Why We Love Our Commander Shepard

Many of us here at Kotaku like Mass Effect. And as people who like Mass Effect are wont to do, we really like to talk about its protagonist, Commander Shepard. Specifically, we like to talk about our Commander Shepard.

You see, despite the guy on the box, the main character in the actual game can look like... well, like just about anyone. Man, woman, black, white; the hero of the Mass Effect saga can never be thought of as one person. That fact may well be the game's single coolest feature.

Just today, BioWare and EA released the first-ever trailer featuring the "official" female version of Commander Shepard, chosen by fans in a kinda sorta controversial Facebook poll last fall.

We got to chatting about the trailer today—we all liked it, and Evan Narcisse even said (I'm paraphrasing here) "That trailer made me rethink how I want to play Mass Effect 3." Why did it feel so cool to see BioWare showing an ad with a different version of their iconic main character? It seemed worth talking about.

So, Evan, Kate and I had a chat about what we liked about the trailer, and why we each love our own Commander Shepard like we do. That conversation is transcribed below for your mellow Friday-evening reading pleasure.


Kirk: Okay! So today, we got the very first Official Epic Action-Packed Mass Effect 3 trailer starring none other than the lady version of Commander Shepard. Which I guess means we should figure out what we're going to call her. I get the feeling people are getting sick of FemShep. So what term do we use? SheShep?

Evan: Ms.Shep?

Kirk: I used Lady-Shep today and kind of liked that...

Kate: Personally, I just call her Commander Shepard. ;)

Kirk: So that gets right to it - 'FemShep" is actually just what a lot of people think of when they think of "Commander Shepard." Which is kind of one of the coolest things about this franchise.

Kate: Yeah. Because my Shepard has always been female and sounded like Jennifer Hale. Who is awesome.

Kirk: But someone else's Shepard may look like an old skinny bald dude who sounds like Mark Meer. And he can also be awesome.

Evan: Hale's performance adds more layers to the character than Mar Meer's voicework does. That FemShep trailer made me re-think everything about the way I play Mass Effect.

Kirk: That is a bold statement, Evan.

Evan: I always roll a dude who looks as close to me as possible in games where I can create a character, because I still feel like like a member of the Great Unrepresented. So, Evan Shepard was a guy.

Kirk: A black guy, yeah?

Evan: Yup. But the tremors and nuance that Hale gets out of her voice feels more like me in real life—someone who tries to be compassionate and determined, whereas Meer just gives you standard hero stoicism.

Kate: I think that's really cool, separating visual from aural performance. It says a lot about how much the voice acting actually matters in this game. Because I, too, tend to create characters like myself in games when I get the chance — Kate Shepard was a blue-eyed redhead because that's how I look — but I did lock into how Hale sounded much more than into how Shep looked.

Kirk: I like that you guys both use your own names for your Shepards. My Shepard is named "Blade," and my lady-shepard has some hilarious name with a bunch of apostrophes.

Anyway, it'd be really typical to look at this as like, "We've got a lady here who plays a lady, and a black guy who plays a black guy," but what you're saying, Evan, is that your reaction to the trailer is about the performance more than it's about seeing yourself in the game.

Evan:I swore that I was going to roll a FemShep when I got Mass Effect 2 on PS3 last year but I never did, mostly because of time issues. But also I balk a bit a playing through Mass Effect 2 again because that's Evan Shepard's life, done in a single take.

Kirk: I have that a bit too.

Kate: I was the EXACT same way... and then I played it again last week anyway.

Kirk: Ha! Blade Shepard is this brawny renegade dude with red hair. And he's the only character I've taken through both of the first two games. I didn't play SheShep until the second game, but I fell in love with Hale's performance, and that character feels definitive to me now. So I'm in a bit of a quandary when it comes to who to play first in Mass Effect 3. But then again, seeing that trailer, I was really like, "Man. I gotta play as my lady character." Kate, have you played ME2 as both a Bro- and FemShep?

Kate: No, not personally. I started playing the ME games in the first place because the other gamer in our household talked me into it after he played them. I saw / heard him at it for a month (it's not that big an apartment) but as soon as the controls were mine to handle I went straight to a female Commander. To do otherwise felt... generic. Hearing a strong female voice actor made it different.

The differences between the two performances really struck me, upon subsequent playthroughs of Mass Effect 2.

Kirk: The differences between the two performances really struck me, upon subsequent playthroughs of Mass Effect 2. There's that scene, right? When you go to the colony and run into Ashley or Kaiden. And at the end of the scene, Shepard says "I've had enough of this planet." (Or something like that.) And the performances are remarkably different. I remember feeling like I really knew my lady-Shepard in that moment, it was really human. I think that BioWare has been struggling with how to make Shepard feel more human in this, the grand finale. It's hard to make him/her sound exhausted without also sounding whiny. (That's sourcing an interview btw) Evan, I'm surprised you got that same impression just from watching a trailer.

Evan: Yeah, the weariness is there but there's more fire underneath it, with Hale, I mean. Hale's turn as FemShep hits on a really significant chord of science-fiction.

Kirk: When Tom Bissell wrote about listening to her do her thing in the studio, he talked about how her voice would "turn to cement." I loved that description, and love that about Hale's work—when she plays a tough character, like Naomi from Metal Gear or as Avatar Kyoshi from Avatar: The Last Airbender, how she puts this core of rock through the center. It lets her play the middle of the road, to be tough while also showing human feeling on top.

Evan: I feel like compassion and empathy are parts of a formula that separates good speculative fiction from great speculative fiction. Like in old original series Star Trek episodes when Kirk would get all wistful or angsty. It's a big universe and the ability to understand races is vital, and Mark Meer doesn't sound like that guy.

Kirk: And, honestly, I've usually found Shepard to be more convincing as a badass than as a paragon.

Kate: The "empathy and compassion" are interesting to latch onto, because the more renegade options... may not always show those, heh.

Evan: Hale does.

Kate: Plus, I don't want to pile onto Mark Meer, because his Shepard is a pretty solid 21st century sci-fi stalwart.

Kirk: Yeah, despite being a hardass in most situations, even the most renegade SheShep has plenty of moments of softness. And Hale really sells them. Meer is fine too, but less convincing, particularly when he has to play soft or compassionate. Something that's interesting here that I'd like to talk about, is how difficult it is or isn't to sell a game where one of the coolest things is that you can make your own experience. Some of the response to this trailer goes back to that big vote they had about what FemShep should look like.

Kate: That's something I've not envied the BioWare marketing team, heading into the third Mass Effect game. Because they -are- building on two games' worth of decisions and character moments. The combinations aren't infinite by any stretch, but they are numerous. Players remember what they did and how it felt, and Shepard does too — and that connection is what makes the arc its most interesting. So to sell the whole franchise with exactly one iteration of Shepard has always, in my opinions, sold it a little short.

Kirk: I was talking with Luke about this the other day, this commercial idea similar to one I floated a while ago: Wouldn't it be cool if they did an ad series called "This is my Commander Shepard?" Show people saying that, and flash through different shepards doing different things. It'd be a good way to highlight the series' coolest feature and it wouldn't be confusing to newcomers.

This ad, where they flashed through all the different hair-colors, kind of hinted at a similar thing.

Evan: Yeah, this kinda gets a problem with the marketing messaging—Mass Effect gets sold as a single-use experience, with BroShep as default.

Kirk: When really, one of the best parts is replaying and doing things differently!

Evan: Yeah. When they could be telling people to play it multiple times with each gender.

Kate: They actually do in one of the ME2 loading screen tips!

Kirk: Ha, that's right!

Kate: "Play again with a different class or gender for a different experience."

Evan: It's not just one story.

Kate: I wish that came across more outside of the game.

Kirk: The question people raised when I floated that idea is: Does that sell? Or is it a better call just to make the game look like a rad space action game? I've mentioned this before, the idea that the things we love about Mass Effect aren't particularly sexy.

So what are we asking for, really? Are we just coming up with ways to help EA sell the game? Or was seeing that ad more about seeing a hint of the version of Mass Effect that we wish people we knew could see?

Kate: One of the game's biggest points has always been that players can make decisions in character, in tone (to a point, with paragon, renegade, and neutral options) and often in outcome. I feel like that's what sets an awesome game apart from, say, an awesome movie. But I don't actually know if that's what makes it sell.

Evan: We're talking about the FemShep trailer as a piece of marketing.

Kirk: But it's more than that, right?

There is a cool feeling of fan-ownership around all things Shepard, particularly when it comes to FemShep.

Evan: Yeah, it'll be interesting to see if this gets airtime outside of game-centric outlets. My mind would be blown if the FemShep ad aired during, say, the Grammys or the NBA Finals.

Kirk: It would be cool just to have so many people see that side of the game.

Evan: Exactly.

Kate: It's also a case of a developer very clearly responding to fan feedback. The entire thing was triggered last May or June when players clamored for it, basically.

Kirk: There is a cool feeling of fan-ownership around all things Shepard, particularly when it comes to FemShep. They do this great series over at The Border House called " My Commander Shepard" that's kind of a celebration of that.

I remember someone making the point that because we've each spent two games with our own personal LadyShep with no one telling us she wasn't "Official," players who play a lady have a more personal connection to the character. Because she's "ours." Even if we're just using one of the default builds! I feel that way, anyway.

Kate: She's still kind of a rare character, too. That real Sigourney-Weaver-in-Alien(s) compassionate asskicker. So it's easy to form an attachment there, especially as you get to customize things along the way.

Kirk: And seeing a trailer that really does feel like it was made for the fans, and it makes me feel good types of hope about the game in general. There are still weird decisions, like the whole Chobot casting-decision...

But you know that there were people at BioWare really pushing to make this trailer, to dedicate the time and money to it, and that's cool. The ad doesn't feel like the result of a boardroom meeting, even though it doubtless was, to some extent. I'm still partly worried and simultaneously hopeful about the game, but I'm happy to see that they're listening to the fans.

Kate: I'm just glad to see it, and it's rekindled my (admittedly never very dim) interest in the game. I haven't loved every element of it or everything that led up to it, but the fans asked and BioWare/EA really did deliver.

And I think it's great to see the hints, in advertising, that Shepard's story may be mostly handed out to you but that how you the player choose to handle it has a lot of room for personal ownership.

Kirk: There are so many variables coming in to the third game based on past choices that some amount of streamlining is going to be inevitable. But every time I see a trailer or video from the game that leaves me a little cold or worried, I just imagine my own Commander Shepard in the scene, and I like it a good deal more. This trailer felt like BioWare and EA showing me that on their own for the first time.

Evan: While this is all well and good, I still want two things moving forward:

1. Hype around games starring female protagonists that hits this kind of beat more regularly.

2. For Jennifer Hale—who, again, I've barely experienced—to have a Nolan North or Troy Baker kind of career.

Kate: Yes and yes.

Kirk: It's that funny thing—voice actors seem to be coming to the forefront more and more, and if we're going to see a lot more of anyone, it's going to be Hale. But their job requires them to blend in, to an extent, even though hardcore fans still know and love the great ones.

On a related note, as I see more and more games that center around customization, I hope we get to see the public face of those games embrace that, and in doing so, embrace the diversity of the potential protagonists and heck, the diversity of the people who play the games!

In the meantime: It was fun to see FemShep lock in a round and blow that Reaper away.

Kate: I look forward to doing the same in March.

Evan: And, maybe, maybe I'll get around to playing through ME2 and/or ME3 as a female Commander Shepard. I contain multitudes, after all.

But that's just us. What is your Commander Shepard like? Do you have multiple Shepards, and if so, which one will you be playing in ME3 first? Do you ever wish you could play the game as Tali, or Garrus, or another non-Shepard character? Let us know.