I recently listened to the first episode of the Border House podcast (there’s also a transcript available if you prefer), which focused on romance in BioWare games, leading off in particular with a long discussion of the romance options in Mass Effect 2. I very much enjoyed their discussion, but I also got the impression that they came out of the game with a somewhat different take than I did; looking back at the game (especially in light of my Catherine obsession), I’m rather impressed with the way the game allows you to constructed nuanced stories without falling into wish fulfillment. And yet, somehow I seem never to have talked about that aspect of the game on this blog; so: my Mass Effect 2 romance.
I play the series as FemShep; in the first game, I romanced Liara. Who survived to continue into the second game; I was looking forward to seeing how that romance would deepen. Among other things, because Liesl and I have been dating or married for twenty (wonderful!) years now; one manifestation of video games’ adolescent nature is the almost complete absence of games exploring long-lasting relationships.
That is, of course, not how Mass Effect 2 works out. I went to see Liara; she was happy to see me, but surprisingly distant. Or, perhaps, not so surprising: I’d been dead for a couple of years, and I’d gone gallivanting about the galaxy for a bit before stopping by and saying hello. A lot had happened to her in the mean time, and in particular there was a big project that she was quite a bit more focused on than on me; to make matters more complicated, that project involved rescuing somebody who was clearly very important to her, and with whom she might or might not have been romantically involved.
I’m not sure if the game let you explore that last question; my guess is that it didn’t, and certainly if something like that were to happen in real life, I would ask the question. But I would ask the question with a sinking feeling in my stomach, I’d be very afraid of what the answer is. Now, to be sure, I was also clearly very important to Liara—she’d gone to considerable lengths to rescue me as well, and in fact that’s how this other person got captured. (I’m not sure if that was made clear by that part in the game, or if it’s something that only shows up in later/external back story.) But my position and Liara’s were clearly asymmetrical: a lot more time had passed for her than for me (like I said, I’d been dead for two years!), and I would never tell her that she shouldn’t have moved on in the interim, indeed I quite likely would have done just that if our positions had been reversed. So: no foul, not the slightest bit of blame; that doesn’t mean, however, that the situation didn’t suck, that it doesn’t feel awful to see your love moving on past you, caring (to an uncertain but frightening extent!) about somebody else.
(Incidentally, one of the things I learned about from the podcast is what happens if you date one of the other characters in the original game: apparently, if you dated Kaiden, he sends you a letter at some point apologizing for having dated somebody else during the time while you were dead. Which, as several podcast participants pointed out, is ridiculous: having your partner be dead for years is in fact a pretty good excuse for dating somebody else! But it’s also very human to me: I can imagine Kaiden being in love with Shepard, wanting eventually to move on after Shepard dies, going on some dates, and realizing that he has a lot more healing to do. (And I feel sorry for whomever he went on a date with!) It’s a different reaction from Liara’s, but to me a no less realistic one; and, in fact, it may not be all that different from Liara’s, because the efforts that she went to to rescue Shepard show that there was something important going on there, and she may simply be feeling a bit numb from circumstances, trying to tie up loose ends and do the right thing by this other person.)
So: no Liara. And, honestly, through most of the game, I assumed that I simply wasn’t going to pursue a romance option. The person I loved apparently wasn’t in love with me any more; I needed time to process that, and in the mean time the galaxy needed saving. So let’s just get on with that, instead of worried about whether or not I’m getting laid.
I did talk to some (but not all, or even most) of my other crew members enough to trigger romance options if those options were present. Jack was one of them: I found her fascinating (because of her anger? her difference from me? her tattoos?), and I got far enough in the conversation tree so she felt compelled to make it clear that she wasn’t interested in me romantically. Which I salute the game’s developers for doing: one thing that bothers me about romance options in video games is how frequently they turn into wish fulfillment, that of course the person you’re interested in will reciprocate if you just do the right things. That’s just not the way that romance works in real life: sometimes you’re interested, even very interested, in somebody who’s not romantically interested in you (even if they may like you very much in other contexts!); it really sucks, but you also have to deal with it and move on, trying not to be an asshole in the process.
Though, to be sure, I don’t think I actually could have pursued a romance option with Jack, even if the option had been there, despite my fascination. Her horrible childhood made me uncertain of how emotionally mature she was; that combined with the fact that I was her captain set up an unbalanced power dynamic that I wasn’t at all comfortable with. (Of course, in real life, just the captain aspect alone would have made me unwilling, but I could have let that alone slide in a game context.) Still, ultimately: it wasn’t my choice.
And then Thane came along, and my heart just went out to him: his wife’s death, the problems he’s had with his son. (Which is another aspect of the game that I like: I’m not just Liesl’s husband, I’m Miranda’s father, and that latter bond is also extremely important to me; yet so few games explore parenthood.) And his dreamy spirituality; also, judging from my choices, I clearly have a thing for aliens! I think my willingness to pursue romance with Thane came more from the former factors than from the latter factors, which I’m not particularly comfortable with: I don’t think that a need to save / console somebody is a healthy foundation to build a relationship on. But it was good enough for me at the time; and, after all, I needed to be consoled, too.
So, Thane it was. But, of course, that’s not the end of the story: the final game in the trilogy is coming out next year, and in the mean time there was the Shadow Broker DLC. There, I helped Liara sort out her troubles, and we started talking again. Which, I assume, means that in the third game I’m going to have to choose between Thane and Liara. (Or maybe not: the series has surprised me once before, so maybe it will surprise me again!)
And, as is probably obvious from the above, my choice (if I’m given a choice) is going to be Liara. Which is a testimony to the strength of the game: I know which way my character’s heart goes, even though I might want to deny it. And the main reason why I want to deny it is because I’m going to feel like a complete asshole for dumping Thane: he hasn’t done anything wrong, and in the conversations he makes it quite clear that Shepard is extremely important to him, a sort of life companion role. Returning to the Kaiden example from above: these are the pitfalls that our brains leave for us, these are the minefields that you step into if you’re dating somebody who has recently been forcibly ejected from a relationship that was extremely important to them, where they clearly have issues remaining to process. For better or for worse, feelings in relationships are frequently asymmetric in complex ways; it is to the series’ credit that it allows players to confront these sorts of issues should they so choose, instead of presenting romances as wish-fulfillment exercises free from consequences.
Quite a game. Until writing this, I’d been thinking of Dragon Age: Origins as the BioWare game with the strongest relationships, and indeed the individual relationships in that latter game do have rather more nuance than individual relationships within a single game in the Mass Effect series. But, as I’m discovering, Mass Effect‘s serial nature packs quite a punch; I’m very curious (and more than a little bit nervous!) to see how the series’s designers will weave these threads together in the conclusion.
This post has not been revised since publication.