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Analysis: On FemShep's Popularity In Mass Effect

In this Gamasutra analysis piece, James Bishop discusses the popularity and appeal of the often overlooked female protagonist in Mass Effect, and why playing as a female drastically changes the user's experience.

James Bishop, Blogger

September 8, 2010

6 Min Read

[In this Gamasutra analysis piece, James Bishop discusses the popularity and appeal of the often overlooked female protagonist in Mass Effect, and why playing as a female drastically changes the user's experience.] Mass Effect is a game I powered through on the 360 because I was on a bender, having just acquired my first Xbox ever. When it came time to put the controller away, I had finished the first game and its sequel in less than a week. Truthfully, I only played the original because the sequel was coming out. I figured that understanding the story so far is important in this kind of game. What I did not expect was my sudden attachment to the female incarnation of Commander Shepard—fondly referred to as FemShep around the web—during the first game and my continued connection in the second. It’s not that I’m opposed to BroShep/ManShep but something about the female version drew me in and made my gameplay that much more meaningful. I’m not alone in my adoration, either. There have been numerous polls, hundreds of votes cast and countless discussions about FemShep and her alluring nature. It isn’t a stretch to say that BioWare has managed to, seemingly unintentionally, create a female protagonist that has attracted the attentions of hundreds if not thousands of people. The popularity of the female Commander Shepard, as opposed to the standard male one, even extends to some of the products associated with the game. Specifically, the hardcover Collector’s Edition guide has screenshots that walk the player through the game section by section. All pertinent quests, places to go and people to shoot often have an associated picture of the Commander. And they’re all of a blonde FemShep that the person making the guide decided to play. That is to say, the person who had to explore every edifice, speak with every NPC and generally scour the game for tidbits willingly chose to play as FemShep. Mind you, blonde isn’t the default hair color either, so it was a conscious choice on the part of the person taking all of the screenshots. What, You Can Play As A Female? The weird thing about the popularity of the female option is that there has been absolutely no marketing for FemShep. Commander Shepard, as evidenced by posters, box art, promotional videos and television advertisements, is male. He is voiced by Mark Meer and the character is modeled after Mark Vanderloo. In some ways, he might as well be Mark Shepard. Any casual observer may be entirely unaware that playing a female protagonist is even an option in Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2. So why is FemShep so popular? Any standard textbook on marketing will lay down some laws about brand and name recognition. Icons, figureheads and mascots tend to be very clearly defined for just this reason. Imagining a completely unadvertised female version of Kratos is, while sort of sexy, mind-boggling. There are two main reasons as to why this has occurred. The first and admittedly less academic of the two reasons is pretty simple to explain: female gamers may jump at the chance to play female characters. (Not to mention that anyone wanting to romance Jacob, Thane or Garrus has to play as FemShep.) That isn’t to say that females can’t play as Mr. Commander Shepard but simply that, given the rare option, it seems like women would be prone to trying to play their own gender. With the more general hypothesis out of the way, the second is that people play as the female version precisely because Commander Shepard is male in all other ways. The lines, the character animations and various other tidbits are male-oriented in a way that makes FemShep more than your stereotypical RPG female protagonist. For one, she wears practical armor. Well, mostly, but it is science fiction after all; we can accept floating visors and the like. Mass Effect is a bit of an odd franchise because while all the official materials that relate to marketing and the like showcase a man, leading many to assume that the canonical Shepard is one, the story within makes every effort to avoid such insinuations. Pronouns are used sparingly and often tend to be gender neutral at best and at worst the “he/she” conversion is integrated smoothly into the dialogue. Even in the Mass Effect: Redemption comic series, they refrain from referring to the Commander as one or the other, going so far as to say that it’s difficult to discern gender from the remains they found. Dude Looks Like A Lady Only Vice-Versa But even with these intentionally neutral mechanics, many of the other male characteristics seep into the FemShep gameplay. For example, you can choose to dance at the clubs present in the game, be it Afterlife or the Eternity Bar or what-have-you. Because the option was there and I happened to notice it, I figured I’d go ahead and dance a bit. Never know, right? Dancing could, theoretically, be an important part of the game. And it was. But that wasn’t because some quest triggered or an NPC wandered up to offer me a job. This was an important moment in my gameplay because Commander Shepard, my FemShep, was doing the standard animation that all the NPC male dancers perform. She swayed to and fro while the other females cut a proverbial rug. Speaking from anecdotal experience alone, it looks as if many of the character animations were used for both models. As another obvious point of animation-borrowing from ManShep to FemShep, there is a scene when speaking to Miranda where FemShep is sitting in an almost undeniably male position: slouched over in her chair, hands between her legs with said legs pushed out in a v-shape. The borrowing only becomes obvious when wearing the party dress from the Kasumi's Stolen Memory DLC while talking to Miranda in the previously mentioned scene. Shepard’s hands are through the fabric, for one, and you can see up the dress. There is, in fact, a reason that girls sit as they do in skirts and dresses. It goes beyond just the aesthetic, though. Shepard presents the same set of lines regardless of gender. Whether you’re telling off the Illusive Man, saving a disease-stricken batarian or pushing some Blue Suns thug out a window, the actions and dialogue are the exact same. None of this proves to be a hindrance to FemShep, nor is she popular in spite of it. In fact, FemShep is so wildly popular because of it. The moment that FemShep prepares to take on the threat to the universe, she inevitably will give an impassioned speech as to why they must do what they are preparing to do. This is true for both games in Mass Effect and many other franchises. The oddity is that it’s an empowered female doing the speaking. If we wanted to see yet another righteous man bolstering his troops, we’d watch Braveheart, play Halo or just roll up a ManShep. Watching FemShep, and hearing Jennifer Hale, doing this bolstering is almost unsettling. It shifts our expectations and moves us to the edge of our seats. And we love her for it. [James Bishop is a freelance writer for various outlets, holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Indiana University Southeast and is not fond of the Oxford comma. He can be reached at jamesrollinbishop at gmail dot com.]

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