My Mother, Commander Shepard

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Throughout Mass Effect 2 I was asked to gather, steadily, a team that would support Shepard and help her carry out her mission. Ostensibly, the mission was suicidal—something that no one had ever done or could ever be expected survive. Until the end, what exactly the mission entails wasn’t known. How your choices might affect the outcome of the mission wasn’t clearly stated either. I was blind, to a degree, having only my understanding of how my mom would carry herself. That proved to be more than enough.

As I mentioned before, when mom was having trouble getting her application for social security disability approved, about two dozen friends and family members helped us out. At the time I had a weird existential crisis of sorts. I came to realize that there are very, very few who had the same kind of support network that she did. I wondered how our lives might have been different if she hadn’t been as kind and as dedicated and as assiduous as she was. 

sidebarI was visiting my home state of Oklahoma during the semester break. It was the first time I’d seen my mom in almost a year. She was tired. She wore her stress and anxiety well, but it was still there. Carved into her face, echoed in her voice.

She’d been helping out some of the people that had helped us four years prior. Returning the favor, as these things go. Still she was undergoing chemo treatments, and was on steroids to suppress her immune system. They’d certainly taken their toll. She was okay though. She was making it. Pulling through like she always had.

Then, a couple of days after Christmas, a cat that we rescued from a negligent acquaintance eight years ago stopped eating. We had to force feed the cat, Patch, and dribble water in her mouth to keep her going. My mom was taking it really hard. The straw that broke the camel’s back as it were. We took Patch to a vet at the next opportunity. Her liver and kidneys were shutting down. There wasn’t anything they could do. 

Two months later Mass Effect 3, the final chapter in Elizabeth Shepard’s story, was released. I was in San Francisco for the Game Developer’s Conference the day it dropped, but at home I had everything set up and ready to go for an epic marathon as soon as I got back, because after GDC I had a week off for spring break.

I kept myself on full black-out for Mass Effect the week of GDC. If someone mentioned it, I walked off. I refused to read anything on the internet. I stopped checking Facebook and Twitter. I was not going to be spoiled. I had no idea the ending was causing as much controversy as it was, and I was able to go in with a more or less clean slate. 

I didn’t get what I expected. I won’t let this turn into another Mass Effect 3 ending rant (I already wrote one), but the entire experience left me with a lot of complex thoughts that have taken me a few months to work out. 

When I finished the final game, I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t really want to talk about it much. I needed time to figure out why I felt the way I did and why this ending in particular was so hard for me to really understand. I think I got it now, though. Finally. 

See, as positive as I tend to be, I’m also very realistic. Through my experiences at college (yay graduating with a liberal arts degree!), I came to realize that as much weight as our society puts on altruistic behavior, it can be destructive. Shepard was, after all, only a person; an incredibly tenacious woman that rose to meet every challenge with full force, but a person nonetheless. 

There was a lot of debate as to the significance of one scene in particular in the Mass Effect 3 opening. Shepard is forced to leave Earth behind, forced to accept that there will be some loss in her journey while also realizing that as painful as that loss is, she needs to fulfill her ultimate goal. She needs to finish the mission.

As Shepard is seen leaving Earth, she turns back to see a child killed by a Reaper weapon and the subsequent explosion. In itself, the scene isn’t really that powerful. The child is given no emotional connection to the audience. We have no reason to care about his death versus the countless millions across the globe. It’s just one small voice in a sea of tragedy. Shepard knows this. She acknowledges it. She understands that its war, the ultimate war, and that people will naturally die.

Still, that child begins to represent all of her failures up to that point. Her complete lack of agency in that moment in spite of all the work that she’s done and all of the sacrifices she has made. She could do so much good, but she was powerless to save one, small child. 

Remind you of someone?

My mom too, was no stranger to death. She was an emotional rock. I’ve known her to personally comfort and stay with several people on their deathbeds. Making sure they were in a good place when they went. As much as we loved Patch, as long as we had her in the family, she was still a cat. Not even my mom’s cat really (she had another named Sheba). Still, I’d never seen her react to a death—any death—in quite the same way. 

Mom felt helpless, utterly helpless in that situation. All that she’d done before had no value right there. Patch was not a person that could understand mortality. Patch had no way to come to terms with it. No way to accept it. Patch just suffered, needlessly. And my mom couldn’t do anything.

The child’s death becomes a key plot point in the game. Shepard has nightmares about it, and for the first time since Mass Effect I see her shaken – truly shaken – by events outside of my own control. Shepard pushes on though, because that’s who she is, and that’s what she does.

sidebarThroughout the rest of the game, several party members from previous titles die in rather dramatic fashion. Each of their circumstances is built up around the consequences of all of the choices I had made up to that point. Not everything Elizabeth Shepard sacrifices is worth it though; some of them result in complex scenarios with subtle and not necessarily complete resolutions. The various branches and paths taken over the course of the trilogy begin to come together, steadily to form a coherent idea – Shepard will have to give up everything to succeed and in the end Shepard may only have a Pyrrhic victory.

As great as my mom is, she’s not perfect. Not by a long shot. She has flaws, just like everyone else. When I tried to model her example perfectly in my own life, I lost track of my own personality. I lost myself. I learned that when you spend all of your time living for others, when you dedicate everything you have to those around you, when you fill yourself with the selfless, agapic love of an altruist, some element of your being has to suffer.

My mom tried to never show weakness. She tried to suppress her own humanity so that she could be an unflinching symbol of perfection. I didn’t figure this out until I was past 20. I didn’t understand how little of herself she still had until I tried to live that life—however briefly – and burned myself out in a matter of months.

Shepard was burning out too. She’d been resolute and she’d been unyielding, but you can only wear that mask for so long. The game was drawing to a close, and I knew how it was going to end. I knew what was going to happen. 

With the remnants of the galactic military and a weapon of unknown origin, she prepares for the final assault. It is the final attempt to reclaim Earth and save whoever is left. 

The battle – a grand, bombastic conclusion to an epic space opera—is fought to a stalemate. Shepard and the rest of her crew land on the Earth’s surface to complete a final ground push – the kind that tells you it is an excuse for the writers to include one last human-scale dramatic arc.

Again, Shepard pushes on, against insurmountable odds and, as she does, succeeds. She’s wounded, though, and she summons the last of her strength to stand.  Over the course of the next few minutes, I watch her limp forwards.

After some trouble and a few more dramatic scenes, she arrives at the end – both figuratively and metaphorically. She meets an ethereal manifestation of the child that died in the first scene. The child tells her that she can make one of three choices. 

She can choose to kill the Reapers, destroying them and every other synthetic life form in the galaxy, she can choose to try and control them and risk losing that command, restarting the war all over again or she can choose to fuse the two—synthetic and organic – into a new kind of life.

At this point, I began thinking of Contact, another sci-fi adventure I had taken with my mom as a child. There too an alien chose to appear before a woman in a form that she’d recognize, and there too that woman was told that humans were too immature to fully understand the forces at play. The difference here is that the child gives Shepard a choice; one choice and one chance to try and end the conflict.

Tired and weakened, she chooses to create a new kind of life. A new beginning for the people and the artificial intelligences that are left. In so doing, she had to sacrifice herself.

It was here that I think the potential implications of the manner in which I’d been playing affected me the most. In a sense, I’d just watched my mom, the most important person in the world to me, die to achieve her goal. That reality is disturbingly poignant now.

A few weeks ago, I called one of her best friends and asked if there was anything my mom had been doing that would fall within the realm of “self-destructive behavior”. 

“Yeah. She has. She’s been running herself ragged.”

Somehow I thought that’d be the case. She’s been taking care of several people and helping them out when and where she can. A few members of our family have been in out of hospitals recently, and she, as she does, has taken it upon herself to make sure that everyone has the care and the support they need. She makes one hell of a mother, but she’s awful at being a person. So was Elizabeth. 

I see now why it was so hard for me to understand why I felt the way I did after Mass Effect 3. I still haven’t played the extra ending DLC and I haven’t touched it all since the first week or so after its release. BioWare’s recent proclamations about the fourth installment have brought a lot of the issues back to the forefront for me.

They gave me one of the most poignant experiences of my life. I’ve used the series to explore my own real-world problems, understand them and come to terms with them. It has given me so much, and helped me understand both myself and my mother so well. And all it took was one decently written female character. Just one. She wasn’t emotionally distant, she wasn’t overly sexualized and she wasn’t either totally helpless or completely invulnerable. 

While I’d rather not see another installment in the Mass Effect universe, if there is one, I’d like to see them make the lightning strike twice. Let’s see them devote their energy to creating a range of characters that will allow people to explore the range of sexual, racial, and gender identities. This time though, I want them to drop the grizzled space marine. If one character, if one well written female character can gave me that, I can only imagine what BioWare could potentially give everyone else.

I don’t know where the current real-world situation is headed. There’s a lot of chaos in our lives right now. I don’t think my mom has learned her lesson though. And I don’t think I can convince her. We’ll see. Hopefully our story will have a better ending.