Mass Effect Andromeda: Is it homophobia if…?

So I’ve been playing Mass Effect Andromeda blind. And I’ve been intending to upload that as a Let’s Play. And yes, I play gay men where possible because after spending nearly twenty years pretending to be straight I don’t see why I should have to do it in a video game. Bioware, as a studio has been one of the video game creators at the forefront of representation, and Mass Effect Andromeda is the fourth instalment of their flagship sci-fi series, and the second game in that series to include gay, lesbian and bisexual romance options. Bioware’s fantasy flagship, Dragon Age, has had gay, lesbian and bisexual romance options included in all three games.

Although records have since been scrubbed from the internet, it is an open secret that both Kaiden and Ashley in the original Mass Effect were originally written as bisexual, with romance tracks for both male and female Shepards, down to their lines being partially voice acted. This eventually came full circle in Mass Effect 3, where they became, once again, romance options for Shepards of either gender. So why was the content cut? Time seems unlikely, since most of the content was already there and shipped, and the official reason for the lack of gay male representation from the developers was “we didn’t have any gay men on the team, but one of the sound engineers is a lesbian so we have the asari”. The asari, of course, are a monogendered alien race that appear to be attractive females to any dimorphic sentient species in the milky way, and pretty much play directly into the heterosexual male fantasy of two hot women getting it on, but it’s not two women – it’s a woman and a monogendered alien. The excuse of “we couldn’t find a single gay man anywhere to talk to in the studio – or the city the studio was located in” rings hollow, as did the idea that somehow, having one lesbian allowed them to keep Liara as a female Shepard romance option, but not Ashley.

Then we had Dragon Age 2, a game with faults, and the dudebros got freaked out by having a guy hit on them, and Mass Effect 2 followed with a suspicious lack of any gay male romance options at all. In short, the history of the Mass Effect franchise has been one of exclusion, and frankly, homophobia, whether for reasons of marketing or the developers being deliberately or accidentally exclusionary. Given the lack of representation in Mass Effect 2 and constant fan interest, accidental exclusion seems unlikely.

Mass Effect 3 was better. And it seemed like vindication that Mass Effect was finally moving it a more inclusive direction akin to the Dragon Age series. There were still issues – such as in the Citadel DLC where Shepard and Kaiden go upstairs after Kaiden cooks a steak dinner – and if you play as MShep, it’s obvious that they’ve animated FShep, and then played them on MShep’s body – because clearly gay men react to foreplay as women, right down to assuming they have breasts. It’s a tiny moment, about five seconds tops, but it’s…indicative of a lack of caring. A notion of “this is good enough for gay men and those men and women who play them in a video game”. And with Mass Effect Andromeda, this appears to have continued despite a change of project leads. I’m not sure if it’s completely fair to Bye Felicia Casey Hudson, or if he was just the poor schmuck who had to defend the business decisions to make Mass Effect a playground for the straight male dudebros and them only, but well, community anger does tend to gravitate to the man in charge. And if nothing else, he doesn’t appear to have fought that decision.

And it wouldn’t be an issue, really, if Dragon Age hadn’t continually kept showing how it could be done well. Honestly, it seems to me that Dragon Age is where Bioware takes risks and experiments, and Mass Effect is their safer, mass market juggernaut that’s more carefully controlled, but after the representation in Dragon Age Inquisition, I had high hopes for Andromeda, especially when the developers confirmed that they were including queer chracters and they were happy with the balance of options provided.

The Internet disagreed.

And really, I’m disappointed. Really disappointed. Feeling betrayed might be closer to the truth of the feeling, but let’s be honest, Bioware doesn’t owe me a great gay male romance. They don’t have to write one that is of the same prominence, depth and character as the romances they write for straight men, or women, mostly straight men. But they implied that’s what they were making. Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe when they said they were happy with the balance they’d struck with the romances, they were happy with the heterosexual male romance options being the most detailed, the most nuanced, and everyone else can fuck off because the heterosexual male romance was the only one they really cared about. And given that gay men didn’t get any depth, or squad banter, or mission dialogue and the least screen time and fade to blacks more consistent with Jade Empire than Mass Effect 3 or Dragon Age Inquisition, I can’t help but think that for the Mass Effect Andromeda game developers to be HAPPY with the balance – they have to be homophobic.

Whether that is actively homophobic and trying to work in a company that isn’t and they’re actively working to make the gameplay experience worse for gay characters, or whether they’re just clueless straight men who think that by having a ‘gay character’ around they’re being inclusive along the lines of separate but equal the way that America pretended was racial equality for a long time is open for debate, but they have to be one of the two. There is no way they could genuinely be happy with the balance of the romance options if they actually cared about equality for sexually diverse people and the representation of those people in their game. If that were the case they’d have created a game that shipped at a point which didn’t need the promised ‘Improvements to male romance options for Scott Ryder’, coming over the next two months, to quote GM of Bioware Aaryn Flynn.

While they’re at it, they seem to have promised to improve the hamfisted treatment of their (presumably one) visible trans character—again, something that wasn’t needed with Dragon Age Inquisition shipped. That development team just got it right. So why can’t Mass Effect?

Why is Bioware satisfied with producing exclusionary sci fi games, but strives for equality in its fantasy games? Why does Bioware accept homophobia, whether latent or active, in its Mass Effect development team? Why after four games has it been unwilling or unable fix that singular issue in its Mass Effect development team? Why should I pre-order any Mass Effect game if it’s going to lie to me in its marketing now? Mass Effect is a great universe and the only shooter I’ve ever really loved, even if I had to wait three games before its development team decided people like me were allowed to visibly exist. And sure, they don’t have to do that – lots of games don’t. But lying about how progressive they are to get the dollars is really not cool.

An argument in progressive circles at the moment is that outrage is great and makes us feel better (heck I’m writing this for catharsis so that I feel better), but if we want people—or game studios—to get better, we have to let them. The issue is that after four games, my patience is running a bit thin. And I don’t see why I have to wait ten weeks for the game I was promised I was going to get out of the download. And now I’m torn, because my immediate choices appear to be stop playing the game, including my Let’s Play and hope the promised patch will actually deliver something better than the heteronormative bullshit that whoever okayed the Andromeda storylines seems to think is ‘sufficient’ for people who play anything other than a straight man in their game. It might not. It might still be crap, the way the non-heterosexual sex scenes are still heterosexual animations played on different bodies that don’t actually move the same way. Or I could play the unpatched version and then HAVE to play a second run to see the (hopefully) better content. And maybe the game has enough replay value that I’ll be okay with that. Maybe it won’t. Either way, I shouldn’t have to make that decision. It shouldn’t be acceptable for a triple A studio to ship a game that forces its players to make that decision. Not because I’m demanding it, or other players are demanding it. It shouldn’t be acceptable because in the society we have, and the one that Bioware is saying it supports, it should be unacceptable on the basis of its own Quality Assurance.

And I’d like to skip this bullshit and get to the point where I’m living in that world. That fantasy world that’s more compelling than anything I’ve played in Mass Effect Andromeda so far. Honestly, until that happens, I don’t think I’m going to get very far in my Let’s Play. In fact, I’m tempted to stop playing until I get that better content. Or maybe I should demand a refund and refuse to give them my money until they deliver on the balance they apparently promised.

And next game, I think I’m going to wait until I see whether they do deliver before I hand over any cash.