Most fans of the franchise know by now about Bioware’s contest to choose a FemShep (female Commander Shepard) design for the promotional artwork for Mass Effect 3. What you might not know is how interesting the competition got before the winning design was picked.
First of all, four very different images were uploaded. I think I voted for the black woman – but not because she was black, but because she had “kinder” features than some of the harsh, angular features of the other designs*. Bioware recognised that what you might think is the obvious distinguishing feature is not what people find most appealing.
When the blonde character won by a landslide, they didn’t assume that the blonde hair was what people were voting for, and instead went to a second round of voting giving the same design the options of blonde, light brown, dark brown or red. The redhead got more votes than the blonde and light brown versions put together.
I read an interesting statistic that only 19% of Mass Effect players choose to play as a female character. I found that surprising, and wondered if it duly followed that only 19% of Mass Effect players were female. Do all women play as female characters and all men play as men? Or is it mixed up? Since I imported my character for ME2, I can’t remember: is the default character option male? In which case, are many of those male characters default male characters, played by impatient players eager to start the game as quickly as possible?
It made me wonder about my own playing style, where although I almost always play games as a female character (where the option exists), I tend not to customise them very much. The first time I played Morrowind, I spent ages picking out my race (Wood Elf), class (Archer), stats, skills and appearance. Now I just automatically choose the same options every time I play (though it’s normally a Dark Elf these days), because I just want to jump into the game as fast as I can. I chose the same even without thinking for Oblivion until I realised that there were major differences in how the class and birthsign affected gameplay. Further still, pop me into any RPG and I’ll pick either the fastest default option or the nearest Elf Archer. Give me a shooter and I’ll reach for the assault rifle without even looking at the other weapons.
It worked out pretty well in Hunted, when I chose E’lara because, duh – female archer. That proved fortuitous when Him Indoors tried out the alternative – Caddoc, a burly man who’s good with a sword – and found that E’lara was just a much more effective character. So now he plays as E’lara, even though that contradicts his natural playing style.
The funny thing is that there are no real advantages to playing as a woman in Mass Effect beyond Jennifer Hale’s superb voice acting. She’s exactly the same character, and even the dialogue is the same (bar the odd pronoun), which weirdly makes her about the most convincing female character in video games. So it really comes down to what you instinctively reach for as a player – do you like your character to be just like you, or the opposite? You can define her background, her personality, her skills and her morality. You can choose her friends and her enemies.
Not least, despite the great default option we’ve just voted for, you can choose her appearance, too.
This great fan-made trailer by gametourists shows some of the many customisation options in the first two games, along with reminding us of Shepard’s extraordinary story. (Here be spoilers.)
*It might be that the faces are the same and the different skin tones/haircuts make them look different.