“The political regime of futurism, unable to escape what it abjects, negates it as the negation of meaning, of the Child, and of the future the Child portends.”
— Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive
“It’s just—you plan a career, you focus, then suddenly the world’s ending and it’s too late to find someone.”
The two men are sitting at a café together, a rare moment of calm considering the fact that, everywhere around them, civilization itself is being threatened by giant mechanical squid monsters. Just a few short paces away, mothers and frightened children bustle in lines demanding rations or pleading that their loved ones be sent home. The world is ending, everyone wonders aloud, so why can’t we spend it together?
“Someone?” Shepard asks.
They are both soldiers—thick and muscular men whose grim pallor betrays none of the emotions inside. Not the kind of men you’d expect, at least in this popular fiction, to be sharing a sunny afternoon together on a café terrace. What is this Shepard—what is your Shepard, thinking right now? Is there anything stewing in the long strings of code whirling around in that head beyond whatever you, the player, are going to tell him to do next?
“We’ve been friends a long time, Shepard. Ever known me to be with anyone? Guess I’m choosy or patient or … I don’t know. Maybe what I’ve never found—what I want—is something deeper with someone I already … care about. That’s what I want. What do you want?”
A pause. Is he considering that moment months earlier (or mere hours, depending on whom you’re asking) when he first met another man, Cortez, who in the first moments of professional conversation about military operating procedure mentioned his deceased husband? Thousands of years into the future, has the persistent question of whether or not qualified individuals should be allowed to serve their country if they’re gay finally been resolved for good? Or was it just the final threat of the Reapers that made politicians indifferent to sexual orientation once they saw earth decimated before their very eyes?
“You and me? Is that what you’re saying, Kaidan?”
“It feels right, doesn’t it?”
By this point, your role in the conversation is complete. There are no more wheels to turn, no more swivels between affirmation or rejection of Kaidan’s sudden, intense advances. The lest is left to scripting, some internal programming now churning the gears in Shepard’s head to switch between “straight” and “gay.”
“Be nice to have someone to turn to when things get grim,” your new Shepard says. “Someone to live for. Maybe love.”
He pauses for a moment, as if he’s trying this new self on for size.
“You, Kaidan. Huh. It does. It does feel right. After all this time. You and me. I like that. A lot.
When asked why BioWare had finally included a gay male Shepard character in the Mass Effect series, studio cofounder Greg Zeschuk justified the decision the way developers of role-playing games usually explain their work: "It's surprising that people think it's that big a deal. If you're creating this kind of content, it's very natural to provide all the options. So that's always kind of funny." Videogames are about choice, the reasoning stands. So the best videogames should offer the greatest number of meaningful choices.
It’s tempting to take this purely at its word, the same way it’s tempting for gay rights activists to imagine a future where the gears of our cultural mindset could be switched from “profound and systemic homophobia” to “just and unquestioned equality” as easily as turning a digital conversation wheel. In that way, the strangeness of Mass Effect 3’s gay choice isn’t the gay choice at all—it’s how unquestionably accepted it is by everyone in the Mass Effect universe. There are no protesters next to the café brandishing signs that read “GOD HATES FAGS.” When he approaches the Council at the beginning of the story to ask for their help defeating the Reapers, there is no elected official present to claim that, really, Shepard is “talking about taking the penis of one man and putting it in the rectum of another man and wriggling it around in excrement.”
Nobody does as much as nod in affirmation of this new Shepard. When he runs into Miranda, his flame from my previous game, I half expected her to hug him and say that, yes, he did seem distracted whenever they had sex and she’s so proud he has finally come into his own. Or maybe he would meet up with Jack one last time before returning to Earth, and she would make some joke about how she’s turned stronger men than he away from women for good.
Really, the only person that registers the gravity of the decision is Shepard himself. “After all this time,” he finally says when Kaidan teases the romance out of him. Something lay dormant, at least for this particular Shepard—the Shepard that only now has entered into his own after two saga-length epics and countless battles with hordes of aliens across every corner of the galaxy. In the bifurcated sexual epistemology of 21st century Western culture—a world of gays and straights, men and women, closets and streets—Commander Shepard had to come out, an action that necessarily implies that he was hiding it before.
On Wednesday, May 9, 2012, President Obama told ABC News, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” a statement deemed historic not for any of its ideological and ethical originality, but simply because no President has ever proclaimed his support for the issue so simply and directly. But of course his support wasn’t simple or direct. Immediately after, he quickly reaffirmed his support for states rights, thereby deflecting the entire question to a federalist concern. Really, Obama suggested, it was Republicans and conservative opponents of marriage equality that want to “re-federalize this issue and institute a constitutional amendment that would prohibit gay marriage.” The argument, as Lyle Denniston wrote shortly after the statement in SCOTUSblog, can be seen as a way to tactfully place the entire debate beyond his current reach—to beg the question of the logical inconsistency of not enforcing DOMA but refusing to intervene in California’s struggle over Proposition 8:
[I]t is very likely that — to the President — there is a distinct difference between striking down a federal law partly on grounds that it interferes with state powers, and striking down a state law passed by a legislature exercising the very state prerogative that the President has defended.
It’s a matter of choice, right? And the best government—or at least the most “democratic” one—should preserve the right to as much individual agency as possible, whether that be for states or persons.
Or so the argument goes. And it’s one that greater and greater courts are progressively approaching today in what many believe is a build-up to an inevitable Supreme Court case. Just weeks after Obama’s historic announcement, DOMA was ruled unconstitutional by a First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston—the first Federal Appeals Court to make such a ruling. More interesting than the ruling itself, however, was its intellectual and ideological basis. Traditional political thinking tends to position marriage equality as a civil right the federal government should therefore defend uniformly regardless of political contingencies, giving states like North Carolina the ability to appeal to federalist notions of local sovereignty in determining the fate of gay marriage. Really, Judge Michael Boudin argued in the unanimous opinion, it was the other way around:
[T]he denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married does burden the choice of states like Massachusetts to regulate the rules and incidents of marriage; notably, the Commonwealth stands both to assume new administrative burdens and to lose funding for Medicaid or veterans’ cemeteries solely on account of its same-sex marriage laws. These consequences do not violate the Tenth Amendment or Spending Clause, but Congress’ effort to put a thumb on the scales and influence a state’s decision as to how to shape its own marriage laws does bear on how the justifications are assessed.
So in reality it is DOMA that “intrudes extensively into a realm that has from the start of the nation been primarily confided to state regulation,” the ability to define “lawful marriage” being “a leading instance of the states’ exercise of their broad police-power authority over morality and culture.”
"The concept of “choice” is a much easier thing to advocate for—in games as in real life—than something genuinely queer.
Critics and gay rights activists see this as a necessary step toward marriage equality—an incremental approach to establishing civil rights slow enough to not scare anybody, but rapid enough to show that the arc of civilization truly is bending toward justice. But it reflects a larger trend in queer activism today that tries to harness libertarian and neoliberal economic and political values to craft a new defense of sexual freedom ensconced in the rhetoric of personal choice. Endorsements of gay marriage are just as powerful (if not moreso) when they come from private corporations as when they come from public figures.
And it’s a political strategy echoed by BioWare itself, a sentiment Mac Walters reflected when I spoke to him—the effort to give every Mass Effect player the fullest sense that their Shepard truly is theirs. It’s a clever way to beat “traditional” conservatives at their own game. In 2004, when John Kerry was running against George W. Bush, the pivotal social question asked at every debate was: Is homosexuality a choice? Thank Lady Gaga or any number of queer activists, but the answer finally seems to be: So what, isn’t “choice” what all you people want more of anyway? As Zeschuk said to Kotaku when explaining the choice: "If there's a political bent to it, it's very Libertarian."
My point here isn’t to point out the silly rhetorical similarities between videogames and contemporary politics, or even to make some grandiose statement that perhaps videogames as the consummate medium of the 21st century have unwittingly enshrined some neoliberal mindset by demanding everyone obsess over “choice” in the first place. Really, it’s just to note that the concept of “choice” is a much easier thing to advocate for—in games as in real life—than something genuinely queer. That something that now exists in Mass Effect and still does scare people. To see why, all you have to do is look at the game’s ending.
In a way, fucking in the face of the galaxy’s end is the clearest way to see what’s at stake for people in the real world today.
After all, it took two games just to make Shepard a gay man. Why was the choice to script this Shepard so controversial when other Shepards could already have sex with aliens resembling scaly artichokes and transgendered blueberries? Thane Krios and Tali Vas Normandy both offer radically asymmetrical relationships that harp on queer sensibilities given their biological incommensurability with human standards of intimacy. Thane is afflicted with fatal, incurable and unnamed disease that conjures direct comparisons to HIV/AIDS. And just to kiss Tali in the second game, she explains in embarrassment, she would have to dose herself with as much medication and multivitamins as the early drug cocktails invented for that same disease.
But is sex itself even meaningful when, as Ryan Kuo wrote in his review, the act is all just “frantic fucking in the face of the galaxy’s end?” In a way, fucking in the face of the galaxy’s end is the clearest way to see what’s at stake for people in the real world today. The threat to civilization is invoked in every defense of “traditional” notions of the family—images of children meant to stand in for any number of oppressive futural logics. Pope John Paul II warned almost a decade ago in his condemnation of same-sex unions: “Such a ‘caricature’ has no future and cannot give future to any society.” In his fiercely polemical work No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman meets this claim by demanding that queers must embrace their own image as harbingers of civilization’s end:
Queers must respond to the violent force of such constant provocations not only by insisting on our equal right to the social order’s prerogatives, not only by avowing our capacity to promote that order’s coherence and integrity, but also by saying explicitly what Law and the Pope and the whole of the symbolic order for which they stand hear anyway in each and every manifestation of queer sexuality: Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital ls and with small; fuck the whole network for Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.
It’s no coincidence that Mass Effect ends as it begins: with the image of a child. The shame Shepard feels in the hours in between is expressed through the nightmarish and increasingly exaggerated image of this same boy. When you first see him hiding in an abandoned building, you can either try to bring him or ask him to hide. But no matter what “choice” you make, the boy dies. The child here is dead and gone. With him went the world Shepard thought he knew, the world everyone begged you to defend—the world that had a future. Or at least one people could understand. “I am the solution,” his spectral reincarnation intones when you finally board the citadel in the game’s final moments. To what? Shepard asks. “Chaos.”
It’s the same child, he explains, because he stands for the same future—civilization’s endless renewal and repetition actuated by the reapers. “The created will always rebel against their creators,” he explains, so without this form of control over the future, there will only be chaos. But now, thanks either to your meddling or the Reapers’ incompetence, the universe’s entire mode of reproductive futurism is out of whack.
Again, you are given a choice. But again, the choice is almost meaningless. Shepard cannot simply “win” Mass Effect. No matter what color you dress it in, he fails in some sense—billions of people die, and the known universe is rent apart at the seams. The player never gets the idyllic image you and Kaidan speak about so lovingly mere hours before—the ability to settle down in some quiet corner of the universe and finally call it a day.
Civilization remains permanently unsettled. And maybe that’s what disturbed players so much they felt the need to protest for a neater ending. Shepard succeeds, sure, but only by embracing what Judith Halberstam calls “the queer art of failure.” As she writes in the book of the same name, "Success in a heteronormative, capitalist society equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation." Shepard abandons any notion of “success” in these terms, once he gives in to chaos. “But you’re taking away our future,” he implores of the child. Still, he must move forward. Like the drive itself, he must destroy something.
At the very end of Mass Effect, we see one more image of a child, staring up at the sky and inquiring innocently about the fate of “the Shepard,” a subject that’s ascended beyond the limits of individualism and into the realm of godhood. Maybe now there’s a new child, the game seems to ask, a new god, even a new future. But we’re not supposed to know.