While not being the first developer to introduce sex, romance and scantily-clad characters to video games, BioWare's Mass Effect introduced action-RPG and science fiction fans to the concept on a broader scale. The games that had introduced sex in video games prior were mostly centred around the concept of just that while BioWare used it as a secondary focus and designed it around an action-focused narrative about space travel, the loss and eventual return of hope, and companionship. The relationships one could form when taking on the role as Commander Shepard weren't strictly sexual unless the player wanted them to be and the options were mostly monogamous in nature.
Whereas gamers had previously gazed upon polygon or pixel bosoms, BioWare managed to create a level of depth in which players would form genuine relationships with their companions and crew members during their adventure in the stars, eliminating the familiar notion that sex was sex and nothing more than that. In a game where you could essentially be whoever you wanted to be, Mass Effect added to the role-playing element with its carefully crafted companions and the relationships the player could form with each of them, both platonic and romantic.
Albeit controversial, the romance options and the one night stands that featured in the sequels that would follow the original Mass Effect offered some steamy, hot respite in between the intense action sequences that made up most of the games' playtime. This resulted in players getting more engaged by building those relationships in the first place, talking to their crewmates frequently in order to get that well-deserved carrot many hours later, which is one of the reasons that BioWare was so successful in that regard. Not only did the romance and the sex act as a treat during a long journey filled with hard work, but it also drew in players who weren't as interested in the core action gameplay, incentivising them to keep on playing. The first game saw Shepard flirt, court and bang Ashley Williams, Kaidan Alenko or Liara T'soni, and the number of possible partners would multiply by two come Mass Effect 2. However, while there were no awkward Fahrenheit/God of War III "press X to thrust" sequences involved, players were either hot and bothered or outraged by the very common human interaction shown on screen.
The outrage came from various different sources and for various different reasons, sometimes warranted and other times outrageously misplaced. Not only did the sexual acts (and keep in mind, most show no more than a bit of skin before the screen fades to black) cause outrage, it went far deeper than that. The options in terms of potential sexual partners, the lack of more explicit scenes, a drawn-out mission to get to the goal (the goal being, you guessed it: sex) and the lack of romance options for gay men (which is, most definitely, the only well-warranted criticism of the lot, considering players wanting to play as a gay male Shepard were left unsatisfied until the third game in the franchise) had BioWare face hard criticism and for little reason, even though all counts held some merit.
An example of a paramour act that exemplified multiple points of the series' controversies was surprisingly the heavily-tattooed badass Jack, who bared her unapologetically (albeit tortured and emotion-suppressing) sexual nature, her issues, and her hostile nature, but kept her emotions locked up deep inside until a point very late on in the game, meaning the player had to court her by genuinely caring about her and patching up what had broken inside her. This took a long time and many players didn't even realise that there was a genuine romance arc for Jack at all since they could experience a "crewmates with benefits" encounter with her relatively early on in the game. If the player was patient, however, Jack would open up and let her emotional side show, resulting in one of the sweeter romance scenes Mass Effect 2 had to offer. Apart from this, many argued that Jack's past, during which she had been sexually taken advantage of by both men and women, should have left her with either a bi-sexual leaning or a strict celibacy rule. However, her story and the gradual relationship the player could build with Jack was tastefully crafted despite the darker topics within her complex arc and she remains one of the more multi-faceted characters in any RPG.
With all of this said, however, it's surely time for BioWare, especially with its Mass Effect series, to step up its game in the romance department. More RPG developers are catching onto a phenomenon that's been underexplored in RPGs, including the likes of CD Projekt Red with its Witcher series and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 (which promises not only many potential love interests with carefully crafted sex scenes for different genders, but also the option to play as a genderless protagonist). BioWare's other hugely successful RPG series did make plenty of progress with the latest game, Dragon Age: Inquisition, but the developer then took a step back with Mass Effect: Andromeda. This step back came from the bland companions the game had to offer and the fact that most romance encounters felt forced into the game just for the sake of it. Sadly, the bond between the player and the in-game characters never really got strong enough to push the player to explore them too much. The importance of the romance aspect in BioWare games really showed when Anthem followed, with the developer forsaking its main fan base by failing to explore one of the things that made the studio so special in the first place, the way they build mechanics around companionship.
Mass Effect as a series has pushed the boundaries of sex and romance in games for a long time, and while some criticism has been warranted, the criticism of sex in games and the idea that it should be a no-no is somewhat ridiculous. Shouldn't sex in video games, especially if implemented in a non-scandalous manner, be celebrated rather than developers being villainised and the act harshly criticised? Sex is, and always will be, a huge part of life and the only integral part of its creation, and yet some see the act horrifying whenever it's implemented in this specific media.
While it was far from the first time that players could get down in video game form, the original Mass Effect definitely put romance on the map in a big way. Players had a reason to strive for something more and the mission of courtship added incredible depth, not just when flirting or doing the deed, but all the way through simple conversations and companion missions. The player ended up really caring for the characters in the game and, while the romance in Mass Effect can't be broken down into one specific moment in time, BioWare sure did revolutionise the genre. Not only did the Mass Effect series utilise sex as an integral part of the series but it also created a unique connection between the player and the characters and even gave us the option to continue those relationships across multiple games, which in itself is groundbreaking.