Game Changers: Volume 19 – Mass Effect

To be a game changer, a game doesn’t necessarily have to introduce a revolutionary change in gameplay, graphics, or interaction. Sometimes, all it takes to make an impact on the development of RPGs is to turn to one of the most basic impulses of human life: sexuality. Mass Effect wasn’t the first game to include sexuality, but it certainly went farther than most had before.

With Ashley and Liara aboard the Normandy, Garrus knew he didn't stand a chance with Shepard.
With Ashley and Liara aboard the Normandy, Garrus knew he didn’t stand a chance with Shepard.

To understand the significance of the sex scenes in Mass Effect, you have to put the game in its proper historical context. Before Mass Effect, mainstream RPGs didn’t have sex scenes. Sex played a role in these games, of course, but it was always implied. Sometimes characters married and had children, like in Lufia II, the Harvest Moon series, Grandia 1 and 3, and Final Fantasy X-2, and there was a pregnant teen in Final Fantasy VI. Sometimes the game simply had wink-and-nudge fade-to-black cutscenes, like those in the Fallout series, Wild Arms 2, the Fable games, and The Witcher. Alternatively, the dialogue or narration had lines that suggested that something more had happened; Final Fantasy VII had a possible implied sexual encounter between Tifa and Cloud, and Persona 3 and 4 both had simple lines about characters spending the night together. Most blatantly, Xenogears showed two different couples at different times naked in bed. Similarly, non-RPGs like God of War, Metal Gear Solid 3, and the Grand Theft Auto series employed visual puns and fade-to-black techniques to cover sex scenes, and Indigo Prophecy (also known as Fahrenheit) had an explicit sex scene that was removed from the US version.

When Mass Effect emerged in November 2007, it took the fade-to-black tradition to the next level. Instead of completely blacking out the encounter, Bioware showed some tasteful foreplay in the M-rated sci-fi RPG’s optional sex scenes.

The first optional sex scene is with the Asari Consort on the Citadel. Make no mistake; the Consort is not a common hooker. She’s an influential high-class individual who acts as different things to different people: an advisor, a counselor, an entertainer, or a sexual partner. The Consort is a respected, highly sought-after woman who carefully selects her clients. The sexual encounter with her is an additional optional quest reward for Shepard after resolving a dispute for her. The actual scene is very tame with the highlight being the Consort’s hand pressing against a glass window in ecstasy.

That's not just afterglow. Asari are always brilliantly blue.
That’s not just afterglow. Asari are always brilliantly blue.

The second optional sex scene is the important one. Depending on which gender the player selected, Shepard has a few romantic options: a male human, a female human, or an Asari. Shepard can only pursue one relationship, so there’s no promiscuity. In technical terms, the sex scene triggers after the player has gone through the prerequisite dialogue strings. In role-playing terms, the sex scene is the natural outcome of an ongoing developing romantic relationship built on trust and respect. It’s the physical expression of an emotional bond that has developed through long talks and blasting Geth. It shows that love remains and endures no matter how dire the situation is. It also shows nothing more explicit than a butt, some boob, and – if you went with a lesbian relationship – some sensual rubbing. There’s no thrusting, no cheesy moaning, no porno overtones, and no exposed genitals. It’s less graphic than late-night TV, but it’s more than what had been shown before in an RPG.

The addition of sex scenes, as tame as they were, was a controversy. Conservative blogger Kevin McCullough wrote on that Mass Effect allowed players to “custom design the shape, form, bodies, race, hair style, breast size of the images they wish to “engage” and then watch in crystal clear, LCD, 54 inch screen, HD clarity as the video game “persons” hump in every form, format, multiple, gender-oriented possibility they can think of.” His ridiculous claims were not true, but he attracted plenty of attention. Gamers were outraged, and many of them — including myself — railed against him. McCullough posted an arrogant pseudo-apology, and yanked his original post.

Only one of these people has actually played Mass Effect.
Only one of these people has actually played Mass Effect.

Fox News also pounced on the story with white-knuckled glee and gave it a spin. They called in author Cooper Lawrence and game journalist Geoff Keighley. The two squared off with Lawrence claiming that the game distorted young boys’ perceptions of women and Keighley countering that it was an M-rated extensive role-playing experience with optional brief sex scenes. Keighley stayed cool and calm through the entire discussion, smartly countering Lawrence while she condescendingly referred to him as “darlin'” and spewed irrelevant statistics.

At the time, it was clear that Mass Effect had done what other mainstream games had never done before, but it wasn’t clear if it was revolutionary. Since then, it’s become clear that things are changing. Bioware’s upcoming M-rated RPG, Dragon Age: Origins, will also feature sex scenes as parts of optional romantic subplots, and there’s even talk of a brothel where there’s no telling who (or what) you’ll end up with. Obsidian has said that its upcoming spy RPG Alpha Protocol will have “satisfying” but “tasteful” sex scenes for its romantic pursuits.

These tricks aren’t for kids, of course, but rather for the older gamer audience. As gamers mature, so will games. Fade-to-black will never go out of style, but developers may feel brave enough to include mature scenarios if they wish, which could lead to new levels of creative storytelling. Like in movies, sex scenes in games can play a critical purpose in character development and advancing a great story. Bioware founder Greg Zeschuk said in an interview with

…I think from our perspective we want to reflect real human relationships. If you’re trying to have a relationship with a character we want to reflect that and the impact of the connection with that character. And if that involves some sort of intimate scenes, we want to provide those for the player.

It’s based on the fact that this is a sophisticated mature experience. The same way that a kid’s anime or cartoon will have a different style of content in it than a really serious drama, this is like a serious drama. Really what we’re going for in all cases is emotional engagement, some kind of impact.

I think that’s not to say we should overdo it, but very simply we want to say: ‘Here’s a character, we want this to happen. How can we make this impactful?’ Whatever comes from that, we evaluate it and put it in the game if it makes sense.

Though it’s impossible to predict the long-term impact, Mass Effect broke new ground for sexuality in mainstream RPGs. This, along with the unfortunate controversy, makes it a game changer.

One Comment

  1. John "Karlinn" Boske:

    Nicely written article, and I agree. Every game you mentioned got varying degrees of attention, but combined they didn’t get the scrutiny that Mass Effect did. I’d like to chalk it up to the conveniently-female monogender race, but Jade Empire had options for same-sex relations (including men) and didn’t generate 1/100th the controversy. Of course, JE didn’t have 1/100th the media attention or marketing horsepower, and wasn’t nearly as fun.

    ME had just the right elements for stupid controversy. Fortunately for all involved, it was also a really really really good game that handled romance in a relatively tasteful fashion. At a bare minimum, it was handled better than Baldur’s Gate 2’s ‘every cleric in the game wants them some Main Character action.’

    (Jaheira remains a favorite, but that’s way, *way* off-topic.)

    Anyhoo, great article. Wish I had more to add to it, but you hit it pretty much on the head.

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