Mass Effect: The Road to Shepardition

Warning: Contains minor Mass Effect spoilers, no Mass Effect 2 spoilers.

You may have read that the Mass Effect movie has been reoptioned. This apparently is news, because I thought that around the time Mass Effect 2 came out there was talk of the movie. No matter.

Thing is, look at the Mass Effect boxes. Look at the guy with the shaved head, the guy with the gun, the guy who doesn’t care what you think of him. Who is that guy?

Some might argue that he is John Shepard. There is no John Shepard. Mass Effect is an infinite series of parallel Shepards, from LL Shepard, the genocide preventing beacon of light, to the bloodthirsty Sarah “Going Rogue” Shepard, hell bent on homicide and pitifully thin profit margins. There are gradations of Shepard, and each is particular to the player. Sarah Shepard may be physically identical to LL Shepard, but she has black lips to match her black heart.

One gets so attached to one’s first Shepard that any other Shepard seems somewhat wrong by comparison. When Sarah Shepard embarked upon her maiden voyage, I reflected upon the fact that LL would never be so pointlessly antagonistic to the entire galaxy. It jarred.

Then, as I got under Sarah’s skin, I realised that she was indeed her own person, and not simply LL with some dark make up on and a smart mouth: she was a genuinely anarchic space bitch and she didn’t care who knew it.

I don’t have stats on this but it seems that quite a lot of people play Shepard as a woman. The default Shepard – shaved marine John Shepard – seems too boring to even fathom. One of your options in these games is to play as a variant of a space wizard. You can also be a space hacker, a psychic computer genius super bug-empath, or quite a few combinations of all of the above … yet so many players choose to run through the universe as a dude with a gun.

I don’t have anything against “dudes with guns”, but it is hard to deny that in the current field they are a little overrepresented. If I want to play as a woman who can suck you into a vortex of pain with a gesture of her hand, then I will.

So what will we end up with in a projected movie of Mass Effect? We will end up with someone else's Shepard: a Shepard set in stone, a Shepard that we, the audience, have no say in. To canonize Mass Effect is to weaken its brand.

Remember the uproar that went up when it was discovered that a Shepard created from scratch in Mass Effect 2 had wantonly murdered Wrex and doomed the Council to extinction? That Shepard was a jerk by default. That's not anybody's Shepard. That is Bioware's idea of what a lot of peoples' Shepards might have been.

It is because of this that the PC crowd had the huge Shepard Supermarket, wherein players could download the Shepard that most closely conformed to their ideal Shepard. Fortunately, Mass Effect 2's story allowed for extensive plastic surgery at the beginning of the game to reshape a Shepard into the Shepard of one's own dreams. It's a degree of decadence just short of Tyrell Corporation, but it restores not just peace of mind to the player but to the universe they have been charged with the protection of.

What makes Shepard so great is that she is a legitimate character rather than the blank slate everyman that so many modern video games offer. The player is given a pre-formed character with whom they quickly familiarize themselves, and based on what they know about her they decide what action she is most likely to take.

Would Sarah Shepard show mercy and allow the Rachni to survive? No, she would give their queen an acid bath and laugh at the unheard screams of millions of children never to be born.

Would LL Shepard slaughter the citizens of Feros simply because it's easier than trying to deprogram them? No, she would ensure that no one died on her watch … and she would do it efficiently and without complaint. That's just the kind of Shepard LL is.

That every Shepard belongs to the player means that there is no single Mass Effect canon. Different Shepards created different universes, and to watch a movie that asserts that something you know in your heart is blatantly wrong is to bring pain upon oneself.  The movie removes power and agency from the hands of those most dedicated to the subject matter: the players.

Commander Shepard belongs to everybody. There is no single Commander Shepard. For some charlatan to foist the Commander Shepard of their own creation upon the world, and to claim him (and it will be him) as the Commander Shepard, to expect us to adopt him as our unquestioned messiah, is an act of intense hubris, and one that we must not stand for.

Whatever the Mass Effect movie turns out to be … and we don't strictly need it, because the games are already there to be played, enjoyed and consumed in an almost cinematic fashion … it won't be Mass Effect. It might have some cool ideas, it might have some cool characters, action, worlds and an epic story befitting the grandest of space operas, but it will ultimately be someone else's vision.

Mass Effect is at its heart an expression of democracy: the player's destination is universal, but their choices along the way act to create an individual Shepard … a Shepard they can call their own.

Credit is due to Bioware forums user OraVelnoria87 for their “FemShep” montage.


  1. CdrJameson November 1, 2010
  2. CdrJameson November 1, 2010
  3. EmmJay November 1, 2010

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