Earlier today, I sat down on my at-work lunch break to partake in an activity more quintessentially nerdy than many others you might be able to think of: I repeatedly watched the trailers for the video game I was already playing at home (because when I fall for something, I fall hard). The game in question is Mass Effect: Andromeda, the fourth entry in the revered series. Now, I don’t tend to write reviews, and that isn’t what I’m doing now, but I will say that my first foray into the Mass Effect universe (literally, because it’s set in deep space) has thus far been a tremendously enjoyable one. The game has received some patchy reviews here and there, but most of the criticism has been aimed towards its inability to quite maintain the apparently stellar (pun intended) quality of the previous games in the franchise. However, as a newbie to Mass Effect, I remain unaffected by such complaints. I’m not here to talk about how good (very good) or bad (very much not bad) the game is though. What’s currently on my mind is a strange and mostly subtle discrepancy I noticed in its advertising. Buckle in, it’s going to be as exciting as it sounds.
So, for the uninitiated: Mass Effect is, to borrow Wikipedia’s definition, ‘a science fiction action role-playing third-person shooter‘ (because apparently Wikipedia isn’t all that familiar with commas), and a key feature is the ability to customise the protagonist. The most important part of this is deciding whether the player character (Shepard in Mass Effect 1 – 3, and Ryder in Mass Effect: Andromeda) is male or female; and it’s worth saying that in Andromeda, while the option defaults to male, the choice to deviate from that feels just as encouraged as the option not to. It’s also relevant to point out that for both male and female Ryder, the player can choose to pursue (or not pursue) sexual and/or romantic relationships with opposite-sex characters, same-sex characters, and both genders of mostly-humanoid alien characters (with seemingly identical-to-human genitals and sexual practices). I point this out for the purpose of applauding the game on how inclusive it is in regards to gender and sexuality. Clear transgender options are absent, but the ability to create your character to be masculine, feminine, or relatively androgynous in either gender, and heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, or asexual is honestly refreshing and worthy of praise. Unfortunately it’s clear that the intention and message delivered by the creators of the game was not held central to whomever they entrusted to be in charge of its advertising.
Let’s start by agreeing on a few allowances on the part of the advertising professionals. Games like this need a hero that you can throw onto all of the cool posters, and if it kept showing two different people, audiences unfamiliar with the ‘choose your character’ concept would be undeniably confused by half the posters showing a male, and half of them showing a female. They had to choose one of them to be ‘the face’ of the game, and they chose the male Ryder. Female players currently equate to, by clear analyses, half of gamers (makes sense, no?), so it’s a shame the ‘default’ choice tends to be male; but again, they had to pick one, and I don’t have enough hours in the day to pick a fight over that in itself; so, when it was time to drop some trailers, unsurprisingly, male Ryder was the chosen hero. All in all there are four or five main cinematic trailers (with countless variations and TV spots and teasers and game mechanic reveal videos along with them) and all but one is shown to feature a male lead, with the female-lead trailer being titled ‘Sara Ryder Trailer‘, and it’s obvious, but relevant, that the other trailers are titled ‘Launch Trailer‘ or ‘Cinematic Trailer‘ or ‘Reveal Trailer‘, and not ‘Scott Ryder Trailer‘; and it was in watching the Sara Ryder Trailer that the differences between the two became apparent to me. Below, I’ll show the two most recent trailers featuring Scott Ryder first, and then Sara Ryder underneath (which may seem ironic, but it’s because we’re comparing Sara’s to Scott’s, and not the other way around). If you noticed anything you found interesting that separates the two, bear it in mind and leave me a comment at the bottom. I’m sure I missed a few things. Also, be aware that I’ll be drawing on, but not showcasing, some parts of the other Scott Ryder trailers (but can’t do the same for Sara, because there aren’t any).
So, after a few watches, I think some of the early statements in both trailers are almost microcosms of the entire issue. In Scott Ryder’s trailer, an authoritative voice can be heard, after a few words regarding how dire their situation is, saying ‘Now more than ever, we need a pathfinder‘ (which is the title of either Ryder’s military role). The same voice can be heard at the beginning of Sara’s trailer saying ‘Being a pathfinder is a serious job. Are you sure you’re up for this?‘
To break that down, its ‘Male Ryder, we’re in trouble, we desperately need you‘, alongside ‘Female Ryder, this is important, are you sure you can handle this?’
It’s easy to say that I’m reading a lot into these lines, but you have to understand how many people poured over every second of these trailers, fine tuning them, before they were released to the public. No image, no statement, no moment is entered thoughtlessly. This dialogue was very carefully chosen. A ‘we need you’ plays into the prevalent and pervasive trope of the male power fantasy, to be the hero that everyone is hopelessly lost without; while an ‘are you up for this’ very much puts the female character into an immediate ‘underdog / in over your head’ light. Even if the purpose of doing so is for a heroic ‘prove them all wrong’ journey for the female protagonist, it’s important to be aware that the male protagonist never needs to walk such a path: the woman may be given the chance to become a hero, but the man is able to inherently be one.
On the subject of dialogue, it seems pertinent to mention the disparity between the words that both Ryders are given to say as well. Scott gets to spout out machismo across the board in his various trailers: from Marvel movie style bravado quips ‘I don’t need an army, I’ve got a [giant tough guy alien teammate]’, to more aggressive hero dialogue like ‘[the evil villain monster] is a master of his game. We’re about to change the rules‘; as well as a handful of captain commands about piloting the ship, getting down, taking cover and so on; the usual ‘I’m in charge’ shtick. Sara has only two lines in her trailer (and therefore across all trailers). The first is ‘New galaxy, new ship; I can’t wait to get both a little dirty‘, which is a decent line (albeit possibly a little sexual?), and the second is ‘Everyone’s counting on us. Let’s bring them home‘, which is, again, playing on the ‘proving herself’ journey that a female character apparently needs to be on. It’s far more passive, submissive, and even maternal, in contrast to Scott’s shouts, threats, and cocky one liners.
Note also, their relationship to the game’s villain. In all of the trailers, ‘The Archon’ and Scott either address each other directly, or talk about one another; whereas in Sara’s trailer, The Archon’s menacing ‘You have lead your people to their deaths‘, is immediately responded to with another male character’s tough guy ‘They want a fight? We’ll give it to them!‘, implying that he was the one The Archon was addressing (when in the game, that obviously isn’t the case); so now they seem to be actively taking steps to affirm that they aren’t positioning Female Ryder to be of equal footing to the male villain. To Scott, The Archon is shown off as being just a deserving test of Scott’s lauded physical prowess; whereas to Sara, he is seemingly placed as an insurmountable threat that she’ll need help to simply survive against. Also, as an amusing aside, in a mid-action moment in the Cinematic Trailer, the male ‘They want a fight? We’ll give it to them!‘ line is reused, coming literally one second after a female voice is heard crying ‘Cover’s blown, run!‘
There’s also another intriguing difference you’ll see between the trailers above, and again, it’s a difference between the Sara Ryder trailer, and all of Scott’s combined. This may falter to further investigation, so I’ll preface by saying that this is conjecture. Both trailers above came out in March, but Sarah’s came out a couple of weeks later, and yet while the game had already been released for critic review by the time Scott’s trailer came out, the reviews are only showcased in Sara’s. This could be nothing, I can admit that. However, it could also be the marketers deciding there was a greater need to say ‘we promise, this is actually a good game’ when a female Ryder was shown at the helm. None of Scott’s trailers have reviews (although the first couple were well before the game was available for review which may throw skepticism to my point), leaving Sara’s only trailer, to be the only trailer to tell you that other people have positively reacted to the game. Again, this point is debatable (as are they all), but I was, at first, left with the feeling that the marketers had less confidence in the reception of the trailer when a female lead is shown. This is sadly reflected in the views too, as the official Mass Effect YouTube channel lists 3.8 million, 3.4 million, 3.5 million, and 6.8 million views for Scott’s trailers (the last of which is the announcement trailer which is played beneath übermensch Johnny Cash singing ‘an old cowboy went riding out one dark and windy day‘ for a supposedly unisex game), whereas Sara’s trailer has less than 400 thousand views, a fraction of any of the Scott trailers. This may tell you that fewer people were as interested to click on it, but more likely it tells you that it wasn’t posted by the official marketing team to nearly as many outlets and sources as any of Scott’s were.
And now, I suppose, I have to drudge up some kind of point to all of this. I don’t mean to just highlight differences, but rather condemn the continuation of them. Placing a female character in a category of ‘less sellable’ is only going to prevent game designers wanting to give us such great female characters in gaming, and while a few have been proudly making themselves known more and more of late (from my personal collection, that includes Tess in The Last Of Us, Evie in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – although, again, it’s her brother on the box art, Aloy in Horizon: Zero Dawn, Lara Croft in her stellar reboot series, etc.), they still seem to be lumped into ‘female heroes’ instead of just ‘heroes’, and propagating that concept, or worse, pandering to it, only serves to prolong the divide in an industry that is already often a very unpleasant place for a female, both on the development side, and in the greater gaming community. I don’t want to think we still live in an era where a woman can be shown shouting commands and be labeled unlikable, while a man can do the same and be heroic and assertive. I don’t want to think that there is inherently less crowd-pleasing ‘bad-assery’ in a woman shouting violent threats to her antagonist than when a man does the same. I don’t want to think that a female character has to earn the respect of an audience when a male character can just show up to the plate and already have it. I don’t want to believe that a female character driven game has to showcase reviews and praise to convince an audience that it’s actually good (again, Horizon: Zero Dawn, anyone?).
I don’t want to think any of those things, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t true in society’s subconscious. Being a male, and therefore largely unaffected by this divide (at least negatively so) means it’s very easy for me to not understand the importance of these ‘small issues’, but while it’s so tempting to be all progressive and go about my business in a world of ‘everyone is equal’, that doesn’t actually do any favours to the cause of making it so, and nor does it offer the correct respect to the people who are suffering with the problems that these constructs create. It’s correct to not see people outside of your ethnic, gender, sexual orientation as being different, but it isn’t acceptable to assume that the correct way forward is to treat them as such, because the problems that we’ve inflicted on them haven’t healed, and while it’s so tempting to want to shy away from the problems of the past, it’s a necessity to confront them and deal with them before we can all move passed them. Or, like I said, maybe I’m reading far too much into all of this. Who knows.
Anyway, with all of that over and done with, I want to say, great work, Mass Effect people. The inclusivity of your game is genuinely refreshing as hell. And literally 98% of games out there could honestly learn a lot from you.
And on that note, I’m going to go unwind and explore the Andromeda galaxy with my bad-ass, gun-toting, pansexual female protagonist, because how often do we get a chance to say that in gaming?