Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mass Effect: My Bucket-headed Girlfriend and Bird-Dinosaur Boyfriend

The first Mass Effect game was fairly sparse with its romance options. Bioware believed that gamers would find themselves attracted to the human and human-like characters, so the only romance options were the soldier Ashley Williams (for a male Shepard), biotic Kaiden Alenko (for female Shepard), and the asari Liara T'Soni (for Shepards of either gender). Ashley and Kaiden are both humans, while Liara attempts to occupy the well-known niche of "hot alien girl who looks almost exactly human except she's blue." The less human squad members were not available for romance, and more's the pity, because one of them was the cutest quarian in the galaxy, Tali'Zorah vas Neema.
The official lithograph of Tali'Zorah, by Bioware (which I have on a wall in my apartment, thanks to my lovely wife)
I am lucky that I only started playing Mass Effect when Mass Effect 2 was already out, so I knew going into the first game that Bioware had made Tali, as well as the badass turian Garrus Vakarian, available as romance options. The thing that surprises me is that Bioware was not expecting players to go for the more "alien" characters as romance options right from the start. After all, the point of an SF video game is to give players the opportunity to do something they could not do in real life. Why expect all gamers to waste time romancing humans, when there are plenty of those in the real world already?

It doesn't help that both Ashley and Kaiden are fairly bland characters. Ashley is your typical gung-ho soldier, with the added backstory that her father was the leader responsible for the only loss humanity has suffered against aliens. Kaiden is telekinetic thanks to the traumatic chip in his brain and the fact that his mother was exposed to element zero while pregnant with him. Both of their backstories are revealed through expository, let-me-tell-you-my-life-story conversations. In other conversations, you can expect their contributions to center around how much Ashley likes the human Alliance and doesn't like aliens, or about how much Kaiden dislikes being a biotic and having a chip in his head.
Garrus, by patryk-garret on DeviantArt
In comparison, Garrus is a badass vigilante while Tali is a brilliant engineer. Both of their personalities are developed a lot more in the second game than in the first game, which puts the advantage squarely in their favor. In the time between the two games, Garrus goes to the lawless asteroid-space station Omega to clean it up with a team he recruits, while Tali goes to the  planet Haelstrom to discover why its sun is dying prematurely. The second game gives them more personality: Garrus is cool and sarcastic, while Tali is sweet and nerdy.

Plus, romancing aliens has the added advantage of being an exercise in cross-species relations. Shepard is practically an ambassador for goodwill between humans and aliens!

I don't want to sound shallow, but their appearances are important, too. The current generation of computer graphics means that all human characters still look somewhat doll-like. In comparison, the alien characters look exactly like the aliens would in real life... as far as we know. As I have never seen a turian or a quarian, Garrus and Tali look exactly the way they are supposed to.

Ashley and Kaiden only have a cameo in the second game. Besides Tali and Garrus, the other romance options are two human ladies: Miranda, a genetically perfected Cerberus operative, and Jack, a biotic experiment who escaped and became a punk-rock criminal. There are two male romance options, one human and one alien: Jacob is another Cerberus agent, a nice guy but rather bland, while Thane is the first representative we have seen of a new alien race, the drell. Both of the human females are antagonistic toward Shepard from the start. The male romance options are split: Jacob is a nice guy, but apart from his niceness and his frustration with bureaucratic red tape, there's not much personality there. Thane is a remorseless assassin with the added advantage of being a cool-looking alien. He has a perfect memory, and can re-experience any past event in his life with absolute clarity. Additionally, he believes that his body is a vessel of his spirit, and it is just his body, not his spirit, that carries out the contracts he is hired for. All points in Thane's favor, so it's small wonder my lovely wife chose to romance Thane in her run-through.
Thane, by patryk-garret on DeviantArt
It's interesting to me that the human romance options in Mass Effect 2 are much easier to romance than the non-human ones. When playing with a female Shepard, it's almost harder not to romance Jacob. The aliens, in comparison, are a little harder to romance, as you have to find the dialog option that unlocks the conversation option to start flirting.

For the sake of completeness, I should end by saying that, as Youtube is my witness, the romance scenes with the aliens are much less involved than with the humans. Well, there's always Mass Effect 3...


  1. Aliens don't fall into the uncanny valley. Even asari, whose faces are essentially human, look good. I wonder why that is...? Maybe it's because they're not quite human enough? I also find it interesting that the asari are the 'mate with anything' race, and yet no asari were a romance option in ME2. Maybe Bioware decided to do the classy thing and minimize that aspect of the asari. Because let's be honest, a race composed entirely of beautiful females that can mate with anything belongs in campy science fiction, beside bug-eyed aliens and laser guns.

  2. I disagree about the asari. I think that if the designers had made their faces look more alien, like in some of the concept art, the uncanny valley would have been kinder to them.

    I can tell you're disappointed that Samara wasn't a romance option, but let's face it, the galaxy doesn't need more Ardat Yakshi.

  3. Here's a relevant discussion from the dudes at Penny Arcade, from this 4th Panel video:

    Jerry: Garrus? Blurg!
    Mike: Euch!
    J: Yuck! What the f!k!
    M: Well, he's got f!king mandibles!
    J: Yeah, I know! Garrus?! Come on!
    M: That's disgusting!
    J: Thane?! Thane, that f!kin'... amphibian assassin?!
    M: Wha-a-t?
    J: Yuck! Really?
    M: I mean, would Garrus even have... balls? They're probably barbed!
    J: I mean, yeah, he's gotta have something down there... there's gonna be row after row of plates.
    M: He's got, like, a chitinous shell over whatever f!king dong he has down there.