Playing a Black Commander Shepard, Part 3 – “A Gangsta & a Ridah is not the Same Thing”

In video games on March 7, 2012 at 1:45 am

Faced with having to build a relationship in Mass Effect 2 with Miranda, Jacks and Tali’Zorah, I slid into this rather strange role as the Black Commander of a spaceship crew. As the hours passed, I started to ask what kind of relationships do I feel comfortable building with these three women? I was surprised to learn by the end that the result was an uncanny reflection of my personal experiences and personal bias.

Continuing my three part discussion about playing Mass Effect 2 as a Black Commander Shepard (the best ever black character in a video game) I address the issue of “intimacy” and how the “circling moons of” Miranda Lawson (discussed in Part 1), Jacks and Tali Zorah vas Neema helped define my character.


Jacks is a dangerous and powerful prison inmate. As a child she was experimented on, tortured and held captive by a private company called Cerebrus. Once she escaped, she became one of the galaxy’s most notorious criminals. She’s a bad girl beauty. Sexually promiscuous, scantily clad and covered in tattoos, she tempts the player to make tawdry decisions just to see what happens, or play the role of Captain Save-a-Girl. But, beyond all of her appealing qualities is a character that is motivated by an abusive childhood.

Jacks was definitely my Gangsta-boo. My Shepard character flirted with her but in the end she felt like the damaged sistah’s that we see most often from the aforementioned Tyler Perry, women I know really well. Sexy and aggressive she uses her attractiveness as a sort of revenge on other men, as a way of maintaining control.

She is a more troubled Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She’s the perfect modern day damsel in distress. Messing with her by the end of ME2 say’s a lot about your ego, if you ask me. I think these women need support and friendship not a salivating man with a hit and quit attitude or a Superman cape.

Sure, that might be a little too deep or a statement for a video game but I did say that Mass Effect brought out emotions that I never expected a game could ever do. Needless to say, I never messed with Jacks and I was glad that she lived through the end of the game even if that meant Miranda couldn’t.

“Ride. Or. Die. Chick.” 

Tali’Zorah vas Neema is a female Quarian, a race of people who travel the galaxy in a massive convoy. The Quarian’s unique characteristic is their sensitivity to most environments so they wear form fitting pressure suits that cover their entire body. Having met in the original Mass Effect, during her pilgrimage, Tali rejoins Shepard’s crew later in the game.

She is clearly the female lead in this trilogy. She was featured in the first game so she’s familiar and she pops up twice in ME2 before joining Shepard’s crew. She’s also the most emotionally grounded character on the ship as her personal story revolves around a sudden problem – she is accused of a treasonous act that turned out to be a mistake made by her father — not the abuse and daddy issues of Jacks and Miranda.

Once Tali discovers her father’s mistake she decides to take the blame for it and asks Shepard to support her, a decision that will get her exiled from the fleet. As a player, I had to choose to tell the truth and risk pissing Tali off or lie for her as she asked. There are two other possible options – Shepard can convince the Admirality Board or a sizable group of folks on the board run to Talia’s defense — but it didn’t have these options in my play through.

Basically, I was faced with the decision to support a friend who got in trouble or not.  This was a no brainer. Tali was the homie. She was loyal. She made it through the first game with me. Even though I didn’t like that she was about to be exiled from the fleet, I had to support her. So, I lied my ass off. And, that is when the black man kicked into my decision-making and I decided to roll with her.

Y’know, the realistic depiction of intimacy and the beautiful character models of the women in the Mass Effect series has a way of brining out the perv in some men. I’ve read hundreds of comments about Miranda and Jacks, braggadocios statements of sexual conquests. Even my boys who played the game use to boast about messing with one of the two.

It’s a little sick but I get that it’s a fantasy. It’s an opportunity to try on a coat that they would/could never buy. But, damn if I haven’t been disappointed at the enormous diss of Tali Zorah.

The thing we respect most from our women in the black community is loyalty, grace and a fierce warrior mentality. That could be a hard statement to swallow considering the nauseating use of women in hip hop music videos, the under developed roles for black folks on film and television or from Tyler Perry’s exploitation of black cultural pathology. But, this is what we love. This is what we value. And, that is Tali Zorah.

To be clear, Tali Zorah is not a black woman. But, considering that her appearance is masked from head to toe she can look however I want her to.

I imagined her as a black woman.

And, why wouldn’t I? The Quarians are refugees, a resourceful race of people who live in transient while looking for a home like the lives of my Eritrean friends before they came here to the US. They recall Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in the way they exist in the Mass Effect universe, never in one place at one time and invisible even when they are right in front of you (Tali has been in every game but people spend more time talking about her other female colleagues). Around others they live in pressure suits. They’re last names (the ships they live on) are not only indicative of their nomadic existence, but they remind me of the reasons why black folks call each other brother, cousin or sister. It is the idea that stripped from our original family any of us could be related.

Tali Zorah vas Normandy was permanently named after my ship after I lied for her. She is my engineer. And, she occasionally rolls with me on missions with a pistol side arm ready and willing to bust major caps in both alien and robotic assess.

Miranda was serviceable but we didn’t get along. Jacks is my Gangta-boo. Tali Zorah vas Normandy is my Ride or Die chick. I was nervous as hell on that final mission as I knew it was possible that she might die but she lived. I can’t wait to see what Bioware has in store for her in ME3. I am looking forward to seeing what she really looks like (something that is rumored to have been stressing the creative team out) but if it ain’t reminiscent to Zoe Saldana, Paula Patton or Anika Nani Rose consider me pissed!

* Like it? Check out Playing a Black Commander Shepard, Part 1 – Rich with Daddy Issues and Part 2 – Brotha Jacob Taylor.

  1. My Commander is a gorgeous black female. She seems a better commander than any other characters I had previously. She’s renegade and Mass Effect was made for her.

    I will take her into ME 3. I hate that this will be the end of ME! She is the best character I have played in any game and I am a serious gamer.

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