On My Character's Unwitting Evolution In "Mass Effect"

My Shepard's arc throughout the space opera Mass Effect video game trilogy is fun and fascinating to think about.

I resolutely played her as a human-centric Renegade in the first two acts of the first Mass Effect game. I reckoned the awful childhood and ruthless career decisions I'd chosen for her "origin story" in this Role Playing Game would've made her filled with piss and vinegar.  She mistrusted aliens, resented authority, shot first and asked questions later. But that changed as the stakes in the game increased. Her little mind opened, she rose to the challenge, made more optimistic (Paragon) decisions than cynical (Renegade) ones, fought for a worthy cause, fell in love, the works.

In the opening acts of Mass Effect 2, I played Shepard as an alien-friendly, but no-compromises Renegade. She was rightfully cynical. She was pissed off at the world for what happened to her in that game's opening moments, and was pissed off at who she was working for. Yet again, she softened and became more Paragon as the pressure piled on, and that game's galaxy-spanning threat became increasingly clear.

These days as I make my way through Mass Effect 3, despite the occasional Renegade moment (for I still sometimes shoot and ask questions later), I nearly always play her like the galaxy-uniting Paragon hero she's supposed to be.

Here's the thing that amazes me. This game-by-game transformation isn't a side-effect of deliberate, thoughtful decisions made by me. I haven't wittingly "willed" my character to evolve over time. Shepard's changes have all hailed from my natural reactions to the rich storyworld, the games' plots, and the hard decisions Shepard has had to make. I didn't "choose" to play my Shepard as softer, or more generous, or open-minded as the series progressed — not with any deliberation, anyway. That evolution just happened. Adaptation? Assimilation? I don't have a word for it.

But I genuinely marvel at it, at the impact it's made on me as a player ... and on the impact it's made on my little world-saving Shepard. That's a testament to the authenticity and immersive qualities of the Mass Effect universe, and how the games clearly present their narrative stakes (and the ethical challenges those stakes evoke). Above all else, it's the characters and writing.

I'm certain I've changed as a person while playing these games, though those revelations will come later. But the changes my little Shepard has gone through, all brought on by the story? Those are worthy of awe, admiration and appreciation. And aspiration.

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J.C. Hutchins

J.C. Hutchins is an award-winning freelance transmedia writer, experience designer and novelist. He helps agencies and entertainment companies create multi-channel narratives to achieve their creative and business goals.