Recently I read all three Mass Effect novels released thus far. I will likely review them more in-depth somewhere else, but what I found interesting was how it gave further insight into the world BioWare has built, specifically: Captain Anderson, Cerberus, how humanity has changed. This post will concern itself primarily with Cerberus, and spoilers for the games.
Cerberus is a shadow organization. As was hinted at in Mass Effect 2, each operating team is its own cell, so that one tendril has no idea what the other is doing. The only one who has a massive overview is the Illusive Man, though various of his closer workers can surmise more truths, particularly as they are often sent to communicate between these various tendrils. At the end of the third book, Retribution, it is hinted that the organization suffers major losses, though Shepard has finished her business with the organization for now.
What this made me think of is the stark contrast of the open-galaxy exploration in the first Mass Effect versus its sequel. I’ve already made known my thoughts on how the level design disguises well the fact that Shepard is essentially walking down one long corridor after another, with each battle scene making its presence known with carefully placed barriers and chokeholds. Yet the game is often treated as a critical darling for its whole, which indicates we do not have as much problem with hallway gameplay as we do with how it communicates to us and what we get out of it.
What I would argue is that the bent of the first and second game is vastly different. The first game sets out to get us to know the universe. Since it is the player’s first interaction with the world, the general feel that you can explore at your own pace, and take your time, gives a sense of wanting the player to explore what has already been mapped, but to make it personally known. Shepard has more knowledge than we, but she is still not as well-versed as other species, indicating humanity’s relative newness to the entire intergalactic community. The first game is about giving us a sense of what this universe is about and how we fit into it.
The second is decidedly not. Its design features the aforementioned hallways (which, admittedly, have more variance in appearance than most of the locales of the first game), a set of conditions that force your hand into certain missions, and a feeling of being on someone else’s time table. Which makes sense given that Shepard is working for Cerberus. She is not given autonomy, even if the Illusive Man keeps harping on about how Shepard had to be as she was before, and given enough slack on the leash so her activities are not hampered. Which is where our decisions come into play, though we are manipulated via the game’s progression as much as we are by Cerberus itself.
What I find endlessly fascinating is how the fiction that is being created has a lot of second-guessing. For the most part, the novels manage to skirt around what Shepard is doing and has done, as her actions are surrounded by a certain sense of mythic awe and skepticism. Having her work for Cerberus also grants her a shield from the eyes of most of the other people in the galaxy. All any reader of the novels who hasn’t played the games would really know is Shepard is a hero who is off doing heroic things, but the details are hazy.
For quite some time BioWare has been asking that question: how does one define a hero? What this question is not asking is how one becomes a hero, but rather what happens after the fact. Regardless of what Shepard has done with Cerberus, she has focused the Reapers on humanity, defeated Saren, and become the first human Spectre. What they set up in the first game is someone who was given a free pass by the council to deal with threats facing the greater galactic survival (note, I do not say good, as Spectres are not so easily defined as ‘good’ heroes).
However, in the first game, Shepard is a huge icon: first human Spectre, in the council’s employ, representing humanity’s strengths. It makes sense that she would be given freedom to explore, express herself, and find her place. The second game is not about that. The death at the beginning makes even her resurrection a topic of myth and incredulity. Everything after is naturally given a much more streamlined and closed-off feel.
Shepard is being led in Mass Effect 2, and the final decision she makes is the one that sets her free from that obligation in one way or the other. Which is why the Arrival DLC is somewhat confusing: it aligns Shepard more closely with Cerberus in that her actions set her up to be a scapegoat in order to bring about accountability for the tension between batarians and humans. Again, Shepard is a pawn on the chessboard of Alliance politics, as she was in the beginning of Mass Effect, when she was only going on their missions and confined to the Citadel.
Shepard is making key decisions, but she is never her own woman completely. She is constantly being used by one organization or another, and her fight against the Reapers is beset by the problem she faces herself: that of being a larger-than-life concept. At the same time, she is able to work within the organizations to achieve her goals, but the question is at what cost? The trial that awaits her on Earth is likely only one piece of that equation.
Therefore, the first game is exploring the rise of the hero. The second is how the hero has lost control of not only her own image, but of her own future. Given the way the games communicate how we interact with them, it seems to make a lot of sense in that regard. Which only makes me wonder if the third is Shepard as the rallying leader, a whole new role for her that builds on what she has done previously. This is Shepard’s résumé.
At the same time, Shepard’s own limits mimic our own. As I’ve also written, despite the fact that there are choices to be made, the game is not wholly open-ended. What is being asked of me is how I interpret the actions Shepard takes. Every limit Shepard faces is another one that is translated to me. Being an icon and hero of Shepard’s magnitude can be as hampering as it is freeing.