character creation options that allow trans identities, but just giving femshep a penis doesn’t make her a transwoman,” Potter says. “It doesn’t give her the narrative or background that comes with that. It’s a token you can throw the players and say, ‘hey look, you can be anyone.'”

Acknowledging a trans background in a game like Mass Effect where protagonists are malleable would require a dialogue option or some kind of character creator slider that reflects a character as transgender or cisgender. Henley says that, while she would like for that to be integrated naturally somehow, she doesn’t mind that Shepard or Ryder’s gender identity is kept ambiguous, as it allows players to internalize and roleplay.

“Once I got a handle on who I was and I went back and played Mass Effect and Dragon Age, those characters were trans because I said so,” she says. “I can play Persona and Joker can be trans. He’s my character. It’s my game. It’s my life. It’s my toy that I’m playing with. I get to decide what I like, to an extent. 

“So I would love a game to let you be trans organically and do it properly. Not just physically, but have a way to address that in the story and have it be canonical as in, this character is trans and have it be a choice that you make somewhere along the way that feels organic and fitting. I would love for a game to do that, but I don’t really mind that you don’t always get that choice because that’s part of the roleplaying element to me. It’s what you put in the story.”

We still know so little about the next Mass Effect that it’s unclear what direction BioWare will go to allow players to express their identity.

How BioWare could integrate any of the above into the next game is unclear because we know so little about it. We know Liara makes an appearance, and based on tweets from people at BioWare, it might involve both the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. This could mean the return of Pathfinder Ryder or a new protagonist entirely. The direction the studio chooses will likely determine how Mass Effect represents non-binary or trans identities. A new character allows the studio to wipe the slate clean, but Ryder will already be a character with a full game of established stories. 

We reached out to BioWare for this story, and a studio representative sent the following statement:

“Inclusion and diversity are two of our core values at BioWare; it is important to us that we continue working on ways to make our games and culture more equal for all. We feel honoured that fans of Mass Effect have found comfort in our games in the past, and we hope that new players of Mass Effect Legendary Edition can find connection with our characters in the same way.”

After years of fighting, fans saw Shepard allowed to be queer by Mass Effect 3. But the series still has ground to cover.

Mass Effect has gone from antagonistic in its exclusion to slowly but surely getting better at representing queer experiences. Its journey has been rocky and it’s still making stumbles along the way. Its improvements have often been advocated and pushed for by fans who continue to hold BioWare accountable. Should some notable exclusions remain in whatever comes next, there will likely still be a crowd of fans ready to hold the studio’s feet to the fire. But if these hard-learned lessons haven’t taken after over a decade of fans fighting for better representation, some of those crowds may be smaller. It’s not that there are fewer people bothered by those omissions, but that more of them will look for representation elsewhere.

Mass Effect’s relationship to queerness is evocative of its relationships with most forms of player expression. The series is a messy, imperfect, but often beautiful story about choice that can’t realistically allow everyone to see themselves perfectly represented with every decision they make. But hopefully, after all these years, queer fans won’t have to fight to see themselves in their N7 armor the next time around.

About the Author

Kenneth Shepard

Kenneth is a Staff Writer at Fanbyte. He still periodically cries about the Mass Effect trilogy years after it concluded.