MILD SPOILERS for the MASS EFFECT TRILOGY
With all the controversy surrounding the endings of Mass Effect 3, it’s easy to lose sight of all the wonderful things the game presents us with. In this concluding chapter to the trilogy, we see an improved combat system, the successful culmination of multiple character arcs, the elevation of thematic and psychological debates, technical wizardry in both the visual and sound departments, and many other wonderful things to play with.
But among all the successes on offer, none are more satisfying than the richly drawn characters Bioware has populated the game with. Here, among others, we have a geneticist nobly sacrificing himself to correct a grave error of judgement, a philosophical assassin finally finding peace surrounded by his son and greatest ally, and a loyal and true friend who cheekily sneaks Shepard up to a roof for one final game of “who’s the better shot.”
And yes, finally at Shepard’s side once again, is Liara T’Soni, whom I believe to be the most important character in this game and should serve as a model for the industry for years to come.
I know that is a bold statement, but I make it coming from the perspective of a father-to-be looking at the gaming landscape as it exists now and with an eye towards what kind of future the industry holds for my daughter.
Being the unabashed geek and nerd that I am, one of the joys of parenthood that I absolutely am looking forward to consists of sharing all my passions with my little girl. I want to sit her on my lap as we watch Star Trek marathons together. I want to carefully watch her features as we build up to the exciting and terrible moment where Darth Vader reveals his secret to Luke. I want her to go with me to BC Place, decked out in Vancouver Whitecaps gear as we root against the likes of the Montreal Impact and LA Galaxy.
And yes, I want to play video games with her. I want to share with her the joy of using a controller or a mouse (or an iPad) to guide the fate of one character, one party, one city, or one civilization through the trials and tribulations that the next generation of game developers has to offer.
But what kind of characters will these be, exactly? And, more importantly, what kind of example will they set for my daughter’s impressionable mind?
It’s no secret that big-budget gaming, for so long, has been an arena for men to create games for other men (and boys). Sure, Nancy Drew has her own series of excellent adventure games, but you’d be hard pressed to find the likes of her in HALO or Gears of War. It’s getting better now, but as a result of this fact, it’s been very difficult over the years to find fully realized examples of empowering female characters who do not conform to either a damsel-in-distress mold or an unbeatable Amazon warrior princess paradigm. There is an odd exception here and there, but, on the whole, there are usually more Rinoa Heartillys (Final Fantasy VIII’s teenage fantasy dream girl) than Elena Fishers (Uncharted’s wonderfully realized journalist/adventurer).
But now we have Dr. Liara T’Soni. On the surface, if you have only a passing knowledge ofMass Effect, you might think that she’s your typical video game heroine. She’s pretty, exotic, can blow you away with biotics or sub-machine guns, and, oh yeah, she comes from a race of women who have been often portrayed as hyper-sexualized.
But dig beneath all that, and it’s not too far away mind you, and you find that Liara is so much more than that: the good doctor is a big old fashioned “Science Hero”.
A lot of main characters in video games, especially in epics likeMass Effect, have driving motivations along the lines of “Save the city from the barbarian hordes!”, “Save the world from the evil tyrant!”, or “Save me, Mario!”
If one were to take even just a cursory glance at what drives Liara, the answer becomes obvious right away: a deep, abiding, unrelenting thirst for knowledge.
Yes, she is warm, funny, has a bit of a temper, and she is quite loving and can be quite emotional. But from the moment we meet here in Mass Effect 1, her desire to learn and to know are always at the forefront.
Consider the reason she was brought into the team in the first place. Shepard was zapped by some sort of Prothean beacon and needed an expert to decipher the images locked in her head (yes, I played as FemShep). And since Liara had been playing archaeologist since she was a child, and since she was digging into the Prothean dirt and earning her doctorate while others of her species were stripping in clubs or becoming mercenaries, she was the obvious choice.
Right away, her passion for learning everything about a dead race was evident. The factoids in her brain, the reverence she held for the Prothean legend, even the fact that she was initially attracted to Shepard simply because the commander had knowledge about them… Liara’s enthusiasm was undeniable.
She had a sense of wonder – a desire to learn more than what the world was giving her and to put that knowledge to good use. And even when the story took a dark turn in Mass Effect 2, she never lost sight of the value for knowledge.
It is in the sequel where Liara showed her propensity to grow as a character. She new that her naivety and innocence could only get her so far when the world was gunning for her, so she decided to grow up and face her troubles head on with the greatest skill she had at her disposal: gathering knowledge. Setting herself up as the foremost dealer in secrets on Illium, and later as the illusive “Shadow Broker”, Liara managed to find a way to use her intellect and reason to put her in an even better position to help Shepard and the universe at large.
The world turned dark, and she had to follow. But she never lost sight of the value of using your brain ahead of your brawn (and biotics).
Her growth would continue intoMass Effect 3, where her skills would come full circle as she would use her knowledge both as a scientist and as the Shadow Broker to help Shepard end the Reaper threat. In fact, she would would prove instrumental in uncovering, through archaeology, the one secret Prothen weapon that could save the galaxy.
And there would be one final bit of growth that solidified how important Liara would become to me. At a time when the galaxy looked like it was going to fall, each character spent every free moment they had attempting to make peace with either themselves or each other.
Liara would do the same, to a certain degree, but she again showed her love of knowledge in a touching scene where she revealed to Shepard that she constructed a time capsule. She filled this capsule with memories, data, and information… everything a future archaeologist would need 50,000 years down the line to learn about Liara’s galaxy.
She began the series looking back with wonder at an ancient race and ended it looking forward with hope at a future where knowledge would never die.
Part of the success of Liara as a character must fall on the shoulders of the team of brought her to life – the animators, the writers, the directors. A particular standout is the impressive Ali Hillis, whose voice work brings a tender but firm strength, tinged with a hopeful sense of wonder to Liara.
Together, all of those elements form a character who embodies something I wish I could see more of in gaming: a heroic scientist who is not defined by her obsession with science, but whose warmth and personality are enhanced by it.
This is the type of character I want my daughter to grow up getting to know through games. The interactive nature of gaming gives the player a unique way to experience a world, and it is dangerous to understate just how much that can form a person’s character.
In a world where it’s so easy to just receive and receive stimulus after stimulus, it’s just as easy to get so caught up in the chaos that you miss the importance of understanding, theorizing, and applying. It’s so easy to forget that in order to grow – fully grow as a rational, thinking human being – you must always be asking questions. “Why did that happen?” “How can I make that happen again?” “When can I go to the stars?”
The creation of our favorite Asari information broker gives me hope that gaming is moving in the direction where we could see more female characters who prioritize the right things; characters who look to the stars, look into history, look into the future and ask “What if?”
I would love it if my daughter grows up idolizing Mr. Spock. But I would certainly love it just as much if she wants to be like Dr. Liara T’Soni as well.