There are many like him, but this Shepard is mine.
I’ve always found Systems Alliance Commander Shepard—Vincent “Ragamuffin” Shepard in my case—to be like a reflecting pool; whatever I put into him was what I got out. He was an irrepressibly empathetic man and yet emotionally unavailable. His responses were always curt to the point of being rude, but something in his eyes told you he understands you.
He understands you in ways no one has in a long, long time. He understands when you need a quiet shoulder, just right for leaning, and when you need your ass kicked into gear. He understands you as if he didn’t have a war to fight because no one else will. He understands you with the clarity and insight of a man condemned to death in the waning light of hope and faith.
And this is a hope that will lead millions against a force of billions. His hope is one not of means and ends with justification found somewhere along the way but one that can be found deep inside of everyone, locked away in a cage of cynicism and doubt. His actions defy his words and betray him as the truly connected man that he is, yearning to tell those closest to him that he loves them.
This was my Shepard.
Mass Effect 3 has seen fit to take him away from me. I’ve spent five years slowly crafting the physical and intangible attributes of my Shepard after hundreds of hours of wheeling through dialog choices, kicking people through windows, and filling in his back story a little bit more each time I talk about his adventures aboard the SSV Normandy. There are hundreds of thousands of other Shepards out there, most of which probably look just like mine and might have even gone through the exact same experiences as mine, but this Shepard was special to me.
And now BioWare has wiped it all away in the emotional and personal attachment cleansing of the ME3 tsunami. There is a moment in the opening sequence of the game where Shepard puts a full stop on his escape from a burning Earth with Admiral Anderson to confront a lost and lonely child. This young boy, hiding in an air duct, is scared and sinks further into the cold and metallatic unknown as Shepard attempts to talk him towards his N7 arms and into safety.
The child, however, chooses to crawl away, leaving Shepard in a daze, knowing he’s left a child to most likely die a horrific death at the hands of Reaper forces (which he eventually does as the shuttle that the boy scurries aboard is promptly asploded upon takeoff). There’s a great remorse here that the game regularly revisits in Max Payne-ish dreamscape sequences. This even becomes a talking point with another character later in the game.
When this happened, I was in the moment. It all seemed right and powerful and hit just as the the writers had intended. When the high wore off and I was back to watching loading screens on the Normandy’s incredibly inefficient elevator, it began to strike me as…odd.
My Shepard would never have stood for that. He has just enough no-nonsense in him that he would have hauled that child out of that vent, snatching him from the darkness like a prize from a crane game.
Then it started to dawn on me that other Shepards might have diverged even further. Another might have gone with the kid to ensure his safety, following him all the way to the escape shuttles. Another cold and heartless individual might have thrown a grenade in after him just to make sure he can’t be harvested.
There are so many ways this particular and apparently formative encounter could have gone and BioWare, in the face of two other games and five years of fostering player agency (authentic or otherwise), has made the decision for me.
You see, every Shepard has similar qualities: stellar combatant, popular with every sex and race, and fully capable of asking cursory questions to keep a conversation going. What he doesn’t do, however, is make decisions without my say-so. He’ll ask propulsive questions like “the Protheans, sir?” or make void-filling comments like “that sounds rough,” but he’ll never add accelerant to the equation. He’ll never be what I don’t want him to be.
But now the controls have been taken away from me and every other player. We have been given our Playskool steering wheels made of plastic and primary colors while the grownups make the real decisions. This Shepard has gone from being my intergalactic war hero, replete with every quality that similarly comprises me, to an empty shill telling a story that is no longer mine.
My Shepard without me is useless. Without my Shepard, I am useless.
But this is not my Shepard.