Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Joke's On Who? Romances in Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 is looming on the horizon like a great big looming thing, and the question in everyone's mind is: "Will Joker be a love interest?" Actually it's "Will BioWare add another Game of the Year to their groaning shelf of awards?", but we'll leave that speculation for later. Especially with some leaked footage seeming to indicate that our favorite pilot is contested territory, my burning questions on the way into ME3 are: Can the player character, Commander Shepard, romance Joker? Or will the pilot fall for his co-pilot EDI, as the leaks suggest? Will either or both be possible or optional? And which one should happen, to make the game narrative most satisfying for the most amount of players? I'll be discussing this in my next couple posts as a springboard to ME3's launch on March 6.

Whether it's because of his humorous dialogue, his unique status as a disabled character in a combat zone, or because he's pretty much Seth Green in space, Joker has become a fan favorite. In Mass Effect 2 he was given more dialogue than in the first game, and more impact on the plot and the endgame, even including a short playable mission. But fangirls (and boys) still aren't able to add Joker to the handful of characters who can give the player the coveted Paramore achivement.

Unlike in games such as Skyrim, romancing another character doesn't give you any sort of stats advantage in Mass Effect. In Skyrim, marriage means you have a home base and a portion of your spouse's income. In Mass Effect, romancing someone provides a relevant cutscene and extra dialogue options, but mostly, the reward isn't intrinsic to the game. 

But in-game romances provide pairing options that other RPG fans might need to search media produced by their own community to find. Adding an emotional side to their games is a very smart move for BioWare, who have now grabbed people by their emotions as well as by their desire to shoot aliens. Fans are clamoring for Joker as a romance option.

Joker and Mass Effect 2's EDI.
However, in the leaked script for Mass Effect 3, fans were treated to a different suggestion entirely: Joker might end up paired with his ship's artificial intelligence, EDI. In the second game she was a glowing blue ball with a sultry voice. Joker's initial dislike for her changed to a friendly rivalry in which he calls her "mom". The change comes about after his playable mission, in which EDI is also primarily featured. This mission played with the differences between bodiless EDI and the body of the spaceship she inhabits, and it was fun and exciting to play, and interesting to think about after.

But the suggestion that EDI and Joker engage in a physical romantic relationship disturbed a lot of fans, myself included. It seemed like pulling the rug out from under us to suggest that instead of romancing the player character, Joker would end up with an inanimate object. Other fans pointed out that Joker and EDI having an inevitable in-game relationship would send the message that disabled people and able people can never have successful relationships.  I was uncertain about the whole thing. Then I saw some concept art.
This is concept art for the new EDI.
It's almost too easy for me to get on my usual soapbox about how female characters with model proportions like this are too common and too objectifying. (The fact is, EDI is an object, even when she has legs.) However, I can come at this from another direction too. This is not a unique design. It's nothing we haven't seen before in Star Wars or, heck, Metropolis. The goatlike horns on the top left concept may be the only original thing about this. I'm happy on neither an emotional nor an artistic level.

It was hard for me to really get on the feminist soapbox when I saw the art for another new character.
Concepts for an as-yet-unnamed prothean squad member.
This guy is supposed to be a prothean, an ancient alien from before humans were around. And if EDI's proportions are designed to appease the male gaze, then I'd say this character's wide shoulders and ridiculously human cleft chin are designed to to the same for the female gaze. So at least BioWare's being equal in its design strategies. That doesn't mean it didn't make me laugh.

Whether the Joker - EDI relationship is going to turn into a romance is still something I have to wait until March 6 to find out. I've shown so far how Joker has been used in Mass Effect and its sequel, and that it looks like EDI will be set up as a more human, more sexual character in the third game. This seems like an entirely unnecessary bit of gloss to me. EDI functioned well as a character who, like Legion, straddled the line between human and organic. Unlike Legion, she was clearly constructed. She had been built, somewhere in the Cerberus facilities. She may be intelligent, but intelligence in a science-fictional universe does not equal sentience, and a game pairing a character with a non-sentient construct in opposition to a biological human disturbs me. It's just uncomfortable on a certain level that the story could allow human-alien romance and human-computer romance, but not human-disabled human romance.

I like EDI as a character and am fascinated by the idea of AI having to deal with exactly how human they are and aren't.  I think the voice actors can pull it off, I think the writers will do well and won't give an artificial character short thrift. She'll be well-characterized. But I also think that pairing the two of them would be a disservice to fangirls and give off the attitude that people can never change, that Joker will always be antisocial, and Shepard will always see Joker as just her crew.

Because this is in opposition to the Shepard-Joker relationship. I'll talk more about that in my next post. For now, I hope I got across the idea that the Joker-EDI relationship comes off initially as salt in the wound for the fangirls.

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