Great Gaming Heroines #4: Commander Shepard

It all started when I made this weird, rambling post complaining about Samus Aran’s characterization in Other Msome crappy new game I hadn’t even played. Basically, I feel like there aren’t enough awesome female protagonists in video games. I took an inventory of every console game I’ve purchased in the last ten years and made a list, and was shocked to find that there have only been five really memorable heroines who aren’t sultry sex kittens and who don’t have to share their spotlight with some dude. So I figured I’d blog about them! There were a lot of also-rans and not-quite-greats as well, so I’ll be covering them as well. Thanks very much for reading!

Video Game Heroines Series
Week One: Supplanted Heroines
Week Two: Great Gaming Heroines #5: Ashley Robbins
Week Three: Shantae vs. Shanoa — An Action Girl Case Study

#4: Commander Shepard

(Mass Effect series, 2007-2010, 360/PC/PS3)

Admittedly Shepard has to overcome a lot of obstacles before she can truly be remembered as a great gaming heroine. Not the least of which is the game’s cover art:

Shepard isn't the chick in the background.

If this is to be believed, Shepard is some stone-chinned white dude being backed up by a Bond girl and some manner of frog person. And I’m sure for someone out there, that grizzled cookie-cutter space marine is Shepard. Here’s the rub: while Kermit and Pussy Galore are indeed canonical, Shepard is… well, whomever you want him to be. Her to be. Crap, pronouns are confusing.

Here’s the Shepard I know and love:

Penelope ShepardShe used to have hair, but then her starship and everything inside were exploded by the mother of all laser cannons. Even after extensive reconstructive surgery, though, she decided to stick with the bald look because, seriously, who has time to visit the stylist when you’re busy negotiating with krogran war bands or hunting down robot monsters?

None of that is really supported by the game, of course. Shepard looks and sounds the way she does because var(Hairstyle) is set to “13”, bool(KeepScars) is switched to “false” and data(Voice) points to “soundsvoicesShepardF”. The cold, unfeeling machine that spins my copy of Mass Effect doesn’t know how to engender an emotional attachment with a character, but fortunately the writers at BioWare knew how to trick it into doing just that.

In the proto-post that started this series I said that I wasn’t counting create-a-characters, female or no. My heroes in World of Warcraft, Oblivion and Fallout 3 were all female as well, but they weren’t really characters, no matter how badly the skill trees and appearance sliders wanted them to be.

Shepard is not a create-a-character. Yes, everyone puts Mass Effect in the same pile as those other create-a-character games, where you pick your appearance and your class and your equipment proficiencies etc. But that’s the illusion. That’s the trick. What BioWare has done here is create a perfectly well-realized character from the ground up, let the player customize about 2% of her, and given her a couple of sweet games to star in.

That 2%, that’s the real brilliant bit. Virtually everything the player is allowed to “create” about Shepard is completely ignored by the game. First and foremost is her name. Specifically, the fact that she has one. Shepard is Shepard, no matter what you do. You can give her a first name, but nobody in the game uses it. Everyone calls her “Shepard”, or “Commander”, or some combination of the two. It’s easy to justify why this decision was made: voice acting feels more natural when the cast doesn’t have to keep calling the main character “hey you”. That’s not the real reason, though. The truth is, psychologically, we find it easier to identify with people when we know their names. A few hours into the game, when all the sliders and switches and keyboards have been long forgotten, people are still using Shepard’s name. That’s the part of the experience that’s important.

Next up is appearance. There are a whole host of options to choose from here, ranging from hair color to bridge-of-nose fatness to hollow cheekbone ratio:

Someone else's Shepard, maybe.

These are just the polygons wrapped around the character, though. It’s just another trick: we as humans put a lot of stock in appearance, especially the appearance of facial features — but none of those things have any effect on Mass Effect‘s story. Anything we project onto Shepard because of her appearance is entirely in our heads, so it’s okay to let us make her look however we want.

Next is backstory. Mass Effect offers a few canned backgrounds to choose from, little variations on how Shepard got her reputation. The illusion here is that it’s only important that Shepard has a reputation — not how she got it. There are bits and pieces of the story where it becomes relevant; you’ll get Response A instead of Response B from NPC X, but for the most part it’s just there to flesh out our idea of the character without actually getting in the way of the plot.

Finally, we have the grand poobah: the Paragon/Renegade system. This is where the player determines Shepard’s personality. What she’s like, how she acts, how she responds to volatile situations. And these choices do matter; plot options open and close based on what you do, and what you’ve done. Kill an important character in Mass Effect and he’s still dead in Mass Effect 2.

So here’s the last trick: the choices you make only pertain to how Shepard resolves a situation – not whether or not she resolves it. Whether you deal with the crime lord by turning him over to the authorities (Paragon) or by shoving him out an 88th story window (Renegade), that crime lord is written out for the rest of the game. Everything in the actual plot of the game, the sequence of events that leads to the conclusion, is structured like this. You can let the Council die, or you can choose to save them — but you can’t flip out and destroy the Citadel yourself.

Because they knew they’d need that Citadel in Mass Effect 2, see. All they had to do was sidestep and hand-wave the issue of the Council altogether, set the game in different parts of the universe as the first one, and voila! The most important choice in Shepard’s existence, the one which most players base their outlook of the character on… doesn’t really matter. The game knows to give you this narrative in Case A, and that other one in Case B, and that’s the extent to which it cares.

But we care. Boy howdy, do we care. How many times, back in 2007, did you ask and answer the question, “So, did you kill the Council?”

See, all those little choices we made during Mass Effect — the ones that felt really important, the ones that defined who Shepard was — we were going to remember those anyway. Simply by virtue of having made them ourselves. BioWare didn’t need to design an entire story arc around each one. Taken as a conglomerate, they do not complicate the plot graph. All they had to do was salt the existing narrative with little throwbacks to reinforce what was already in our head, and they’re golden.

Pre-op Shepard

Stir all that together, and you’ve got an extremely well-polished character we think we invented ourselves. We’re being fooled, of course; Shepard is a fantastic character whether she’s a badass Asian woman with loose morals, or a button-down white guy who always plays it by the books. You do the same missions either way, get the same plot. Behind the curtain, the game is every bit as static as any other decently-written game you’ve played recently.

Shepard is a character who could only exist in a video game story. Companies have been tripping over themselves for decades trying to figure out how to let us create memorable characters without sacrificing the core of the game’s story. Freedom vs. coherency is still very much a binary, and one that game designers will always struggle with. What BioWare did was dodged the issue entirely: create the illusion of freedom, and nothing has to fall apart.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s some Mass Effect 2 DLC I haven’t played through yet. I should probably get on that. After all, Shepard is a badass with loose morals; I wouldn’t want her to catch me slacking.

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3 comments to Great Gaming Heroines #4: Commander Shepard

  • fanboymaster

    Brickroad, I’d like to award you with the “first person I’ve heard talk about how great femshep is without being obnoxious about it” award, plaque, or trophy like object of your choice. You’ve earned it.

    Beyond that, it really is quite amazing how much I care about my Shepard as compared to my Gray Warden from Dragon Age. I can’t fathom not taking my Shep into ME3, but the news that the Warden wouldn’t star in DA2 meant very little to me.

  • Vegan Shark

    Well with Mass Effect, you actually get to hear how nice or mean your character sounds depending on whether you pick a good or bad option, and Dragon Age, you just choose good or bad, at that’s that. I think that makes a big difference.

  • blinkpn

    Man I thought the thirteen weeks of final fantasy thing was great but these posts are blowing them out of the water.

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