Thursday, March 1, 2012

Romances in Mass Effect 3 Part 2: The Commander and the Pilot

 My last post talked about EDI’s new design for Mass Effect 3, but this time I want to look back at the second game for a minute to talk about the relationship between Shepard and Joker. As of Mass Effect 2, no romantic attachment between them has been permitted. Fans see it there, though, and it was fannish enthusiasm like this that encouraged BioWare to make squadmates Garrus and Tali love interest options in the second game. There's been no sign that they'll do the same for Joker.

And as much as it saddens me, objective assessment of Joker's character makes me feel like it might not make sense for him to be a romance option. I'm getting more and more certain that BioWare is characterizing him as he was originally written - an arrogant person disinterested in socializing, who "doesn't date crew". This is in opposition to the damaged, snarker-with-a-heart-of-gold that fangirls want him to be. I'm not saying that the fangirl reading of him isn't correct - personally I definitely think it's supported by canon - but BioWare just doesn't seem to be going that route.

 So what I want to do in this postis line up the pros and cons of the Joker-Shepard relationship: things that he has said or done that I think support one or another side of the argument. It's hard to analyze Shepard in this way: the player can determine all of the commander's characteristics, including gender. I'm going to use the female pronoun here as my default because I typically play a female character, and because the logistics of a homosexual relationship would require slightly different points of discussion.

On the pro side, the player character gets some genuine warmth from Joker. He's genre-savvy, referencing Firefly and Star Wars in dialogue.  Near the beginning of the second game when Shepard expresses her uncertainty about the new ship and crew around her, Joker says that the important thing is that he and Shepard are still present and still "us".

A good portion of Joker's dialogue is "hidden": it requires either standing around him for thirty seconds, or reading a transcript on the internet to get it. From that dialogue comes the snarky but comfortably affectionate "Two years and everything hits the crapper. Teach you to die on me." Joker also casually asks Shepard's opinions on things. It's worth noting that he also refers to Shepard as "mom", just like he does to EDI.

The hidden dialogue also involves a lot of annoyance that would be vitriolic if he didn't say it so lazily. "Take a holo, it'll last longer.", "So, come here too often?", and the aforementioned "I thought my mom was bad with the backseat driving." don't exactly sound polite. Joker has also stated right out, in the original Mass Effect, that he doesn't date crew. Context leads one to assume that it's because there might be conflict, from planetary war and death to everyday bickering, involved in the relationship. Joker likes to keep his emotional distance, although he isn't adverse to porn. This isn't exactly a perfect man, but the potential to get past his defensive surface to enter into a romantic relationship would make for interesting story.

I started this blog post to find out more about how I myself felt about this stuff, and my feelings remain pretty solid. Although I'd be disappointed not to see Joker as a love interest, I can also understand how his appearance in previous games have set him up as someone who would not realistically enter into one. Maybe he's too ornery, too bitter, not empathetic enough.  Or maybe those are exactly the traits that make him interesting and three-dimensional. It’s the same ornery determination that’s kept him flying despite his disease, and I think that if Shepard cares about him for his loyalty than in a sense she has to care about him for his determination too.

Characterization is something that BioWare has always done well. Mass Effect 3 has to carry on that tradition in order to succeed, because no multiplayer mode, and certainly no combat-heavy Action Mode, will create the emotional connections between players and characters that will keep them coming back to the game and its fandom. For some, especially the fangirls, it’s all about the people we meet on the long road to Reaper destruction.

Okay, it’s about shooting aliens too.

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