Romance in Mass Effect 2: More Than Just Sex in Space

About a week ago I played Mass Effect 2 for the first time [no longer true at the time of this re-post… now it’s been well over a month!]. Although I’m a little late to the “playing one of the past year’s most critically acclaimed games” party, I can actually recall the original Mass Effect sex scene controversy. The year late 2007, I remember watching broadcasters and special guests on Fox News discuss their outright disgust and horror that the game had explicit and controllable sex scenes. Even though the videogame carried an M for Mature rating the news team fretted and feared how it would potentially fall into the hands of minors. Controversy aside, as much interest as I had in playing anything produced by BioWare, the lack of Xbox 360 and gaming PC restricted my personal chance to actually play the game and experience interactive sex for myself.

Although I still haven’t played the original Mass Effect, and may likely never get the opportunity to do so (I’ve remained a PS3 and MacBook owner), I’ve known from the start that the series offered players the option to consort and have relationships with other characters, human or otherwise. However, I didn’t realize how much I would come to enjoy this (small) aspect of the game until I interacted with my potential love interests aboard the Normandy.

Playing as a female Shepard, the choices available became Jacob Taylor, Thane Krios, and Garrus Vakarian. Even though I briefly flirted with Kelly when I first boarded the Normandy for a bit of fun, I didn’t have a particular interest in any of the female-female options, namely because they seemed more like flings than anything else.

Jacob Taylor, the only human male romance option, is seemingly the most obvious choice for female players or males who play a female Shepard. But if one takes the opportunity to delve into the fandom (BioWare Social Network, anyone?), Jacob is actually one of the least popular love interests for female Shepard. It was easy for me to see why. I personally found him closed-off and unapproachable, which did very little to pique my interest. Bottom line, he’s a bit boring. Strangely enough, however, female Shepard’s dialogue is the most forced with Jacob than any other character she interacts with (whenever female Shep converses with Jacob on the Normandy, she opens with the line “I was more interested in just talking for a bit,” her voice dripping rather seductively with suggestion… and it is kindaaa creepy). I couldn’t help but interpret this as BioWare blatantly prompting: “Hey, here’s the guy you should sleep with!”

Thane Krios is one of the two alien romance options exclusive to female Shepard (not counting the gender-neutral Asaris Liara, Samara, and Morinth who are all available to romance by male Shepard too). I actually liked his character design, but I failed to develop any attachment to his character. I didn’t mind talking to him and discovering more about his past, but I personally felt that Sherpard hadn’t known Thane long or well enough to make a romance seem legitimate. And with all of his issues, sleeping with Thane would have felt more like a pity screw than anything else, the poor guy.
For me, the most natural choice to romance is Garrus Vakarian. And yet… his physical compatibility with human Shepard is easily the most unnatural. But I failed to be attracted to the human or the closest humanoid male alien on the Normandy. No, the alien who resembles an amalgamation of kitty, dinosaur, catfish, Predator, and raptor (bird) traits is what really captured my interest. I’m definitely not alone, either. Just a quick perusal of BioWare Social Network forums will provide a strong indication of just how many fangirls Garrus has acquired, which is nothing short of an army. The myriad of fan art on DeviantArt, comments posted on YouTube videos, and numerous postings on other sites clearly show that Garrus Vakarian became a favorite romantic pursuit for many Mass Effect players, female and male.

What made the romance feel like such an obvious choice for my Shepard? The history and friendship for one, something I found important when it came to selecting a romance for my female Shepard. Not to mention, the bastard plays hard to get, which makes the chase a bit more exciting. Unlike Thane who essentially dumps all of his emotional baggage onto you with every encounter, or the oddly stoic Jacob (yet open to your advances at the same time). My personal attraction to his loyal, dependable personality didn’t hurt either, and as far as aesthetics go, Garrus’ surprisingly human-sounding voice is incredibly appealing to the ears (thanks to some phenomenal casting on BioWare’s part).

Persistence pays off with Garrus.

So my female Shepard persistently talked to Garrus until an opening appeared– a delightfully funny/slightly disturbing conversation in which she suggested the two of them “blow off some steam together,” just as he once did on a warship with a female Turian after a sparring contest that subsequently resulted in intercourse after the referee could not declare a winner (Garrus cleverly referred to the act as a tie breaker). Confused, Garrus innocently states he had no idea that Shepard enjoyed sparring. “Not what I meant,” the flirtatious response prompts Shepard to reply with the sultriest of smirks “Why don’t we cut straight to the tie breaker and test your reach and my flexibility,” a not so subtle way to insinuate that she wants to sleep with him.

My first impression of this conversation: BioWare just couldn’t take this romance very seriously. After all, BioWare never intended for Garrus to fulfill the role of romantic pursuit for Shepard. It became apparent, according to a JoyStiq interview with Casey D. Hudson, that a romance with Garrus became a popular request and hope for many fans after playing the first title, “…people just loved Garrus and there was a love of interest in having a romance with Garrus. So we thought, “Let’s try this in Mass Effect 2.” If people want to have a romance with this bird-like guy with an exoskeleton, then okay.”

I waited to see how the relationship ran its course. Just before the suicide mission, Garrus finally makes a move, bringing wine to Shepard’s personal quarters. He flounders awkwardly, unsure how to flatter the commander, he assures her that her “hair looks good… and your waist is very supportive,” applying Turian compliments to human features. Up until this moment, I played my Shepard mostly Renegade. When I saw the Paragon interruption flash in the corner of the screen, however, I couldn’t hesitate from pressing R2 to engage the response. Garrus deserved some encouragement, dammit! He tried so very hard and appeared incredibly nervous, I wanted to do anything to make him feel more comfortable, even if it meant deviating from my alignment path. “Consider me seduced, smooth talker,” the always witty Shepard’s response. Afterwards, Garrus began to relax, and finally it became clear that BioWare had placed more depth into this relationship then just “OMG ALIEN SMEX!!!” Garrus admits to Shepard that he just “wants something to go right, just once” after witnessing so many things go wrong in his past. It’s sweet, tender, and provides credibility that the romance between Shepard and Garrus grounds itself on the strength that the two gain from one another.

Returning to the whole Fox News fiasco, I wish that the media in particular was more aware of the fact that the relationships in Mass Effect, either with human or alien, are based upon so much more than a sex scene for nerd boys and girls to fap to. Okay, so maybe this is the case to a degree (otherwise we wouldn’t have Miranda Lawson and Jacob Taylor sans shirts), but to the majority of RPG gamers, there is a connection you establish with your romantic pursuit. Whether it is physical, emotional, or both, the player makes a choice. My choice is likely different from the one your Commander Shepard made, especially if that Shepard was male. Some may choose to invest more focus on the suicide mission and ignore the squad mate romance all together. The inclusion of romance is not simply sex for the sake of sex. The choices presented to Shepard have consequences (e.g. cheating on Kaiden, Ashley, or Liara) and may likely have the potential to change the dynamic of your squad for the course of the game in Mass Effect 3. Romance in Mass Effect is more than just sex. It is a player choice that can add an interesting level of depth to an already phenomenal game.