I've Updated My Journal: Bioware's Gay Problem

I've Updated My Journal: Bioware's Gay Problem

There has been a recent buzz around the presence of homosexuals in the public sphere. More and more we see positive portrayals of gay characters met with favorable reactions from internet media. Overall people are happy about L.G.B.T. issues being well represented not only in current politics but also in our collective culture. Of course there will always be those who are apathetic or hostile to L.G.B.T. issues, but they don’t represent nearly as much of an issue as the growing trend of half-assed support for homosexuals. More and more we are seeing gay characters shoe-horned into television, film, and video games without any context or relevance to the narrative.

The most glaring offender in recent memory is EA’s trilogy crucifying title, Mass Effect 3. The developers of the series are indeed no strangers to controversy. They previously used lesbian-on-alien action to create buzz around the first Mass Effect. After producing a good but safe sequel, the next logical barrier was to approach male on male homosexuality. This is done to prove that they were not only trying to cater to a diverse fan base, but also not simply trying to entice casual gamers with promises of interspecies lesbian softcore. Bioware after all has a long history of integrating romance into their stories with tact and sensitivity and their award-winning sci-fi series should be no exception, right?

Groundbreaking stuff!

Unfortunately something strange has been brewing within Bioware. Fans first became aware of it with the launch of Dragon Age II which featured several characters who were romanceable regardless of the gender chosen for your Champion of Kirkwall. Though the game fell short in terms of story and dialog overall, the coexistence of a western style monotheistic religion with open bisexuality seemed anachronistic to fans. While the setting of Dragon Age is indeed fictional, it draws a great deal from medieval society. Creating a hodgepodge of values from various cultures breaks immersion. The same problem would arise if one were to make a game set in ancient Rome in which the protagonist champions environmentalism. Sadly, Dragon Age II’s strong sales and critical reception along with a well-publicized incident of an employee “standing up” for gay gamers seems to have taught them that this was overall a positive move. With Mass Effect 3 though, a series that fans had not yet given up on, a seemingly good PR move turned many of the series’ fans against Bioware.

But then there’s Cortez. Though lauded by many journalists as a positive and unconventional portrayal of a gay man, Lieutenant Steve Cortez may very well be the most offensive character Bioware has ever created. The first instance where you find out that he’s more than just a bit character, he is mourning the loss of his husband Robert. Tears stream down his face as he mentions the Collector assault on Robert’s colony though he is quickly able to compose himself in the presence of his commander. Very clever Bioware! The cliche of the overly emotional gay man has been deftly sidestepped by giving him a shallow veneer of military professionalism. In the next encounter, we see Cortez at the memorial wall in the citadel. Again we see him torn up over the death of his husband but this time his utter helplessness is flat out stated. He tells the commander with a straight face “You give me strength.” A short time afterwards we are of course shown that this brave but sensitive man also has a love of dancing and picking up men at clubs. He also gets weak in the knees when Shepard attempts to pick him up and from there the dialog takes a painful melodramatic turn. “I’m used to seeing you step off my shuttle right into hell. Then I wait and worry about whether you’ll make it back.” You begin to wonder if Bioware didn’t hand off the writing to an unknown third party. That like many moments in the game is what makes it easy to hate the entire series. What we have here isn’t an example of a gay man defying stereotypes, we have a man who’s utterly broken until an authority figure shows romantic interest in him and then resumes a rather clichéd and unremarkable gay life. The message here is pretty simple: in spite of the developer’s attempts at creating an unconventional gay man, every single interaction with Steve Cortez highlights his homosexuality by referencing the death of his partner and by having him surrender instantly to Shepard’s advances (putting him one notch below Kelly Chambers).

You see that shuttle pilot? You can mount it!

But that isn’t even the worst thing about Mass Effect 3’s portrayal of gays. In almost every idealized futuristic setting, we seem to be entering a universe where the prejudices that have defined our species are erased from history. Then prejudices about alien species arise because it’s a totally different issue? For better or for worse, one of the defining characteristics of homosexuality in modern culture is homophobia itself. This isn’t an issue that can be glossed over conveniently like the simple conversion of racism to speciesism but it is one that is important if you want to address the gay experience in a meaningful way. Honestly, what do we learn from the sterilized and taboo free world of Mass Effect about homosexuality? That in a future still full of prejudice against sapient life-forms, that modern liberal values will take root in all of humanity? That male-female, male-male, and female-female couples have the exact same dynamics and that centuries of culture built around sexual outliers is now irrelevant? For a series that has put immense effort into branding itself as hard science fiction and for the overall trend of taking the gravity of realism and translating into new settings (be they science fiction, fantasy, etc.) this is frankly sophomoric. Even if you don’t feel that Cortez is a negative portrayal of gay men, his non-issue homosexuality represents the cheapest and most blatant attempt at filling a diversity quota. It’s the same degree of social commentary and realism that you would find in The Sims. Since these are multi-million dollar franchises though, expect these half-hearted attempts at social commentary to soon be considered standard considerations for the sake of appeasing a diverse and socially conscious market.

This isn’t to say that there are no positive examples of homosexuals in gaming or that there never will be. That’s just another article altogether.



  1. Erectionproblem says:

    That was a great read. Thank you.

  2. Vince7403 says:

    I haven’t actually played ME3, since I’m boycotting EA, but the part about military personnel suppressing grief until an appropriate time is actually within the realm of what the military generally tries to train people to do. Now, whether it’s presented badly is debatable, but if this were the only awkward moment with the character then it would be acceptable. However, the rest of it still winds up javelin-torpedoing the writers’ credibility. Add one more reason I’m boycotting EA, though in this case it’s arguably entirely on Bioware.

  3. Orson says:

    I’m a bit confused by your expectations. For example, in the part about Dragon Age, it’s a bad thing that Thedas takes some elements from real-world medieval history, but not others? More relevantly, you seem to expect that if there’s a gay character, his or her sexuality should be in the spotlight. I think the representation Cortez’s (and Traynor’s) sexuality in a matter-of-fact way is intentional. It’s not supposed to be a big deal because it’s the future and society has moved on a bit from homophobia. In the Mass Effect universe, it’s a non-issue, so there’s no point in trying to make it one yourself.

    I’m no Biodrone – both Mass Effect and Dragon Age have a lot of flaws, and I’m not about to tell you that Shepard/Cortez is the next great love story. But I think for everyone who loves something just because it came from Bioware, there’s someone who hates it for the same reason. I think you’re taking what is ultimately just a bland romance option in a video game and trying to make a controversy out of it.

    • Cameron says:

      I have to agree with some of the comments that have already been put forward. I think your expectations for gay characters, and for the role they play in the story or how they are dolled out is a series of unrealistic ones. You expect the issue of being gay to be fronted and spotlighted, and treated with the same crucible it has been in the past, or sidestepped with the same ambition it often is now.

      The overabundance of homosexuality in the modern industry and media market is a good thing in many ways. There are definitely the draw backs, but the biggest bonus is acceptance and the ability to freely walk around not feeling hated nearly as often.

      As a gay gamer, and a person who doesn’t really like Bioware, at all, you are wrong. You don’t seem to have a good understanding of gays, our culture, our intents, our desire from society, or how we are represented.

      I almost completely disagree with your article.

      • Michael Talley says:

        If you check the article itself, I was actually complaining that the defining characteristic of Cortez was his homosexuality. The issue of homosexuality doesn’t need to be spotlighted, it needs to be conveyed with a sense of maturity (Arcade Gannon anyone?). I also mention that the ways that homosexuality is sidestepped as an issue is rather pointless. I’d appreciate it if you could clarify your first point.

        As a gay gamer myself, I have a hard time accepting the praise that is being dumped on EA and Bioware for including shallow stereotypes in their games and claiming that they’re standing up for homosexuals. If the current gay culture (a hardly homogeneous set of opinions to begin with) feels that these sophomoric and insulting attempts at mimicking social progress are “generally a good thing,” then it is news to me.

  4. Anonymous says:

    So you are saying it’s implausible for someone to cry and mourn over their spouse’s death from six months ago? Of all the noteworthy flaws to pick out of Mass Effect 3, Steven Cortez was hardly one of them. And when mean “flaws to pick out of”, I’m not just referring to the retarded ending. Also, searching for intimate companionship in clubs isn’t exclusively prone to homosexuals. It’s common act among various cultures, it’s not is if solely based on someone sexual preference.

    Steven Cortez’s romance was undoubtedly cheesy, but it’s no cheesier than any of BioWare’s romances. Steve Cortez isn’t the one that submits to Shepard like a Japanese school girl from a dating sim, Shepard was actually the first to move on to him. Steve even asks Shepard if they want to push their relationship further after you initiate the romance, where as other love interests seem to be throwing themselves at you. The romance isn’t great but it’s not as if was penned or consulted by Jennifer Hepler, and does succeed in its attempt to be tasteful.

    If there’s any homosexual romance to criticize, it would have to be the fact Kaidan Alenko can be now romanced by MaleShep, despite the fact he wasn’t in the first game. This arbitrary turn of a character’s sexuality is major problem was actually worth noting than Steve Cortez. Sure, the lack of any commentary on sexual discrimination is a bit jarring for a game where one of its themes is failed alien diplomacy, it’s still rather plausible. History has shown that specific races go into civil conflict with each other over different cultural practices, then resolving their conflict by getting past their discrimination and then getting into another conflict against specific race over discrimination. The fact no homophobia isn’t shown in ME3 could be a social commentary in itself, we may get past the phobia within our race but our nature might not prevent our nature to discriminate alien species shortly from first contact.

    Steve Cortez wasn’t the best display of tactfully exploring homosexuality, as say Kanji was from Persona 4. It’s still a small step forward in a young medium that’s riddled with tactless portrayal of homosexuals, that revolve around grating stereotypes (I’m looking at you Enchanted Arms). I found Steve Cortez to be an interesting and likable character, who has a great friendship route. An improvement from BioWare’s previous attempt of portraying homosexuality with Anders (from Dragon Age 2) yaoi inducing dialog.

    • Michael Talley says:

      The fact that he was mourning the loss of his husband wasn’t the issue with Cortez, it was the fact that he had absolutely no ability to cope with it without Shepard. Furthermore, his homosexuality colors almost every interaction that the player has with him. “Oh hey Shepard! Just stopping into the armory I see. I’ll just be here crying in the corner until you decide to come over and fix my life.” The fact that he enjoys clubbing is just icing on the cake. Sure there are people from all walks of life who go out to clubs and raves, but the fact that they made their gay poster-child one of them shows us the level of tact that we’re dealing with. It’s one of the easiest stereotypes to avoid and they walked right into it. It would be like having a black squad-mate who’s side mission involves the disappearance of his father.

      • Orson says:

        I think you may be misinterpreting the scene. Cortez says that he’s fine as long as he’s doing his job, and it’s the downtime that’s rough. I think that’s something a lot of us can relate to. I’m not sure where you got the idea that he composed himself out of his sheer gayness for Shepard. As for the night club issue, like you said yourself, “people from all walks of life who go out to clubs and raves”. It’s also worth noting that you also encounter Aria, Joker, Jack, Vega, and EDI in Purgatory. Man, I didn’t realize how many gay stereotype characters this game had.

        • Anonymous says:

          That and Cortez is actually ignore with his past. Shepard guides him to take the last few steps to move on, whether as a friend or lover. Its not that much different from Jack’s and Thane’s romance, or with any of the other character relationships you build up. Was it fanpandering? Yeah, it was pretty much was. But it was tasteful fanpandering, unlike say FemShepard/Liara romance in ME1 and Kaidan/MaleShepard in ME3. I thought the romance for Traynor was even worse, the shower scene was like a softcore porn flick gone wrong.

          It was also nice touch to see the shuttle pilot, and one who’s actually a character. He may be kind of the tolkein gay guy, but he does have his own defining characteristics. He’s a friendly guy with a playful yet deadpan sense of humor, and brave enough to take the most challenging assignments. He’s not particularly the deepest RPG character, but he’s not that bad either.

          I’m not implying you’re homophobic or you are intentionally trying to stir up controversy, what I am saying is that you’re kind of making a big deal over a trivial aspect of the game. It didn’t really degrade or objectify homosexuality the way Dragon Age 2 did with Anders’s yaoiness. It’s plainly just shallow, but tasteful fanpandering.

          • Michael Talley says:

            I see where you’re coming from and yes even Cortez has his moments, but the overall imagery is still important. Resident Evil 5 had a great reason for a zombie outbreak in Africa and the game features anti-imperialist overtones but the image of a bloodthirsty African man in tribal attire throwing a spear at a Caucasian alpha male still has a long history that Capcom seemed to forget. The same goes for Cortez’s overly emotive personality and the fact that you pick him up in a techno club. Sure he can be an interesting character on his own and there can be a million different justifications for his actions in the game, but it’s hard to ignore the history behind this type of portrayal of gay men.

            Also, I would like to thank all of you guys for having such a good discussion. I really appreciate the different perspectives.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Oh yeah, I also forgot to mention that Steve Cortez is not BioWare’s worst written character to date. That my friend, would have to be either Anders from Dragon Age 2 or Kai Leng a.k.a. the biggest anime stereotype BioWare has graced us with since Merrill.

  6. Catpunchers says:

    The bigger question I think you missed is why Bioware felt the need to introduce completely new characters with no defining traits other than being “gay” in the third game just to satisfy gamers. They have no emotional connection built with the player in the first two games like Kelly Chambers, and quite frankly, come off as lazy attempts of inclusion that end up more like tokenism. Being gay isn’t the issue, it’s shoehorning it in to cover up the fact that Bioware couldn’t write decent homosexual relationships (or relationships in general) without including Shepard’s “healing dick” or bizarre pandering to the fans.

    • Michael Talley says:

      I was trying to touch on that when I said “Even if you don’t feel that Cortez is a negative portrayal of gay men, his non-issue homosexuality represents the cheapest and most blatant attempt at filling a diversity quota.” It’s one of more upsetting cliches of modern storytelling. The fact that this is considered some sort of progress is mind-boggling.

      • Catpunchers says:

        I think that’s directly an issue created by Bioware themselves. When gamers didn’t enjoy Dragon Age 2’s romances because they were shallow, creepy and came off like yaoi fanfiction the company screamed “Bigotry! You’re all just homophobes!” They created this issue and are pushing it rather than acknowledging that maybe they aren’t that progressive.

        Their handling of gay characters is like how women write gay porn, for example, the comic Starfighters where both characters fill a male dominant and female submissive role. These products have all got the signs of being created by women for women, not for the actual homosexual players. Just look at Cortez, he cries and needs comforting, goes clubbing, and acts like a woman would want a gay man to rather than simply being a character with a variation in sexual preference. The writers specifically created him gay first and a person second.

        I would say that having “diversity quotas” could work if the writers themselves weren’t horribly boring straight, white and middle class people who have never had contact with anyone outside their writing pit of boring white straight coworkers. I think that’s what I was hoping your article to say or go more into depth over.

        Thanks for the quick reply!

  7. DeN DarK says:

    It was really interesting – thank you. Just few hours ago i try to discuss that about DA3 in bioware forum but bunch of gays (literally) just tell me to go away and how i’m offended them just for asking to add more reallity in that regard.

    Like it was said above by CATPUNCHERS
    “When gamers didn’t enjoy Dragon Age 2′s romances because they were shallow, creepy and came off like yaoi fanfiction the company screamed “Bigotry! You’re all just homophobes!” They created this issue and are pushing it rather than acknowledging that maybe they aren’t that progressive.”

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