The female version of Mass Effect's protagonist Commander Shepard, colloquially referred to as “FemShep”, has become something of a rallying figure for gamers starved for strong female characters in an age of dudebro mainstream protagonists. For me, FemShep has become more than that; it has become something personal, something deeply affecting. For me, it has become an eerie parallel to my mother’s life throughout the series—both Shepard’s triumphs, and her failures.
Now that the Commander Shepard arc has ended with Mass Effect 3, I’ve set out to try and understand why it’s been so difficult for me to say goodbye to the series, and to learn how FemShep succeeds where so many other female video game characters have failed.
I was raised in a single-parent household by a woman who had—let's go with an "unhealthy fixation" with science fiction. We watched Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate and various other star-themed bits while I was growing up. For her, I think, science fiction provided both a realm in which to escape and a hope for a better future. That vision became a mentality that she not only passed on to me, but one that she carried with her and made every attempt to embody in her job as a social worker.
I noticed early in life that my mom dedicated herself to helping others. She helped rehabilitate kids in juvenile hall and she helped people who were disabled and unable to work find the programs they needed to get by. For several years, my mom would organize toy and food drives and then we would deliver what we could on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to local shelters.
She told me that as much as she wanted the world of Star Trek to exist now, we would never get there if there weren't people in the trenches making it happen. She made me listen to voicemails from people she had helped. "This. This is what it’s about,” she would say. “This is why it's important. This means something to someone. It may seem small, but everything you do, every single thing can be used to help real people."
As a kid it was hard for me to understand what all of that really meant. It was hard for me to grasp why someone would take time to help others. I knew what she was saying, and what she was trying to do, but it took me a long time to really internalize those messages.
Most of you probably remember Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic as one of the better titles the original Xbox. I, however, saw it as the natural extrapolation of my mom's obsession into the realm of interactive entertainment. After I got her started on the game, she got a second TV and Xbox just so she could play while watching the SciFi Channel. I think all-told, she put more than 1,000 hours into the game.
When Mass Effect was first announced, just two years later, my mom and I started talking about possibly going half-in on an Xbox 360. In some developer diaries which, to this day I haven't been able to find again, the dev team said that they wanted to create a modern reinterpretation of a classic 1970s and 80s science fiction film. Naturally she and I both flipped our shit and the deal was sealed.
After almost two years of delays, Mass Effect finally arrived in November of 2007. I sold a stack of games and some Pokémon cards to put forth my portion, and my mom cut me a check so we could drop down the $350 for a Premium Xbox 360 and the $60 for the game itself.
That was two days before Thanksgiving and one week before she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that steadily begins reducing functionality of the joints—a big problem for a gamer.
Her condition had actually progressed pretty far by that time, and was paired with another autoimmune disorder—Lupus. She had been able to play Knights of the Old Republic and a few other Bioware games specifically because they were turn-based and slow-paced. Mass Effect, however, was a shooter. It required much faster reactions, as well as precise aiming.
After waiting for two years, she simply couldn't play it.
Despite her diagnosis, I wanted to have my mom with me, even if she couldn't experience the game in quite the same way. Instead, I began modeling my version of Commander Shepard after my mother. I gave her the same sense of altruism, of dedication and of hope for a better future. She gave second chances and she was uncompromising in her pursuit of her pro-social ideals, in spite of her sordid past.
When given the option, I chose to give her a rebellious streak, one marred with “bad” decisions while recalling tales of my mom’s alleged party prowess. I thought an altruistic background would also be a good fit given my mom’s nature. I made her an Adept class, because I think if asked the quintessential late-night nerd question regarding what super power she would pick, she’d opt for whatever got her closest to being a Jedi.
Naming her wasn’t too difficult either. Ever since I was about six years old my mom and I had been watching the Stargate series and its two spin-offs, Atlantis and Universe. Of those, Mom identified with Elizabeth Weir—a civilian commanding officer in the Atlantis series. It fit pretty well too, because she still ships Weir and John Shepard—another character from Atlantis.
Elizabeth Shepard. Adept. Earthborn War Hero.
Yeah, that fits.
Shepard is, in a sense, a "walled garden" character. Players are given a framework within which they can craft any number of diverse characters. She can be a Mary Sue, she can be petty or she can represent someone we love. BioWare backed the Mass Effect protagonist with strong writing and an even stronger voice actress regardless of the choices made by the player.
The beauty of the character as an idea and why she has so many rabid fans is specifically because we are free to construct our version of FemShep, complete with all the flaws and facets that real people have. If your Shepard is boring and flat as a character in her development and motivations, you have no one to blame but yourself. If she's complex and consistent, then it is because BioWare has facilitated that construction.
In time, they became intrinsically linked, across all three titles, as I carried Shepard through her journey; my FemShep was a digital representation of my mom. Every major decision helped me empathize with her and understand how her background influenced her values and ultimately her own real-world choices.
The issue with female characters in gaming rarely has anything to do with their "strength" in the traditional sense. Bayonetta is no more a "strong" character than Alyx Vance. No, it's about authenticity. It's about relatability. I've been starved for decently written women in games. Growing up with a single mother, much of my life is informed by that perspective. I've had many women in my life that I've cared for but I can count on one hand the number of times I've felt anything for a female character in interactive media.
The characters in media which resonate with us the most will always be those that represent our own personal struggles, our demons. Through media we can challenge and begin to face our own problems and experiences. The vast majority of games, right now, only offer those opportunities to a minority of people: straight white males. That shouldn't be news to anyone who even casually follows the gaming industry. The fanatical devotion to FemShep, however, is.
I know that, for my part, I made fun of my (mostly guy) friends when, out of some arbitrary desire to be as masculine as possible, they went straight for the male Shepard. I'd ask silly things like "When did they add BroShep? That's new…", always suggesting that not only were they making the wrong choice, but expressing surprise that it even existed (sorry Mark Meer!).
“It’s a boring choice, though. Everyone’s a grizzled space marine these days.”
What made Star Trek—especially the first television series—so incredible was its vision of the future. In it they showed people of various races and national origins as well as men and women getting along, treating one another as equals. It was a stark contrast to every other film and show that was available at the time.
In this century however, our society was still struggling. It took my mom far longer to receive disability than she expected. In my senior year of high school, we had no money coming in. Initially, many of her coworkers donated their sick days. They kept it up for as long as they had days left to donate, but those ran out eventually. We were still more or less okay though. Some family and friends donated what they could to help us along and, in the meantime, I got the financial aid I needed to move a thousand miles away and go to college in Minneapolis.
It is around this time that I started noticing some more parallels between my mom and Lizzy (sometimes she likes to cut loose) Shepard. She couldn’t work, at least not in the traditional sense, anymore. That didn’t mean, however, that she didn’t still have people to help. I still needed her.
That August something happened. I learned that someone else very important to me had stage 4 cancer. My mom told me that morning, and she thought I was going to be okay. I was—for the most part. I went to work and then I went out to dinner with friends. After they’d all left and gone to sleep though, the weight of it hit me. I fell apart like a child learning for the first time that the world isn’t really fair. I texted her, told her that I wasn’t okay. In the next 30 seconds she called me.