Fangirl Fridays: Tali’Zorah vas Normandy

After time adrift among open stars
Among tides of light and to shoals of dust
I will return to where I began.

The story of the quarians as presented in the original Mass Effect will likely be a familiar ones to fans of the Battlestar Galactica reboot: betrayed by their creations, the robotic geth, they were driven from their homeworld, forced to drift through the galaxy in a ragtag fleet. Oh, sure, there are some key differences – the geth aren’t actively pursuing the quarians, for one, and the Mass Effect galaxy is full of sentient life, so though most other species distrust and mistreat the quarians, there are still opportunities for trade and diplomatic relations. But you might be forgiven for thinking of the quarians as rather derivative, at least as first. As their story unfolds, however, particularly in the subsequent games, we see how complex their history truly is, particularly where the geth are concerned. We come to understand their complicity in truly heinous acts that ultimately led to their exile and near extinction. And, depending on how you play it, we see the quarians as a people step into a bold new future.

None of it would mean a thing if it wasn’t for Tali’Zorah vas Normandy. Though she is ultimately joined by other voices, we first hear the story of her people in her words. When new information comes to light, it is her perspective that illuminates the actions and reactions of the quarian race. And it is her presence on the crew of the SSV Normandy that makes us care. Because during her time with Shepard and the rest of the team, she becomes crew. If you put in the time and effort, she becomes more than that. She becomes family – a fact that both she and Shepard will readily acknowledge.

Quick, careful, and lucky.

When we first meet Tali’Zorah, she’s Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, a somewhat disreputable young woman (solely by virtue of being a quarian apart from the fleet) on her Pilgrimage – a rite of passage all young quarians must undertake in order to prove their worth to the Flotilla and attain adult status in their society. Her information is literally vital to unlocking the next chapters of the story. You can skip meeting Garrus or Wrex if you like, but if you fail to recruit Tali to your cause, that cause is lost.

She’s more than just a key to the rest of the story, though. You may not see that if you don’t put in the effort – you can find her in Main Engineering whenever you feel like talking, but if you don’t go down there, she won’t seek you out. Those conversations are honestly one of the best parts of the game. Through those long talks in Engineering, you begin to see Tali as a whole person: nervous, shy, geeky, unaccustomed to dealing with outsiders, but nevertheless brilliant and caring. Truly, profoundly dedicated to her people, but also devoted to the well-being of everyone in the galaxy, and increasingly loyal to Shepard personally. Occasionally sarcastic, sometimes even witty, with a sly, subtle sense of humor. Every time I play this game – no matter how I’m playing Shepard – I can’t help seeing her as a surrogate little sister, imagining Shep taking Tali under her wing. Maybe that’s just my overactive imagination talking, but I don’t think so. You instinctively want to protect Tali, and more than that, to help her thrive – to shepherd her (pun definitely intended) to her ultimate, glorious destiny.

Tali'Zorah vas Normandy in all her glory.

And what a destiny it is. When we see Tali again in Mass Effect 2, she has returned to the Flotilla, becoming Tali’Zorah vas Neema, a leader among her people. Her team roams the galaxy, ranging far from the rest of the fleet, chasing down missing quarians and elusive scientific data. In fact, to some extent, you might see her as the quarians’ answer to Commander Shepard. She’s an investigator, a troubleshooter, and a staunch defender of her people. Even so, when her immediate duties are fulfilled and the opportunity arises, she readily signs on with Shepard again, rejoining the crew of the Normandy on their mission to save the galaxy…again. This earns her a certain amount of scorn among her own people, some of whom are only too eager to brand her Tali’Zorah vas Normandy – a small but definite mark of shame tied in with fleet politics and the fallout from certain events on the Flotilla. Tali, however, refuses to treat the label as such. Instead, she embraces the name, keeping it even after her path leads her away from the Normandy again and wearing it with pride. Though she loves her people, and would literally lay down her life for them, it is clear that she loves Shepard and the rest of the Normandy crew as well, and looks back fondly on her time with them.

And yet, despite her increasing importance to her people, her evolving and expanding role in the Flotilla, and the confidence and grace that come to her with maturity, she remains humble, open-minded and, yes, occasionally awkward and geeky. One of the sweetest moments in the second game comes when she tells Shepard that she’d gladly join their suit environments if she could – a gesture of intimacy (not necessarily sexual intimacy, but simply the intimacy that comes with any close relationship) among the quarians, whose already-weak immune systems have degraded in exile to the point where they must wear isolation suits at all times – and, predictably, stammers and stumbles over the explanation as the implications occur to her, her blush nearly bright enough to be seen through her helmet. In the third game, she speaks openly with Shepard about her fears and doubts – above all else, her ability to live up to the trust her people have placed in her and to fulfill the duties that come with her role as a leader. And as new information comes to light regarding the quarians and the geth, she adapts to it. It’s not always easy for her, but she’s willing to change her mind. And in the end, depending on Shepard’s actions and the conversations she and Tali have had, Tali’s willingness to change her mind can potentially lead to a new and glorious destiny for all quarians. For all her doubts, for all her fears, for all her insecurity, her power and influence are undeniable, as is the responsibility she takes for her choices every time she exercises that power.

May 30th. Check your local comic book shop.

Idealistic, brilliant, nervous, geeky, sarcastic, funny, sweet, loyal, stubborn, kind and forgiving, Tali is one of the Mass Effect franchise’s most fully realized and sympathetic characters. It’s no wonder that she’s attracted a pretty huge following, and that the quarians in general are widely beloved among Mass Effect fans. It’s unsurprising that fans clamored for the opportunity to romance her (which they got in the second game – at least if they were playing a male Shepard) and that they’re still hungry for more. They’ll soon get it: Mass Effect: Homeworlds #2, out next month from Dark Horse Comics, will give us a glimpse into Tali’s adventures before she met Shepard. Hopefully there will be many more such stories to come, filling in the gaps between her meetings with Shepard in each game, and expanding on the vital work she performed for the Flotilla. I don’t think any of us are quite ready for her story to be over. There’s so much more to tell.

Keelah se’lai.

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Fangirl Fridays: Commander Shepard, SSV Normandy

If you follow basically anyone connected to Mass Effect on Twitter (by which I mean writers, developers, community managers, fans, voice actors…literally anyone), you probably already know that today is FemShep Friday. See, a while back, BioWare promised us a Mass Effect 3 trailer focused specifically on the female version of Commander Shepard, the protagonist of the series. This was pretty huge news, because despite the female Commander Shepard’s large and vocal fan base (most of whom affectionately refer to her as, you guessed it, FemShep), most of the promotional videos and images use the default male Shepard. But BioWare has finally started recognizing FemShep’s many ardent fans, and for the third and final entry in the Mass Effect trilogy, they’re giving her a little more of the spotlight. The Collector’s Edition of the game will feature both male and female Shepards on the box art, for example, and a prominent Facebook poll allowed the fans to select the female Shepard’s appearance in the game’s promo art (more on that later). The highly anticipated FemShep trailer was the latest piece of the puzzle, and it just went online today.

I’ve played a hell of a lot of Mass Effect over the past couple of years, and with one exception (a male Shepard I created to romance Ashley and later Tali), I’ve chosen the female Shepard every time. That’s probably not a huge surprise to anyone who knows me. Given the choice, I will almost always choose to play a female character. I empathize more readily with female characters and strongly prefer to take on that kind of role. But there’s something special about FemShep.

Commander Chloe Shepard, Renegade Spectre

Maybe it’s the fact that she’s a total badass, no matter how you play her. You expect that with the cold, ferocious, trigger-happy Renegade options, but even Paragon Shepard is courageous, uncompromising, and dedicated to her mission. Her compassion is a strength, not a weakness. (It is generally accepted among fans that anyone who doesn’t hug Tali during a certain sequence in Mass Effect 2 – you’ll know it when you see it – is an utter monster. I agree. It’s not a moment of emotional vulnerability, it’s a moment of strength for someone who truly needs it right then and there.) It certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s voiced by Jennifer Hale, a truly talented voice actress who goes above and beyond the call of duty to deliver a Shepard who feels vital, complex, and real. No offense to Mark Meer, who voices the male Shepard, but FemShep steals the show in any scene because Jennifer Hale is just that good. If I wasn’t already inclined to play female characters, I still would have rolled up a FemShep the first time I saw a single clip of her, because her work on this game is so incredibly amazing. Whenever I actually get around to playing Star Wars: The Old Republic for real, I think I’m going to have to roll up a female Republic Trooper just to hear her voice again. And I am not normally a tank at all – not by choice.

I call it "The Shepard Shuffle".

But enough about my massive crush on Jennifer Hale – let’s get back to FemShep. Because there’s a hell of a lot more to like. Like the fact that there is almost complete gender equality in the Mass Effect universe. I can think of one NPC in ME2 that even makes a gender-related crack, and you can shut him down HARD when he does. Ashley Williams? She’s a straight-up Marine who’s also a beautiful woman and first shows up in pink armor, and no one gives her crap about it. (And you can get that same pink armor for the male characters as well, by the way.) And FemShep? She does everything the male Shepard does, certain romance options aside. She can knock back ridiculous amounts of liquor. She can hurl bad guy after bad guy to the floor. She can headbutt a krogan. She even does the same dorky little shuffling dance at various nightclubs in the game, which I absolutely adore. In ME2, you can (with certain DLC) get a formal outfit for FemShep that consists of a black dress and heels – but she keeps walking like a soldier while wearing them. She’s clearly uncomfortable and it’s awesome. The BioWare team could have come up with a bunch of titillating animations full of booty-shaking and swinging hips and mincing around in heels, but they didn’t. They recognized that they were creating a soldier, first and foremost. Someone who has spent her adult life in the military, someone who isn’t always great with social niceties, someone who almost certainly did not put a lot of emphasis on her physical appearance or sexual body language. Oh, she can speak pretty smoothly, sure. She can even flirt. But she is the dorkiest dancer ever, and I love it. It’s adorable.

And that vision of Shepard’s personality bleeds into character creation as well. Sure, you can kind of overdo it with the makeup (and they did overdo the makeup in that trailer), but other than that, the player is offered a selection of short, efficient hairstyles that all make sense for an active soldier. No pigtails or Farrah Fawcett hair here. That might, admittedly, have more to do with the limitations of the graphics engine (and a desire on the part of the animators to avoid dealing with long, freely swinging hair) than anything, but it’s still a nice touch. There’s also a broad selection of facial scars, which you don’t tend to find on your average character creation screen.

Ohhh, Edward...I mean Thane...

The truth is that Shepard can’t help being a badass career soldier. Case in point: a while back, I rolled up a female Shepard just to romance Thane, the one male love interest I had any interest in. Since I tend to be more interested in lesbian romances (obviously) and didn’t really expect to enjoy this playthrough quite as much, I decided my poor, straight, throwaway Shepard would be named Bella and act like a total Paragon Mary Sue. (I think I owe Courtney Stanton the credit for that idea.) But I quickly found it was totally impossible to ignore or dismiss Shepard’s pure awesomeness. Even when she was playing nice, speaking diplomatically, choosing the goody-two-shoes option each and every time, she was brave and bright and occasionally sassy. She still faced her enemies without fear. Jennifer Hale’s voice still brought her to life, bringing depth and meaning to the most straightforward dialogue. I ended up playing well past the point where Bella consummated her relationship with Thane, finishing all the side missions and running through all the DLC. I’ll probably bring her back for ME3, just to see how her story ends.

This is not to say that FemShep is perfect. The level of customization available to the player certainly isn’t. The various options in character creation are pretty white-centric, for example – you can give Shepard darker skin tones, but there’s not a lot of variation in her facial structure. You can’t change her body at all; she’ll always be a fairly slender, fit young woman. Certainly an active soldier would be fit, but it would be nice if you could have a stockier Shepard, or a taller or shorter one. The makeup in that trailer up above is pretty ridiculous, and I don’t love how they’ve made Shepard look younger than before. She’s a grown woman and an experienced soldier who’s lived through the events of two fairly epic adventures – adventures that probably ate up at least a couple years of her life. She doesn’t need to look like a dewy-eyed twenty-something.

And, of course, I’m still annoyed at the lack of same-sex romance options. Unless you hack (and effectively break) the game, you have no same-sex romance options as a male Shepard, and you can only romance asari (who only have one biological sex and only seem to have female gender identities, though that hasn’t been explored in depth) or human or alien men as a female Shepard. We’ve been promised more same-sex romance options for both Shepards in ME3, but we’ve been promised those options before and they’ve been cut each time. Personally, I’m rooting for a Shepard/Tali romance – when Tali tells you in ME2 that she would happily share her suit environment with you (an intimate gesture among quarians), that’s not just subtext, that’s text. And Jennifer Hale reads more than a few lines in conversations with female crewmates and NPCs in a distinctively flirty way. It’s past time those potential flirtations got some follow-through.

This may seem slightly hypocritical – a couple paragraphs ago, I lauded Mass Effect for limiting player choices in certain ways, giving Shepard’s history and personality weight and meaning regardless of the player’s actions. Now I’m complaining that these options are too limited. But the fact of the matter is that the Mass Effect team’s decisions have, to some extent, ended up excluding people who already face exclusion and oppression in real life. A whole lot of us play games like Mass Effect to escape this grim reality – but the Mass Effect series has, thus far, failed to embrace everyone who wishes to escape.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still obsessed with the series, and I’m still psyched for the next installment. Bella, Chloe and Michael Shepard are all waiting in the wings, and I’ll be starting another runthrough soon to reconstruct my gay Paragon Shepard, Moira (who was sadly lost when my previous computer crashed and I was unable to recover the save files). I love Mass Effect, and I love FemShep. I just think there’s room for improvement – and I sincerely hope BioWare seizes the opportunity.