Bad Parenting in Mass Effect 2: Those Alone

as always, the below includes spoilers…

So far, we’ve looked at the fathers of Mass Effect 2; how they are too demanding, how those who appear good really aren’t, how they screw up the lives of their children, and how metaphorical fathers are as bad as the real thing, if not worse.  This time, we’ll look at what happens in the absence of a father.

Subject Zero: Jack

Jack was kidnapped by Cerebus when she was a child, and was raised for most of her life in a laboratory, away from  the influence of her parents. 

She is presented with so much potential.  She is considered the most powerful human biotic in existence.  She is the most dangerous prisoner at the jail where you go to pick her up.  She destroyed a Cerebus facility, nearly singlehandedly, as a child.  She constantly asserts her freedom, able to go and do whatever she wants.  In cut scene, where the story becomes more important than the game play, she is shown as incredibly competent, facing several opponents at once, and seeming to be on par with Samara, a highly respected warrior of a species that lives for a thousand years and is, on average, more powerful with biotics than the best humans.

She appears to lack the limits of the other characters, but she also lacks direction.  She doesn’t know what she wants or how to get it.  She has all the power she needs to be whoever she wants, and do whatever she wants.  Her ambition and vision rarely exceed her instant, animal state.  With a lack of foresight, she is stuck entirely in the moment and what it can offer her.

The other characters talk about what they might be doing if they weren’t assisting Shepard.  Jack doesn’t seem to know or care.  She is beligerant and vague when asked what she will do after the mission is over.  For Jack, the future isn’t something she can prepare for. 

While it may not be the intent of the team making the game to attribute this potential, and its waste on Jack’s lack of parents, it is definetaly a striking coincidence.  Especially when considering Shepard.

Commander Shepard

Shepard is difficult to discuss thematically, because he isn’t just one character.  He isn’t even necessarily male.  For the sake of ease, we will assign this gender for him for the rest of this blog.  As the player’s character, his gender, face, and background can be customized, and he is in fact a spectrum of characters, of a small variety of backgrounds, who will each be presented similar situations and be given a range of options between Renegade and Paragon.

At character creation, the player can either select the default John Shepard, pictured above, or customize their options.  Once the gender is selected, a history and a psych profile are chosen.  Ignoring the gender option, this means there are nine possible Shepards at this stage.

When selecting a background, you chose between Spacer, Colonist, and Earthborn.  Of these options, only Spacer gives Shepard living parents, and he is a military brat.  In Colonist, his parents were killed by slavers.  in Earthborn, he never knew them.  He was an orphan, raised on the streets.  If you chose the default, Earthborn, the true orphan option is chosen for you.

It takes effort on the players part to give Shepard parents.  A customized background must be selected, and only a single choice provides living parents.  The backgrounds don’t have a major effect on the game.  They are mentioned sometimes in dialogue, and each has a single unique quest in Mass Effect 1.  Most of Mass Effect 2 remains unchanged by this choice, as Shepard’s more recent history, from the first game, is far more important to play.

As the default option is set to Earthborn, the majority of Shepards are likely orphans.  As the player character, Shepards have more options.  Other characters have a narrow bredth of responses to a situation, tempered by what Commander Shepard does.  They can become more or less Paragon or Renegade, offering forgiveness or vengance, but they can only go so far down one path or another.  The player makes Shepard’s choices.  The range of his options is much broader.  No Jacob can ever reach the Renegade depths of a dark Shepard, and no Garrus can ever become as upright in his thoughts and deads as the most upstanding Paragon Shepard.  The player has the choice to make him a Paragon of virtue, or a Renegade who will worry about the ends more than the means.

While this is an effect of Shepard being the protagonist in a video game, the likely lack of parents makes this more interesting.  No one shaped the man he would become, and at every single instance, he has the choice to move to either the Paragon or Renegade extreme.  Unlike Jack, Shepard has the character’s guidance, and can either chose in the instant, or work towards the player’s vision of who he should be.

Shepard also shares Jack’s potential.  Shepard can save or damn the universe.  While there is the option to beat the game in a manner where Shepard dies, it is far more likely that at least he will survive the suicide mission.  He makes huge choices that affect the entire galaxy.  Before the game starts, he has decided whether to save the Council, or replace the interstellar government with a human Council.  Throughout the game, he decides the fate of both the krogan and the geth races through is actions.  In the end, he decides whether to grant Cerebus the incredible power of the collector base, or destroy it.

The entire shape of the universe revolves around Shepard’s choices.  In most cases, no one has ever limited his potential, and in most cases, no external parental force has provided guidance on how he should proceed.  He is a great and powerful force, and in some ways, he is like a father figure to the entire universe.

In effect, Shepard is the father of Council space.  He decides the structure of authority by selecting the ruling body in the first game, the consequences of which are played out in Mass Effect 2.  He decides who lives in the universe, possibly destroying the rachni in the first game, and chosing the fate of the krogans and the geth in the second.  He decides what crimes merit forgiveness and which receive vengeance.  He becomes the ultimate authority figure.  He is reinstated as a Spectre, the special agents of the council.  While he has Cerebus’s backing, they are unable to force him to act in any particular manner, but he decides where they will prosper and where their influence will be diminished.

All the examples of bad parenting seems to be set as examples for Shepard.  He is being shown what happens when he fails in his duties.  He is shown in a microcosm how his actions will affect the galaxy.  He needs to decide if the strong vision he has is worth the cost, if the future generations will understand what he wanted for them.  He needs to understand the difference between his reputation and his actions, and understand that those who follow him may have strong reactions to the truth.  He may be forgiven, or he may be vilified.  He is shown that children are the responsiblity of his parents, and those actions that are a step removed, consequences of his consequences, are still his responsiblity.  He can stop them before they happen, or he can hunt the undesirable to punish them when the problem has occurred.  If he decides that something needs to leave, some group of beings no longer has a place in his universe, he will carry the weight, and be haunted by the decision.  He will live with that choice, and it will be questioned by those who come after.  He needs to know if he is willing to defend those calls.

Shepard has the gift of determination.  He needs to understand that while he can ignore the greater implications, the consequences are still going to occur.  They will come back to him.  As the father of his universe, he will be held accountable by his children, even if he refuses to answer for what he did.

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2 Responses to Bad Parenting in Mass Effect 2: Those Alone

  1. Max says:

    I liked the post, but I can’t allow myself to not share my opinion. I don’t think your analysis of Shepard is wrong, but I think how you go about doing it is. Video games can’t be analyzed in the same way as other mediums. Shepard is not another character in the game, you are Shepard. I don’t think it really matters which option you choose (if you even knew there was an option), because that element of the story doesn’t matter. Shepard has no parents as far as the player is concerned because there is never a moment when I actually get to be the character with parents. It doesn’t matter if I choose to say that I have parents or not. I (as Shepard) have no relationship with my own parents. I never talk, call, or meet them. At most the can be an afterthought; “Oh yea, my parents were soldiers or something.”

    Thus, there is no direct father figure for the player. Furthermore, the player is thrown into the world without a cause other than he wants to be there and forced to be the center of the entire story. Everything waits upon his word and action. So, is Shepard alone? Of course, but not because the story says it. Shepard is alone because the player is alone. Every other character in the game is a reflection of what the player (as Shepard) could be. I do not mean to imply that this a commentary on of the actual individual who plays the game.

    • renegadefolk says:

      Excellent points. They’ve made me think a bit more, and I’m going to see if I can respond in a comment without it becoming a full length article.

      I would argue that Shepard becomes you due to the quality of the Mass Effect games. When you play a game like Army of Two or Final Fantasy 12, while you physically control characters in action scenes, their choices at any plot point are predetermined. This is the standard for video games, and the freedom of Mass Effect is one of its great strengths.

      The writers chose to avoid situations where Shepard would have parents, but in Mass Effect 1, the elected to include paternal figures. Your relationship with Udina and Anderson is very much like a young adult moving out for the first time; until Shepard becomes a spectre, he was answerable to them. The council is also somewhat paternal, and your relationship with them can affect what choices you make.

      Parents could have been included in Mass Effect 2. The best example I can think of is when my roommate played Fallout 3, a game with a similiar amount of freedom, where your character is also you. Early in the game, he blew up the town of Megaton, and was a releatively evil character, until he caught up with his father. When James expressed his disappointment, my roommate actually changed the way he played the game, spending the rest of the playthrough performing acts of contrition for Megaton.

      When I played through as an evil character, I fought with my father over the same choice, and told him it was none of his business.

      A parent can be included into a game with this level of choice without robbing the player of, what is in my opinion, the best this new medium has to offer. The choice to include a parent, or not, is an artistic one by the team. While I don’t expect Frank West’s mom to show up in Dead Rising, or Alan Wake to meet his grandpa, that’s because those stories don’t lend themselves to tales of family relations. The fact that so much of Mass Effect 2 deals with family makes Shepard’s lack of one important.

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