Who is Commander Shepherd? Is he simply an avatar for players, or is he a distinct character who evolves over the Mass Effect series? Since beginning Mass Effect 3, I began pondering this question. In the most recent game, BioWare and EA made this game more open to new players by introducing a mode where decisions are taken out of the player’s hands, in essence creating a Shepherd with a personality, morals, own thoughts, et cetera. Not only that, but Shepherd has dreams in Mass Effect 3, implying further that he is his own person.
I believe Commander Shepherd is a blank slate. Through the decisions the player makes, he gets filled in. As the three-game story arc progressed, Shepherd grew, maybe. As the player, we can make any of the available decisions we want willy nilly. I assume that most players are role-playing their Shepherd as either a paragon (good) or renegade (bad). However, we can ultimately make nearly any decision we want, whether it fits in line with our Shepherd’s alignment or not. So long as we’re role-playing Shepherd with an eventual goal in mind, he does grow as a character. Otherwise, he’s just a mishmash of what we’re feeling at the moment.
I argue that Commander Shepherd is an avatar for the player so they can build an emotional connection to fully enjoy the depth of the games. The positions Commander Shepherd takes are entirely representative of us. My Shepherd had distinct characteristics that are also found in me. I imagine this is the same for anyone who describes Shepherd as “their” Shepherd. The only reason we would ask ourselves what Shepherd would do in a specific situation is because we have already crafted what Shepherd would do because he is a version of ourselves. Shepherd isn’t a distinct character that has his own viewpoint, his viewpoint is ours.
However, for Shepherd to truly resonate with us and allow us to build an emotional connection, he does have to be a distinct character. He has a back-story and interacts with others more so than a silent protagonist. In reality, he’s akin to the silent protagonist of so many other video games. In a way though, Shepherd is the next step of the silent protagonist. He is a blank slate for players to utilize and choose their own choices thereby creating a character, but he does have a voice (figuratively and literally).
Writing down my thoughts about Commander Shepherd has made me think more about the avatars we play as in video games. There are many ways to get players involved in a video game and there are a lot of variables. Commander Shepherd can’t be pinned down as a silent protagonist or a distinct character because he’s a combination of these two alternatives. Truly though, I’d argue he’s closer to a silent protagonist because the decisions he makes are in the player’s hands and therefore, they’re really the stars of the game.