When the first Mass Effect game came out, way back in the long lost age of 2007, I was an angsty teenager with a red pleather jacket, long hair, and a really horrible attempt at a goatee; and one of my favorite parts of any video game was the ability to create my own character. Clearly, my amazing sense of fashion and style in the real world helped me find the perfect look for my video game characters. Usually that look was gaunt, pale, and, when possible, with bright red hair and eyes. Most of these fine looking fellows were left behind a long time ago, but when I fired up the 2011 game Mass Effect 3 for the first time in about 5 years, there was Commander Shepard, a character I created in 2007’s Mass Effect, and whose story continued through 2010’s Mass Effect 2, staring back at me. Picking up where I left off and finishing the trilogy, I realized that having the ability to sculpt Shepard’s looks and decisions to my liking left me with a character I really, really disliked.
It turns out the first terrible choice I made in Mass Effect was creating a creepy monster with a handlebar mustache+sideburns with, somehow, weird red specks on his skin around his facial hair… Apparently dermatological medicine didn’t advance at the same rate as everything else after the discovery of the Mass Relays. The worst part, though, was the eyes, the horribly sunken-in eyes under a way-too-pronounced brow. I had to get away from those eyes… Thankfully I found some sort of visor pretty early on in ME3 that gave me a combat bonus and, more importantly, completely, 100% covered Shepard’s eyes. It wasn’t until I nearly finished the game that I realized I had turned Shepard in to a guy who wore sunglasses. All. Of. The. Time.
Really, though, when people talk about the ability to make choices in Mass Effect, they are referring more to the conversation options that show up throughout the games than Shepard’s looks. Now, remembering the kind of person I was when these games started, it’s probably not hard to believe that I played the commander in the first two games like a lone wolf, who would never let himself be, like, held down by, like, the man, man! I’d like to think I’ve grown since then, so I decided to play ME3 as a good-good boy, who says nice things and helps people. The only problem is, this game asks you to make hard decisions with THE FATE OF THE ENTIRE GALAXY AT STAKE. Essentially, I was trying to make Shepard a sweet little angel, even though I – as a player – felt like he should have been more aggressive and cutthroat.
This made for a really weird transference when I started getting to scenarios where the game pushed me, and I felt like I really had to choose the renegade option. At one point the game makes you choose between two races, one a synthetic machine society, the Geth, who had just obtained true free will, and the tattered remains of the species who created and subjugated the Geth, the Quarrians. Even though I had formed a (sometimes romantic) bond with a member of the creator species across three games, it was clear that the Geth would be a greater tactical advantage, and Shepard calmly and cooly let every single member of the Quarrians die. I started to realize at this point, it wasn’t just me who knew the less pleasant option was the right one, but that Shepard was also thinking the same thoughts as me. Because he went hardcore when push came to shove, every time he said something nice it ended up feeling shallow, forced, and fake. Ultimately, by making the nice choices even when I didn’t think it was right, I felt like Shepard was also just acting nice, and I started to hate his shiny, fake demeanor. Come on, man, all organic life is at stake, you don’t have time to waste trying to make Ashley feel special, just tell her to get back to work!
At the end of the day, giving me the chance to craft my own character across three different games and nine years left me with a dude with terrible facial hair, a pair of sunglasses he almost never took off, and a falsely positive attitude, who didn’t really care about any of the people around him. As weird as it sounds, I think that looking at Shepard this way was an interesting social experiment, in that it really illuminated why people sometimes feel the need to act nice even when their gut response is to be more direct, and how leaning too far in those niceties can make someone just seem false. It’s also made me realize that there’s more to creating an interesting character than red eyes and a sweet mustache.