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Loving FemShep: BioWare’s first lady finally steps forward

She's a full-blown protagonist in both Mass Effect 1 and 2, but unless you've played her you may never have seen her. Why? We talk to BioWare about the "other" Commander Shepard.

FemShep - the Jennifer Hale-voiced, female version of Mass Effect's Commander Shepard - is soon to make her first official public appearance in marketing materials for the series.

BioWare has so far committed to a Mass Effect 3 trailer featuring FemShep, as well as an appearance on packaging for the game's collector's edition, but BioWare marketing man David Silverman didn't rule out further appearances as hype for the March 2012 release ramps up.

If this can happen now, why hasn't it happened before?

"When creating a rich sci-fi epic like Mass Effect, you need to keep a certain level of consistency so people unfamiliar with the property can clearly identify who the hero is that they get to become," Silverman said.

"Had we released images showcasing both a male and female Shepard, people wouldn’t be able to identify who the hero was or what was going on."

Dodging the question of why that hero had to be male, Silverman said BioWare wanted to "acknowledge" the demand for FemShep material.

"Overall, 18 percent of everyone who plays Mass Effect plays it with a female character."

"I can’t speak for the entire BioWare team, but I will say that personally, I’m completely taken aback at the sheer level of passion and support a simple tweet has generated," Silverman said, speaking of a Twitter campaign that went viral.

"It speaks wonders to the level of passion from our fans and also the power of social media. You couldn’t have done something like this a couple of years ago. It’s truly amazing to be able to interact with the fans directly on a one-on-one basis."

One of the arguments trotted out by FemShep detractors down the pub is that most players never even realise they have the option of playing as a character whose vocal performance feels like an entirely different persona to the male version's.

But Silverman revealed that only 13 percent of Mass Effect players use the default Commander Shepard: the remaining 83 percent customise their hero, changing class, abilities, appearance - and gender.

Watch on YouTube

Pat customises Mass Effect 2's FemShep.

"Overall, 18 percent of everyone who plays Mass Effect plays it with a female character," Silverman said.

He added: "There aren’t enough female heroes in games in general, so it’s something that people can rally around and celebrate.

"Jennifer Hale does an absolutely incredible job doing the voice of FemShep, so people really connect with that."

Hale's lauded performance is helped along by a strong script which caters equally well to both genders.

"BioWare has been blessed with some of the best writers in gaming and they truly have a gift of creating some of the most compelling characters that have ever graced the TV screen," Silverman said.

BioWare's Mission

Despite the acclaim and fan campaigns, Silverman doesn't think it's just FemShep's inherent qualities that draw fans to her. He feels some fans see FemShep as representative of something almost unique to BioWare, which other developers often overlook:

"I think it’s more about people celebrating and rallying around the fact that BioWare gives people the choice to step into the boots of a hero of their own creation and escape into an epic adventure.

"BioWare was built itself around the mission of creating and delivering quality interactive storytelling. We want to make sure that people can ‘escape’ into our games and feel as if they are the hero or the one saving the Universe.

Watch on YouTube

Playing as FemShep.

"To that end, we want to make sure that we allow people to have full choice as to which gender they make their hero, what they look like, and even who they choose to have intimate relationships with.

"It’s one of the key things that makes a BioWare game unique and why we have such a passionate fan base. Everyone at BioWare is engrained with that mission and it’s why we make the games we do."

Providing Choice

"The beautiful thing about the Mass Effect series is the fact that the player gets to make choices that actually impact the game and make their entire game experience unique to them," Silverman commented.

Because of this, BioWare won't commit to a "canonical" Mass Effect - Commander Shepard's gender, attitude, abilities and romantic interests are the player's responsibility alone.

For female gamers, so underrepresented in the media they love, that choice and FemShep's upcoming marketing debut are seen as a major success for half the world's population.

Reaction to other female characters - especially Mass Effect 2's "perfect" Miranda and her frequent butt-shot close ups - has not been as positive.

But, Silverman says, Miranda's sexiness is an important part of her character - and she's not the only one.

Watch on YouTube

A video comparing both Commanders'

"The fact is, some characters are defined by their attractiveness, such as a woman who is genetically engineered to be perfect," he argued.

"Camera angles help tell the story and portray key aspects of each character – in Miranda’s case, her curves and sexuality. We had similar shots of Jacob."

It's notable that FemShep, though a remarkably fit lady whose strength and ability are most attractive, is never presented as a sex object - well, except when rolling around in the hay with a crewmate.

If BioWare carries this attitude through its upcoming marketing, FemShep may be one of gaming's first true feminist and feminine heroes.

Mass Effect 3 ships for PC, PS3 and 360 on March 6, 2012.

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