BioWare Losing its Grip on Equality

BioWare is a Canadian game company famous for successfully integrating story into their gameplay. They built a reputation for incredibly developed characters where player-controlled protagonists are even capable of engaging in romantic relationships with others populating the game world. I have been fanatically playing BioWare games since the original Neverwinter Nights in 2002.  No matter how old BioWare’s games get, they maintain a consistent charm and stand solidly on that elusive pedestal of replayability.

But over the past year, I’ve noticed that BioWare is losing its affinity for treating its male and female characters relatively equally.

Here’s the issue:

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) and the original Mass Effect (2007) each had three possible romantic interests – one straight female, one straight male, and one bisexual female. Dragon Age: Origins (2009) introduced a bisexual male relationship in addition to the three types of romance stories from the previous games. Mass Effect 2 (2010) offered three straight females and three straight males, along with three possible bisexual female side relationships that weren’t recognized by the game’s achievement function.

Generally, the gender distribution seems slightly skewed in favor of that straight male that enjoys the idea of two girls, but the fact that there is growing variety through each incarnation inevitably improves each game’s depth and story.

Dragon Age II (2011) has been the most successful at equal opportunity relationship structures as it offered two females and two males available for romance no matter what gender the player selected. One of DA2‘s writers, David Gaider, even responded directly to complaints by the straight male audience, some of whom seemed to believe themselves so valuable that no one else should be offered similar opportunities.

With the introduction of Star Wars: The Old Republic (2011), BioWare’s first foray into the world of multiplayer online games, the number of available romances is fairly equal where heterosexuality is concerned, but I’ve noticed a disturbing trend after having played through a variety of classes as both genders. Female player characters have significantly fewer opportunities to be flirtatious in various social story situations and female computer-controlled characters are without exception extremely flirtatious to the point that I avoid interacting with them because they always say something inappropriate.

What is this? This isn’t the BioWare I know, and whatever it is, I don’t like it. Did the angry boys posting on the DA2 forums win their argument?

Then Mass Effect 3 (2012) took what happened in SW:TOR and amplified it.  ME3 offers relationships that are restricted based on choices the player character made during the previous two games. The male protagonist has four completely unrestricted romance opportunities in ME3 — two female and two male. The gay male is finally represented in Mass Effect! There was much celebrating. On the other hand, the female protagonist has three unrestricted romance opportunities — all female.

The straight female has been tossed out.

What?

Excuse me? What the hell did BioWare just tell their straight female players? They don’t exist? They’re not worth catering to?

Then there’s the problem with the total number of romance options. Male protagonists have ten total possible romances available to them — eight female and two male. All possible relationships from the previous games are continuable for males in Mass Effect 3.

Female protagonists have a total of six possible romance options, only two of whom are male. One of the previously romanceable male characters is horribly killed within the first third of the game, only to be completely forgotten afterwards, and the other marries someone else in the time since the last installment of the series.

Really, BioWare? What is going on here?

Oh, boohoo, some might say. Why not play the game for the game, instead of raging over pixel genders? The only reason I love BioWare games as much as I do, the only reason BioWare games have the rare, desirable “replayable” quality for me, the only reason Mass Effect has any place in my heart is because of the sheer depth of the characters and their stories. It was bad enough that SW:TOR made me feel like I agreed to be effectively sexless yet constantly surrounded by drunk cheerleaders when I chose to play a female character. But to have Mass Effect 3 then proceed to demolish well-loved, extensively developed characters, stomp all over them, and throw the debris back in players’ faces has made me question the company’s narrative integrity. Between Mass Effect 3‘s ending fiasco and what they did to the female protagonist’s developed relationships, I’m wondering if the direction BioWare is taking is one I won’t follow.

A little research reveals that only 18% of Mass Effect players choose to play the female protagonist. I find this difficult to believe based on my online social circles, but BioWare has the statistics. I hope that the 18% of us who feel utterly rejected by recent BioWare developments can be LOUD ENOUGH to convince the writers to turn future stories back in the direction they were heading between Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age II.

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