Thursday, February 9, 2012

FemShep...An Appreciation.

There have been many, many heroes of science fiction since Philip Francis Nowlan's classic, "Armageddon 2419 A.D.", the story that introduced us to Buck Rogers and Wilma Deering. There have been so many, in fact, it's not possible to list them all in a single blog. Sci-fi heroes come in many stripes, but the best of them are those who answer the call of one kind of duty or another, to serve the needs of others before serving themselves. No matter their motivations, their simple yet profound goal is to make a difference and bring the fantastic circumstances around them to a positive conclusion. As was classically stated in a much more contemporary mythology created by Gene Roddenberry, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

But it's those few heroes who always deserve our focus, no matter where they came from or what they're fighting. Taking the mythology of "Star Wars" alone, heroes can have very different roots from one another. Luke Skywalker was once a farmboy who dreamed of adventure. Han Solo was a consummate rogue and mercenary who looked out for his own concerns. Princess Leia was bonafide royalty who at first sympathized, and then at first clandestinely worked with the Rebellion that wanted to reinstate the Republic. All became heroes fighting for the same cause, the end of the Galactic Empire. Even Darth Vader became one of that mythology's heroes by resisting the Dark Side once and for all and sending Emperor Palpatine's evil ass down a reactor shaft to oblivion. (Let's discount who he once was, Hayden Christiansen's 'Annie' Skywalker, because HE was so damn annoying.)

The sci-fi hero always steps into the fire because no one else can...or so no one else has to. They lead with the one desire that others follow their example. In video games alone, we've seen our fair share of sci-fi heroes. Whether they had names like Samus Aran, Solid Snake and Jill Valentine or were simply nameless Space Marines, each made their mark in the hearts of minds of gamers in particular and geeks in general.

And that long line of heroes in video games has so far culminated in "Mass Effect's" Commander Shepard, who is truly unique in the sense that the gamer chooses what kind of hero he or she is. Just as there is more than one option to choose where Shepard came from -- but he or she will always be Human -- the gamer has even more options to decide the Commander's appearance, even whether or not to include facial scars from combat. There are even options for what kind of reputation this hero has, from being the sole survivor of a brutal a war hero who faced pitched combat before and someone cold in their efficiency, a soldier who always gets the mission accomplished, no matter what. Whichever of those beginnings you choose, Shepard is chosen at the start of "Mass Effect" to be a candidate for the extragovernmental Spectres, and the gamer's first challenge is to find out who or what is threatening the Human colony of Eden Prime and an artifact recently found there left by the long-extinct Protheans.

And brother, things only get more interesting from there.

But this blog is about the lynchpin of the events of the "Mass Effect" series, Commander Shepard.

This is also about how I see Shepard as a woman.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a feminist. I'm a dude. Some things I learned worth knowing were from "Manswers" on Spike. I've done John Shepard. I've even done a MaleShep (ShepDude? Whatever!) with an appearance and name after mine: the character creation isn't perfect, and he looks more like my late dad than me, which is a little strange.

But I also believe in equality, and I have the purest respect for women. I find many kinds of women beautiful, and I'm not talking about the ones who are stick-thin like Kate Moss or mar their skin with tattoos that get in the damn way of their beauty. (Yes, I'm talking to you, Megan Fox.) I disdain the idea of plastic surgery, and I don't believe in there being a 'standard' for women being attractive. I find Lucy Liu as beautiful as Emma Stone, Jane Seymour as beautiful as Lauren Bacall, Tamlyn Tomita as beautiful as Alyson Hannigan, and so on.

In film, television and video games, you should know, I also can't enough of a woman who's strong enough to rise to the crisis and kick ass. You'd have to understand my love for the Girls With Guns films from Hong Kong of the 1980's and early 90's, films that starred Michelle Yeoh, Yukari Oshima, Moon Lee, Cynthia Rothrock and other amazing women who had heart-stopping looks and bone-busting martial arts ability. I feel like all is right in the world when I watch the Japanese epic "Azumi" and see Aya Ueto slashing scores of guys to bloody bits with her samurai sword. And yeah, I have a crush on Lynda Carter that won't ever stop. When I play video games, given the chance, I'd rather play the more attractive female character, like Jill Valentine or Claire Redfield or Chun-Li or Lara Croft. And it's not because I have a sicko 'thing'. I'd just rather look at someone beautiful fighting demons, aliens or what-have-you instead of another dude.

I started my first play through "Mass Effect" as a FemShep...the image below is a near-mirror of who I created, I can't kid about that. (She kind of resembles Linda Fiorentino from "Men in Black".) After I played the game as her, deciding what path she would take -- Paragon, cause I wasn't too comfortable with the Dark Side in "KOTOR" -- I played as another FemShep, this time on a Renegade course which wasn't exactly evil, but not saintly, either. Then I tried John Shepard. And I realized something.

Playing as FemShep made me care about playing the game more. I don't say that because she was simply an image of beauty. Because of those amazing folks at BioWare, the appeal of Shepard as a woman was more than (textured!) skin deep. And it's impossible to understate the amazing performance voice actress Jennifer Hale has provided so far as FemShep in the first two installments, and I anticipate even more awesomeness from her in the third. Jennifer gave Shepard not just emotion, but a heart and soul that only the best actresses give to their characters through voice. Whether all-business, gentle, or no-nonsense brutal given the occasion, Jennifer Hale's Commander Shepard just rang true in ways the dude Shepard couldn't. (With respect to Mark Meer as the male version, his performance was nearly wooden in comparison...but not as wooden as Keanu Reeves, though. NO ONE is as wooden as Keanu Reeves. He has to put effort into emoting, "Whoa!")

It doesn't matter where heroes come the end, it matters what they can do in the time they have. So why should it matter if that hero is a man or a woman? Often, I'd say it's better and more satisfying to see a woman kick ass and save the day. I know there are a lot of guys who might say 'Bah!' at that thought. But I'm one of a lot of fans of the "Mass Effect" series who decided that maybe BioWare has been getting the box art with a guy as Shepard wrong from the start. The whole idea of the game is for us to not only decide how our adventure goes, but to create the kind of hero we want, right?

When it comes to Commander Shepard, I can only want a beautiful, strong and confident woman to lead the way.

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