Back when Mass Effect 2 was a few days from release, I loaded up a New Game Plus of my main career to make all the choices I wanted to stick with me for the sequel. It was going so well, until I discovered I had said one friendly thing too many to Liara and hadn't the time for a do-over. And so I was left with making one uncharacteristic Renegade dialogue option after another to deter the poor, virginal asari, who was only trying to help and didn't realize I was genuinely uninterested in having sex with her.
The infamous dialogue trees in the Mass Effect franchise preceed it. Bioware's Ray Muzyka calls it "emotional engagement." I call it "treating sex as the ultimate stage of a relationship." I'm not against participating in game romances; as much as I feel we burden the two franchises by constantly comparing Mass Effect and Dragon Age, it's true the two are siblings and yet one has vastly different ideas on relationships than the other. Dragon Age portrays romantic relationships which unfold over time, which deepen, and which face challenges. Sex is generally a part of that, but never to the extent it seems like the raison d'etre of pursuing some companionship in Mass Effect.
"Why so uptight?" you might be wondering. "Are you a prude or something?" Good thing you asked. For a while I thought that that was exactly where my discomfort stemmed from, although it didn't line up with the rest of what I thought I knew about myself. It took some lengthy self-discovery to realize that I just don't place sex and love in remotely the same category, and that I was hurting trying to convince myself I felt otherwise.
I categorize myself as panromantic asexual. I once described this on my blog as being "a hands-off Jack Harkness." I feel no compunctions about forming emotional relationships with people but I'm not interested in sex.
Because this isn't Kotaku, I am hoping I don't have to field any questions on whether I "just haven't found the right person" or "just suffer low self-esteem." I'll leave it to other websites to completely provide you with a rundown of what asexuality is and what it's like to be asexual, but the basis is this:
1. I don't believe you have to have sex with someone just because you're totally and utterly in love with them.
2. I don't believe intimacy needs to involve sex.
3. In fact, I don't believe in having sex at all.
4. There is tremendous social pressure against making the previous statements.
Unsurprisingly, this social pressure follows us into digital spaces as well. In games, of course, there's not just the expectation that love and sex are interchangeable, but the assumption that sex a la carte is somehow expected. We can attribute some of this to the straight male point of view behind the design of a lot of these games, but really, it's an attitude endemic of most of contemporary Western culture. And I don't mean to dispute sex-positivity as a largely good thing, provided it is distributed equally in all directions and doesn't lend itself to sexist hypocrisy (which in our culture it often does).
But growing up asexual, without even a name to put to your confusion and disconnect, can become increasingly frustrating. Especially if you want to believe your hobby of choice has value, is artistically or ethically defensible, and/or does something for you another entertainment medium can't. Unsurprisingly, games insist upon being written for the same sexual majority as film and books. Knowing I hadn't a chance in hell to reshape those attitudes, I tried to adjust my own instead. So it was that on every previous playthrough of the first Mass Effect, I followed the rules I thought would make me a sex-positive, liberal-minded, empowered adult woman gamer. I slept with the asari consort. And when the time came, I romanced and slept with one of my crew as well. It was for an achievement, after all, or if not that then the Easter egg, or to flaunt how enlightened I was, to be playing a game which put Fox News in such a moral panic. Sex! In a videogame! I was an adult now, damn it!
It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? As though choosing not to have sex weren't just as important as choosing to have it. But I had been programemd to believe that there was something uncomfortably abnormal about not wanting sex. No-- that there was something wrong about me.
It's almost embarrassing how much self-reflection it took to change my mind.
I've been playing through the series again recently, this time on PC. When it came time to wrap up the sidequest with the asari consort on the Citadel, an encounter which would end in sex if I wanted it to, I took stock of what I was doing and who I was intending to play as. I don't make my PCs resemble me in either appearance or behavior, but just this once, I wanted to try an experiment. I knew that I was going to pursue the Garrus romance in the second game, the one which leaves the physical act most ambiguous, with the presiding message that Shepard and Garrus have stopped caring about conforming to expectations. The goofy flirtation about "reach and flexibility" aside, it felt like one of the only romance plotlines in Mass Effect 2 which culminated in the emphasis on long-term, emotional companionship of the characters rather than some immediate, physical ritual which needed to be performed. (I have heard Tali fans profess something similar. And I understand that there is a sexless courtship to be had with Samara as well, a plotline I will have to pursue at some point. For curiosity if nothing else.)
With the future Garrus plotline in mind, I assessed the asari consort mission I was currently on and decided that a culture of how-to videos, completionist guides and treating sex as an achievement could go hang itself. I am not interested in casual sex and neither is my Shepard. And I don't need to keep pretending that I am just to fulfill some male gaze, heteronormative, mass culture prescription of (in this case faux-lesbian) sex-positivity.
Other people can have sex all they want, including with various NPCs. And I will still pursue whatever romantic plotlines and the implicit acts therein because I find them interesting-- and I recognize even the most well-meaning and inclusive mainstream game studios out there will likely never have a clue how to write an asexual romance (as though 99% of it were any different than a sexual one). But thank you, Bioware, for including at least one relationship arc in the Mass Effect franchise which says oh so explicitly, "we've seen the rules, they make us uncomfortable, so they can go hang." It takes the pressure off the one aspect of these "emotional engagement" sections I've always found hardest to cope with.
(That said, I would still like to have been able to tell a partner no. But the day Mass Effect manages to decouple sex from love is the same day Brian Ashcraft is out of a job.)