In the final romance scene between Commander Shepard and Kaidan Alenko in Mass Effect 3, both men are sitting in Shepard’s quarters, worried about the galaxy-defining fight that’s to come. Kaidan is there to support his boyfriend and commanding officer, ensuring him that he’s done everything he could to prepare the galaxy’s forces against the invading Reapers in one final push. A dialogue option comes up, paraphrased as “What’s on your mind?”
Shepard: What are you thinking about right now?
Kaidan: Oh, the good times. The hard times. It’s been an unforgettable few years. You were always so focused on the work back then…the mission was everything.
Shepard: It’s true. I’ll never know what I missed.
Without the help of mods, this is the only way for this relationship to play out. It’s only possible for a male Commander Shepard to become romantically involved with Kaidan in Mass Effect 3, so there’s always a tinge of regret to their relationship in the finale, as they’ve only just now, in the middle of a galactic apocalypse, outwardly acknowledged their feelings for one another. But that’s because Commander Shepard wasn’t allowed to be a gay man until Mass Effect 3, where Bioware finally decided to allow such a thing, retconning Kaidan into a bisexual man, and also including Steve Cortez, a gay shuttle pilot who Shepard could also pursue. Bioware made a calculated decision to exclude queer men in the first two Mass Effect games, and it wasn’t rectified until the final game in the trilogy. It was an unacceptable omission, but one the series largely got away with because the games industry was a very different place in 2007 and 2010 when those games came out.
But Bioware is also a different company than it was back then too. Gone are excuses about how its protagonists are pre-defined characters or lack of romance options out the gate (even if it requires a push or two). So Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 are weird relics of a time where inclusivity wasn’t a top priority in the series’ philosophy. Which makes the announcement of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, a remaster of the original trilogy for modern consoles, a moment of celebration for an important work of its generation to be available to millions of new players that also carries with it a dark cloud of outdated values hanging over its head.
Bioware is handling the remasters internally, so the studio ostensibly has the license to do whatever it wants to do with these updated versions of the trilogy. The official announcement says that the collection is mainly targeting technical updates, including “super-sharp resolution, faster framerates, and beautiful visual enhancements.” So there doesn’t seem to be any intention here to alter any story content. At least, not in any grandiose way that might thrill someone still mad about the ending eight years later. But I have to wonder, is going back and fixing this specific issue beyond the tools Bioware has at its disposal? And if it’s not, what effect does it have on the love story Mass Effect wrote between two men who waited a little bit too long to confess how they felt?
For context, there are voice files for a romance between Kaidan and male Shepard in the original Mass Effect that even still exist in the game that made it to the public. There were fan mods that became very popular when the trilogy was on-going, and even were transferable through save data into Mass Effect 2. You can find full playthroughs of the romance on YouTube, and other than voice lines where Kaidan will refer to Shepard with female pronouns, the entire thing works fairly seamlessly. Ultimately, that alone might be what keeps any sort of romance between male Shepard and Kaidan in the first game from happening, even with a remaster, as bringing in Raphael Sbarge to record lines to a 13-year-old game so he can use male pronouns seems like an expense no one would be willing to pay. Even during the N7 Day voice cast panel, female Commander Shepard actor Jennifer Hale said she didn’t know about the remaster until its announcement on Saturday, implying that there’s been no new voice work done for the Legendary Edition at all. It’s unlikely that Kaidan has equivalent voice lines recorded in some archive at Bioware, as the studio has gone on record saying that it had originally intended Kaidan’s love story to be exclusive to female Shepards.
Personally, despite the anguish it put me through in my teenage years, I’ve come around on the story that’s told when Shepard and Kaidan don’t confess how they feel for one another until the final game in the trilogy. Kaidan’s entire arc in Mass Effect 3 is about coming to terms with the end of the world, realizing how much he has yet to accomplish, and how much he has yet to say. He tells Shepard in no uncertain terms that his confession is coming out of a place of fear that he might not get to say it tomorrow, so he wants to make the most of every moment they could still have together. So when you’ve known someone for so many years and just held back, whether out of fear of rejection, yourself, or that it might crash and burn one day, and then the world starts ending, that relationship is colored in regret. Regret for the time you’ve wasted, and regret for the circumstances that mean you might not have much time left at all. That specific story can only be sold if you have that delayed gratification. It paints the Kaidan and male Shepard romance in a tragic light that feels distinct, even in a game that is already full of tragedy.
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Part of me struggles with the notion of fixing Mass Effect’s needless omission of gay romance, just because I have become so attached to that angst-driven dynamic. The pained moments of silence during Kaidan and Shepard’s conversation in the London warzone, where they’re struggling to find the words and fearful that the short time they’ve spent together might be all they ever have, carry a distinctly different tone when they’re in a new relationship. One that can’t be entirely replicated if they’d been together for an entire trilogy.
But ultimately, my experience playing the game in a time where one man’s pining for another was expressed exclusively by turning women down isn’t worth preserving if it means another generation of queer men are going to walk into these games to find a universe that claims to be inclusive, but took three installments to let them sit at the table. For all the technical reasons and logistics I mentioned earlier, I don’t expect my Shepard will be able to tell Kaidan how he feels in the first Mass Effect as part of the Legendary Edition, but damn, it would be nice for these two to not have to wonder what they missed this time around.