Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What's wrong with giving fans the FemShep they envisioned?

At the beginning of the month, I wrote a post defending both the apparent winner for the new default FemShep appearance (whom I called BlondeShep) as well as the vote for FemShep's appearance itself. If you're unfamiliar with the situation, you can see my summary as well as commentary here.

To summarize my commentary, I liked that they were giving us fans, who already have our own idea of what FemShep should look like, a chance to help decide the new default FemShep look. The original default was disappointing, and I had hoped that they would redesign her now that they were giving her a turn in the spotlight with her own cover art and trailer. I actually tweeted at the time:
In ME1&2, default MaleShep looked much cooler than default FemShep (modeled after an actual model). Hope they'll improve for #3.
13 Jun
Yes, the default male Shepard appearance was designed after a gorgeous male model because, being the Shepard used in all the trailers, covers, and promotional materials, he was the face of Mass Effect. I thought maybe they'd redesign FemShep after a model or actress. When they came out with the six images to vote on, I figured it was too much trouble/time/money to design her after a face model. But also, at this point we've already played as FemShep and designed her as we saw fit. BioWare is making the FemShep trailer and cover art because the fans want it. Why not let the fans give input on how they imagine her?

As it turned out, the vote may not have been decided by the passionate FemShep players but by the majority Mass Effect demographic of young men voting for the Shepard they thought looked the hottest. Disappointing, but what can you do? A lot of people complained about the apparent winner being the blonde, but I argued that the blonde still looks badass--even with loose hair. I did have one complaint about the vote, though: While I wanted FemShep to have brown hair (like me!), I had to agree that the blonde's hairstyle was the most flattering. It wasn't fair. Had they given the blonde a tight bun, and had the longer wispy hair style in black, brown, or red, would the blonde still have won? Did she win because of her coloring, or because of the style? I wondered.

In the week or so after I wrote my post, things seemed to be settling down. The vote was over, and people accepted that the blonde still made a cool FemShep (as illustrated in this Penny Arcade comic). And then came Round 2 of voting.

Apparently I wasn't the only one who liked the blonde's hair style but wished it were a different color. The folks at BioWare noticed these comments and organized Round 2, which took the BlondeShep design but offered it in four different hair colors. Having accepted the blonde already, I was slightly weary of the whole ordeal at the time this second vote came up, but it was, after all, what I'd wished for. I voted for the brunette, then decided I really liked how the hair style and eye color looked with the black hair, and voted for her too. It looks like the redhead is going to win, but I'm fully satisfied at this point. Done.

But the controversy is not done. I'm still reading things that I feel the need to respond to. In her post at The Mary Sue, Becky Chambers criticizes the FemShep redesign and vote. It's clear that she liked the original default FemShep; I didn't, but there's nothing to be done about opinion. Still, she specifically complains about the six FemShep appearances offered in the first round of voting, calling them "foxier", saying that they look too young, and supposing that the type of person who would like them is the type who would obsess over FemShep's lipstick color.

I can address these concerns. "Foxy" is not the first thing that came to my mind when I saw the FemShep designs. Determined, strong, confident, defiant, and--sure--pretty are what I see in them. Becky says she imagines Shepard in her thirties, but one doesn't have to imagine Shepard in her thirties. Shepard was born in 2154; the events of Mass Effect take place in 2183; Mass Effect 2 takes place in 2185. If she is 31, that makes her the same age as...Katee Sackhoff. A year older than Summer Glau. Two years younger than Zoe Saldana. Now, maybe my problem is that I'm bad at determining the apparent age of animated characters, but the FemSheps don't look out of line for 31. She also says she imagines FemShep with the "practical" hair of the original default, in contrast with BlondeShep's loose shoulder-length locks. But if you look at the original's hair style, she has loose chin-length locks. They are just as likely to get in her eyes as shoulder-length hair, if not more, since it's hard to tuck those front hairs behind the ears. And lastly, no, I didn't obsess over FemShep's lipstick color. I chose my FemShep's lip color to look like she wasn't wearing any lipstick. But that doesn't mean I can't like the way she looks with mascara. If Shepard has time to solve random domestic disputes around the citadel, she can put on a little mascara in the morning.

At the end of the post, Becky finally throws up her hands with an "Oh, for fuck's sake" at the idea of the second round of voting. I've already done what I can to defend, justify, and praise the new designs and BioWare's decision to let us vote on them. My defense of the second round of voting is basically the same as that of the first round. Let me put it this way:

I love Mass Effect. This makes my 45th post discussing Mass Effect on my blog (I'm kind of stunned to notice this, but that is over 10% of my total number of posts). I always play as FemShep--I don't even use the term FemShep outside of this specific topic because to me, she is simply Shepard. I gave her the longest hair that the designers offered, with little to no makeup (you can see my ME1 Shepard in the middle of my title banner). I did not like the default Shepard in Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2. I thought her face was bland and unmemorable, even with that scar, far below the standard of the default male Shepard and similar in quality to any bit player NPC. I wanted a new default FemShep. I liked being able to vote on her appearance to make her look how I envisioned her. I liked the long hair style--no, tousled hair does not get in Commander Shepard's way--but wanted to see it in different colors. BioWare delivered. The vote may not have gone as I wanted, but that's what happens when you don't share the most popular opinion. I accept that.

I see FemShep as a feminist icon, a paragon of female video game characters (whether you play her as a paragon or a renegade). I'm thrilled she's getting her own promotional material, and I'm grateful for what BioWare has done making a FemShep to please fans and to stand proudly opposite MaleShep. The vote is fitting, not ridiculous. I am a FemShep fan, and I am happy. What else is there to say?


Vanessita said...

My choice was for the redhaired femShep and it's winning, yay!

I too was disappointed with the previous result, a blond Shepard and looking like a model, come on! Where's the badass in that! I voted for a dark haired and a redhaired styles. Like you said, I bet half of those votes were from men, but luckily fem Shepard is a badass hero, not an objectified, sexyfied icon (and part of that behaviour comes from being the female version of a male hero, which is kinda lucky that they didn't have it in their hearts and pockets to chance much because of her gender). I was hoping for a goodlooking fem shep, but not quite like a supermodel. I'm still rooting for them to put some slight age marks on her face on the game, according to her age, like male Shepard. Overall, I'm willing to overlook if she is slighly more goodlooking than him, but a super beauty will be too surreal for my taste.
All this goes out of the making a poll question. The fact that they're listening to their audience is awesome, I suspect it's something they're gonna always do from now on.

Eleni said...

Red hair is nice, and maybe it will appease some of the people who liked the original default, since I think her hair was red.

It's true, that in a way, FemShep is a great female protagonist because she's the female version of a male character. The way that BioWare games work, where your gender doesn't matter except for romances, actually has quite a nice effect in creating heroines who are complex and interesting and not oversexualized. I always thought the male Shepard looked really good, so I just want FemShep to be on par with him. But yeah, a scar or something would probably be a nice touch.

I think this poll was a special case. Normally they just promote whatever game they have with the male protagonist (as with Dragon Age 2 as well) and ignore the female, which is kind of unfair, but I guess that's how marketing works. Mass Effect became a popular enough franchise with enough sequels so that they felt they could afford to do a trailer and cover art with FemShep, who they realized was quite popular (even if only 20% of people play her). Because they were suddenly going to start doing promotional stuff with a character they'd never planned to use in that way, they needed to redesign her, and because she's already established in fans' minds they figured they'd ask for fan input. I don't know if anything like this would happen again, especially not with all the backlash (and backlash on the backlash, and backlash on the backlash on the backlash...).

Vanessita said...

Maybe more people would have played with fem Shep if Bioware had the same care with her as they had with male Shep from the beginning. I too would have appreciated that they made her face based on some a person, like Mark Vanderloo. Not just for the looks (though the defauld fem Shep knows how to be ugly :P) but also for the more realistic features.
I don't think they'll make a poll for future games, maybe. But I believe they're listening much more to the audience response on the forums and using this feedback for future developments. Otherwise maybe Mass Effect would come out sooner and unpolished like Dragon Age 2 (perish the thought). Or maybe they're just more zealous about the Mass Effect franchise especifically, who knows. I'm glad they are, it's my favorite game so far.

Vanessita said...

Sorry for the typos :P

Eleni said...

It was always a little annoying having my Shepard stand next to Miranda or Samara, who being modeled after real people had interesting, realistic faces (though who's to say what a realistic Asari face is...whatever). And important characters like party members, being carefully designed by the BioWare artists, always looked cooler, too (e.g. Jack, Jacob). It would have been nice if they'd made the default female Shepard with the same care as the male Shepard.

I think BioWare is getting more fair to the female players, and players who like to play as the female character. DAO was the first game I've played that offered more than one male romantic interest, and ME2 was the first one where it seemed like it was a fair choice (sorry, Zevran's not my type, haha). Male characters have had multiple women to choose from since Baldur's Gate 2, but women had to suffer through a couple games with the alternate love interest being female before we actual got multiple males. It's definitely improving, and the FemShep trailer is a step in the right direction, getting us out of the closet.

And yes, I definitely hope that the extra time will make Mass Effect 3 the best game ever. It's too bad DA2 was released unpolished, but hopefully now EA has learned its lesson :)

Professor Unpossible said...

So, back when the first contest was going on I made a comment that I had "trouble relating to the people who were complaining, because my choice for Shepard won." Now that the second vote's over, and my Shepard *lost*, I feel like I understand the feelings more...perhaps even stronger, because I spent a while thinking she'd *won*.

The verdict is...it's kind of annoying, actually. To have your vision for what Shepard is supposed to be up there, and then not chosen? It sucks, because now you get to look at that Shepard on the box and know your's could have been there...but isn't, because not enough people agreed with you. I'll live, though.

What I *am* mad about is how people seem so happy that the default Shepard isn't blond. It's annoying how many people seem to dismiss blonds out of hand, which is a result of how the media tends to portray them. Blond men in fiction are usually evil, or at least jerks; blond women area always scheming sexpots or bubbly idiots. Blond people can be other things, you know. I think Tycho said it best: "I always forget which people we may stereotype safely."

The implication that, everything else identical, a blond Shepard is somehow less of a badass than a redheaded Shepard is offensive to me. The implication that the blond Shepard won the first round because she was an "objectified, sexyfied icon" who was voted for primarily by horny men makes me very, very angry. I am a man. I am (frequently) horny. I did NOT vote for Blond Shepard because I thought she was sexiest, I voted for her because I genuinely thought she was the coolest looking, most badass option.

Is it so hard to assume that others made the same decision? Redheaded Shepard winning isn't a victory for feminism, or for the True (i.e. female only, apparently) fans of FemShep, it's a victory for...fans of Redheaded Shepard. Congrats to them! Nuts to the rest of you.

Professor Unpossible said...

Okay, so that last one was a *little* bitter; I think I can explain myself in a slightly more calm and reasoned manner.

Essentially, my problem with this whole thing isn't that the Redheaded Shepard won and that people are happy about it. It's not great, because my favorite lost, but that's the nature of the beast. What I am mad about is how, every step of the way, the one thing that people seem to agree on is how having a Blond Shepard would somehow be sexist and wrong. When she was winning, people said it was only because a bunch of horny men were voting for the 'sexiest' one. When she loses, it's all "Thank God she didn't win, I don't want some sort of weak, pathetic, 'wilting start princess' representing Shepard." Either way, she loses.

First, the implications that Blond Shepard is more attractive (and thus more sex-objectified and un-badass) than the others is bunk. Near as I can tell, all of the Shepards' faces are identical, save for (initially) skin color and hair style/color, and then simply hair color. I can see you finding one thing or another more attractive, but for the most part it's all subjective. Blond Shepard's physical features would have been identical to Redhead or Brunette Shepard. Only the perception is different; Shepard is going to be attractive either way.

Second, the idea that an attractive Shepard is some sort of sex-object and can't be badass...is also bunk. Yes, it's true that in a lot of media physical attractiveness and sex appeal is chosen over considerations like ability or intelligence...but that's not the case here. Shepard's a badass, through and through; her appearance is irrelevant to this fact. Besides, nobody complains that male Shepard is based on a model, which are typically known for being attractive. In fact, most of the guys on the ship are pretty attractive...Mr. "Tight Abs & Buns" Taylor, Sere "I was designed specifically to be attractive to female fans" Krios, even Garrus has that "ugly-cute" thing going for him. None of them are less cool for being attractive; why should Shepard?

I guess that, in the end, I don't think that Bioware should have held the vote at all...in that form. Instead, they should have had some sort of voting thing where you put your favorite hair, favorite skin tone, and favorite hair color for a female Shepard, counted the votes and then selected a model for her that fit the majority. Making the Shepards first and then asking people to vote for them is too messy; you can 'listen to the fans' without actually putting the fans in charge.

Eleni said...

I agree that all the criticism of the blond Shepard was out of line. All of the Shepards were beautiful, and that is fine with me. You're right, the crew members were all beautiful, and besides, this is the entertainment business--if it were a movie, can you imagine the actress cast as Shepard NOT being beautiful?

I can understand why people would vote for the blonde regardless of the hair color, and not just because she's the sexiest, because I thought she had the coolest hair style. As I said, I perceived that hair style as an unfair advantage and wanted to see how it would fare with other hair colors. I got my wish with the second vote, though my color choice(s) didn't win. I'm sorry that you had your first choice victory snatched away from you, but mine was never leading in the first place. Ah well.

It would have saved a lot of headaches if they'd just come out with a new default design and said "This is it. End of story." Probably would have had some complaints as well, but perhaps not so much and so long of a debate.

Professor Unpossible said...

You most definitely were right about the hair *style* being the thing people were probably voting for the first time around. Assuming that most of the people who voted did so both times (I did so neither, because both times I didn't realize it was going on until it was too late), then most of the people who voted for blond Shepard must have switched to redhead Shepard...makes a lot of the post-round one whining seem silly.

I will put one last defense of blond Shepard in that there are very few blonds in Mass Effect (Conrad Verner is the only one I can think of offhand) that it would serve to make her stand out more; there are plenty of prominent brunettes and redheads. Ah well, I'll stop bellyaching; the only thing that has changed is that I just won't have to decide between the default and the Shepard I've been using.

Vanessita said...

Professor, I'm surprised and sorry that somehow you felt offended by my comments. I assure you that I was only expressing my particular honest opinion about it, to which everybody is entitled, and it was absolutely not meant for anyone specifically. If you read again you'll, see I used the expression "half of the votes", because obviously not all the people/guys who voted for blondshep in the first poll match the comment. Every person has a personal taste, I believe people (men and women) chose the blonde option for various reasons, including the one I imagined and the one you actually did.

As for her face, I mentioned somewhere I'd like her not to look so young and pretty. Not ugly, but not like a supermodel either, so it's not just the hair. Honestly, I didn't think male Shepard to be that handsome at first, even being modelled after a famous guy. But my opinion changed the more I played with him, now I think he's super hot! I'd like fem Shep not to be the obvious kind of beauty, but the one that is charming and gets under your skin with time, like male Shep was for me. Of course it's a matter of personal taste and many will disagree.

Anyway, I can't help but being glad she's not blonde, it's just how I feel and it won't change, though I never wanted to offend anybody by it. Luckily I was among the winners this time, but it is not always so. You said yourself you understood people's complainings more after you lost than when you were winning. That's true for me too. And it's true about sexists stereotypes, you understand it better when you're a woman. I'm a natural blonde (painting it black), by the way. I know sometimes it's necessary to stand up for our thoughts to be heard about something that's seriously bothering us in a personal level. But on the internet, most times I avoid stress by not taking what I read personally. I'm sorry if you felt bad for what I said, it was not my intention! Hopefully venting it made you feel better... Wish you well, Professor!

Vanessita said...

I wish they would give us the option to change some aspects (like hair color, eye color, nose, mouth) from the default Shepard without completely changing her face. Not likely to happen, I guess... Oh, well.

Eleni said...

Professor Unpossible - Yeah, I can't think of any important female characters who are blonde. Though I can't think of any with brown hair off the top of my head, either...A couple black haired, one bald (Jack might have brown, if she grew it out), a redhead, gray. I guess a lot of the characters have no hair at all! Oh well. I'll be using my old Shepard, too. You're right--at least it makes the decision between the new default and our old customs easier.

Vanessita - It would be nice if they would let us modify the default. They treat it almost as something sacred, where if you don't want it exactly, you have to start from scratch (and you can't use many of the default features, such as eye shape if I remember correctly, at all). It kind of makes sense not to model the one who looks like a real person, but it makes less sense for the default female.

Christel said...

This is awesome!