How Mass Effect’s FemShep Launched My Re-Entry Into Gaming

I’m 36 years old, and getting to play a video game as a female character is still a novelty.

K. Cruz Swift
Sep 8, 2020 · 11 min read

Not like Shepard’s re-entry at the beginning of Mass Effect 2. No, this is about the original Mass Effect. Where you, Shepard, are the hero, and not charred space debris. Not yet, at least. And for me, not just the story of your standard space-guy hero, but something so much more. With hints of a remaster of the original trilogy in the works, I know I’m not alone in getting my hopes up, since it’s easily my favorite video game series. Though Mass Effect 2 is my favorite game of the three, without the first Mass Effect I never would have realized how much I enjoy video games. It’s not the first video game I ever played, but it is the first one that mattered to me.

I was halfway through college when Mass Effect came out in 2007. If you’re not already into video games, information like this tends to go unnoticed even though Mass Effect did manage to make a few waves for some of its, let’s say, more adult parts. I wasn’t totally out of the gaming loop. My college boyfriend had a whole apartment to himself because his roommate lived in World of Warcraft. My laptop couldn’t handle much more than Solitaire, and this was before mobile gaming really took off. Even if I had an interest in gaming, the cost of entry was just too high when you also need food and textbooks. So, it’s strange that Mass Effect is what got me back into video games.

Without the first Mass Effect I never would have realized how much I enjoy video games.

He chose the second option and was presented with four character choices, two of them were female. It took me a second. I wasn’t expecting it at all. My roommate handed me the controller. I was aware of games where you could play a female character, but this was different. I made my choices and started a new game as FemShep. The game starts with a cutscene. A window overlooks the Earth from space. Two characters are talking about Shepard, talking about you, referencing the choices you just made. The music builds. You don’t see the whole character yet, but you’re following behind as she walks with purpose. At the crescendo, you finally see her face, Commander Shepard, and you feel like a hero. Now that I have more games under my belt I can say with confidence that it’s one of the best character introductions I’ve seen, and I’ve woken up in the back of a cart after trying to cross into Skyrim.

FemShep art from Bioware

It’s not the same to see MaleShep. I expect to see him. He’s on the box, in the trailer, everywhere. He is the face and the voice of the game. You can technically go through all of Mass Effect without even knowing FemShep exists. It takes two button presses, two menus, to get to FemShep and only one for MaleShep. I might have never known about FemShep, but when I saw her I realized how much I’d always wanted to be represented.

Video games were never for me anyway. They were for boys.

As a kid, my brother and I could throw a weekend away on a game we’d never heard of that we found at Hollywood Video late Friday night. Having just the weekend with a game meant I got used to leaving things unfinished. Most games I played as a kid were never completed. While my husband remembers looking up tips and tricks in Nintendo Power and trading tips at school with friends, my brother and I would opt to try something new over trying to finish something. With no save games on a rental, there was never any possibility that I was going to finish Earthbound. Time was a factor then, and despite often owning the games now, it’s only gotten worse.

My husband still returns to the games of his childhood. He prefers them. Recently, he replaced the screen in his original Game Boy just so he could play Link’s Awakening before the remake came out. He stayed up late into the night playing that game, and I had to make him go to bed. It took him months to even try the remake, and not without prodding from me. He prefers old games on their original platforms while I have little desire to revisit them. I assumed it was because I grew out of them. Video games were never for me anyway. They were for boys. I played because my childhood friends were mostly boys. I don’t remember any girls who played video games when I was a kid. As an adult, I can count the number of women I know personally, who play video games, on one hand. That even includes Words with Friends.

Drifting away from gaming wasn’t for a lack of trying either. I dutifully played through Windwaker, because I liked Ocarina of Time, and no one should ever dutifully play a video game. It was the sailing, okay. There was just so much sailing. I even tried World of Warcraft, but you don’t feel much like a hero when hundreds of other people are running around doing the exact same quest, and some random guy is following you around while dancing in his underwear. This only solidified the feeling that video games were for boys. Chrono Trigger, despite having female characters, is still about Crono. It’s the same with Paula in Earthbound. Despite the title, it’s always Link’s story.

FemShep fan art by muju

Now, I can already hear the chorus of voices listing other games. What about Metroid? But you have to make it to the end of Metroid to get the reveal that Samus is a woman. Spoiler alert? Before the internet and its endless lists, my choices were Joanna Dark, and given the graphics at the time your gender is basically box, Dixie Kong was a favorite of mine, and Vela. Do you remember Vela, the playable female twin from Jet Force Gemini? It’s okay if you don’t. I only played that game because there was a female character. And there it is. My very sad list of playable female characters I remember from my childhood. No joke, I pulled out all my old games to make sure I wasn’t forgetting one. And no, I’m not counting Lara Croft. That game was never for me.

There were no games like the books I devoured as a kid. Stories about lady knights and princesses who didn’t want to be princesses. I craved stories about characters I could see myself in. Mass Effect was the first video game to present me with that option. To be not just the hero of the story, but also a woman. Once you choose FemShep, the story is about her. Plenty of games will be more about the team of characters, or, despite being the player character, you’re in someone else’s story. I’ve even played plenty of games where you choose a female character, and then they don’t bother to change the pronouns. (Looking at you Greedfall. I know you’re a small studio, but come on.) Frankly, FemShep’s the hero I need right now. The galaxy is in chaos, and none of the people in charge are willing to do anything. Only Shepard is willing to step up to save the galaxy.

There isn’t a huge difference in the game depending on which Shepard you choose. Both MaleShep and FemShep are equally capable. It’s meaningful to me that no matter what character you chose they wear the same armor. No space bikinis here. They get the same choices, and for the most part, have the same dialogue. It’s only the character model, the voice, and romance options that change. Even Shepherd’s number one fan, Conrad Verner, wants to be Shepard regardless of their gender. It easily could have been different. With Conrad wanting to be a MaleShep and wanting to be with a FemShep. Conrad is still creepy. But this little touch stands out to me.

This was the first time I, as an adult woman, felt pandered to in a video game, and you know what, I want to be pandered to.

I can’t talk about Mass Effect without mentioning a part of the game I was fully unaware of when I first played. In Mass Effect you can choose to romance one of your teammates. It’s actually harder not to romance someone, which leads to some hilarious moments when all you’re trying to do is talk with everyone. I’ll admit it, part of the reason I love Mass Effect is Kaidan Alenko, and how my Shepard accidentally talked her way into a relationship with him. Yes, I admit to choosing the flirtier options, but I had no idea there were in-game consequences. This was the first time I, as an adult woman, felt pandered to in a video game, and you know what, I want to be pandered to. Is this what men feel all the time when consuming media? I know I’m not the target demographic for Mass Effect, and yet, I’m not not the demographic for it either. It took time and effort to craft a romance for female players, and regardless of where you stand on Kaiden Alenko as a character, I appreciate that something was done for me.

FemShep fan art by spicyroll

I was asked, in writing this piece, what makes Shepard so special. For me, the answer is that she’s a woman who saves the galaxy. After all, realizing that I could play this game as a woman is what made me want to try it. MaleShep was just another hero in a long line of heroes who all blend together. FemShep immediately made the game different, just because of who she is, and that made me want to experience her story. Which is the right answer, and also the wrong one. Mass Effect is a great game, and it’s a great trilogy of games. It’s good for so many reasons, from story, to characters, to gameplay, and hopefully a remaster will only make it better. Despite all that, Shepard’s gender changes the whole game for me. That choice takes it from a story about your standard space hero to a tale about a strong woman against the odds. Now that I’m older I know it shouldn’t be that way. No one should have to hunt to see themselves represented. I thought I didn’t like video games. But now I think it was just easy to walk away from them when they were never for me.

It’s not Geralt’s fault that he’s not FemShep. But I want something different. I’ve seen his story, or one like it, too many times.

Clearly the gaming industry has a long way to go on diversity in games. But it is so worth it. The moment I learned Shepard was a woman will always be my stand out gaming memory. I liked video games as a child, but now I love them. It’s become something I actively want to spend my time and money on. If you haven’t played Mass Effect, the remaster is a great place to start. If you’ve only played as MaleShep then this is a great opportunity to revisit this classic and make a great game better. Seriously, if nothing else, Jennifer Hale, the voice actress for FemShep, is the better Shepard. Now if you’ll excuse me I should go “get the council on the channel, and then hang up on them.” For old times sake.

Insert Cartridge

Old games, new thoughts