On February 10th, Bioware released a new trailer for ME3, possibly the best edited, best executed, adrenaline pumping piece of promo they’ve done for the game so far.
It also just happens to feature the female Commander Shepard.
There’s a weird undercurrent of a backlash to the trailer over the fact that the FemShep character model here has changed from the default, less Joanna Dark-ish FemShep, unlike her male counterpart, based on Dutch model Mark Vanderloo, who’s been featured in all the marketing unaltered since 2007. It’s a non-argument that needs to stop so we, as a gaming community, can appreciate the one thing that matters here: There is now a trailer for a multi-million selling franchise, entirely centered on the triumph–not downfall, fear, or emotional entanglements–of a female hero.
We’re not talking about the kind of trailers Lara Croft’s latest adventures get, where it’s an excuse to ogle CG ass for two minutes, or stuff like Resident Evil, where Jill/Ada/Claire’s got a gun, but she’s doing nothing but running*, or the trailers the Metroid games get, where they never acknowledge the person under the Varia suit is a woman, and when they do, it’s to highlight her weaknesses**. This is not a trailer of vulnerability. This is a trailer of confidence, capability, perseverance. It’s, frankly, a trailer of pure badass. And it’s a BEAUTIFUL thing.
This trailer’s existence, and the publicity surrounding it in gamer circles is Bioware-sanctioned validation of what most of us have known for some time now: the female Shepard option isn’t just an aesthetic preference, but a complete shift in the tone of these games. The savior of the universe being a woman isn’t just a novelty, but a far more daring choice that makes an already deep, engrossing character into something special, and represents something in gaming that is desperately needed.
Most of the character’s success can be laid at Jennifer Hale’s feet. While Mark Meer’s performance is solid enough, he has one tone, all the way, and that is steadfast space marine. There’s a wider range to Hale’s performance that makes playing Shepard a wholly different game. There’s venom, not just sternness in her anger, a sourness to her sarcasm, a far more believable softness to her empathy. Where the male Shepard is a blank slate, the female is a wide color palette. And it makes all the difference for where this game, and its players take the character.
Yes, some props must be given to Bioware. The female dialogue and actions are the same as her male counterpart, even down to the mannerisms much of the time (which is super-hilarious if you decide to run the Normandy in the party dress from Kasumi’s Stolen Memory, and even then, how uncomfortable Shepard seems in the thing inadvertently adds to the whole experience). However, the company has always been better to its female protagonists than most, the rampant, lingering ass shots notwithstanding, and the mere fact that they allowed the first serious lesbian relationship in gaming since Fear Effect 2 continues to be commendable***.
And really, the fact that FemShep’s femininity is never a huge deal is the best possible way to do it, and not just because the alternative appears to be the Arkham City problem, where every NPC with working genitalia wants to kill, fuck, or killfuck every female in the game, and wishes to remind them of it with every other line of dialogue. Which makes for stronger storytelling: The Alliance questioning Shepard and ruining her good name out of political fear and disagreement with her methods, or the Alliance questioning Shepard because she has a vagina, and vaginas be trippin’, yo?
But really, the reason this trailer is a big deal, the reason this warranted an article instead of a simple trailer drop, and the reason FemShep matters comes down to us.
The reason I don’t say the remainder of the success of the female Shepard belongs to Bioware has a lot to do with the fact that it took 3 games to even publicly acknowledge the option before the player went to the character creation tool. Not that I entirely blame them. I personally didn’t even bother with it until I was a few months removed from my first playthrough as my ME1-imported male Paragon, and just wanted to screw around with different options. For most gamers, the female Shepard might as well not exist. At last survey, Bioware reported only 18% of gamers play as her. And yet, those 18% are vocal, passionate.
What’s more, the din from fans wasn’t just because the female Shepard could engage in lesbian sex, or the potential of getting her naked. Small cloisters of assholes creating nude mods aside, the players who went FemShep wanted her strong. They wanted her rebellious. Story after story after story about people playing her as pure Renegade. The almost anarchic mantra about Jennifer Hale playing “the one true Shepard”. It says a lot that in the marketing for ME3 so far, every default Male Shepard appearance has been about Earth falling, of humanity’s potential failure, the deaths of millions. The burden of heroism. FemShep’s trailer starts with her sparring subordinates, scaling a fallen skyscraper, bum-rushing a 15 foot Reaper, and ends with her hissing “Tell your friends we’re comin’ for ‘em!” with the greatest fuck-you line delivery imaginable.
The nutshell is this: This is the woman gamers cried out for. Not a princess. Not an S&M fantasy. Not a pair of tits that can hold up a gun. They chose a genuine heroine. Sex didn’t sell this woman. Her actions, her attitude did. Actually, up until now, she was NEVER sold to us. This was not something decided by a PR department, distilled into marketable elements. As much as feminists decried the “beauty contest” that allowed players to choose the look of FemShep****, it was still an attempt to place a decision with fans.
This is the female hero that gamers actually want and deserve.
There’s a quote that usually makes the rounds whenever any sorry excuse for a homo sapien thinks he can fuck modern, tech savvy women out of basic civil liberties from Joss Whedon where, at some Q&A, someone asked him why he writes strong female characters and he simply responds “Because you’re still asking that question.” The popularity of FemShep is a collective answer to that question as well. It means a tangible amount of us want more from our heroes than the same brown-haired everyman we’ve been force-fed for ages. It means we want more from the females in games than eye-candy and mommy-figures. And gaming companies, Bioware themselves included, need to listen close to what happened here. Because, moral of the story: No matter how great they are, breasts will never look as hot as bravery on a woman. Even digital ones.
*–Say whatever you will about the RE films, but tiny Milla Jovovich being the no-nonsense figurehead of a major, successful action franchise is kinda fucking awesome.
**–Tip of the hat to that live-action Other M commercial, though. That was classy as hell in ways the game, depressingly, wasn’t.
***–Not without issues, though. But that’s a different article….
****–And don’t get me wrong, salient points were made in that fracas. I just think there are so many other lightning rods in terms of the female Shepard’s treatment from the marketing/PR side that for the blogging community to latch onto this seemed trite.