In a series like Mass Effect where choices create diverging paths, it’s impossible for everyone to see everything. But after over a decade of following the series, I’ve seen how consensus trends, and a lot of it is determined by what people are allowed to see, rather than what the truth ultimately is.
This philosophical waxing is a long way to get around to discussing how gendered game design both undermined and bolstered one of Mass Effect’s best human stories. My friends, I’m talking about Kaidan Alenko. This man is the first squadmate you get in the Mass Effect trilogy, and depending on your decisions, he can either meet an untimely end in the first game, or he can follow you into the end of days. But in the five years between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 3, Bioware made calculated decisions about just how far two people’s relationship was allowed to progress based on whether or not they were the same gender.
This is the story of how Bioware sabotaged one of Mass Effect’s best written and most grounded characters. This is my ode to Kaidan Alenko.
To fully understand gendered design’s hand in writing Kaidan’s story, we have to start at the beginning. In Mass Effect’s first mission answering a distress call for the human colony on Eden Prime, Kaidan is with you from the very beginning, but a few minutes in you meet Ashley Williams. These are your two human squadmates throughout the game, meant to be each other’s foils, and the subjects of one of the game’s major decisions.
Kaidan is a reserved biotic, reckoning with being part of a feared subset of humanity for his abilities while also struggling with his own conflicting emotions on whether or not that fear is justified. He’s dealing with the trauma that comes with being part of the abusive system humanity has in place to train biotic children, as well a point where he lost control of his powers and killed a man protecting other students he cared about, and had to watch that same fear overcome people he was only trying to protect. However, if you’re playing as a male Commander Shepard, you will hear only the cliff notes of these stories before they’re abruptly cut off. Truly knowing Kaidan Alenko is only allowed if you’re playing as female Shepard, because, as we know, people can only truly develop and open up to one another if they are actively trying to fuck.
The same is true of Ashley Williams, as her interactions with female Shepard are similarly brief, artificially so.
Near the end of the game, you head for a mission on Virmire, where you find out that antagonist Saren Arterius has a facility set up to create an army of superpowered Krogan. Kaidan and Ashley are assigned to two different squads to handle different tasks, and ultimately when the decision is made to blow up the base, you realize you won’t be able to save them both.
Here’s where all the weird, heteronormative design takes its pound of flesh. On Virmire, you decide which of these two characters to save, and that person will be the one who you see in the next two games. The trouble is, you’re choosing based on characterization that is deliberately fed to you in specific portions based on whether or not Bioware is trying to facilitate a heterosexual relationship between you and these characters. Kaidan is, by design, a less developed character for people who are playing male Shepard than he is for people who play female. In a story that becomes about his life or death based on how the player feels about him, Kaidan is immediately hamstrung if Commander Shepard is a man.
So just how many people is that? An overwhelming majority, as it so happens.
To my knowledge, Bioware has never released statistics on what gender Shepard is for most people when it comes to the original Mass Effect, but looking at the ones the studio has released for Mass Effect 2 and 3, it’s likely that most people played a man. IGN posted an interview with director Casey Hudson back in 2012, and with it comes an infographic that says 80% of players chose to play as a man in Mass Effect 2. The following year, Bioware released another infographic for Mass Effect 3, which revealed that 82% of players saw the trilogy to the end with a male main character. So while there was no official data of this sort released for the original Mass Effect, it’s clear that players leaned heavily to male Shepard.
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Rather than make steps to mitigate this particular issue, Bioware doubled down on gendered game design in Mass Effect 2, the game we know based on sale’s data was where most people came in. If you play Mass Effect 2 without importing a save from Mass Effect, who survived Virmire is determined by whether you play male or female Shepard. Kaidan lives if you’re playing as a woman and Ashley lives if you’re playing as a man. Bioware’s own data says that four out of five people play male Shepard in this game and only half of them (according to the stats Bioware released) imported a save and had any choice to begin with.
By design, Kaidan’s appearance in Mass Effect 2 and beyond is a statistical improbability for most players, and those who had the opportunity to make that decision were shown an intentionally skewed version of him. All in the name of encouraging heterosexual relationships, even at the cost of characters who deserved better than being set up by their creators to die in an explosion.
So then we get to Mass Effect 3 and the damage is done. According to Bioware’s statistics, Kaidan is only in the squad of 1.5% of players, but when you take into account how the cards were dealt, that incredibly low number is not surprising. The biggest shame of it all, is that Kaidan’s trilogy-long arc is one of the best written in the series. Especially when it’s viewed in a romantic context between him and a male Shepard.
In Mass Effect 2, Kaidan is distrustful of Shepard, who seems to be working with a faction widely considered to be a pro-human terrorist group, resulting in him not joining up as a party member in the game. By the time Mass Effect 3 comes around, he’s sussing out whether or not he can trust his commander again, and depending on your choices as the player, the relationship can be mended or beyond repair, resulting in the player having to shoot Kaidan down. But if you’re good to him, you can learn about where he’s been in the recent years, now without his story being gated behind whether or not Shepard is a man or woman. He’s hoping to undo some of the damage to his generation by heading his own biotics division as a teacher, prepping to become the second human spectre, but most importantly, he shows an effort in trying to not only mend his friendship with Shepard, but maybe make up for the time he’s wasted while he watches the galaxy be torn asunder by the Reapers.
Kaidan’s confession to male Shepard that he’s been harboring feelings for the commander, even when the powers that be held them back as Bioware asserted queer men didn’t exist in its universe, is one of the most grounded and well, human, scenes in Mass Effect 3. He says the world is ending and it’s got him thinking about everything he hasn’t been able to do, and everything he hasn’t been able to say. Confessing his feelings for Shepard is a moment that paints a sorrowful, introspective picture of Kaidan Alenko as the world is crumbling around him. He talks about how his mother has never been off-world, and when the war is over he wants to take her somewhere, especially now that she’s alone in all of this after his father is presumed killed in action. He has to reckon with his preconceived notions of Cerberus and how he allowed himself to be so blinded by what he thought he knew, and how that cost him more time with the man he loved. And then, when they’re standing in London in the game’s final mission, and he has to encapsulate his gratefulness to Shepard for the life he’s given him, and tell him that he’s scared there’s not going to be much more of it as they head into the eye of the storm.
As Shepard walks away, Kaidan laughs to himself, and says “you know, I’ve never been to London.” Even now, he’s still taking in all the moments he can, wishing he hadn’t wasted so much time, and he doesn’t need to be carrying the weight of entire civilizations on his shoulders to feel that. Kaidan Alenko is grounding in an intergalactic conflict, and is the best singular example of how well Bioware was able to capture that fear of finality, of wasted time, and regretting every day you didn’t tell someone you loved them.
But Bioware eviscerated this story for a majority of players when it decided that Kaidan and Ashley should behave so drastically different depending on whether or not Shepard was a man or a woman.
The discourse over Mass Effect characters is never going to go away, but it’s impossible to divorce it from the ways in which Bioware made these games diverge so strongly so it could create a heavily-gendered, heteronormative world. Kaidan may not have been a lot of people’s favorites in a universe where he was allowed to speak from the heart to another man before the third game, but he deserved the chance to try. Now I’ll just have to watch as people tell me he was boring, or that Ashley, the unapologetic space racist, was actually the better character.
Also, if you saved Ashley on Virmire, you’re a cop.