Love’s Labour’s Lost in Space: Unrequited Love in the Mass Effect Series

Author: Bobby Hunter

The Mass Effect series made me care for alien NPCs (mere graphics and code) as if they were a part of my family. Characters who survived from the first game, all the way through the third, became close friends with my Commander Shepard—some of them wanted to be “more than friends” with me—but not the one I wanted. This is the tale of my Commander Shepard and one Quarian named Tali’Zorah.

I didn’t fall for Tali the first time I met her; hell, I didn’t even know what she looked like. She was clad head-to-toe in a spacesuit that seemed to be part functional and part aesthetic. A purple faceplate obscured her features—save for two glowing eyes. She was naïve and lost as she tried to make her way through the galaxy on her Pilgrimage. Her species’ history interested me enough to talk to her whenever I got the chance. I didn’t realize what was happening at first, of course… then, by the end of the first game, she developed a dry, sarcastic wit… that’s when I knew that I was hooked.

One of my favourite moments in the series happened on the Ilos mission in Mass Effect. After you kill some enemies on foot to clear a path for the Mako to enter some forgotten Prothean ruin, you hop back in the Mako. Tali’s voice comes over the speaker, saying something along the lines of: “Big scary doors leading into the dark? Yes, let’s take the tank.” I laughed out loud not just because it’s a funny line, but also because it came—unexpectedly—from Tali; it’s kind of a throwaway line (not part of a branching dialogue tree), but it perfectly encapsulated her growth over the course of the game.

I knew that she wasn’t a potential romance option in the first game, but I continued to be nice to Tali in Mass Effect 2 despite my overwhelming Renegade tendencies. Her character continued to grow in new ways—she learned to accept my Geth squad-mate Legion—but nothing changed between my character and her.

By the time I got to Mass Effect 3, I’d witnessed Tali grow from a naïve girl to a character capable of holding her own in a scrap—and knowing when it’s best not to fight. Shepard and Tali shared friendship, kinship, and mutual trust… but nothing romantic.

Catching Tali and Garrus in the middle of a private embrace in the Normandy’s main battery just before the final Earth mission hit me like a punch in the gut. I’d broken off romances with two other characters earlier in the game on the off chance that Tali would be available for a female Shepard this time around. My Shepard said that she was happy for the both of them but, to me, it felt like a lie. (It didn’t help that Garrus was one of the two I’d ended things with…)

The fact that Tali can only be wooed by a male Shepard, and other characters only by a female Shepard, brings up an interesting dilemma. Mass Effect’s big draw is empowering the player—letting them shape their own character through collections of choices with far-reaching, galactic consequences—and, yet, it feels strange to limit the options on the romantic front, especially when BioWare’s Dragon Age II allowed you to pair up any of the available potential mates, regardless of gender, last year.

Both games feature linear narratives with distinct beginnings, middles, and ends; this creates two opposing forces that run through them. In the Mass Effect series, one force wants to give the player freedom (as evidenced by the various romance options, Renegade and Paragon dialogue selections, and choices like the Rachni decision); the other force is about directing the player down a set story path that surrounds and supersedes all of these personal choices. So if both Dragon Age II and the Mass Effect series do this, why can you romance any of Hawke’s companions regardless of your character’s gender, but you’re limited in Mass Effect?

However, as an unexpected boon to limiting the potential partners, Mass Effect did something neither of the Dragon Age games could: It created an incredibly subtle subtext for my Commander Shepard that only became apparent once I’d finished Mass Effect 3. By denying my female Shepard the option of having a relationship with Tali, the series took on a more poignant tone.

Looking back, I saw how certain actions could be reinterpreted in the context of my character’s unrequited love for Tali; the constant selection of Paragon options whilst interacting with her (despite my status as a shoot-first Renegade) made sense—I wanted her to like me. Despite having a galaxy to save, I went out of my way to clear her name when she was accused of treason by her own people; then, with the counterattack at Earth just hours away, I visited her when she was stone drunk in the Normandy’s bar (to help her work out her daddy issues, of course…).

With almost everyone else in the galaxy, I adopted the Brad Nicholson motto of “I don’t have time for this shit.” I didn’t care about hurting people’s feelings. They weren’t important to the big picture; Tali was. I made time for her but, ultimately, she only saw my Shepard as a friend.

In a melancholy scene before the final assault on Earth, my Shepard woke up alone in her cabin. The image of her sitting up in bed by herself was especially touching because, if I had my way, there’d be a certain purple-helmeted Quarian next to her; however, the way it happened was all the more bittersweet and, ultimately, more meaningful: My Shepard put the burdens of an entire galaxy on her shoulders and, in the end, had nobody special to spend her last quiet moments with and to think that BioWare did all this—created all this emotional longing and turmoil—without showing me Tali’s face; her personality, depth, and character growth were all I needed to go from one end of the universe to the other for her.

-Bobby Hunter is a contributor to Gamealism, Gamer Limit, and a freelance writer who’s been playing video games in one form or another for the past twenty years. When he’s not playing games or writing about them, he writes speculative fiction as R.S. Hunter. Follow him on Twitter @RSHunter88 and on Google. –

  • Sovereign

    I don’t say this ever. Good article.

  • Ben

    I love Tali. There is a genuine part about her.

  • BChung16

    Tali is not naive. She’s sweet, tough an pratical. In illos she was tellin liara to focus, wanted me to shoot rena thorp for testing on victims and etc. she is awesome