The Evolution of FemShep
Commander Shepard of Mass Effect fame, affectionately named FemShep if you pick a women, or Sheploo (Based on the name Mark Vanderloo, the man from whom the male version was facially mapped) if you play as a man, is one of my favourite characters in a video game. Bioware has created many a compelling protagonists and companion character, but their real skill lies in allowing the player to do the work. Shepard truly is who you make him or her. Every choice they make is your choice, and the consequences can be biblical across all subsequent games in a way that is unprecedented in this medium. It can be as subtle as choosing the more ruthless approach to an ethical dilemma, or as huge as being forced to sacrifice a team member who is gone permanently, across all three games. The Shepard you create becomes incredibly personal and it only takes you to hear the voice and you’re instantly imagining your own version; the real version!
FemShep, the female incarnation of the ubiquitous Commander Shepard, is a female character like no other. But her popularity was simply never expected. Her appearance in Mass Effect 1, though lauded in the end, was tacked on and under thought in a fair few ways. Her facial mapping was non-existent, unlike for Sheploo and the customization choices were limited and she wasn’t involved in any sort of marketing campaign, despite being the main character for many people. I didn’t even know there was an option to pick a female character when I first played; such was her lack of support. Yet her impact was more far reaching than any of us could have imagined. Many attribute her success to the voice actress in charge of bringing FemShep to life. She is voiced by Jennifer Hale while Mark Meer takes on the role of Sheploo. I’ve played Mass Effect 1 the whole way through as both a man first and then a woman and the differences are important. Mark Meer is a good voice actor, no doubt, but Jennifer Hale is a great one. She brings a degree of humanity to FemShep that is lacking in Sheploo. He’s more monotonous and emotion doesn’t come across as well with him as it does with her. Jennifer Hale doesn’t just give her a voice, she gives her a life.
This is my Shepard. It’s weird that showing her feels like a very personal experience because of how special she is to me, I couldn’t bear for anyone to not like her! She’s not classically beautiful but she’s not meant to be. Shepard is the best that humanity has to offer, not the most beautiful. That was my basis for her creation. And also another reason why FemShep represents such a great move in the gaming world.
Not only did she capture the hearts and minds of some of the male players, but women were smitten. I know I was. FemShep was our perfect protagonist; bold, courageous and strong. Her gender is never pointed out, she’s simply a strong person, a strong human and the notion of ‘female’ doesn’t come into it. She just is. She and Sheploo can be as ruthless as each other and there’s no difference in the way the rest of the characters treat them. She’s a true barrier breaker. She’s never portrayed as a sex object, in fact, the tables are turned and the control is very much with the player. If you want to pursue a relationship, that’s great, but it’s never compulsory and it never feels forced or demeaning.
I think a lot of her popularity has to do with how vocal female fans are. When there’s something going right, they’re not afraid to get out there and let everyone know. Fanfiction and fanart have always been popular amongst the female fandom and their praise of FemShep was wide spread and heartfelt. It truly makes such an astounding difference to be able to play as a woman like FemShep, a character who breaks down every stereotype in the business and offers you one of the most complete and wonderful gaming experiences. And we love to tell the industry when they’ve got it right, just to make sure they keep up with more of the same and improve upon already great ideas.
Despite her popularity amongst the fans and her critical praise, Bioware went on to make a bit of a mess of things in Mass Effect 2. All gender specific animations went straight out the window and FemShep ended up running like she had two beach balls down her ablative trousers. I don’t think anyone wanted her to be ‘girly’ in her movements; they just wanted her to walk like a normal human female. Romance options increased though, for both genders and it was a nice to have more choice and more chance to develop a relationship with a character that previously wasn’t available. But the animations were very jarring and seemingly removing them was an odd decision, considering how they were totally fine in ME1.
There was some evidence to say that this lack of support on FemShep’s part was quite an endemic and engrained part of the industry. Jesse Houston (Producer at Bioware working on all 3 Mass Effect’s) famously said on twitter that FemShep was the fans’ favourite but not marketing’s. He claimed they were not iconic enough, unlike Sheploo or Male Hawke. (Full quote: Not in the least. Just Man Hawke is iconic like Man Shep is for Mass Effect. Fem Shep is the fan favorite though but not mkting.”). This was a bit of an odd statement though because they were only iconic due to the fact that Bioware had released and marketed no other version. It was ManShep and ManHawke every time and FemShep didn’t get a look in. I imagine that if she has been released simultaneously with ManShep, she could have gained a similar status. As it turns out, she has gained that status; it just took her a little longer to come to our attention.
But Bioware know where they need to go for ME3 and evidence suggests that they’re finally realising how much of an impact FemShep has had on players and scaling up their efforts accordingly. They decided to release the decision regarding the default FemShep to the players and set up a poll to decide who the new figure head for FemShep would be. I think this was a good move and it at least makes me feel more positive about how seriously they are taking it.
I for one will be very sad when this trilogy finally ends and I am forced to put my FemShep to bed. Journeying with FemShep at the helm is very different but very, very rewarding and the whole gaming experience – the graphics, the writing, the story, the characters – have been some of the best I’ve ever had. Bioware have done many things right in their time, but FemShep to me will always be a pinnacle of achievement for them. She sets a precedent that I hope will be followed many times over for female protagonists. Any of you guys played Mass Effect as a woman and felt the same? Or perhaps felt diametrically opposed! I’d love to hear.