Mass Effect: How Shaping Shepard Shaped Me

Internet, I have a confession to make:

My name is not actually Kenneth Shepard.

It was a nickname that caught on nearly five years ago when I started jokingly going by it my Junior year of High School when Mass Effect 2 came out. However, what started out as an inside joke has grown to be what most people know me by. Everyone from friends I’ve known for years to my own family calls me by the name of the Mass Effect series’ first Human Spectre. It was funny at first, but in hindsight I’ve become very fond of the name, and I’ve since adopted it as a pen name.

I’ve spent much of both my professional career and personal life advocating that video games are a medium that can move people in ways that any other form of art is capable of. While this is the reason I do what I do, I’ve never put in writing many of the most pivotal stories of my life that proved my point.

Whether it’s recent toxic events in the games industry, or the departure of Casey Hudson from Bioware that have got me thinking of the most life-altering experience I had with video games, I feel the need to elaborate on why the Mass Effect series is so special to me. I want to tell the world why the series is my favorite in nearly two decades of gaming.

Most people can look back at key moments in their life and say “my life would’ve been very different if that hadn’t happened,” and without a doubt, my decision to walk into a local GameStop in December of 2007 was one of those moments. Mass Effect was getting tons of positive press (and negative press thanks to some propaganda from Fox News) when my 15-year-old self stood outside that GameStop, and I had already enjoyed Bioware’s past games that I’d managed to get my hands on at that point. I mean, nearly every journalist I paid attention to was calling it a sure-fire candidate for that year’s Game of the Year, against games like Bioshock and Halo 3. I knew it was imperative I play this game.

After begging my Mother to buy the M-rated game for me, and the GameStop cashier informing her of the alien sideboob her son would be exposed to, I finally managed to get the game, and basked in its glory in my car on the way home, even though it came in a broken case that I still have today.

I spent at least an hour within the game’s character creator. I mean, I was making a character I would be following for an already planned trilogy, right? He needed to look like someone I wanted representing me in-game for the next 5 years. I ultimately finalized my design, and thus Kenneth Shepard entered the world of Mass Effect.

I don’t think I can adequately convey just how enthralled I was with this game. I played over a dozen playthroughs before Mass Effect 2 came out and spent hundreds of hours in the armor of the first Human Spectre. But my level of investment in this universe wasn’t quite to the place it ended up in the beginning. I still initially played the game with the same detachment I played many choice-based games with when I first started out. I didn’t take into consideration much of the consequences of my actions when I played it and just picked the game’s “evil” Renegade options by default. A few playthroughs in, it finally clicked with me that I shouldn’t play this game like that. Then, I started to play the game while picking decisions that I would if I were in the situation myself. I’d realized the game was meant to be played that way. As such, I developed relationships with the Normandy’s crew in the same way. I stopped choosing the “evil” options and, for what felt like the first time, listened to my squad, developed my own opinions, and reacted as I saw fit through Shepard.

Kenneth Shepard. First Human Spectre, powerful shotgun-wielding biotic and my pen namesake.

Kenneth Shepard. First Human Spectre, powerful shotgun-wielding biotic and my pen namesake.

However, something was wrong.

Through each playthrough, even after I’d shifted my mindset, I was always entering a romantic relationship with the Normandy’s Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams. Ashley was a fine character. She and I didn’t agree on the existence of God and she may have potentially come off as racist, but she was a strong woman who I enjoyed talking to.

But still, something was wrong.

I completed Ash’s romantic relationship repeatedly over the course of multiple playthroughs, but I felt a surge of uncomfortable nerves fill my stomach the more I did it because I realized just how ill it made me to enter even this virtual relationship as a character who was essentially supposed to be me. I considered switching to the other romantic option, Liara T’Soni, a beautiful member of an all-female race, but that elicited a similar response.

For all my 22 years of living, I’ve lived in a small middle-of-nowhere town. When I was in the sixth grade, I had my first experience being called a homosexual slur. It was uncharted territory for me, as I knew I wasn’t gay, I had crushes on girls all my life prior. But as my middle school life went on, it only became a more prominent thing that I was confronted with.

When I reached eighth grade, I told a female friend of mine I was “bisexual,” mainly out of a fear of commitment to either side, and a complete lack of self awareness. That friend and I ended up dating for the latter half of the school year, but even as I finally had a girlfriend to point at when someone threw an accusatory “homo” my way, I never did anything more than hold her hand. We broke up because I realized I didn’t feel what I was supposed to for her.

Shortly thereafter, I started backtracking by telling people that I told her I was “bisexual” because I knew she liked guys who were, and it would have made her want to date me. At 22-years-old, I’m generally a pretty proud, maybe even cocky individual. But if there’s one thing in my life that I am ashamed of, it was the way in which I tried to hide who I was back in my last year of middle school.

When Mass Effect came out, I was in ninth grade. It was now that I was having these reservations about Ashley and Liara that I couldn’t even rationalize in my head. I was always told in my life that men were supposed to be attracted to women. Why did I feel so weird about entering a fake relationship with a video game character?

As these thoughts were in the back of my head, I played through Mass Effect’s infamous mission on Virmire. It finally got to the point where I had to choose between saving Ashley or saving Staff Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko, a man.

It was such a weird moment to have played through this game so many times having clicked on Ashley’s name as if it were habit and then to suddenly be hesitating. I don’t remember if I ever picked Kaidan within that sitting or actually turned off my Xbox 360 to do something else, but I know that whenever it was that I picked him, I understood. I gave in. I believed it. I allowed myself to accept it as true. It was in that moment that I finally accepted the fact that I was gay. Not bisexual or straight, and Ashley wouldn’t see the credits in another playthrough of Mass Effect.

Everything in Mass Effect took on second meanings to me after I picked Kaidan over Ashley on Virmire. For the first two games, I decided my Shepard was harboring an unrequited love for Kaidan Alenko, and that dynamic became something I leaned on for years within the confines of my small hometown.

When Mass Effect 3 came out, Kaidan finally opened up to my Shepard that he’d felt the same about him all this time. In its own way, it was not only the end of a trilogy-long romantic arc, but almost like a pat on the back and a “you’ll be okay, kid” from a character I’d been vicariously experiencing a war through for five years.

To most people, Mass Effect is the story of an intergalactic war between a united galactic society and a synthetic race looking to exterminate it. To me, Mass Effect will always be the story of a man with the fate of the galaxy resting on his shoulders and the man who gave him the strength to carry it.

While Kaidan's "sanity check" may have just been lunch between marines for some Mass Effect 3 players, for me it represented a closure a younger, less certain version of myself needed throughout the Mass Effect trilogy.

While Kaidan’s “sanity check” may have just been lunch between soldiers for some Mass Effect 3 players, for me it represented a closure a younger, less certain version of myself needed throughout the Mass Effect trilogy.

As Mass Effect 2 and 3 were released, I never once made a second Shepard that made it to the end of the game. Not for Achievements, and not to see other outcomes or romances. I would see this series through as that Shepard I made the day I got the game, all others were “fakes” in my eyes.

Come 2013, I met Commander Shepard’s voice actor, Mark Meer, at a convention. Our talk was brief, but I did tell him that Shepard was, without a doubt, the most influential character of my adolescence, and I meant it.

Now, I still live in that small town. I’ve never had a proper boyfriend because most of the gay men in this town are aware of the hostile environment they reside in, and choose to remain discreet. But even so, I found my own personal acceptance through shaping the story of Commander Shepard.

Bioware is one of the leaders in being inclusive to gay men in the gaming industry (sans some questionable quotes in the Mass Effect 2 era), and because of my shaping of Commander Shepard and the relationship with Kaidan Alenko that followed, I managed to become the confident and unapologetic homosexual man I am today.

To anyone who wants to dismiss the importance of inclusive representation within the gaming industry, I stand before you as an example of the impact that a relatable protagonist can have on a player. I don’t want to imagine how my life would’ve been different if I hadn’t gone into that GameStop to buy that Game of the Year candidate I’d been hearing so much about, or if my Mother had denied me the game that was featured on Fox News for a nonexistent harem.

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of vitriol sent in the direction of people who “define their entire personality on the fact that they play games,” and there’s honestly probably something to that particular criticism. However, I don’t think that everyone who plays games truly does that, they just don’t necessarily convey what games have truly done for them. People who play games often present the fact that they play them as a personality trait, but more often than not people don’t bother to explain why games matter to them.

I think maybe it’s time to stop talking about games as a hobby when people ask about our gaming habits, and start talking about the isolated moments that games have given us instead.

Did saving Peach from Bowser at a young age give you the courage to ask a girl out? Did Tidus and Yuna’s story in Final Fantasy X give you the courage to stand up for what you believe in? Did Joel and Ellie’s relationship in The Last of Us make you appreciate those who meant most to you in your life a little more?

These are the messages those who care about games need to be projecting. Games are more than GamerScore and Leaderboards. They’re capable of more than bragging rights and kill/death ratios.

There is power in characters and stories that we as players can find meaning within, and despite some incredible games since, I’ve yet to have an experience in my gaming life as meaningful or important to me as the one that started within that GameStop in 2007.

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