Now that Mass Effect Legendary Edition, the remaster of BioWare’s groundbreaking space trilogy, is out, the video game series is likely to reach a whole lot of first-time players—especially considering the current drought in new game releases. If you’re one of those players, first of all, welcome! You’re in for an incredible RPG experience packed with adventure, gunfights, telekinesis, ethical quandaries, space politics, and romanceable aliens. In Mass Effect, your choices have real consequences on the story, and you should feel free to experiment accordingly.
But here’s one choice you absolutely shouldn’t make: Do not, under any circumstances, play the protagonist as a guy.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with men. I’m one myself! It’s totally OK to be a man, and in most circumstances, it’s perfectly OK to choose to play a male character in a video game when given multiple gender options. Many men find it very affirming of their identity to see their body type and masculine presentation reflected by their choice of on-screen simulacrum. According to BioWare, more than 80 percent of Mass Effect players chose to play as the male version of Shepard over the course of the trilogy’s initial release, and I’m sure most of these players simply didn’t know any better. That’s why I’m telling you before it’s too late that the female version of our hero Commander Shepard is the superior Shepard, and I insist you play as her.
The reason the female version of Shepard is so remarkable is due to the voice acting of Jennifer Hale, who elevates the character beyond the realm of superlatives. There are other reasons to play as FemShep (as fans affectionately call her), but if you miss this voice performance due to male insecurity (or because male Shepard is the quick start option), you’re missing what may well be the greatest voice performance in video game history.
This is not a criticism of the voice acting of Mark Meer, who plays the male version of Commander Shepard, any more than recognition of Mozart’s genius is a criticism of Antonio Salieri. Meer gives a perfectly competent reading of the character—at times, it’s even downright good. However, as almost all the lines are the same between the male and female versions of Shepard, comparing the two allows you to appreciate the full depth and passion in Hale’s voice acting. Male Shepard is a video game character. He’s … fine. But female Shepard feels like a living, breathing person. She is a tough, demanding leader who inspires loyalty in the men, women, and gender-free aliens of her crew through personal excellence, exacting standards, impatience with politics and social niceties, and, if you play the Paragon decision tree, high moral values and moments of kindness and compassion. (If you play as a Renegade, she deals more in threats and intimidation.)
The authenticity of the female Shepard’s characterization is revelatory. Women still face an uphill struggle in gaining and excelling within leadership roles in real life, because many people don’t have a fully realized template for what success looks and sounds like in a female leader. Mass Effect transports you to a world where a woman in a combat leadership role is completely natural. Even as FemShep speaks the same lines as the male Shepard, her relationships with men and other women read differently because she’s a woman. Her position of authority is no less solidly held, but it is unmistakably the authority of a competent and high-achieving woman, not that of a man. If you’ve had an excellent female boss, or if (like me) you supported Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy for president, there’s something in there you may recognize. If you never have, then you more than anyone need to play this video game as female Shepard.
In gaming, there’s a well-known trade-off between allowing for player choice and self-determination and telling a well-paced story with strong, specific characters. If a player can do or say anything at any time, then there’s no room for narrative structure or developing relationships between the player character and nonplayer characters. However, if the player’s choices have no impact at all, a game can feel confining, and the experience of playing it may become unsatisfying. Mass Effect 3’s famously disappointing ending is an example of the latter: Throughout the series, the player felt that their decisions had real and lasting consequences in the world, but then the final cutscene of ME3 played out nearly identically, regardless of the player’s actions. Allowing the player to choose between a male and female Shepard, however, is an example of too much choice resulting in less specificity and poorer narrative quality. Commander Shepard is a more interesting, deeper, and more fully realized character as a woman. Everyone who plays the remastered trilogy should start with a female Shepard.