Anticipation continues to build for Mass Effect 3, the climax to the Mass Effect trilogy, gamers worldwide are speculating wildly with the limited information revealed around E3 2011 about the plot and how their gameplay decisions will impact the fate of the galaxy. On a smaller scale there is large subset of Mass Effect fans that are fascinated with the answer to one peculiar mystery within the game: the yet-to be reveled face of fan-favorite character Tali'Zorah.
[…]We've had a lot of debate over Tali's face, but that's the one we kind of dread a lot. We're always "well, let's talk about something else for a while!" That's something we're going to have to decide.
Tali'Zorah is a Quarian, a nomadic alien race who fled their homeworld long ago after the artificially intelligent machine race they created, the Geth, rebelled against them. Since then they have wandered the galaxy in a massive fleet of starships, trapped by their endless debate on whether or not they should find a new world to settle on, risk everything to try to drive their enemies from their homeworld, or endlessly wander the stars in penance for unleashing a persistent and dangerous threat to the galaxy. Compounding their ill-fortune is a naturally weak immune system hampered further by centuries of living aboard sterile starships. This has forced the Quarians to wear face-obscuring bio-hazard suits their whole lives as even the mildest infection could have fatal consequences.
When Commander Shepard, the player character, meets the masked and bio-suited Tali'Zorah early in the first game she finds herself betrayed and on the run while on her coming-of-age journey. Once saved and recruited to the Commander's mission she quickly proves herself as a support character in combat. Her impressive technical skills and slightly shy but strong-willed personality also carry her through that adventure and the next, not only as one of the franchise’s key secondary characters, but a fan favorite as well.
“She's not perfect. She's not fearless. She's, pardon the pun, humanized,” states Liana Kerzner, gaming culture writer and director of video for gamingexcellence.com, “She's the awesome female geek we don't get on the Big Bang Theory.”
Not being able to see a character’s face is not a new development in video games, restricted in the early days of gaming by technological limitations, protagonists were often simply known by a name and identified by an icon. As gaming evolved, protagonists were kept silent and/or faceless for storytelling reasons instead. A famous example of the latter is Halo's Master Chief, who's own face-obscuring helmet and terse conversational style helped many gamers achieve greater immersion in their experience and rose up Master Chief to the highest tier of gaming's great player characters.
Tali'Zorah on the other hand is a rare NPC version of this phenomena, one enhanced by the prospects of the player pursuing a romantic relationship with her (in the second game), one thanks to her suit, based solely on her personality. Though this has not hampered her ability to attract fans. A cursory search of the popular art sharing site deviantART shows that a social group dedicated to displaying fan art of Tali'Zorah has approximately four times as many fans and views as a similar group dedicated to Mass Effect 2's box art-featured Miranda Lawson, who was modeled on the actress Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck).
“I think Tali's popularity comes down to the fact that she's not a perfected, overly sexualized female character,” explains Kerzner, “She's fun and awkward and skilled, and [Mass Effect developer] BioWare just does female characters really really well.”
Though Tali'Zorah's, and by extension the Quarian species', facial appearance as not been revealed to the player, physical clues tantalize curious gamers. Quarians posses only three fingers on each hand, three toes on each foot, and slightly bowed legs below the knee that might betray digitigrade ancestry, suggesting a evolutionary track in the wolf or bird families.
Liana speculates on the possibility of a non-traditionally or even exotically attractive appearance for Tali'Zorah, “[I'd] personally be disappointed if she looks too human, because, let's face it, she's already got a fairly killer body, and that wouldn't differentiate her enough from the [other, human women]. But this is BioWare: they've very rarely disappointed me on story or character points. It could work either way: if the Quarians look very human, then it tells us something about humanity. If they don't, it tells us something about diversity. The Mass Effect universe is diverse enough that both could work.”
Currently, based on the Hudson/Watts interview and a tweet that appeared on the franchise’s official feed it seemed the question if Tali'Zorah's face will be revealed might still be up in the air. Late on Tuesday July 5, 2011 however, Casey Hudson tweeted confirmation that they've made their decision, he's just not telling what it is.
When pressed if not revealing her face would be a cop-out, or a bold story telling choice on the part of BioWare, Liana muses: “It's a choice. It's a very thought-out choice. We're supposed to believe that this universe is a real place, which means Quarians exist under their suits, but the story of the first trilogy may not end in a place where it makes sense [to reveal their look]. And the set up for a Quarian removing their suit is extremely intense: the only reasons that would happen are if they found a new homeland, or if they're prepared to die. So either way, it's a big event. [...] It would be a big dramatic reveal, but the cop-out would happen only if that reveal came too easily.” Luckily, nothing about BioWare's storytelling can be looked upon as "easy," and we'll have our reveal come March 6, 2012 when Mass Effect 3 is released!