No Matter Who Your Commander Shepard Is, They Are Valid And Important

A fierce biotic holds her own against overwhelming odds to rekindle the dying embers of victory, sending them into a sweltering blaze that consumes all in its wake. An engineer deploys his omni-tool and dampens an array of autonomous turrets, decommissioning them and turning the tide of battle at the most crucial pivotal moment. A lone soldier stands on a lunar precipice, observing their targets through the scope of a souped-up Black Widow. All three are tasked with the same seemingly impossible mission, but all three accomplish it in remarkably different ways.

Ever since Mass Effect Legendary Edition was announced back in November, I’ve been thinking about how I was going to design my Shepard. Maybe I’d play as FemShep this time around because of how fantastic Jennifer Hale is. Maybe I’d be a sentinel, eschewing my traditional vanguard combat build for something a little more support-oriented. Maybe I’d just be a complete bastard to everyone for the laugh – Saren Arterius could look like the pinnacle of Paragon virtues next to me.

Or maybe, after all of these years, I’d bring my Shepard back into the world. Who am I kidding – I was always going to play as my Shepard. And if you want to play as yours, more power to you. I’m sure we all have our own fixed picture of who Commander Shepard is and what they stand for, and that personal, individualistic picture is what loving Mass Effect is all about.

Mass Effect is an immensely special series to an inordinate number of people all over the world. On top of its all-star ensemble of characters and revered narrative, it’s an experience we shape ourselves. We can help the weak and trounce the strong – we can also do both, or we can do neither. At the beginning of the first Mass Effect, when Captain Anderson is in the process of recommending you as humanity’s first Spectre candidate, you can gaze out the window of the Normandy through blue eyes, or hazel ones. You can have a shaved head or red, flowing locks. The person in that scene, in that tense and all-important moment, is the manifestation of how you picture Shepard. And whoever they are, whatever they might look like, they are extremely valid.

Traditionally, the standard version of Shepard – the one marketed by BioWare and the default appearance in the game’s character creator – is a white man with a shaved head. FemShep, who has shoulder-length red hair by default, was not properly available in the first two games – something that Legendary Edition thankfully rectified. I am sure plenty of people played as this version of Shepard and have become accustomed to seeing him on box art for almost 15 years – but that doesn’t make him Commander Shepard. It makes him one of a million different versions of a character who can be literally anyone while also always remaining themselves, and that is what makes him Commander Shepard – the fact that he is not the only Shepard, but one of countless equally valid forms of them.

This is probably why I booted up Mass Effect Legendary Edition yesterday and, mostly unbeknownst to myself at the time, made the exact same Shepard I played as when I was 16 in 2012. Looking at him now, I reckon teenage me had an idea like, “If I was better looking and older, this is what I would look like,” but I reckon even that was far-fetched. That hairline and those cheekbones? I am sorry to report that I could never.

And yet this person, Cian Shepard – a stupid name, but hey, whatever – is immediately who springs to mind when I think of landing on Therum when I was 16. He’s who I think of when I recall taking on a thresher maw, or when I reminisce about meeting Thane, or Tali, or Grunt for the first time. He’s who I think of when I ponder over the decision I made at The Catalyst all those years ago, and the decision I’ll undoubtedly make again in a couple of weeks.

Sure, this might not be the Commander Shepard – but it is my Commander Shepard, which makes him the Commander Shepard in terms of how I think about and approach Mass Effect. By that logic, your Commander Shepard is the exact same – all of our Shepards are the only Shepard for us, which means that all of them are definitive and unchallengeable. This is a game that asks us to form connections with characters. It asks us to make difficult decisions, to overcome impossible odds, and to oscillate from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other at a velocity that mirrors a Newton balance that’s been shot through a mass relay. I don’t know if the physics behind that are sound or plausible – I’m just the commander here, ask Liara if you want to know about nerdy science stuff. But as the commander, I’ll tell you this much: all commanders are valid, important, and completely legitimate. Your Shepard is as much a Shepard as mine, and neither of ours are superior to anybody else’s.

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