Finding a woman as the main protagonist in a video game is still an all-too-rare occurrence. Despite the progress that has been made over the years, video games continue to struggle with the idea of a woman in the lead role and how to portray her. Those developers and designers that have trouble in this area should take a look at one example in particular to learn how to do this right: Commander Shepard from BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy.
One of the primary reasons I enjoy the Mass Effect series so much is Commander Shepard. While I’ve connected to many playable characters, both male and female, in games, I always like being able to play as a woman, and thanks to the way Shepard was handled, playing as her was an experience I have yet to find matched in any other game. She is an example of an amazing female lead character, and the reasons why start at the very beginning of the trilogy.
When you start a new game in Mass Effect you can customize not just your Shepard’s appearance, but her personal history and service background. No matter what you choose, however, these options never change the core fact that she is an accomplished and skilled soldier who is respected by her colleagues and ordinary citizens who have heard of her deeds. It’s hard for anyone to argue against her being exceptional at her job. As the series progresses, it becomes clear that Shepard is in charge and in control no matter the situation she’s thrown into. She’s a true leader and the only being in the galaxy that can lead everyone to victory.
Shepard never falls into the trap of being a one-note character with no other characteristics except to kill things. Starting out with a chosen backstory and history is just the beginning of Shepard’s story and lays the groundwork for her to become a more fleshed out character over the course of the games. Whether the player makes renegade or paragon choices, Shepard manages to get into her fair share of trouble, pisses people off, changes others’ lives for the better, and makes enemies and friends. Through the trilogy, she can be tough and strong, unsure and angry, caring and confident, sympathetic and dismissive, and much more. Too often in video games a female protagonist isn’t given as much of a range to deal with and can be boxed in when it comes to what they can do or who they are.
Some might argue that this doesn’t make Shepard a good example of a female lead because all of this is just due to her participating in a story where the default main character choice is male. In Mass Effect, gamers can choose whether to play as a man (known as MaleShep) or a woman (known as FemShep) . Male and female Shepards are equally capable, talented heroes of the galaxy not because they are the best woman or man, but because they are the best being for it. Anyone regardless of gender can be the hero, can have this role, and Mass Effect does an excellent job of showing that. Why should my Shepard’s story of heroism be vastly different from MaleShep’s? Anyone unsure about this should consider the character of Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise. Originally Ripley was going to be a man, but ultimately Sigourney Weaver was cast in the role. Due to that she doesn’t fall into many of the stereotypical traps other female characters do when stories are written for them and she has become one of the greatest heroes in pop culture. Is her role as a hero any less amazing because it wasn’t originally written with a woman in mind?
If you spend time playing as a female Shepard, there are little things that do change and make it a different experience to play as a woman even if the core elements of her heroism remain the same. This is most pronounced in the way people interact with you, both positively and negatively. The most common change people bring up is of course the romance options, which are different for a female and male Shepard. Too often, lead female characters are forced to have romantic connections instead of remaining unattached, but with Shepard you can have a completely romance-free narrative if you want, forgoing the need to be defined by a personal relationship. Even if you do pursue a romance, it never becomes a sole reason for Shepard's actions or take away anything from her journey.
In addition to romances, how you relate to certain characters also changes. For example: In Mass Effect 3, you can bond with the rescued krogan Eve during a conversation that is a great cross-species moment that you miss out on if you’re not a woman. There are also negative interactions with characters, such as Harkin hitting on you in the first game and the Batarian in Mass Effect 2’s Archangel mission assuming you’re a stripper. It’s unfortunate that the dialogue changes for a woman have one too many of these types of interactions, but to me they are at least offset by how Shepard can respond to them. None of the negative comments leave one mark on Shepard or deter her from her goals for a second.
Possibly one of the most important aspects of Shepard is how the character is never forced into a sexualized position. While her standard N7 armor does have a bit too much boobplate, it’s not that distinctive and looks functional, like something a soldier would actually wear. You can also swap her N7 armor for options that don’t have that shape at all. You won’t catch Shepard in bikini armor or suddenly being forced into her underwear—it's only a choice if she wants to romance someone.
Last but not least, Shepard's character is brought to life thanks to the exceptional voice acting of Jennifer Hale. Through Hale’s performance allows Shepard to be a more layered character versus a one-dimensional one.
This is not to say there weren’t missteps with how Shepard was handled, like the failed marketing of her character where she was hardly represented at all. I have hope the marketing aspect will at least change with Andromeda after the latest trailer. Whether or not Ryder- like Shepard-will be a great female protagonist obviously remains to be seen. Hopefully BioWare has learned from their success with Shepard and will continue and improve on it in Andromeda. For others in the industry, they should take a closer look at Shepard the next time they struggle with the idea of a woman in the lead role because this is the best female protagonist in gaming to date.