'Mass Effect's Commander Shepard Was A Woman From The Get-Go, In A Satisfying Twist

Of all the issues playing out in the world of video games recently, feminism and sexism have taken center stage. The relative dearth of major female characters and their oft-troubling depictions — to say nothing of the abysmal, months-long harassment several women have received recently — has made this as vital a conversation as there is for the games industry. And on the former point, there's actually some fun news: Mass Effect's Commander Shepard was animated as a woman in her first-ever character model! Yes, the starring hero of one of the foremost space epics in gaming history first jumped to life as a female.

In case you're not familiar, the Mass Effect series is simply wonderful, despite a few nagging issues here or there — as far as immersive sci-fi worlds go, it's probably the most fleshed-out, thriving original universe that any developer has produced. Boasting an array of interesting, culturally nuanced, and oftentimes at-odds alien species against the backdrop of a galaxy in peril, developer Bioware really can't be praised enough for this series, in my view at least. After all, why have to choose between heady writing, plot, and characterization versus fun gameplay when you can have it all?

In the proud tradition of Bioware games, Mass Effect lets you design your character, first offering a major choice: male or female? Up until the third installment of the trilogy, protagonist Commander Shepard was (predictably) presented as male in all of the game's advertising, tacitly portraying this as the character's canonical sex. But now, former Bioware lead animator Jonathan Cooper has revealed something altogether different — Shepard was a woman in their earliest test animations.

This new insight into Shepard's origin is satisfying, for a number of reasons. While your choices are entirely your own, and this is purely subjective, I'd urge any newcomer to the series to start off with a female Shepard, because it's a lot more fun, frankly. I've never really messed around with a male alternative, save for a few minutes before thinking better of it. Even if it weren't inherently more interesting to play as a woman (amid a gaming landscape chock-full of stoic, white male protagonists, the voice acting is much stronger on the female side, thanks to the work of Jennifer Hale.

So if you settle in with a copy of the first Mass Effect, ready to start barreling through the series, it's entirely up to you whether you want to be a male or female protagonist. But this revelation of Shepard's origin is in many ways very satisfying. For years, fans of the female Shepard have referred to her as "FemShep," an affectionate nickname, but one which carries an underlying message: the male Shepard is the default, while she's a deviation. Now, however, you have grounds to argue for flipping the script — oh, you're playing as ManShep? That's cool... I guess.

Images: Bioware