With the furore about Mass Effect 3’s ending (which for the record I quite liked) people seem to have brushed over the relationship system. Unbelievable characterisations mixed with sallow interactions manage to crate some of the emptiest sentimental claptrap I have seen outside of a Lucas movie.
In fairness I have only explored one romantic path through ME3. My Commander Sheppard was a nice to everyone and always edged towards the positive. In the first Mass Effect he had a relationship with Liara, and allowed Ashley to die (despite their burgeoning relationship). Come Mass Effect 2 he found a new companionship in Tali; with her upbeat and energetic attitude it was a match I felt complimented well Sheppard’s serious demeanour.
Roll on ME3 and the magic reset button has been hit, and the team disbanded. Also it seems that Sheppard has proven that even with boundless technology a man still can’t be bothered to pick up a phone to connect with the woman he loves. Sheppard’s social life has become a dirty blackboard, showing remnants of his past, but all begging to be overwritten.
Now remember developer Bioware’s promise; this was to be a series that remembered. It was an ambitious boast and I feel for the most part they did a great job. Dozens of past conflicts and comrades are met or mentioned, with more regularity than could be expected in a drama that spans the galaxy. But interpersonal relationships are what play on real peoples minds, and that should be more represented.
My Sheppard’s first run in with his past was Liara. A clear closeness was instantly present, but Liara’s standoffish attitude made it feel forced. It could have been the writing, or a deliberate move as part of her new role as the Shadow Broker, but she had become cold and unappealing.
Sheppard remained nice of course; he was with everyone, until one day in the Presidium things went a little awry. Liara said in her aloof tone “I wish we could spend more time together just like this … friends”. This statement allowed for two possible responses “I want more than just friend” or “I’d like that”. I know that ME3’s conversation prompts are vague and not fully indicative of what will be said, but in what world does “I want to be more than just friends” mean ”You are the love of my life marry me” (I confess that is paraphrased), especially when the original statement contained precisely no warmth.
As I said I could wrong I as I have a 100% failure rate with relationships. But I chose this comment because of our past together, to show a closeness, was not intended to seal Sheppard’s romantic fate, but that is what it seemed to do.
More upsettingly, from this point on, Liara barely interacted with Sheppard (bar a few pivotal scenes). Frequent visits to her quarters were met with “Its nice to see you Sheppard”. This so infuriated me I tried to call the relationship off, but Sheppard was apparently trapped in this emotionless relationship with an androgynous being (not that there is anything wrong with that, some of my best friends are androgynous).
Annoyed, I saunter Sheppard over to dependable old Kaiden for a chat. We’ve been through a bit together, fought the blight of the galaxy, nearly shot one another, he will understand this dilemma…
He tells Sheppard he wants a relationship.
First up, I suppose it never dawned on me he was gay (or as research tells me bi), looking back there were more than enough clues but it wasn’t a focus for my heterosexual Sheppard. Second, and far more importantly, he knew Shappard was straight. He had witnessed every relationship (and on the Normandy I have a sneaking suspicion there is a standing order to transmit all sexual activity over the intercom) was with a woman – or at least a creature with womanly bumps. Yet he goes through a pained dialogue about how hard it is for him tell me when (apart from being a good friend) I had given him no indication I was interested.
Kaiden act could be seen as brave, to so completely follow his feelings, or the awkward acts of a man still uncertain of himself in relationships, but it comes off as laughable. I dream of a day when society is more openly accepting of homosexuality, when such things are simply not seen and the focus is love. But Kaiden feels like a contrived attempt to make Bioware look progressive.
Far better realised is Steve Cortez, a character whose sexuality is more expertly handled. He discusses his husband (who he lost during a Collector attack) openly, a loss he comes to terms with during ME3. His attention to Sheppard I did see coming. As a kind and understanding Commander, Cortez falls for him while coming to terms with his loss. It made sense, felt believable and being new to the crew there is a (tiny) chance he didn’t know my past.
But it still didn’t work within the confines of my story. Again part of the problem is that in most cases everyone is intimately aware of Sheppard’s social life, yet poor Steve has heard nothing from the crew of gossips. What made it really strange to me though was that it happened immediately after my rejection of Kaiden, the trip on which I also accidentally told Laira how much I loved her. I need Sheppard’s aftershave, or Bioware needed to stagger when the relationship box can be ticked.
Enter Tali, who my Sheppard fell for hard during ME2. Even with the weight of her species on her shoulders, she still manages to be up beat and playful. Plus she has a hot accent, which is important when she spends all of her time in an environmental suit.
During Sheppard’s first real chance to talk with Tali it is made clear that she knows Sheppard and Liara are back together. What? Forget everyone on the Normandy knowing about Sheppard’s private life, it seems the whole universe does. At this point I am furious, I do not want to be stranded with the personality void that is Liara, I want Tali, but apparently one misunderstood cue had me stuck.
And so the rest of the game plays out. I have a relationship with Liara, while in my mind shooting longing glances at Tali’s strangely proportioned body. Part of me considered restarting, but at twenty hours in this didn’t seem practical.
If you are keeping score you may notice that my supposedly straight (though interspecies loving) Sheppard has been propositioned by two guys, accidentally proposed to an androgynous alien and rejected by an ex. This tells me that Bioware either have balanced sexual relationships strangely in an attempt to introduce more sexual variety, or that I truly suck with women.
Now before I began writing this I did some research into other relationships Sheppard could have had. It seems there are many, but most with criteria that tied to ME2. Being male and only having romanced Tali and Liara previously, many of these were locked to my Sheppard, leaving me with only the returning ME1 character (Kaiden, not Ashley), Steve and a fling with Diana Allers (Jessica Chobot). By this measure I feel perhaps I landed my Sheppard in the worst possible scenario for the role-play I was engaged it, or at least the most implausible.
Unfortunately ME3 romance systems will always be coloured by this first experience, and it didn’t feel natural. Of course this action RPG isn’t meant to be dating sim, but if you are going to put it in at least make sure it doesn’t detract from the rest of the experience. None of my personal relationships felt believable, just a collection of tick boxes to get my end away before the conclusion. I know there fans are clambering for these ‘romantic’ interactions, but for me it felt soulless, redundant, and a step back from ME2.