It’s always wise to be careful what you wish for, as evidenced by the rise of customization and immersion never before thought possible in modern video games; a dream come true that brought with it some unique challenges. Story-driven action games putting players into a character’s shoes stepped closer to cinema than ever before, and role-playing games allowed players to truly create a figure in their own image. But the latter genre makes marketing a bit of a challenge.
Take the Mass Effect series, for example: a game allowing players to choose their own path, their own appearance, and even their own gender. But a franchise as ambitious as BioWare and EA hoped would require a face for the masses, meaning to the world at large (and to those who simply chose the default character settings), series hero Commander Shepard was a dark-haired, Caucasian male. But apparently, that wasn’t the original plan.
At this point, anyone familiar with the Mass Effect brand likely has the image of the canonical Commander burned into their memory. But according to Jonathan Cooper, animation lead on both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 (currently working on Uncharted 4) the original plan for Commander Shepard sported had one key difference from the final version:
Ten years ago this month, my very first anim test for Mass Effect. Yup, Commander Shepard was originally a woman: pic.twitter.com/FhC2E0FSrA— Jonathan Cooper (@GameAnim) January 9, 2015
The early animation footage will come as vindication for every Mass Effect player who chose to experience the game as a female Shepard (fondly coming to be known as ‘FemShep’), as it’s now possible to argue that she is, in fact, the intended ‘true’ version of the galaxy-saving protagonist. And as the debate continues in some circles as to the superior voice performances (and romance options) any new ammunition is welcome.
Cooper went on to clarify that both male and female characters were intended from the start, with the animation seen above re-purposed from motion capture used on BioWare’s previous Jade Empire. But the fact remains: Commander Shepard was initially conceived as a woman warrior.
More than anything, this revelation from Cooper seems to show just how early BioWare was looking to chart a new course for their biggest brands in terms of gender. After two games of being confined to the back seat, Mass Effect 3 saw a concerted effort to get the fan community involved in determining the new, more refined, canonical appearance for FemShep as well (eventually resulting in the redhead pictured above). But much has changed since then.
Few game studios (or publishers, for that matter) have made as unwavering a stance on inclusive representation than BioWare and EA, taking strides to simply include under-represented segments of society inside of their sprawling game worlds (without making the game about LGBT issues, for instance). The quality of voice performance from FemShep actress Jennifer Hale showed they cared just as much about those who role-played as the perceived ‘other’ Shepard, but Dragon Age Inquisition showed the progressive philosophy was company-wide.
Inquisition remains one of the best games of this year according to most outlets, and one of the few in which players are likely to interact more with women than man. But even as small a touch as randomly selecting which gender and race to offer as the ‘default’ prior to customization shows steps forward aren’t hard to take. Now, it looks as though BioWare had planned to take an even more noticable step before the first Mass Effect was even unveiled.
In the end, the same core philosophy remains true: that for each individual player, their version of Commander Shepard is the only one that matters. Still, it’s worth considering the different reactions that Mass Effect may have received if it put a human woman front and center against a galaxy of prejudice and xenophobia.
What do you think of Cooper’s revelation? Are you happy to see that BioWare likely did value both genders of the character equally (at the very least), or is this another feather in the cap of those who argue that the female Shepard has strengths that can’t be found anywhere else? Sound off in the comments.
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