Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mass Effect: Who Is Shepard?

Recognize these three from yesterday's screen shots?
L-R: John, my first/main Shep (Paragon, Infiltrator, Colonist, War Hero). Macska, my wife's character (Renegade, Vanguard, Earthborn, Ruthless). And Anastasia, my alt Shep (Paragon, Soldier, Spacer, Sole Survivor). Illustrated by my lovely wife! Their personalities are perfectly encapsulated as they say "Hey!" "What." and "Um..." respectively.

In Mass Effect, every player plays as Shepard. You can play Shepard as a Paragon or a Renegade, choosing to either live by an uncompromising moral code or doing whatever it takes to get the job done, regardless of collateral damage. You decide which decisions to make whenever they are presented to you, but there are only so many options (usually Paragon, Renegade, and a third, neutral decision). Since most players choose to be either Paragon or Renegade and rarely deviate from making those choices in their games, it seems like all the Shepards of a similar alignment should be very similar.

Interestingly, that is not the case. Every Paragon Shepard may be making almost all the same choices, but when someone describes his or her Shepard, he or she rarely describes the choices Shepard has made. More commonly, the player describes Shepard in terms of attitude: is Shepard a badass who just wants to kill things and doesn't give a varren's cloaca about what anyone else says? Is Shepard out to right the wrongs of the galaxy? Is Shepard generally a good person, with a fiery temper that sometimes flares up? Has Shepard seen too much pain and ugliness in the galaxy to ever stoop to using low means, or have those experiences convinced Shepard that she must watch her own back and succeed no matter who gets hurt along the way?

In my previous blog post, I talked about how Mass Effect's dialog system lets you pick your intention rather than your exact words. In that post, I discussed how this works to draw the player into the Mass Effect world, but it also allows the player to think about who his or her Shepard is whenever the player makes a decision. What is more important to the player: what Shepard is doing, or why she is doing it? Is Shepard the kind of person who makes up her mind depending on the situation, or does she have a strict way of doing things that lets her act without having to deliberate first?

I saw that in my two games as John Shepard and Anastasia Shepard. Both were Paragons, and I ended up making almost the same decisions with both. Though it looked like they were doing the same thing, and in game terms they were, in my mind they were quite different. John Shepard was absolutely good. I fondly call him a "chump," but that's not fair: he has seen too much and fought too long to be considered naive. Still, it would never cross his mind to needlessly endanger someone, and he will always go out of his way to make sure innocent people are not hurt, even if it makes things harder on him. Anastasia is also a Paragon, but she has less conviction and more deliberation than John. She also does not risk innocent lives, but the decision comes less easily for her when saving those people puts the mission in jeopardy.

As it turns out, this did end up making me pick a very different course of action for the two characters in at least two separate occasions: one at the end of the first game, and one during the Zaeed loyalty mission in the second game. The cool thing was, these decisions came about organically (especially the second one), as a result of how I saw the characters. Based on how I saw my characters, I felt like they would make different decisions at those points in time. More importantly, that difference was always present in my mind for all the other decisions where they chose the same thing: they were two different people who just happened to do the same thing.

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