Replacing Commander Shepard

Shepard is an icon. The first human Spectre, savior of the Citadel — you remember. The hero of the original Mass Effect trilogy was an adventurer, possibly a mean brute, and a master of the battlefield. With the upcoming sequel Andromeda, we have our boilerplate worries, but one of the big ones is if the new hero will measure up. And yet, the worry doubles, for a further consideration here is not only ‘if,’ but just how, even conceptually.

The good Commander is designed as a projection, first by the developers, and then by the player, with a depth of customization that undermines traditional characterization. This in mind, won’t another projection be functionally identical to the first? Shepard could simply be remade, given a similar character creator and the binary of paragon/renegade.

Replacing Shepard is a complex problem, one not solved by engaging with characterization as we’ve understood it from other media. This might become a recurrent issue with video-games, whose added dimension of interactivity forces the conflict of player authorship and linear mythology. If Shepard cannot be discretely defined, perhaps the solution lies in theme, not plot or character.

So we ask the surprisingly troubling question: what is Mass Effect about? Extinction, organics vs. synthetics, war, mind control…? None of the game’s usual suspects of subtext seem broad enough to encompass the ambition of a 90-hour arc. Although the Author is Dead, perhaps it’ll help us to return to the early development of the series, a simpler time, long before the Crucible was a blueprint on Liara’s omni-tool, and when that ambition was bristling.

In 2003, series director Casey Hudson wanted to take the immersive role-playing formula of Knights of the Old Republic to a new and original universe, with the driving motivation being the creation of one’s ideal space adventure. The climax of this developing concept was the revelation that the player should have their own starship. This way, they’re empowered to travel the galaxy and explore, not unlike the various Captains of various Treks.

There’s an element of wish fulfillment there, for those who dream of interstellar romance in all delineations. The heart of this romance was specific however, though relatively standard, where the player avatar would not be a thief or an infantryman, but a hero. The hero.

As a result, the nature of heroism becomes the central focus, with expression in the interfaces of gameplay — interactivity is a fundamental mode of this thematic framework. The player deploys superpowers during combat, and makes important choices during interactive cutscenes. People live or die at Shepard’s command, hostage situations are defused, and love interests are courted.

Those hot topics mentioned earlier are not as significant to Mass Effect as they are to Shepard’s journey. They make for the hue and shades of her struggle, where the war with the reapers is her test. In Mass Effect 3, this manifests as the mission to unite the galaxy, finally settling all the scores laid out in the prior two games.

Cerberus and the Illusive Man bring Shepard back from the dead at the start of Mass Effect 2, for her combat prowess and intimate familiarity with the reaper threat, but possibly most of all for her name, which itself has figurative meaning. In the opening of the third game, Shepard stresses that she’s only a soldier, not a politician, in light of the detached Council or the ultimately corrupted Udina. The reconciliation of the lone soldier and a name with the weight of the galaxy is in how Shepard derives the needed political influence from her legend. And the legend is cast in the missions she undertakes, each one compounding on her ability to motivate other power players to the right course of action. With the ultimate goal being the coordination of an entire galaxy, Shepard becomes a leader by either befriending or bullying his or her way to the namesake.

The Mass Effect trilogy tells the story of how a single person can direct all of civilization to stand as one, and we see how it works in the micro. Fixing the water pump and saving people from suicide, but also by experiencing and learning said civilization. The Normandy is the player’s facility to explore uncharted worlds, but was always more profound for the exploration within its energy-coated walls. In the first game, Shepard shocks Lt. Williams and Navigator Pressly by assembling a gallery of freaky aliens on the ship, first as allies, then friends, and later, possibly lovers.

That sounds discordant and strange, but it’s only because Shepard is an open-minded individual in her faraway world. Even the Renegade makes sufficient contact with the galaxy to understand its inner-workings, and the mission demands an opening of communication between peoples separated by relay jumps.

The reapers’ very effective characterization is diminished somewhat in Mass Effect 3, where our horsemen of the apocalypse are meeting us with ground forces and being held off at key fronts. If we’ve been playing into their design all along, why didn’t they design a more decisive harvest? They’re more effective as thematic foils then, with their indoctrination standing in direct contrast to Shepard’s diplomacy. Both ends are nearly identical, but the means make for the difference between hero and villain, rather than organic and synthetic — theme, not plot.

The ambition of the series might be nearly monosyllabic, so concerned with ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ and ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ That’s all very basic, but the radical element here is just how that oldest conflict is depicted. Shepard isn’t the Stargazer’s legend because he or she solved the reaper threat, but because under Shepard’s guidance, the galaxy was united to do so. Even peace to make war is making peace, and we see that the process requires cross-cultural communication.

At this point, my own use of the feminine pronoun becomes unnecessary, as we transition from speaking about individual Shepards to the character itself, who is genderless, without race, without a first name, without a class or origin. Shepard is always an idea, and that idea means something different to each player, because Shepard is an extension of the player. You are the hero.

“Some of the details have been lost in time,” or “just what we have in the archive” are good covers during the epilogue, and as questionably acted as the Buzz Aldrin Stargazer scene is, the message is beautiful — out there in the galaxy, infinite possibilities await. Not only the discovery of wonderful things, but also the discovery of the self. Renegade or not, Shepard is a Paragon of humanity, precisely the hero this Citadel needs, and someone who embodies the initial Mass Effect idea: out there in space, no matter who you are, you can do anything.

And you did! Now we look to our own future, and we see how Andromeda is a sequel to the series whose very essence lay in the thematic. The concrete mythology of Mass Effect is sacrificed on the altar of its meaning, something narratives in other media have never had to do, and something even narratives in this medium are largely afraid to do.

The original series was about the exploration of heroism, and how an individual person can save the galaxy, not by brute force or mind control, but a reification of society. There’s no telling how the new game or series will follow, but it’s critical, as the success of Shepard’s replacement is based on what Andromeda’s story will be, and more importantly, what it will say.

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