In the week since it's release, BioWare's latest release, Mass Effect: Andromeda, has seen controversy for several reasons, with some game aspects celebrated and others criticized. And right now, a vocal section of the fandom is making some significant waves.
Emotionally-honest and dedicated Angaran freedom fighter Jaal is a popular romance choice for female protag Sara Ryder...and, LGBT fans and their supporters assert, should be available for Scott, as well. The movement's even gotten a fairly active Twitter hashtag, #MakeJaalBi, full of fans campaigning for a Scott/Jaal romance, and a more equal ratio between love-interest orientations.
But questions of diverse inclusion aside, a major argument seems to be that action here on #Bioware's part wouldn't involve altering a character's sexuality - because he was already programmed this way to begin with. If BioWare grants their wish, Jaal would be open to male and female Ryder romances again.
For many fans, this is an important distinction, and a significant moment for creator-consumer dialogue. It could even be a potentially great opportunity for inclusion that aligns with the franchise's major themes of hope and, in Jaal's words, 'universal' trust and positive regard.
Lack Of Representation Leads to Frustration
To some, the vocal fan response and hashtag might appear to be an industry-standard rumble of never-satisfied critics. But the situation is a lot more complicated than simple fan entitlement. Changes to Jaal's orientation aside, the consensus seems to be that the Mass Effect universe should be above exclusion or erasure.
Browsing the tag (or knowing behind-the-scenes game developments) will tell you that this isn't the first time an originally-bi male love interest has been cut down to ladies-only.
However, BioWare's also been known for their inclusive steps; Liara in the first #MassEffect installment helped bring bisexual inclusion into the game-sphere consciousness, and the games' romantic representation has gradually grown from there - until now.
When we lay them all out visually, it's a lot easier to see an imbalance - and their point. This breakdown pretty clearly demonstrates how the love interest ratio has skewed disproportionately to the heterosexual.
Count 'em up - there are as many non-straight romances (14) as male/female alone! And there's more than twice as many opportunities for LGBT ladies - although several of those aren't 'official' romances (Kelly, Samara, a most unwise encounter with Morinth...) with squadmates or major crew. Guys get a total of two 'official' gay/bi romances, which also unlock player achievements.
But while the romantic options for non-straight men have been comparatively few, fans believe Mass Effect can do better. They actively want to be included in the Milky Way and Andromeda, and haven't held back in telling BioWare and the rest of the internet how significant and positive a move this would be.
Fans in the hashtag aren't praying for #Andromeda's failure or BioWare's destruction. On the contrary; the prevailing attitude seems to be that Mass Effect is an amazing universe with great potential for progressive inclusion, a world where LGBT and specifically gay/bi male fans are included and get to be galaxy-saving heroes. (And romance cool aliens.)
But perhaps the biggest argument in #MakeJaalBi's favor is that it seems like he was initially written/coded as bisexual, and had his programming altered. But he could, relatively easily, be 'himself' again.
It's All (Already) There In The Coding
What's as common as criticism after a game's release? Poking around and uncovering secrets before it. Pre-release, dataminers revealed through some careful code-digging that Jaal's romance path - for both of them, Sara and Scott Ryder - appeared locked down, and fan anticipation rose accordingly. But upon release, no Scott romance. The romance was apparently scrapped at the last moment.
And some remnants (ha) remain - like this recorded but never-implemented audio. And in-game, Jaal's interactions with Scott are virtually identical to his dialogue and blocking with Sara, and even in her finished romance scenes, Jaal consistently uses very gender-neutral wording. The only difference between the two (or the mined data) is that Scott Ryder's flirt option is gone. The datamine and interaction comparison suggests that this was done because if asked, Jaal wasn't programmed to turn Scott down. The only way to make him a straight romance is to remove that opportunity.
Therefore, the source of fan frustration comes from the implication that Jaal's sexuality has already been changed - from bi to heterosexual - leaving the vestiges of his original orientation behind, just blocked without explanation.
Fortunately for #MakeJaalBi supporters, BioWare has a precedent of listening and addressing fan concerns.
Mass Effect 3 received an entire bonus ending addition after fans were dissatisfied with the existing options, none of which seemed very dependent on individual Shepard personality or player decisions. Like the final choice between three decisive actions, the repercussions of which should have been hugely different across the board. The extended cut addressed these concerns (and the fun and fan-favorite Citadel DLC didn't hurt either).
A patch like the one these fans request wouldn't be nearly as involved, or extensive. Nothing should 'change' except removing blocks that altered a character's existing programming. This would be a restorative patch, not a new addition.
Andromeda also already had a Day 1 patch to fix last-minute visual, sound, and multiplayer issues, and more are on the way. But for one to address Jaal specifically, there would be largely no need for newly-created content (the voiced lines already exist, the animation is largely intact, etc), and would be significantly easier to simply return the game to its previous state, removing blocks instead of building from scratch.
So maybe the hashtag itself is a misnomer - but instead of detracting, this seems to only strengthen the point behind it.
Mass Effect Is About "The Power Of Hope," And Bioware Is Listening
While it might be overly optimistic to hope for a complete Jaal romance restoration, the #MakeJaalBi hashtag has actually gotten some silent support from game devs and actors in the form of likes and retweets. And some not-so-silent as well.
Andromeda producer Michael Gamble - @GambleMike - liked this tweet, for instance. Sure, a Twitter like is far from confirmation, but this small action is a significant way to show that fan concerns are at least being read, and BioWare is aware and paying attention.
But even with unspoken acknowledgement, it's easy to say 'we take your concerns seriously,' while not actually making any concrete changes. It's not actually an answer, a guarantee of results, or any kind of forward momentum. However, BioWare staff do seem to think this is a real issue to be addressed, with actual personal responses like the below - which deny that it's just placating "PR talk."
So maybe there is some reason to hope. Fans are holding onto Mass Effect's running theme of against-the-odds optimism, and at least some game staff appear to support the message too. Meanwhile, there's a good chance the silence may break very soon.
What Will The 4th of April Bring?
On March 28th, BioWare released an official statement saying they would share some "immediate plans" on April 4th. They're expected to address in-game bugs that weren't entirely fixed by the launch-day patch, and, fans hope, an official statement on #MakeJaalBi.
In the meantime, BioWare encourage their players not to silence their concerns, but to instead keep speaking; they're listening and actively working to address criticism.
#MassEffectAndromeda was released on March 21st and is currently available.