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Love/Hate: A plea to play as a female Shepard

6:20 PM on 12.16.2009 // Andrew Kauz

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I played the original Mass Effect more times than any person reasonably should; in fact, I could spend ages writing about my love and hate relationship with that game, but luckily, it is one that ended up being mostly about love. For me, it was a fantastic game that rose above its many faults.

Well, this is true of all of my playthroughs except for one -- the one where I played as a male Shepard.

See, I began my first playthrough as Penelope Shepard, a stunning girl with auburn hair and green eyes, and a stern but fair personality. In our journey together to a seemingly endless galaxy full of the same three buildings, I grew closer to this character than nearly any other videogame had allowed me to do prior.

Then, for my second playthrough, I started with a male Shepard. And you know what? I hated the game. I never finished this playthrough. Instead, I started yet another female Shepard, and proceeded to finish the game three more times.

So, what is it about the female Shepard that essentially represented what I loved about Mass Effect, and why did I hate the male Shepard so much? Read on to see why an experience with a female Shepard is clearly superior -- and, please, heed these words and remember them for the series’ next installment. 

Let’s start off in the most obvious manner possible: breasts. That’s not specifically what I want to talk about, but there are some general differences between males and females -- the greatest of which being the fact that we very rarely get the option to play as a female in a videogame in a way that feels natural.

Hell, even Bioware’s own Dragon Age: Origins provides an awkward experience as a female. I’m reminded of the origin story for the Casteless Dwarf; I chose a female out of curiosity and was immediately taken out of the experience when everyone seemed to be treating her like a male. It was enough to make me give up on that character and start a human male.

Never once in Mass Effect did I encounter this. Though promotional materials of the game very obviously pushed the male Shepard on us, the game itself feels like it is made for a female as you play through it. I think this is simply a result of good writing. There are no subtle lines that seem more appropriately directed toward males than females. Therefore, you’re able to feel as if a female truly does fit into this story. Compared to many other games, this is actually quite an achievement.

Furthermore, the simple novelty of playing as a well-crafted female is reason enough to try it out. Honestly, what is the ratio of male to female lead characters in videogames? 200:1? It’s even farther apart when we consider only good female characters.

Let’s face it -- overall, Shepard doesn’t stand out as having the most original or most interesting personality in games, despite whether you play as a male or a female. But how many female characters can you point to that aren’t just ridiculous caricatures of real females? Lara Croft? Let’s not even go there. I’d take someone who feels real though a little boring over someone like Lara Croft any day.

Luckily, there’s one very distinguishing feature that helps the female Shepard rise above her male counterpart: voice acting. What seems minor at first actually ends up being a definitive advantage, truly making the two experiences feel like night and day.

Let’s start with the male Shepard, voiced by Mark Meer. Now, I’m not going to tell you that his voice acting is poor -- it isn’t. But absolutely nothing about his voice acting does anything to craft his character, which leaves the creation of a personality up to both the dialogue and the player exclusively.

Jennifer Hale’s voice acting stands leagues above Meer’s. Hale has long been a popular choice for games; you’ll know her also as Naomi Hunter from the Metal Gear Solid series. However, the ways that Hale approaches the characters are completely disparate in that, if you’re not paying attention, you could easily miss the fact that they’re voiced by the same person. Not even Nolan North pulls this off.

Most importantly, when you hear a line of dialogue from Jennifer Hale’s version of Commander Shepard, you feel like it’s coming from a commander. Not a big-breasted RPG character, tomb-raider, or a leather-clad gun expert who is edgy for the sake of being edgy, or even a female that some developers just threw in so that they could say they offer the option to create female characters.

No, Hale’s Shepard is a character created by a developer and perfected by a talented voice actress. She’s a woman who doesn’t stand out because she’s a woman, but because she’s the epitome of a commander. I apologize to Mark Meer, but his acting just doesn’t cut it.

The end result is that playing through the game feels entirely different based on the gender that you choose before the game begins. One story is about an unlikely female ship commander who proves that she’s a badass not through the fact that she’s a female, but through the fantastic portrayal of a realistic character. The other story is about the same uninteresting male character that you have played a million times.

It’s a very powerful disparity here -- one that seems unlikely based on the fact that, in essence, the differences boil down to a reskin, a different voice, and some pronoun swaps. But, for me, the true experience of Mass Effect and, soon, Mass Effect 2, involves a female character. It means the difference between loving and hating those games.

So, I offer a plea: when Mass Effect 2 is in your eager hands, start a female character. You may want to continue with your male character from Mass Effect, but even in the face of this I stand by my plea. If you play with a male character, you’re missing out on the best experience of the game and one of the best experiences with a female lead character that I’ve ever had.

If your experience isn’t improved by the selection of a female Shepard, you can feel free to castrate me.

Andrew Kauz,
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