Same-Sex Relationships in Mass Effect 3

Same-sex romances have been part of previous BioWare games, but until now, these romance-option characters could be attracted to a player character of either gender. Mass Effect 3 characters Samatha Traynor and Steve Cortez represent the first time BioWare has written full romances that are exclusively for same-sex characters. Patrick Weekes and Dusty Everman wrote these relationships and talk about their experiences here.

What past relationship writing have you done?
Patrick Weekes:
On Mass Effect 2, I had the chance to write the Tali and Garrus romances, and to contribute to Miranda’s romance as well. In Lair of the Shadow Broker, I handled the Liara arc, from her initial coldness to her reconciliation and the post-mission talk in the Normandy cabin.

Dusty Everman: Though I am primarily a level designer, I got the opportunity to write for Mass Effect 2 under some excellent old-school-BioWare mentorship. I wrote the Normandy’s “light” characters, including Yeoman Kelly Chambers. While she had a much smaller scope than any full squad member, her character could be a light, flirty romance for Shepard.

PW: Dusty is being a little too modest. He’s the reason we even have Donnelly, Daniels, Gardner, and legendary Serrice Ice connoisseur, Dr. Chakwas, in addition to Kelly.

How did you approach writing a gay character in Mass Effect 3?
PW:
Liara’s relationship in Lair of the Shadow Broker can be with players of either gender, so I was familiar with writing dialog that needed to work for a same-sex romance. Nevertheless, I’m a straight white male – pretty much the living embodiment of the Patriarchy – and I really wanted to avoid writing something that people saw and went, “That’s a straight guy writing lesbians for other straight guys to look at.”

I also really wanted the romance with Traynor to be positive. One of my gay friends has this kind of sad hobby in which she watches every lesbian movie she can find, trying to find ones that actually end up with the women not either dying or breaking up. I think the most positive one she’s found is “D.E.B.S.” I wanted to avoid any kind of tragic heartbreak, to make this a fundamentally life-affirming relationship… at least, as much as possible within Mass Effect 3′s grim war story.

DE: I shared the concerns Patrick had about writing something that felt real. I’ve never been romantic with another guy, so I couldn’t write from personal experience. Also, there seemed to be extra pitfalls associated with a male same-sex romance. Some players have concerns over being “ninja romanced” – where a relationship shifts from friendly to romantic to the player’s surprise – and those concerns seem greater for same-sex romances.

PW: I remember hearing someone complain about getting “ambushed” by the same-sex romance with Sky in Jade Empire. Really, though, if you gay-romanced Sky, I’m pretty sure you did it on purpose. You had to dig for that one.

DE: I wanted to make sure that my writing fit into the Mass Effect universe and supported the themes of Mass Effect 3. Keeping Cortez grounded and focusing on the journey shared with Shepard is a foundation that I hope leads to a real attraction.

PW: I worked hard to create a character who addressed her lesbian identity in a positive and intelligent way. My first draft of Traynor’s pitch was all about how her character arc would be about identifying and overcoming the challenges of being gay… and my friends and managers called me on it. I’d been so focused on writing something positive that I hadn’t made a real-enough character. So in the next draft (closer to how she shipped), the focus was on her as a mostly lighthearted fish out of water, a very smart lab tech trying to adjust to life on the front lines, with her identity as a lesbian present but not shouted from the rooftops.

DE: I believe that by the 22nd century, declaring your gender preference will be about as profound as saying, “I like blondes.” It will just be an accepted part of who we are. So I tried to write a meaningful human relationship that just happens to be between two men.

PW: Yeah. If I’ve done my job right, I’ve made Traynor a character that people in the LGBT community will like not because we happened to put a gay character in the game, but because she’s a great character even if you never romance her.

DE: My approach was to have the majority of the relationship be about building a friendship. Everyone, straight and gay alike, can get to know the character, and romantic feelings only surface towards the end of the arc. Like I said before, I wanted to support the ME3 theme of a massive war, where everyone is dealing with loss. Normally, I don’t like stories about prior lost loves, but here it makes sense. When Cortez says “I lost my husband”, every player knows his sexuality, so precious word budgets aren’t spent to establish that fact. Instead, the time is spent bonding over past losses and future hopes.

How do you feel your relationship turned out?
PW:
I’m fortunate to have gay and lesbian friends at BioWare who were willing to take a look at Traynor for me and help me edit a few bad lines that played into negative stereotypes. As for the fans, the reaction has been very positive so far – I think the nicest thing I’ve heard was, “I think I’ve actually had that conversation in real life.” The largest concern I’ve heard in feedback about Traynor is that people want more conversations with her – which I think holds true for just about every romance in the game.

Traynor’s shower scene has also raised some eyebrows. I liked it, but for a while we were on the fence about whether to have that scene or just do a fade to black as Shepard stood up. We put it in because this scene was Traynor’s biggest romance moment from a cinematic perspective (her endgame love scene is very short and simple), and I didn’t want to say, “Romancing Ash? You get a big cutscene. Romancing Traynor? Fade to black.” And also because I think it’s a lovely, funny scene from Guillherme Ramos (who also brought you the Liara cabin scene in Lair of the Shadow Broker).

DE: Though I was a bit out of my element here, I’m very happy with how Cortez turned out. Given the nature of the relationship, I expected that my work here would be scrutinized more than anything I’ve ever done, so not one word was written lightly. The early feedback I’ve seen has been encouraging, and I’m eager to hear everything players have to say about him, both positive and negative.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?
PW:
I’m really proud of Traynor’s relationship. I think that it came together really well — the artists did a wonderful job, Alix Wilton Regan did an amazing job voicing her, and the cinematic designers really made her come to life.

It’s also entirely possible that, writing a same-sex conversation for the first time, I still created something that plays into stereotypes. Everyone I showed the scenes to knows me, and knowing me might have caused them to give some scenes the benefit of the doubt. That feedback – places where I can improve in writing a character, places where I broke immersion — is what helps me do a better job next time I’m writing a romance character who isn’t a white male game designer.

DE: I’ll echo Patrick: the artists, cinematic designers, and voice actors all did amazing jobs. I love Matthew Del Negro’s voice for Cortez, and thought Leo Lucien-Bay, the cinematic designer for the Purgatory dance scene, did a fantastic job with such a challenging scene under immense time constraints. It’s great to see how players are receiving Cortez. I’m taking notes on every bit of a feedback I see.