"Mass Effect" (2009): Liara T'Soni, a Character Analysis
Liara is the default romance of the video game trilogy Mass Effect, meaning that she a) always loves Shepard no matter what and b) can't die and c) is always assumed to be loved by Shepard in return, whether as a friend or something more.
This was understandably irritating to most fans, who would rather have had their favorite romance comfort Shepard during an emotional crisis, not Liara for the umpteeth time.
And yet, despite the way Bioware crams her down your throat, I've always loved Liara and I've always found her an interesting character, even in spite of her bad writing.
Liara was Always Strong
When we first meet Liara, she is trapped in a bubble, having accidentally triggered a Prothean security switch. This sets her up as a goofy, nerdy scientist, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, it was deliberately misleading.
I say it was misleading because Shepard is given a lot of lines where she can treat Liara like a scared damsel. Liara can refute these assumptions, even telling Shepard straight-up that she is not looking for protection. These lines make it obvious that the writers wanted Shepard (and the audience) to think Liara was helpless, only to have our expectations subverted.
Because Liara is actually the exact opposite. She is powerful and was always a badass. If you talk to her on the Normandy during the events of the first Mass Effect, she tells Shepard that she spent a great deal of time alone, digging up old ruins and occasionally battling privateers by herself. She casually presents this as nothing her biotics couldn't handle, though we are supposed to realize that she is a one-woman army almost on-par with Commander Shepard.
And indeed, if you put Liara in your party, she is incredibly overpowered and pretty much wrecks every enemy you come up against to the point that it feels like cheating. She is such a powerful biotic that Wrex will even comment on it, pondering out loud who would win a fight between a biotic Shepard and Liara.
Liara didn't simply become a badass because Shepard died and she "had to." Liara was always like that. But because the writers first presented her as a helpless fool trapped in a bubble, that's all fans remember.
And no one can really blame them. People who hated Liara off the bat were not going to talk to her about her adventures battling space pirates and they certainly were not going to take her along in their party in order to witness her biotic power firsthand. So Liara is forever remembered as this bumbling idiot who "suddenly" became a badass in the second game.
The thing is, the writers needed Liara to be helpless when she met Shepard. This would allow Shepard to save her life, thus giving her a reason to become instantly enamored. (This was done with all the female followers in the first game, but by sheer virtue of being ridiculous, Liara's introduction gets the most scrutiny.)
After saving Liara from Therum, it becomes obvious that she has a crush on Shepard big time. During the debriefing, she can't get over how amazing and "strong" Shepard is. And later when you speak to her in the medbay, she immediately starts flirting.
You can hardly blame Liara. Shepard kills a krogan battlemaster in front of her, which is a huge deal. Krogan battlemasters are very rare and are said to be the toughest krogan in existence, equaling ten soldiers in one. And Shepard, a mere human, has just killed one like a chicken. Who wouldn't be impressed by that?
Unfortunately, Liara's awe gives her the appearance of a doe-eyed fan girl. She doesn't like or even know the real Shepard. She's just starstruck and in awe of Shepard's power.
Because of this, fans see her as a character who exists purely to stroke the player's ego. Liara has the initial appearance of a submissive, awe-stricken teenager sighing over the lead singer of a rock band and ready to mindlessly rip off her clothes for them.
People typically want to be liked for who they are and this is a power fantasy in which we are imagining ourselves as Shepard, so it's easy to see how fans might be turned off by this and stop speaking to Liara. Which is unfortunate, because Liara's crush actually deepens into something real.
Liara was Always a Shadow Broker
People dismiss Liara's transition into the Shadow Broker in Mass Effect 2 because I think they forget how creepy and nosy Liara was in the first freaking game. Again, this is probably largely because most people stop talking to her after her initial awkward flirting.
After trying unsuccessfully to flirt with Shepard after Therum and making a fool of herself, Liara goes behind Shepard's back and looks up the commander's entire history. Granted, Shepard is famous at this point, but only among humans. This means that Liara had to figure out how to get that information from human sources in a relatively short amount of time (Did humans still have Google at this point?).
By the time Shepard talks to Liara again, Liara knows everything about her. Shepard is understandly creeped out and says she would have told Liara anything she wanted to know. Liara apologizes and says that she was afraid she would say something stupid again and offend the commander, so she looked up everything she could about them.
This is the only conversation where Liara is a babbling mess. It's not because Liara is a shy, stammering nerd-girl. It's because Liara is an alien. She's desperate to make Shepard like her and is terrified of losing her one chance by offending her, a human. But she doesn't know anything about Shepard or humans in general, really. So she does some research.
Amazingly enough, this one conversation has forever cemented Liara as a "shy nerd" in the minds of fans everywhere. But Liara is not shy and she is not bumbling. She has one moment where she stammers because she's afraid of offending Shepard, and that's pretty much it. During her s*x scene, she is not a shy and uncertain little flower. She actually grabs Shepard and aggressively starts making out with her.
To asari who would normally just dip into someone's head for information, doing a background check on someone is just a shortcut to what they would do normally.
To a human . . . it's just creepy. Shepard can't go into people's heads and know them instantly, so she wouldn't understand how frustrating and confusing it is for Liara, who's never been around aliens much, to have to try and find someway to know Shepard without offending her.
Because she is an asari who can read people's auras and dive into their brains, Liara has an entirely different concept of boundaries than a human would. To her, looking up Shepard's information isn't creepy. It's a less offensive way of learning about her, the alternative being to invade her mind.
Humans can't link nervous systems, so they just talk to get to know each other. Asari are the opposite. At least in the first game, where the writing tried to put an emphasis on how alien and strange Liara was.
And what's more, Shepard understands this. Liara's bumbling weirdness is taken in stride by the commander, who teases Liara in Mass Effect 2 about becoming a "creepy recluse."
And later in Mass Effect 3, during their final love scene on the Normandy, Liara teases herself about disrespecting Shepard's boundaries. The commander is amused by this.
Liara's awkward bumbling and cute but desperate attempts not to offend Shepard become a sort of private joke between the two of them.
Liara Does Not Idolize Shepard
As I said up higher, a lot of fans who hate Liara seem to think that she has a shallow and vapid crush on the commander based solely on hero worship. It seems to be that people forget Liara can dive into Shepard's head and know her in all of an instant.
Liara has to go into Shepard's mind to make sense of the Beacon. The second this happens, Liara sees the real Shepard for the first time, and what was once a star-struck crush becomes something real.
Liara is so terrified of her deepening feelings that the next time Shepard approaches her, she suggests that they put their feelings aside and focus on Saren. Shepard can take the Renegade option and push Liara, but Liara will stand her ground. Because contrary to popular belief, she is not a child or a pushover. She's a woman, firm in her resolve, who won't be pushed around by Shepard.
The second Liara's feelings become real, she pushes Shepard away and continues to do so for the rest of the trilogy. She loves the commander so much that she's terrified of the pain of losing them. And who can blame her? Her worst nightmares come true in Mass Effect 2 and are repeated again in Mass Effect 3.
Her behavior shows how her feelings for Shepard have deepened from a silly crush. In the first game, she talks calmly about how well asari cope with outliving their bondmates, but her actions make it obvious that she can't cope at all. The first time Shepard dies, she goes off the deep end (as I explain further below). And after that, she continues to push Shepard away for fear of facing the pain of her loss again.
So fans see Liara as an obsessed lunatic who does nothing but try to get in Shepard's pants because they didn't talk to her past that first flirty conversation. She actually rather quickly becomes reserved and cold and pushes Shepard away the moment she starts to love her, which is just the opposite of the first impression we are given.
I always wished my Shepard could tell Liara the pain was just a part of love and life. Shepard actually has some really good lines about love. Such as when she tells EDI in Mass Effect 3,
"No one ever fell in love without being a little bit brave."
And in the first game, Shepard actually does address Liara's fear by saying,
"Don't tell me a little danger puts you off."
And because she knows Shepard so well, Liara is the only character (aside from Joker and the Virmire Survivor) who will actually get into repeated arguments with Shepard. She is not afraid of Shepard, can not be bullied by her, can not be commanded or pushed around, because she's been in their head and knows them way too well.
In Mass Effect 2, Shepard and Liara can argue repeatedly in Liara's office, to the point that Liara will slam her hands on the desk and curse Shepard out (so hilarious). Sometimes Liara will even mock Shepard about working for Cerberus should Shepard attempt to criticize Liara's brutal methods, even while knowing that Shepard working for Cerberus is her fault!
Liara then goes on to use Shepard like a tool for her own ends. She refuses to help Shepard with her mission, refuses to talk about it, but expects the commander to blindly help her, hacking terminals and running errands.
Later in the DLC Lair of the Shadow Broker, she continues to use Shepard like a tool, and Shepard explodes in resentment because she has been used as a tool and a weapon by everyone (the Alliance, Cerberus, the quarian Admiralty Board, the council), and the one person she loves is doing it now too.
Shepard can call Liara out for this with,
"Why? You got anymore terminals you need me to hack?"
Liara in Mass Effect 2 treats Shepard like absolute crap. The things that happened to her between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 drove her to such anger and rage that she mistreated the one person she loved the most, the one person who always loved her and supported her and would do anything for her, a fact which she was coldly taking advantage of.
It isn't until Shepard gets angry after the fight with Vasir that Liara snaps out of her fury and realizes how much she's using Shepard.
No. Liara doesn't blindly worship Shepard at all.
Liara's Transition Makes Sense
A lot of people feel Liara's transition into the "dark, edgy" Shadow Broker made no sense. It didn't make sense because the developers expected fans to have read all the comics and side material in-between in order to understand why Liara in Mass Effect 2 is now a raving lunatic hell-bent on revenge.
I think for people who didn't read the side material, it was easier to roleplay a baffled and confused Shepard because we ourselves were baffled and confused (something which may have been intentional, with the game's time period of two years aligning with the real world release of the game). Seeing Liara threatening people and slamming her hands on the desk after she had been so serene and calm in the first game was . . . Bizarre.
I really hate that they pushed Liara's character development into side material, but if you read it, her becoming Shadow Broker in Mass Effect 2 actually makes sense.
We know from talking to Liara in the first game that her mother tried to teach her how to survive asari politics and to use those manipulative skills to forge a better future for the asari. Liara denied those lessons and in rebellion, decided to focus on the Protheans and the past.
Fast forward to Saren's defeat, and we learn from the short film Paragon Lost (more side content, ugh) that Liara was laughed out of her field and her reputation ruined because she refused to back down about the reapers.
This tidbit of information, plus what we learn in Mass Effect 3, paints a picture of Liara's wretched life in those few months leading up to Shepard's death. Her mother has just died as a result of the reapers indoctrinating her. The asari leaders have dismissed Benezia as a traitor and refute Liara's claims. Liara is then blacklisted and kicked out of her field and has no way of supporting herself.
Compare this to the Virmire Survivor, whose career only seems to thrive in Shepard's absence. This happens directly because of their involvement with Shepard and their apparent willingness to ignore the reaper threat. They are moving on with their lives while Liara is forced to cling, once again, to the past. To me, it makes perfect sense that Liara would be the one to go after Shepard's body.
The reapers took everything from Liara, who now only has Shepard. Shepard welcomes Liara to live with her aboard her ship and takes care of her for months while they look for ways to fight the reapers together. Then the Collectors attack, killing Shepard. . . and taking the last good thing Liara has left.
Later in Mass Effect 2, Liara mentions that she had to become an information broker to "pay the bills" after Shepard died. And in the comic book, Redemption (which covers how Liara recovered Shepard's body), we see what Liara has to put up with without Shepard there to protect her: on the station Omega, people constantly try to extort her, sexually harass her, and even kill her, until she snaps and kills a horde of Blue Suns by herself, prompting Feron to sarcastically ask if she would like to kill some krogan next.
Shepard's death was the last straw. Losing the love of her life (whether Shepard returns those affections or not) is what finally made Liara become the cutthroat info broker we meet in Mass Effect 2.
Without Shepard, Liara was forced to survive the dark underworld of the galaxy for the first time on her own. Before that, she spent all her time out in space, alone, poking through old ruins. She knew nothing of politics, ruthlessness, and pragmatism and she purposely avoided it.
She became darker to survive, because of all the things the reapers had done to her, and by Mass Effect 2, it's up to Shepard to bring her back from the brink.
Liara and Shepard Can't Live Without Each Other
This was supposed to be our takeaway and it was an aspect of the romance that I always loved.
Liara will confess in Mass Effect 2 that she couldn't let Shepard go. So to save Shepard from the Collectors, she gave her to Cerberus, her hope being that Cerberus could bring Shepard back.
In the comics, Liara tells herself she should let the dead rest. At the same time, however, she doesn't want to be without Shepard. She can't be without Shepard.
And I imagine (a romanced) Shepard feels the same way. During the opening of Mass Effect 2, Liara tries to stay behind and help Shepard as the Normandy is going down, but Shepard yells until she gets off the ship. To me, this was Shepard trying to save Liara's life, because Liara dying is the one thing that terrifies her.
This is reflected in the Extended Cut of Mass Effect 3's (dismal) ending. Liara refuses to leave Shepard's side, even though she's injured pretty badly. Shepard insists that Liara go. Once again, they want to protect each other because they love each other.
At first, Liara is annoyed by Shepard always protecting her. In Lair of the Shadow Broker, she complains that Shepard fought a krogan battlemaster while she cowered during the events of the first Mass Effect. She brings this up in the DLC because she's trying to make Shepard see that she has grown and doesn't need or want Shepard's protection anymore.
Liara wants to be seen as Shepard's equal, not a damsel in distress. But back when Shepard first rescued her, she was physically, mentally weak from hovering in a bubble and thus unable to fight. She was likely embarrassed for years by the unfortunate way Shepard met her.
But Shepard isn't protecting Liara because she thinks she's weak but rather because she loves her. They can't live without each other and would die for each other.
I think it's romantic.
Mass Effect 3 Wasn't Fair to Her
Mass Effect 3 really wasn't fair to Liara. And by that I mean she was written horribly, worse than any other point in the franchise.
For one thing, she was the default romance, and her character portrayal suffered immensely for that. If you didn't romance her, she was always in your face. And if you did romance her, she referred to you as a friend, while constantly asking if you still loved her . . . even though the two of you were joking about having kids six months prior.
On top of that, the reapers kill most of her agents, so she's the worst Shadow Broker ever. The writers used this excuse when they decided to give most of her quests to Traynor to make her more relevant, and as a result, Liara's contribution to the plot was scrolled back, making her look even more incompetent.
It didn't help that characters like Wrex called her out and subtlety mocked her.
Post-Thessia Made Her Seem Selfish
And on top of all of that, the events directly following Thessia made Liara look like a self-centered ass who only cared about her own planet when nothing could be farthest from the truth. Once again, fans wouldn't see how much Liara cared about the other planets if they didn't use her in their party.
Liara spent the first half of Mass Effect 3 apologizing to Shepard about Earth, apologizing to Garrus about Palaven, and expressing worry about Tuchanka. She cares about the other planets and then some.
On top of that, she discovers that her people knew about the reapers all along (her mother included) but lied to her and not only that, kicked her out of her field to cover the lie, effectively destroying her career and her life! Her gods aren't real, her people are greedy assholes, and everything she knows is a lie!
Meanwhile, she has spent one hundred and nine years idolizing Protheans, only to have one constantly mocking her and her people, then take jabs at her during one of the lowest points of her life. I like Javik, but sometimes I wish Liara would have biotic b*tch slapped him. She almost did.
Liara Nearly Hits Javik
But not only that. There's a reason Liara falls apart when Thessia is hit, but it's given in a banter between Joker and Liara and is very easy to miss. If you go up to the bridge a lot during the first half of the game, you'll eventually hear Joker thanking Liara for sending asari commandos to look for his sister on Tiptree (sadly, these asari commandos wind up killing his sister).
Basically, Liara has been sending asari to protect human colonies in droves (because she loves Shepard and wants to help Shepard's people, since the council is looking the other way) and because she did this, it made Thessia weaker.
Liara blames herself, though the reality is the asari allowed themselves to become weak through their arrogance and complacency (as Theta, Liara's father, points out in Mass Effect 2). So soft-hearted Liara blames herself for taking resources from her own people and winds up on her bed crying.
I'll never understand why people hate that scene so much. Liara is not a "Mary Sue" for having a breaking point when her entire planet is taken. She is not a "Mary Sue" for momentarily being unable to cope with the tremendous amount of world-shattering crap she just learned about the asari. And she is not a "Mary Sue" because her crew mates actually give a s*it about her.
Honestly, the term "Mary Sue" just needs to die. The whole point of it is to s*it on female power fantasies while male power fantasies are praised. "Gary Stus" are rarely if ever criticized in any serious light, while female characters are constantly lambasted.
Shepard doesn't go in Liara's cabin and coddle her, not even if she romanced her. Instead, Shepard barges in and tells Liara to get off her butt and keep fighting.
And because Liara is strong, she does. I liked it.
Little Blue Babies
Probably one of the best things about Liara's romance is the talk of "little blue babies."
Asari reproduce through parthenogenesis and can have children with any race regardless of gender by doing so. This means that female Shepard can have children with her wife.
How often is it that lesbian protagonists in video games get to have kids let alone get a happy ending? (Hell, how often do we have lesbian protagonists in video games? Though that's a different topic altogether.)
Liara is too young to have children, but she could easily store Shepard's DNA away in order to have them in the future. This makes it heartwarming when Shepard jokes in Mass Effect 2 about her and Liara getting married and having a lot of little blue kids. Liara playfully shoves Shepard at this teasing, and it's beautiful to see that even in the middle of so much death and darkness, Shepard and Liara are thinking about their future.
Shepard in particular likely knows she won't live long enough to see her own kids, but she wants a family for Liara, so that she isn't alone. In wanting this, she forces Liara once again to consider her future, rather than focusing, as always, on the tragedies of the past.
It's a conversation that symbolizes hope, if anything.
It's especially cute when there's a callback to this conversation at the end of Mass Effect 3. Liara brings up the joke about their blue kids, to which Shepard smiles. It's a cute little scene and shows that Liara is finally unafraid to consider her future, even if it means living it without Shepard.
I've seen fans speculate that Liara's "gift" to a romanced Shepard at the end of Mass Effect 3 is that of children.
Head canon accepted.
Liara for Life
So Liara isn't a damsel in distress. She's not a pushover. She's not weak. She's not shy. She doesn't hero-worship nor is she blind to Shepard's flaws. She is not a self-centered Mary Sue.
But she is flawed and sometimes dark. She is creepy and stalker-ish from a human perspective. And she is crammed down your throat at every. Freaking. Turn.
In the end, there are legitimate reasons to be irritated by Liara or even to hate her. But for me, I only see reasons to love her.