“I Love My Blue Alien Wife!” Changing Relationships in Mass Effect and Beyond
*This article contains spoilers for the Early Access version of Baldur’s Gate III.*
Everyone loves Garrus Vakarian. Not everyone loves Dr Liara T’Soni or Miranda Lawson (although plenty do). The numbers that like, never mind love, poor Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko barely hit double figures. But everybody loves Garrus. Why? He’s loyal, he’s charming, he’s funny and he’s damn handsome for a bird-like alien with mandibles, facial scarring and a concerning obsession with calibrations. Whereas every other romantic relationship in the Mass Effect trilogy has sex as an end goal it never felt that way with Garrus. He’s not like other Turians and the relationship you form with him, whether romantic or not, is one of the most important in the entire trilogy as well as in modern gaming. It’s a guiding light for how we view love, both romantic and platonic, as it’s depicted in games.
Two weeks ago the Mass Effect Legendary Edition was released and with it came hundreds of tweets, Reddit posts and endless Tumblr gifsets of Garrus and other popular characters like Liara or Tali. It was like watching people renew their vows after a nearly 15 year wait. There came plenty of criticism too with lots of people calling out the trilogy for its Bush-era politics as well as Commander Shepard and their team’s role as space cops who answer to no one. But plenty of other, smarter people have already written and spoken about this so I’ll stick to the area I know best: Love.
Now I’m no love guru in real life but if you ever need advice on how to woo an awkward Asari doctor or get past Miranda Lawson’s cool exterior like an icebreaker through the Arctic pack I’m your man. Of course all of the relationships in Mass Effect involve some of the simpler choices and often feel quite binary compared to some of the more complex decisions Shepard has to make. There’s little complexity in the choices even if the characters feel well-rounded. It’s more about building relationships that feel important but no relationship is as easily built as those in Mass Effect.
Things move quite quickly in the first game that by the time you have your second or third conversation with Liara she’s already fallen for you. Gunnery Chief and space racist Ashley Williams is a tougher nut to crack but all must fall before Commander Shepard’s blank slate charms. Mass Effect 2 sets a slower pace. Before, crew loyalty missions were reserved for Wrex and Garrus alone but in the second game they were a necessity to ensure your crew survives the climax. Speaking of climax…
What’s very odd about the relationship dynamics in Mass Effect is the way that once the relationship is, ahem, consummated that’s where things end. That’s mostly because it’s towards the end of the game that Shepard and their chosen paramour go heels to Jesus but that isn’t how relationships work in real life and it’s not how they should work in games. A one night stand is fine and Shepard passes the gravy to a fair few former and current crewmates throughout Mass Effect 2 and 3 but they’re flashes in the pan compared to something with Garrus or Liara or, God forbid, Kaidan. The relationships in Mass Effect are basically well-written power fantasies created or destroyed by the player character saying “I like you” or not. Players deserve something more complex in their RPGs, something where the wrong thing said at the wrong time could fuck up the most charming dandy’s run at an NPC companion.
Some RPGs let you get greedy. A lot of players want to have their cake and eat it too (try not to think too hard about that metaphor in relation to this article’s content). The Witcher series will let Geralt chase after almost any relatively important female character in a skirt (or sensible pair of leather trousers). Similarly Mass Effect 2 threw the doors wide open when it came to who you could do the horizontal tango with. But none of this is conducive to roleplaying a successful, loving relationship which most RPGs let you do even if it does inevitably end in a bit of slap and tickle. At least Geralt has the excuse that he and Triss or he and Yennefer were on a break. Some people role-played Commander Shepard as the galaxy’s biggest nymphomaniac. With your assistant Shepard? You dog! This kind of stuff is fun but once you’ve spent time building a relationship with the likes of Garrus over the course of three games it loses some of its luster. It’s why the relationship dynamics of a game like Baldur’s Gate III feel relatively fresh.
The relationships of Larian Studio’s Early Access RPG are not just decided upon by your interactions with your NPC companions but by the choices you make that affect the game world too. BioWare had a similar choice in Dragon Age: Origins but that only felt unique because it was the first time a lot of players had lost a companion not to death but their own decision making. In Baldur’s Gate III you come across a Druid’s Grove harboring refugees. The druids want the refugees gone because the grove has come under attack by goblin forces due to their presence. It’s up to you to choose who to side with. Do you play hero and destroy the goblin threat or do you commit mass murder in order to steal the treasures of the grove for yourself?
Both choices have consequences. Siding with the goblins and their Drow (Dark Elf) leader nets you a vast amount of treasure from the grove as well as the guilty consequences of having slaughtered a boatload of innocent refugees and the hippie commune that was grudgingly protecting them. Wyll, your party’s heroic warlock, will leave disgusted at your callous disrespect for life in all its non-greenskin forms. A high skill check will allow you to keep a hold of your wizard Gale although it’s clear that your decision will affect him for a while to come. The Githyanki warrior Lae’zel and vampire rogue Astarion maintain the belief that the weak should die so the strong may thrive which means they’re happy either way. The most interesting character arcs on either side of this decision is that of Shadowheart, the goth chick cleric of the party.
Shadowheart – no last name given – is a half-Elf in service to the dark Goddess Shar which basically means she’s a very sardonic, defensive and secretive lady. Much like Miranda in Mass Effect 2 and 3 she maintains an icy exterior masking a deep well of emotion. This comes out on both sides of the Druid Grove decision. Side with the goblins and during the victory celebration back at camp you’ll find Shadowheart drunk enough to consider sleeping with your character. She won’t, mostly because she never sleeps with anyone when she’s been drinking but also because the wholesale slaughter has left her shaken. Later you can choose to engage in a pretty graphic display of bedroom rodeo with the Drow leading the goblins. Should you choose to save the grove however your night with Shadowheart will be far more interesting.
It’s important to note that Baldur’s Gate III is in Early Access right now and will be for the foreseeable future so a lot of what’s going on in the game now may be subject to change later on. But for the moment the relationships you build are pretty compelling especially with the hardened Lae’zel and Shadowheart. Whereas Lae’zel always seems moments away from grabbing the nearest rock and braining the person closest to her with it Shadowheart is a little more subtle. She’s not one to give freely of herself and it takes real effort and a few difficult skill checks to find the crack in her emotional armour. If you do things right and side with the druids rather than the goblins you’ll find yourself sharing a bottle of wine and a kiss with Shadowheart on the lip of a waterfall. It feels like the beginning of something earned built on a bedrock of trust and mutual respect. Maybe it’s a power fantasy, that’s what gaming has been built on since the beginning after all, but it doesn’t feel like one and that’s important.
RPGs have often and mostly still do see romance and relationships as something with an end goal whether it’s marriage or a night of rump-pumpy. Whether it’s a trilogy spanning romance with Liara T’Soni or a simple game of bury the bishop with Kiara Metz in The Witcher 3 these relationships always have an end goal which isn’t how real relationships work. Am I saying we should dispense with this method? No, everyone needs a low effort romantic fantasy now and again but love, more often than not, is something that’s built between two people rather than something they fall into. It would be nice to see more games reflect this by going the same route as Baldur’s Gate III but for now we may as well be happy making whoopee with aliens in 4K.