If you're the owner of an Xbox 360 or PC I hope you've had the pleasure of playing through two excellent games in a planned trilogy called Mass Effect. PS3 owners will only be able to play ME2 and ME3, but even if you miss out on the first game you should still get hooked on its sequel. If you have, you'll know that the game's story progresses along based on your decisions, allowing for a very personalized game. Your decisions result in different outcomes, characters that perished in the first game based on something you did will not show up in the sequel, and your squadmates may argue with you by throwing out something you told them in the previous game. It's a glorious experience. Along with that, the character you play, Commander Shepard, is able to be male or female, so regardless of which gender you pick, throughout the game Shepard's dialogue is fully spoken and other characters will refer to you in conversations as he/she as appropriate. As a female I don't mind playing the male hero in video games (Halo, Gears of War, Legend of Zelda, etc.) but when I was browsing the Xbox 360 platinum hits for a new game in 2009, I looked at the back cover of Mass Effect and was drawn to the words â€ścustomize your character." It didn't explicitly say that you could be male or female, and a male protagonist graced the cover, but the possibility of playing as a female was the deciding factor in making me purchase the game.
And I'm glad I did, because I got hooked on the story and the universe that Bioware created. I would still love the game even if I could only play as a male, but being able to play as a female felt empowering in a way, no doubt that was helped by the excellent voice acting by Jennifer Hale. I felt like I was Commander Shepard. I appreciate Bioware taking the effort to have both, because based on the games' executive producer Casey Hudson in an interview at San Diego Comic-Con, only 20% of players choose to to play as female (otherwise known as "Femshep"), so all the extra work of having to record the dialogue for 2 main Shepards, along with the times Shepard is mentioned as he/she by other characters, along with having different love interests for each gender is a treat. Maleshep has been in the promotional materials for the first 2 games, but finally with ME3 there will be promotional materials for both genders since the fan devotion for Femshep has been so strong.
Since this is the first time that Femshep will be displayed in trailers and other advertising, Bioware recently ran a poll on Facebook on the Mass Effect 2 page to see which Femshep model fans wanted as the default in future promotional material for Mass Effect 3. Even though the game was never marketed with a female lead, the default face when you start a new game as a female has been the same, but she is not one of the 6 models available. The one blonde Shepard available is miles ahead in voting compared with the other models, although all the (heavily eyelined) faces look pretty similar. I've seen controversy over this choice and how this poll basically turned into a beauty contest, which is unfortunate, but I don't think this could have been avoided. I don't know who voted, whether it was a general mix of all Mass Effect fans, or males who never play as Femshep, or only people who play as Femshep. But I don't think that any pick could have avoided some sort of outcry. We've been without a promoted Femshep for 2 games, so people who have been playing as her have their own idea of what she should look like. This is the opposite for Maleshep, since his same face has been plastered over trailers, commercials and screenshots for years.
My own Femshep is a red-head who looks nothing like me (apart from the eyebrows) or any of the voted Femsheps, but I based her look on the character's history I selected. She's spent her whole life in space because both of her parents were in the military, so she's pale with freckles (from the few times she's had to land groundside on a planet for a mission), she has red hair because, well, it just looks so good with her shiny red and black N7 customized armor, and she doesn't wear a lot of makeup because she's too busy leading her team and kicking Reaper ass. I've seen a lot of other Femsheps online that people have created, and some of them are downright gorgeous and I'm amazed at how diverse they all look, but I'm still attached to mine because I created her and she's been with me throughout 100+ hours of gameplay.
Ideally I would have preferred people to submit their own Femsheps and a story on why she looks the way she does, but this would have had overwhelming submissions and I don't think there would have been a good way to narrow this down efficiently. I personally voted for #3, currently in 3rd place, who looks nothing like my Shepard but she was closest to what I would envision for a default female: less makeup (relatively), practical ponytail and ethnically ambiguous. Shepard #4, currently in second place, I objected to because she has a red stripe in her hair. When does Commander Shepard have time from saving the universe to dye her hair?? But I knew the blonde #5 (the traditionally pretty one) was going to win, and if it's not official yet it will be soon. Sure Bioware could have removed the option of any blonde at all, but that's going too much the other way, and from a marketing standpoint, gamers who aren't familiar with the series will take a look at the cover (or the trailers), and if blonde female Commander Shepard is what gets them playing the game as a female then she'll have done her job. Personally I'm very excited to finally hear Hale's voice used in a Mass Effect game trailer. And as others have pointed out, even though the blonde will be the default, you can stick with your own Shepard or create a whole new one. Look at Maleshep; he's based on model Mark Vanderloo so he's no average-looking guy either.
In the end, Shepard can be whoever we want him/her to be. I'm glad that we get the opportunity to play as Femshep and that fans are so passionate about Mass Effect and Shepard that this even comes up as a discussion. Just the fact that Bioware wanted fans' input on the look of the character for marketing purposes shows how far Femshep has come. Mass Effect is a richly detailed universe and there are so many opportunities to make the game as you want it to be. Maybe there are some who are content to pick the default Shepard because they don't care about they way their hero looks (and is that really a bad thing?). In the end, Commander Shepard doesn't just act the way you want him/her to act, Shep can look whatever way you want, and my red-headed Femshep will be saving the galaxy again just fine. read