Machismo and 'Mass Effect'

by G. Christopher Williams

21 March 2012

For characters in Mass Effect, sometimes working out their feelings about their past requires hitting someone or being hit by someone.

It might be just me (and admittedly I hear that thanks to a very different vocal performance by Jennifer Hale that playing as a female Shepard creates a very different tone for the Mass Effect series) but on loading up Mass Effect 3 all I could think was, “Damn, this is a macho game.”

Okay, it wasn’t on loading the game up.  It was really a sense that emerged when participating in the first in-depth conversation (in-depth conversation being a hallmark of the series and of the Bioware oeuvre)  in the game with one of Shepard’s crew members, James, that I started getting this very macho vibe from the game.
That conversation occurs within the context of some light boxing between James and Shepard (sparring for the sake of sparring, not an overtly hostile conflict), in which Shepard tries to learn a little something about James’s background and James is placed in the position of having to work out some of his feelings about his past.  Working out feelings about his past, of course, requires hitting someone and being hit by someone.  Indeed, my conversation ended (and James’s resolution of his feelings ended) with me directing Shepard to throw James to the ground.  James then submissively “gets over it,” learning through this physical confrontation that he can trust his superior, that Shepard “gets it” and thus that he himself can settle down and not worry about it so much.  Useful, one would think, for a soldier who needs to put his emotions aside and focus on doing things that might normally make him feel bad.

More might be said through how these two men interact physically, confrontationally, and in terms of the authority and the submission present in that physical confrontation than through the words that they actually speak as that action takes place.

Eschewing verbal communication for physical signs, though, occurs off and on throughout the game.  When Grunt decides to stay behind to hold off an incoming horde of Rachni, for example, while his men and Shepard’s men escape, he and Shepard’s final parting moments occur in silence.  After Grunt does voice his intentions to stay and fight alone, the two men look at one another meaningfully, Shepard slaps Grunt on the arm, and then he again nods meaningfully at Grunt.  The knowing in those looks and in that slap of acknowledgment of the plan speaks to a sense of finality, of loss, but also of respect, and again a sense of “getting it.”

The reason that I mention all of this is that Bioware’s series (this one and Dragon Age, for instance) is largely known for its emphasis on communication and relationships as central concerns of the game.  Critics have lauded the developer for creating characters with emotional depth and for drawing a female demographic to games that are often thought to be the “domain” of boys.  And those two ideas are often seen as related.  The consensus seems to be that Mass Effect and Dragon Age appeal more to female gamers because they are games interested in communication and relationships, not just making everything in sight go kerplooey.

That being said, the goals of communication in the two series feel quite different to me now that I have returned to the Mass Effect series with this game, the conclusion to the trilogy.  All of these dialogues between Shepard and his crew seem to me to suggest that Dragon Age is a series that is more interested in exploring emotional and relational issues and seeing where they go and how relationships deepen but that Mass Effect looks at such concerns in what might be seen as a more traditionally “macho” kind of way.  This is not a game about “getting into it” but about “getting over it.”

Emotional distress emerges throughout Mass Effect among the crew (and emerges very, very often).  Shepard seems to serve a role in the game as a leader by managing the battlefield, managing his troops by giving orders (indeed, I spend probably less time shooting anything in battle in the most recent Mass Effect games than I do in directing my squadmates via the quick commands on the D-pad to facilitate mopping up the opposing side—this is battle enacted via communication, not bullets).  He also seems to serve the role of leader by managing the morale of his troops (again, requiring shepherding via communication, not heavy weaponry).  Nevertheless, it is management with a terminal goal in mind: ending it.

Emotion and personal concerns are a threat, perhaps in some sense, the major foe of the Mass Effect series and all of the talk that exists in the game, all of Shepard’s constant communication with his crew,. seems less about exploring those concerns than it is about resolving those concerns.  In other words, Shepard does “talk it out” with everyone on board his ship but it is in order to put an end to such issues, so that everyone can focus on the job at hand: saving the galaxy.  Once they get over what is bothering them, they can get on with the work of soldiering. 

Shepard, then, in my playthroughs seems like a man who understands how to encourage others to find a way to come to terms with their issues, so that they can stop feeling and start acting, stop talking and start hitting, hitting, of course, when it is appropriate and when it can be accomplished without the heat of emotional entanglement.

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