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The Mass Effect trilogy, like BioWare's other games, is driven by its colourful and eclectic cast of characters. To their credit, no other developer has consistently made characters that we can cherish, hate, and apathise, all with differing opinions amongst ourselves. Why then, is the most important character also the least interesting? Whilst you may have your own opinions about "The Shepard", those don't matter here. Your opinions matter in the comment section.
Note: For the sake of convenience, I used male pronouns when referring to Commander Shepard. FemSheps feel free to take offence.
The one thing that left me wanting more in the Mass Effect trilogy (other than an actual ending) was the protagonist's development. Shepard didn't stand out the way other characters did, because players are crafting their own story, with Shepard as their avatar in the universe.
There's a very fine line in a game defined by player choice between letting players be in control of their character, and letting the protagonist be an interesting, well-developed character with a unique personality. Because the protagonist is also the player character, some discrepancy arises; you simply cannot please everyone. Whilst Shepard shined at times, it still felt like I was playing as a bland brick. The trouble is, I didn't want an avatar for myself in this universe, but rather a character that fits in it, one on whom I can project myself.
Shepard is an unstoppable powerhouse. Shepard's saved the galaxy from sentient machines more times than Ratchet and Clank. He' brought at least four or five sentient races to extinction by my last count, not that my counting skills are very formidable. Shepard is hailed as universally attractive by every member of his crew, and never fails at being a leader (that is, unless you get bored of loyalty missions). He's probably worse than the Reapers themselves, who never could annihilate the Protheans. Shepard? He did it in one game.
What I'm getting on about is that Shepards' plot-proof armour has absolutely no kinks in it. Flawless characters are uninteresting, because we cannot identify with that. When Shepard gets his arse handed to him by a space ninja on Thessia, he's in utter disbelief. I assume that this is because he's never lost at anything before, except chess. One story that involves the character failing is InFamous 2. In said game, the protagonist Cole fails. He later explains in a monologue that this is what drives him onward. As it turns out, epic failure is actually a good way to start a story.
Another good example of this is the recently released Dragon's Dogma. In that game, you start as a random nobody who fails utterly in a pathetic albeit admirable attempt to attack a dragon. Starting at the bottom is a great place to start in an RPG, since becoming more and more powerful is the main hook of the genre. When you are an unstoppable powerhouse from beginning to end, it robs me of my sense of achievement. When I first started playing Skyrim, enemies bashed my face in on a regular basis. Other characters would also laugh in said face at many of my sorry attempts at coercion. I truly got the feeling I was worthless and pathetic, which is great. Well, that on it's own isn't great in any way, but it's the contrast that evokes a sense of accomplishment.
Moments of weakness are the strongest ways to develop a character. I particularly liked the moment of self-doubt Shepard has on Cronos Station, where he wonders if he's just a VI that thinks its Shepard. That was cool, because my Shepard stepped down from his lofty high horse and started acting like a human being. And to think it only took him three games.
As I've said, I don't want to play as a bland brick. I want my hero or heroine to have personality and come alive. Seeing as how Shepard is the most important character in the entire trilogy, it's a little off-putting that he's very unemotional and detached. Now, I'm not going to rip on the voice actours for this; I think Meer and Hale did an excellent job. There are times however, when the Joker's catchphrase comes to mind. Whilst my squadmates were in the background and having a personality, Shepard tended to just be a stick in the mud.
Compare Shepard to Hawke. Whilst the latter arguably has less room for character development, the protagonist of Dragon Age II at least has more personality, allowing him to be more likeable. For those unfamiliar with that game's dialogue wheel, it works similar to Mass Effect's. One unique and innovative feature in Dragon Age 2 (there aren't many, so this stands out) was that you could choose betwixt aggressive (i.e. Renegade), diplomatic (i.e. Paragon), or sarcastic options in dialogue. These eventually compound and form Hawke's personality based on how many of each you've picked in relation to how many options you've had (the same mechanic as the charm/intimidate options). If you made mostly Sarcastic/Charming dialogue choices, Hawke would assume that personality in instances when you aren't in control, such as party banter. This, I think, is how you walk the fine line between giving characters a personality without alienating the player. My Hawke's general tone and delivery was silly and somewhat light-hearted, but that didn't bother me, because that's the path I had chosen. Had I made more aggressive decisions, Hawke would have been more serious, like Shepard. With this I would have no problem, since that is how I want my character to act.
In decision driven stories such as these, they need to let the player form a personality for their avatar through actions and dialougue choices. If I choose all the romantic options with someone, my Shepard should show a great deal of emotional attachment to him or her. At this point, I'm probably not going to feel alienated from my Shepard if Shep continues along the path I have set. The alternative is a bland brick with no desires other than "save the galaxy", and any space marine can do that.
Shepard has some moments of levity, but not many. Most of the times I laugh at his actions or lines, it's not because Shep is being silly. One particular moment where he was a bit more light-hearted was during Lair of the Shadow Broker. In this absolute gem of downloadable content, the dialogue between Shepard and Casey Hudson's love-child was actually rather entertaining, the chase scene in particular. For once, Liara was the humourless worrier and Shepard was the silly badass hero with smart ass remarks.
Mass Effect 3 mucked this up even further. As I've said, I want my character to have emotional attachments, flaws and fears, so long as they aren't forced upon us. The entire game my Shepard seemed oddly preoccupied by Earth's devastation, despite being born on Mindoir. I can understand concern for his species' homeworld, but Shepard has suddenly become attached to a planet I don't care for. Shepard has seen countless people die, why is Earth so different? I never really cared about Earth in the Mass Effect universe, because there was no real connection to it prior to Mass Effect 3. Whereas every other "Save the world" story had me up in arms, I never felt that when the Reapers hit. I actually care more for saving Rannoch than Earth, and I live there. I could understand if Shepard was Earthborn, but does that even change any dialogue?
Speaking of back stories, I do wish they were fleshed out a bit more. This may be personal opinion, but I had hoped they would play a bigger role. Despite losing an entire unit to a Thresher Maw, Shep seems indiferent about them, even going as far to ally himself with one without question. I understand that the past shouldn't define a character, but it should colour it. Maybe just a mention of Shep's dead buddies when I killed that Thresher Maw on foot? I was honestly holding out for him to say something-anything about his background during the Tuchanka portion. It also strikes me as odd that losing all of his friends and his entire family doesn't bother him at all, but seeing one random kid die gives him nightmares. The only time it felt like my Shepard's background mattered was in Liara's "Project" scene, which is arguably one of the best moments in the trilogy.
Case in point: no one would have found the "STTEEEEEEEVEEEE!!!" scene so funny (you know, the one where he almost dies a horrible painful death) if it wasn't the scene where Shepard discovered emotion.
So there you have it: my opinions on Commander Shepard. Now, I'm not saying I absolutely hated the character, I just feel as though they should have given us more freedom to characterise Shepard. I do admit I felt quite a bit of attachement to my character. If I didn't, I wouldn't have written this epic and soporific blog. Of course, I'm dying to hear what you think. It's not as if I write just to validate my opinions or anything....