Who is Commander Shepard? Well if you’re looking for a first name, you’re sorely out of luck. For those of you unfortunate enough to have never experienced the glory of the Mass Effect video game series, Commander Shepard is the player character, customizable to an incredible degree. Gender, first name, skill set, progression, even how the player reacts to significant in-game plot points are entirely within the player’s control. In short, Shepard IS the player. And that Shepard is a person that can not be shaped by the player, but shape the player in return. (Note to readers, I assume Paragon (one of the two moral alignments) play for plot hereon out, not Renegade (the other). That makes a pretty big difference. Also, SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT I REPEAT LOTS OF SPOILERS.)
Commander Shepard does have some universal characteristics. Elite human Special Forces operative in the future human Systems Alliance, Shepard is thrust into the role of unlikely galactic savior. Commander of the prototype human-turian (one of the alien species) starship Normandy, Shepard leads a multi-species team to stop the existential threat of the Reapers, ancient sentient machines that wipe out galactic civilization with chilling regularity and efficiency. Shepard and his/her team race around the galaxy, a small unit against the unstoppable armada bent on the end of everything they know and hold dear. And Shepard has to do it on with only his handpicked team, his friends, at his back the whole way.
In this imagined future, humanity is the new kid on the galactic block. A council of elder races governs the civilized galaxy, and young humanity is regarded with something akin to condescension and pity, the way teenagers look down on younger siblings. Shepard is the first human to be given SPECTRE status, making him an agent of the Council’s Special Tactics and Reconnaissance Group, with broad powers to deal with threats and galactic security at will. Sounds like they’d listen to him, respect his opinions, consider his advice? Where are you, living in a dream world of logic or something?
Shepard, lone herald of the coming apocalypse, is ignored. Even when confronted with the truth of his claims, (literally obliterating the Council chambers), the Council ignores his warnings. Even the Systems Alliance military he serves ignores him, until the imminent invasion finally arrives, annihilating Earth’s defenses with ease, and almost effortlessly invades Earth itself. Shepard then spends the rest of the war convincing the civilizations of the galaxy to band together to best the Reapers, working together to halt their advance and developing a massive weapon to stop the Reapers in their tracks. Pretty standard sci-fi fare right?
Well, not really. Just because something is standard, that doesn’t mean we can’t stand to learn from it. Further, the Mass Effect trilogy is anything but ordinary. Shepard’s story holds a great many lessons, some powerful, some subtle. The great strength of the Mass Effect series lies not in its game-play or in its story-line. It lies in the strength of real life, in the strength of its characters and of its dialogue. Players learn the value of cooperation and diversity, of the responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences, of the bonds of loyalty, on the uses of strong leadership, and the use of strong action. And every one of those values are exemplified in their highest form by Commander Shepard, a role model of leadership the upcoming generation could learn something from.
For once, I’ll go in order, starting with cooperation and diversity. But isn’t Shepard some white guy/chick, you say? Only if you leave them that way. Commander Shepard is whoever you want them to be. Further, diversity doesn’t just mean not white people, or even in science fiction not humans, diversity means everybody. Shepard’s team changes from game to game, but it’s never even majority human. A plurality perhaps, but never a majority. And the humans were never the interesting characters. I personally spent hours talking to Mordin Solus in every play-through of Mass Effect 2 (ME2). Mordin was the salarian genius, the team doctor, researcher, and former Special Operations like Shepard, and always had a reasoned, if often odd, opinion on whatever Shepard was up to. Garrus Vakarian, the turian former cop-turned-vigilante on the team, brought a measure of alien honor and loyalty to the team, a personal loyalty not only to Shepard but to the mission. Tali’Zorah vas Normandy (in my opinion, her real name) was a bright, spunky technical guru, and the heart of the team. Even the human members are not shining examples of humanity, but rather complex characters with their own stories. Jack, no last name ever known, is a badly damaged, massively powerful biotic-capable young woman, experimented on by rogue human supremacist group Cerberus. Miranda, your executive officer through ME2, genetically engineered to be perfect, is perhaps the most personally vulnerable of your squadmates, and possessed of a moving story arc through the second and third installments as she comes to grips with who she is, and what influence her father’s legacy has on her. Other incredible examples of the writer’s art, Liara T’Soni, Captain David Anderson, Grunt and Urdnot Wrex, Joker, all too numerous to name and too incredible to describe. A team of the best and worst of the galaxy, brought together by one thing, Commander Shepard.
All of these characters, and more, are all only bound by one thing, one person, Commander Shepard. Shepard assembles this team, he builds it from the ground up. Each game you assemble your team from far and wide, building its roster with those able to stand by your side. And Shepard is responsible not only for it, but for everyone of its members. It is an oft-repeated line, one cannot buy loyalty and devotion, one must earn it with loyalty and devotion of one’s own. This is a truth of leadership and it is a truth of leadership experienced by the player through the Commander. As you invest in each of your teammates, take time to get to know them, to lead them in battle, you find yourself experiencing deep, rich story arcs, unlocking the power of each of your squadmates as you earn their loyalty by giving you theirs. Shepard delivers to the team, and the team delivers to him. This is most poignant in the second game, with its ultimate act entitled the Suicide Mission. As you played the game, you had the option of earning the loyalty of your squadmates in various ways. Perhaps you acquitted them of falsely accused treason, perhaps you aided them in protecting their sister or finding their father. Perhaps you rescued a protege or saved a son. As you enter that final act, you see what their loyalty earns you. Any squadmate not loyal loses focus as the mission progresses, eventually losing their lives in the final action. Loyal squadmates follow you without hesitation into the oblivion, only to emerge on the other side, proud and by your side.
This brings us to something else the Commander has to live with through the series, the consequences of your actions. Words you speak, decisions you make, each and every one of the things Shepard says and does throughout the series returns to him in some way or another. Some are rather blunt, such as when in the first game, you are forced to leave a squadmate to die. Who do you choose? Why? And not only in metagame thinking (Kaidan has a chip on his shoulder, Ashley is xenophobic), but in game. When you hear Shepard order the squadmate to do whatever it is that will end in their death, it is a moving moment. Other things make a difference as well. Different reporters follow your exploits through the series, and your interactions with them each time color their perceptions of you and how the next interview might play out.
It is not even just Shepard’s actions which are put under the spotlight. A running theme throughout the whole series is the idea of repercussions, of intended and unintended consequences. For Mordin Solus, that means confronting his magnum opus and his protege, and asking himself if it was all worth it, if the genophage, a genetic defect introduced by a virus causing only 1 in 1000 krogan pregnancies to come to term, truly was justified. For Tali, it means coming to terms with experiments on geth robots and individual geth programs conducted by her father, aided by her own efforts, that killed him and his crew. For Thane Krios, it means returning to father a son he abandoned to avenge his mother’s death upon the galaxy. For Shepard him/herself, it means understanding what it means to stand true to one’s principles, and understanding just what one man owes to another, before throwing back the megalomaniacal visions of the man who resurrected him and stealing the starship that made the whole mission possible in order to do things the right way.
These ideas of consequences and loyalty are even more present in Mass Effect 3. Character after character with connections to Shepard return to his sides, bringing all the forces they can muster, knowing that Shepard will fight the good fight. Shepard, the beached warrior accused of treason, is the only one capable of rallying the galaxy against the Reapers. And this is where the concept of leadership truly comes to the fore. Across the galaxy Shepard encounters forces arrayed against him, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. By and large, Shepard finds forces driven by one thing, one terrible thing, fear. And Shepard must find a way to fight through that fear. When the salarian Dalatrass calls Shepard a bully for planning to eliminate the genophage with or without help, she does something very telling. She doesn’t stop him. She knows s/he is right, and she helps him, knowing that the imminent threat of Reaper extinction has driven everyone into a corner, and that if they are to win, they absolutely must work together to halt the threat. The asari, the turians, the humans, everyone finds themselves gripped by fear. Even Shepard him/herself admits it. S/He’s scared. But Shepard does one thing few others do. S/He stands and s/he fights. Commander Shepard fights with everything, knowing it’s the only thing that can be done, and does it because it’s what needs to be done.
There is a concept of leadership called servant leadership. The leader, while s/he might be in charge, leads from the front. They are under no illusions of superiority, of right, or of any sort of prejudice. Their only concern is bettering those they are there for, however necessary and/or possible. Shepard is the perfect servant leader. The Commander doesn’t concern him/herself with politics, with bettering their own or anyone else’s position. The Commander does one thing, and that is lead by example. The Commander simply goes and fights the Reapers. There are no politics played, nor positions bartered. Shepard’s only interest is winning the war, and getting as many people, human, salarian, turian and everyone else, home as safe as possible. Shepard never hesistates to put him/herself in harm’s way for the galaxy, and never asks anything of anyone that s/he wouldn’t do him/herself. That is strong servant leadership.
Beyond the leadership, beyond the loyalty, Shepard shows one more quality, one quality we could all learn from. That quality is the courage to take action. Commander Shepard for the entire series had a unique look at the future of the galaxy, an understanding of the impending threat that is the Reapers. And what did s/he do with this knowledge? The Commander did his/her damnedest to save everyone from the fate that s/he saw coming. Even when grounded by the Council, Shepard is unafraid to steal Normandy (he’s fond of just taking starships; happens at least once in every game) and race across the galaxy in an effort to stop Saren from bringing the Reapers back. This courage to take action, however, is a quality far beyond fighting for the galaxy. Shepard takes action to fight for everyone.
Shepard in the time in the player spends with him/her faces an astonishing number of moral quandaries. And the Commander never backs down. In the time between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, Garrus leads a team of vigilantes bringing justice to the criminal haven of Omega, eventually losing them all to a traitor. In Mass Effect 2, Shepard helps Garrus overcome his anger and desire for revenge, leaving the traitor alive and hopefully on the way to recovery. When confronted with the seemingly overwhelming and corrupt power of the organization Cerberus, Shepard stands and fights, rescuing as many as he can from the Cerberus onslaught, while taking the fight directly to the Illusive Man himself. When faced with a war between the geth and their creator quarians, Shepard fights instead to end the Reaper threat forcing the war forward, and create a lasting peace for the two races. In short, Shepard never backs down, Shepard never backs out, s/he always fights the good fight.
Now, for a lot of the plot information farther up, I had been making an assumption, and that is that the player chooses to play the kind of Shepard I have discussed at length here. There is one final, critical piece of the puzzle that the Mass Effect series helped cement in my outlook on life: You choose who you are. Bioware achieved one of the most difficult things in an role-playing game (RPG) setting: they made the player’s choices matter, without compromising the story they tell. It is truly up to the player if Shepard saves the galaxy. It is up to Shepard how the quarian-geth war ends. It is up to Shepard who survives the suicide attack on the Collector space station, and in every one of those cases it is up to the player to decide Shepard’s actions. Mass Effect refuses to let you run away from your choices, and that is a powerful learning experience in a narrative setting few other games have achieved, let alone any other form of literature. (Yes, video games are art and literature. See forthcoming post on the subject.)
In Mass Effect, you are the good Shepard or you are the evil/selfish Shepard. You either compromise, or are compromised. You are in control, and you have great power. With that power you can accomplish miracles and rescue untold trillions. Or you can fail the entire galaxy and leave it to its fate of cyclical extinction. This is a powerful lesson in the responsibility of leadership, one I think every generation needs to learn. Leaders, and we are all leaders in our own lives, in our own ways, need to understand that they hold power in their hands, power to do good and make lives better, and power to fail those who had trusted them to serve. Each generation finds its own way to teach this message and to pass it on to each other. For this generation, Mass Effect and games like it are a powerful tool to that end, engaging, powerful character-driven stories with morals and lessons to teach. Commander Shepard isn’t anyone else. Commander Shepard is you. The realization that you can have the same power, that it doesn’t matter who you are or what people think of you, only that you do your best to do what you can, is a powerful one, and one Mass Effect gave me. I hope it has had a similar effect on others of my generation, teaching fundamentals of leadership and character in an engaging way we might learn from. For that it should be acclaimed, and the Commander remembered not as who they are, but for being who they needed to be.
As always feel free to comment below with your own thoughts and opinions. Thanks for reading. – GP