Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Who Will Be My Shepard?

Have you heard the tale of John Shepard: Infiltrator? He was kind. He was brave. He preferred sniper rifles and had a stepped-on sort of face that made him look less like a Notre Dame quarterback (a form favored by many of his Shep-brethren) and more like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’m not terribly proud of that last fact, which I blame on the constraints of a limited character generation system.

In the first Mass Effect, John Shepard: Infiltrator strong-armed the Alliance into releasing a woman’s remains to her grieving husband and helped a chagrined Elcor out of a tough situation. He would admit that he once screwed over a Hanar businessman for a handful of credits but that afterward he felt really, really bad about it. He could shoot the wings off a fly but wouldn’t dare hurt one who didn’t deserve it. He even wanted to hook up with Ashley, but when Liara showed up in his quarters, he knocked boots with her without letting on that he was actually a little disappointed. What a guy!

This was John Shepard: Infiltrator, and he was a badass. I was glad to have known him. He was my Shepard.

Separated at birth?
So imagine my surprise when we met again in Mass Effect 2. He still looked like the same boot-faced Quasimodo war hero, but something inside had definitely changed. ME2 Shepard killed indiscriminately. He slept around, broke hearts, and scolded members of his own crew. He eventually sold out the potential welfare of the universe to Cerberus, surprising even some of the Illusive Man’s most loyal agents. Somewhere along the lines, Shepard—my Shepard—had become a total dick.

The truth is that I received a hot tip early in my first ME2 playthrough that “Renegade Shepard” was the way to go. My usual hesitancy to be an antisocial jerk in single-player videogames (which proved to be a huge obstacle in Dragon Age, by the way) melted quickly away because it was just so rewarding—each triggered Renegade interrupt was the stuff of chaotic-neutral, action-hero legend. Meanwhile, each huggy Paragon interrupt left an emotional footprint not unlike a very special episode of Full House.

But the shift was also unsettling. Why was this Shepard so different than the model citizen I’d known from ME1? I felt compelled to create a sort of a pseudo-narrative:

Something special has been lost in the destruction of the Normandy. Cerberus’s “Lazarus Project” has given Shepard a second chance, but his rebirth—by accident or by design—has failed to reconstruct his unwavering moral code.
And it almost worked. There was nothing in the ME2 story itself that would have prevented me from suspending disbelief and swallowing my own backstory. It was Shepard, himself, who appeared to be strangely conflicted.

There, there. That's better.
While doing very non-Shepard-y things (like, say, slugging unarmed reporters), Shep’s voice was quick to reflect his self-satisfied, sadistic glee. But sometimes (occasionally in the very next breath), when he felt like investigating the intricacies of Quarian politics or Drell biology, his edginess immediately gave way to a tone of inquisitive, chin-stroking curiosity unbecoming of any real alpha-male space cowboy. Worse yet, when it came time to seduce a member of the crew (which he did—or attempted to do—quite a bit), he retreated even further from intergalactic bully into a breathy, lust-struck idiot.

Somewhere between Mark Meer’s voice-acting performance and the failure of the game to keep Shep’s vocal timbre consistent within the context of any given situation, Mass Effect 2 left me unsure of who John Shepard: Infiltrator, was supposed to be. Was he intended to be a cotton-candy good guy who preferred hugging his way out of difficult situations? Or was he the trigger-happy conquistador whose desire to learn more about the story (and shag his coworkers) couldn’t help but conflict with his otherwise thuggish nature?

Perhaps the assumption was that any self-respecting renegade would be loath to desire more context from the game’s narrative. After all, if you’re the type to shoot first and ask questions later, maybe context just isn’t really your thing. But that the game gave me the option to ask questions and then shoot (in a decidedly reneg-atory way) proved to be a disbelief-shattering proposition—as ethically bankrupt as post-Lazurus Shepard had become, the player holding the controller actually did desire greater context, and a not just a little bit of it.

In the end, Renegade Shepard managed to save humanity from the Reaper threat, and should live to fight again in the promised third installment. But after having decimated the legacy of my noble ME1 hero, I’m at a bit of a loss to figure out how the story should continue. With any luck, disaster will befall Shepard 2.0 at the beginning of ME3 and I can mock up yet another new beginning for my poor, confused, and somewhat ugly hero.
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