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March 14, 2012

Mass Effect 3: Take Earth Black

There’s been a lot of controversy and hate spiraling around Bioware recently.  Well, that’s to be expected, I suppose; I doubt there’s a single company out there that’s never gotten any disdain from fans.  Well, maybe Double Fine.  Or Atlus.  Maybe.  But I digress; the point is that for what it’s worth, I owe a lot to Bioware and I want to give them thanks.

And in order to do that, I have to be “that guy.”  You know the one.  The guy who raises a hand in objection and says -- with no shortage of spit and bile spewing from his mouth -- “Hey!  You guys!  Where’s all the (insert under-represented societal category here)?  All we have in video games are (insert standard character trope here as a means of general insult here) -- it’s time for (insert qualifier with an 83% chance of matching the debater’s qualifiers here), or else this game is (insert accusation of socially unacceptable -ism here)!”  It sucks that characters in games are so homogenized.  I get that.  I sympathize.  And I understand that sometimes, it seems like we -- developers and gamers alike -- take steps back twice as often as we move forward.  I agree with people who argue as much.  But just this once, I hope you’ll allow me to say “good job” instead of raising a fist.

In the same sense that some argue that FemShep is the superior version of Shepard (more badass, better voice, a strong female character, what have you), I’d like to thank Bioware for making competent black characters.

Yep, I’m black.  This blog’s title and icon should be a tip-off, obviously.  And I don’t mind playing as white guys in games; as long as they’re competently written, they’ll get no outcry from me.  I won’t shy away from black guys, either, or any other race; I’d argue to this day that Dom should have been the main character in Gears of War (not just because of his race, mind).  The problem, of course, is one that a lot of you have probably experienced before: an uncomfortable number of black characters in media talk or act like…like…

If I can create a collage of characters, I’d argue there’s something wrong here.

Now, some of these characters aren’t awful (barring Grover from the godawful Percy Jackson movie).  And there have been solid portrayals of African-Americans in media, including our precious vidya gaemz.  And I’m not saying these archetypes are without foundation.  I’ve known people who act and talk just like the stereotypes suggest.  But I can’t be the only one, regardless of race, who’s disturbed by the fact that if you’re black and in fiction, your most frequent aspirations are to be a rapper or athlete and you can’t go an hour -- much less a day -- without shouting “Aw, HELL no!”

But fortunately, Mass Effect 3 -- well, every Mass Effect game -- is a lot more forgiving.  I mean, there’s at least two black characters who aren’t aggravating; Admiral Anderson and Jacob Taylor immediately come to mind, and I’d wager that there are other characters in the ‘verse I’m forgetting.  The former in this case is a stalwart politician and gunman, and it was exciting to go gallivanting around Earth with him when the Reapers start tearing through everything…though I could do without him asking if I forgot how to shoot.  (Joke’s on him, I never could!)  Jacob was one of my favorite characters in ME2; he was my wingman throughout the entire game, backing me up with loyalty and professionalism.  He’s a voice of reason, and straight-laced in the face of a threat; even if he has objections, he wouldn’t let it get in the way of Shepard’s leadership.  And like the others, he had an interesting loyalty mission where you got to learn about what made him tick.  Some may argue that he was on the boring side -- and disproportionately muscular -- but as a whole I liked him.

And yet, it’s the ability to play as a black Shepard that speaks volumes.

Or something like that.  Maybe it’s just a consequence of having only one male voice actor; maybe it’s just the fact that you aren’t giving Shepard’s race as black insomuch as you are moving a slider to the right position.  But damn it, if Mass Effect is the embodiment of wish-fulfilling role-playing games, then I’m entitled to make my Shepard black and assume that it’s 100% canon!  Can’t I have that?

Oh wait.  You mean I can?  Really?  You mean I don’t have to worry about stupid, stereotypical quips interspersed into my dialogue?  You mean I can play my straight Paragon and act like the leader the game wants me to be?  You mean I can actually have my race be an additional, uncompromising trait rather than the entirety of my character?

You know, it’s funny.  I’ve always liked Mass Effect; I’ve never gone out of my way to look at the expanded universe materials, and I’d certainly never call it the greatest series ever.  I never even bought into the whole “your Shepard, your story” thing that’s so commonly thrown about.  But looking back, and knowing that there are indeed distinctions between Shepards, I think I’m starting to see what Bioware was going for.  There may only be one male Shepard voice, and there may be no overt distinction between races besides aesthetics, but that’s the whole point.  There’s not supposed to be.  It’s your creation, and your choices, and your ideals, and your decision.  You make the character, and you play out his galactic symphony the way you see fit.  The way it should be -- without any unnecessary barriers or traits getting in the way of your badass legendary space romp.

So thanks, Bioware.  I know it was just a minor touch, but rest assured there’s at least one guy in the universe who appreciates you.

Also?  Keith David's voice is SO GDLK.

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