All Too Human

On Queerness, Interspecies Desire, and the Limits of the Human in Mass Effect

Screenshot via Jaguar550

[This essay was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon, where you can also get exclusive video content for $5+!]

Our love is an if/then algorithm. If I choose X dialogue option then in turn I gain a point towards her approval. If I undertake X side-mission then a dialogue option will open at a later point that gives backstory about her life. If I decide to ally with X faction then she will feel a certain kind of way if they do not align with her politics. Making us a thing is systematic: the tallying up of digital points, fixed moments in the narrative to woo her, our love a scoreboard, our romance coded in full. How romantic.

Her visage is helmeted. Facial recognition — the reading of expressions, I the Other trying to know the Other that is her, reading into the relation between us, our experiencing sentience in reading the face — does not happen. The assemblage of polygons stunningly rendered in the other character models tell me what I need to know: flirtatious grins; furrowed eyebrows in astonishment; annoyed scowls; flared noses in aggravation; indifference of an unmoving face.

Why do I do this? This method of apprehending another through the face when they are not even Human, not even material — wanting them to have a face, a face to tell me who I am, how, and if, I am even being:_______________________________.

[validated]

[loved]

[included]

[humanized]

[all-knowing]

Humanoid, perhaps, a likeness to humanity, maybe, a quality of humanness, certainly, but no — not Human. My crush is another species, a different life form. I must struggle to read her otherwise.

Screenshot via Jaguar550

I read about her before I even meet her. It’s the first Mass Effect trailer where I see her and, since then, I was enamored, head over heels. Her name: Tali’Zorah nar Rayya. For short they call her: Tali. On top of the free online guides available, I go so far as to purchase a strategy guide in order to romance this pixelated character, this 2-D romance interest. Soon enough, I discover she is not a romance option in the first installment of the game. I don’t want such limits on who I can romance, who I can woo in a video game landscape, so I opt for nothing, a disciplined abstinence. In the second installment she becomes a romanceable non-player character, so I read over everything, account for every in-game decision, know what triggers her, what moves her. I want everything to go right, according to the algorithm which is the design of this Tali, this template of a non-human entity I desire.

What compels me to this character in such a way? I cannot immediately name it but all I know is this act of attraction is a betrayal. I should select a male, opt for the masculine, feel strongly about romancing the Human man because I am a gay man — is this not one of those things fought for called “representation?” Is this not what I have always wanted to see in literature, film, and video games? A sappy gay romance? Bulky bros bouncing and bumping around in space saving the denizens of the galaxy from almost destruction? Have I not always had to read myself as the damsel in distress, rescued at all costs, the foundation for a game’s narrative arch, damseling myself into being because a man could not be in such a role? Did I not want to be represented/included/accounted for?

Yet all I read in the modelling of the face of the Human male romance option are past judgments, histories of my being in the world, on dating apps, the too human actions — “Do you have an accent?” “WHITES ONLY” “How much do you weigh?” “Do you have a body pic?” “Are you masculine, or feminine?” “You’re Mexican?” “You’re a little too big for me.” “Are you gay?” “No Fats, No Femmes, No Fa*****, No Asians, No Blacks, No Tra*****, No __________, No ____________, No ______________…”

Screenshot via Jaguar550

Romancing Tali throughout the Mass Effect games makes me become — for lack of a better word, or the only word that fits where I am from — heterosexual. Urgh. All these years fighting heterosexuality, and imposed masculinity, to return to the norms that were slowly killing me. Yet this normativity is troubled because my species is that of Human and hers is that of Quarian. Our physiological bodies are not the same. She spends her days in a body suit since exposure to the atmosphere, contact with my very body, would jeopardize her well-being, poison her.

The approach to intimacy revised.

What is even intimacy for heterosexuals when I have never even had such an intimacy? I play pretend heterosexuality, playing at a norm for hours upon hours, playing the problem that has worked against me since I was a child.

What counts as intimacy between a human and a nonhuman? The sensuousness of the body, exposure of skin/fluids/penetrations, the supple exchange of embraces — untenable? Am I settling for her body-suit barrier? Is she to settle for this danger that is my body contaminant? Settling — transcending — or troubling understandings of humanness? Our loving is in distance. Love a risk, a risky kind of love, a dangerous loving is the eclipsing of the human limit. Becoming more than human in two and three-dimensionality.

Is an intimacy unimaginable what I desire?

An intimacy never fulfillable by queer hope?

Screenshot via Jaguar550

On some mission or another, I select a dialogue option which is contrary to Tali. Disappointment in the voice. Do I return to my last save point before I made this decision? I do not want her upset at me. How come I did not read of this? The strategy guide does not list this. The tome that is the strategy guide is big, lots of reading, giving play by play of every in-game action and decision to be made. How do I account for all the many points in the game where Tali’s algorithm might either shift in or against my favor?

In the online wiki page dedicated to the Mass Effect universe, it does account for this choice. Some contributor might have added this detail after they unluckily selected the wrong dialogue option as well. There is a whole section on the wiki focusing on Tali as a romance option. This or that side mission to take up to get her to like me more, this or that main quest to curry her favor for me. Other players have made mistakes, other players have documented them. Perfecting our romance becomes a community affair. Our world is a series of redos that others are in the process of doing. Perfecting the imperfection of a choice because someone else experienced it already. Failure is never final because it is a collective project cutting across time and space and mediums. The wiki is a testament to common failings, common strivings, a commonality experienced in text, in code, in the playing and replaying that is our communal love.

Our love is consummated: intercourse happens. I have tallied up enough points in Tali’s romance bar to get to the moment. She has taken enough antibiotics and supplements to bolster her immune system. I have made sure she is comfortable going forward. Little, if anything, is shown of the moment. I take off the helmet, the camera angle not letting me see what is beneath, and she rushes in to kiss me.

I want more but the camera does not give it. Our moment this risk. A breach in — what? The temporariness of intercourse compromises her. Contamination our loving.

In a separate gaming forum elsewhere on the internet, a series of commenters debate how this dialogue decision will be of consequence later in the game. They theorize on what its significance will be for this nonhuman romance option I have elected to pursue, how it will structure a later main mission, how it might carry over to the next installment in the franchise. The intensities and quirks and style of their language vary:

1) Some are fired up, THEIR PROSE IN ALL CAPS, DEMONSTRATIVE OF THEIR TOTAL DEVOTION TO THE GAME, TO ARGUING ON BEHALF OF ITS HONOR, WARRIORS FOR THE CAUSE.

2) Some are contemplative, reserved, their prose in excellently crafted paragraphs, ornately executed syntax, and grammatically accurate everything, their way of submitting to the game, championing it with their respectable well-manneredness.

3) Sum r grammr Deviants, there proze a f!st in the : — -) of décor-uhm, ❤ing the art of trollery there way — -à of slylyyyy languaging the !_game__! into a sub_limity&arT…

4) Some come in stealthily and briefly, hoping to answer/problematize/question/provoke/antagonize/harass, and move on from the discussion.

Their comments and theories and counterarguments and conspiracies and trolling make this dialogue selection, this pressing X on the controller instead of Y, a significant event in the history and world being made between Tali and I. In-game, and out-of-game, the decision matters. It calls for logically reasoning out consequences, speculation on a possible violence and how to negate it, a debating of causes and effects, a theorizing on the ethics of species cohabitation. Tali is consequential, it seems, she is a discourse, it looks like, a pixelated theorization.

I press start. I open up the last save. I load the last checkpoint before I made the decision. Playing over most of the mission to set things right — laboring in loves loving labors.

Screenshot via Jaguar550

In the final installment of the franchise, there is a photo on my nightstand. It is of Tali unhelmeted, the photo presumably taken on her home world, Rannoch, or somewhere with an unthreatening atmosphere. The features of her face are humanoid. They are, in fact, the aspirational norm of (white) Human womanhood: small nose; long, wavy hair; finely sculpted lips slightly open; a symmetrical face; a wayward gazing into the horizon. The only indications which mark her as nonhuman is the skin tinted a light purple and the eyes a milky white with no iris. Otherwise, without the helmet, Tali is the norm — being the norm itself. Do the modelers and animators know what they have done? I pursued Tali because she was the most alien of all —

Tali: veiled perfection, calibrated voice due to the air purifiers, a humanoid form but not entirely Human, she my escape from the world I know too well but instead she becomes a return, a future point of reference referencing the all too present past, the pain that is knowing the world has turned into a universe yet still the forms of the Old/New World govern, 1492 indistinguishable from a 2183, Columbus setting sail into the galaxy with his ordering and classifying and systematizing of human hierarchy in tow, the modeling of her pixelated body, her 2-D body, following a familiar schema, an exhausted code.

The restricting of my queerness. The game mechanics allow for one, and only one, non-playable character to be romanced. I have chosen Tali though there are others, as more games are brought into the franchise, I become interested in. However, if I want to romance Thane Krios in Mass Effect 2, an amphibious being belonging to the Drell species, or Javik in the DLC for Mass Effect 3, a reptilian being who is the last surviving member of the Prothean race, I have to be a female Shepherd. With any option for those I am attracted to, those whose species and politics I find admirable or sexy, I have to choose heterosexuality. This imposed heterosexuality determines what gender I must select at the beginning of the game.

The game’s mechanics and algorithms limit queerness. Enforcing heteronormativity, enforcing gender norms, enforcing monogamous relationships dictates what can and cannot be within this game franchise that is so well-known for its many narrative options, its many options for player agency. The programming, upon closer inspection, reveals itself to be human, the limits of thinking and creating pixelated galaxies in the tiring and depleted frameworks we have inherited for hundreds upon hundreds of crappy human years.

Screenshot via Jaguar550

Most nonhuman sentient lifeforms in video games, film, and elsewhere, demonstrate a dependence on physiological forms that are humanoid (bipedal, upright, faces, hands/feet with digits). Tali, my main crush, as well as Thane and Javik, fit the bill. The exceptions to the rule, those bodies that resemble jellyfish such as the Hanar, or elephants like the Elcor, or insects like the Rachni, are never romance options, never recruitable squadmates, never playable characters. Their form, apparently, does not allow it, not conceivable within narrative, not imaginable as something within the universe. It’s obscene (laughable?) to imagine a Hanar shooting a gun, an Elcor mating with a human, a Rachni wandering the Normandy. What is logical and practical, the hero and heroic, romance option and squadmate, and good, compelling narrative takes the form of the Human. The human is the model for everything.

Yet this is not to say the form of the human is a universal form, that the Human is a category all humans share unequivocally. The model of the humanoid used in modeling nonhuman life forms, as is the case with my Mass Effect crushes, strikingly tends to appear like a certain kind of human. A human upright with proper stature, fine and narrow facial features, a slim frame, uses standardized English, overly able. Gendered in a binary, too, and if a woman oversexualized, and if a man hypermasculine. Heterosexual, usually. This is not all humanity, these features of body and anatomy and desire presents no real universal. What, then, does my choice in romancing Tali say about my own desires?

A galaxy far, far away does not appear that far off after all.

Before the picture on the nightstand in the Normandy, before Tali’s body is fully known, her form provides an opening. I read her in any way I desire. Unrestrained by the limit of the humanoid configuration. Old/New world ways of loving dissolving. More than human, more than the ways we have had to be human for so long. The stretch marks, the acne scars, the wide nose, the oily skin, the fat body, the femme body, the brown body that is my form becomes something remarkable and divine and otherworldly.

Tali and I imperfectly perfect.

But, in Mass Effect 3, Tali’s form is revealed, her nearness to a humanity that has been idealized for hundreds upon hundreds of Earth years, I become, once again, all too human.