Commander Shepard wakes with a start. "You okay?" asks his lover, stirring next to him. "Got a lot on my mind," he answers gruffly. His lover responds with comforting words, gently laying a hand against his back.
As a scene from an epic role-playing video game, it seems surprisingly tender. Even more surprising, though, is the fact that the commander's companion is a naked black man with a body-builder's physique.
The romance between the rugged starship commander and his comrade Cortez is only one of many relationship options available to players of the much anticipated Mass Effect 3, launched last week by Edmonton-based BioWare. But it's the one that has sparked a flame war on gamer sites all over the world.
BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka told mega gaming blog Kotaku last fall that the game's gay element was in response to compelling feedback from fans requesting more choice in romantic scenarios. While critics have delivered glowing reviews, commenters on the popular review aggregator Metacritic are complaining about the game's homosexual content.
"What were they thinking? Putting gay scenes into video games?" wrote one Metacritic user. "The homosexual views of this game are very offensive to my Christian beliefs. I think Bioware should be much more aware of how many of their fans are Christians," wrote another.
Kevin VanOrd, a gay man who writes for one of the Web's top video game sites, Gamespot, said he received homophobic responses from readers after posting his positive review of Mass Effect 3.
"BioWare has hardly burdened the unwitting masses with explicit gay subject matter," he notes in a blog on the Huffington Post, "they've simply allowed me to see my in-game character as I see myself."
BioWare regularly delivers some of the most compelling action available in modern role-playing games, but it's the Canadian studio's penchant for creating rich, multi-dimensional characters that consistently brings their games into the spotlight.
That's never been truer than in the company's sci-fi-themed Mass Effect series, which allows players to create complex avatars and to build nuanced relationships – romantic and sexual – with other characters. Commander Shepard can also be played as a woman, with players able to guide her into a romantic relationship with either male or female characters.
The franchise also examines racism, in the form of extraterrestrial discrimination. The theme of ethics in scientific experimentation – when do the ends justify the means? – runs through the series. It even reflects tensions in the Middle East through a homeland war that has rendered an entire species nomadic.
Mass Effect 3, the final installation in the series, sold nearly a million copies in its first 24 hours in North America alone, and had already shipped 3.5 million copies globally, according to BioWare publisher Electronic Arts. So even if Metacritic user reviews of the Xbox 360 edition sit at a dismal 4.9 out of 10, in stark contrast to the critical average of 94 out of 100, it's well on its way to becoming the trilogy's bestseller.
In the end, the furor may simply be the result of an unusually vocal minority. But it's an indication that Mass Effect has already succeeded in doing what all great science-fiction does: shine a spotlight on a contemporary issue. It's also shown that while game culture may be maturing, individual gamers still have a lot of growing up to do.