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My Commander Shepard is a good man. I made him that way; my unseen hand guiding him through his spacefaring adventures and shaping his personality. He is by no means a perfect person, but I've ensured that he tries to help out those in need at every opportunity — just so long as they don't rub him the wrong way. For the most part, I kept my Shepard on the straight and narrow.
But as I drew close to the end of Mass Effect 2, my Shepard made a poor life decision, engaging in a bout of frivolous sex with a lady whom he admittedly didn't like — all under the pretence that they'd never see one another again anyway. My Shepard lied to this lover of his. He lied because I instructed him to do so. And strangely enough, once all was said and done, not only did my Shepard feel a little dirty but I did as well.
Mass Effect is a series known for the player's ability to make choices that affect the narrative. While the core storyline remains relatively static, no two games, or Commander Shepards, are quite the same.
But why did I have my Shepard act so out of character and so abruptly? Perhaps I had decided that he simply yearned for a relationship of any sort. Perhaps I had decided that he enjoys manipulating those who trust him. Unfortunately, the simple truth lacks such depth: I sold my Commander Shepard's body for Microsoft's Gamer Points.
I played the original Mass Effect a few years after it had been released and — somewhat aware of the game's allowance for the formation of romantic relationships — decided mid-way through the game that my Shepard would attempt to court with the cool and reserved Staff Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko.
I made an effort to speak with Kaidan between each and every mission, offering him complements and listening to his stories of a troubled upbringing. But before I knew it, the game was over, and I didn't get my love scene. Of course, I later found out that Mass Effect doesn't include the possibility for male queer relationships. Although I felt a little disappointed, my missed opportunity at romance did nothing to dampen what was overall a fantastic gaming experience.
Continuing the unintentional theme of playing games years after they have been released, I have recently ticked off Mass Effect 2 from my backlog.
However this time around, when faced with in-game decisions, I found myself torn between instructing my Shepard in two ways. Part of me wished to maintain the level of immersion I had achieved in the first Mass Effect by keeping my Shepard's actions consistent with the character I had developed for him. Another part of me wanted to shatter the immersion by having Shepard act like a puppet on a string rather than a projection of my own personality.
At the time of playing, I was experiencing real-life, work-related issues, and strangely enough, I ended up following both of the above paths. As a result, my Shepard became progressively more attitudinal. He didn't become a bad person by any mean; he just stopped caring and did things for his own entertainment — for my entertainment.
In addition to this, I had decided that my Shepard wasn't going to miss out on any rumpy-pumpy before embarking on the treacherous suicide mission journey through the Omega-4 relay, especially considering he had died at the start of the game and was effectively a virgin. Although, I knew I had made this decision partly in the knowledge that my list of Mass Effect 2 Xbox Achievements would look quite nice with a few love hearts to spruce things up.
So throughout my quest to thwart the plans of the mysterious collectors and their Reaper overlords, I frequently conversed with each member of my rapidly expanding crew in the search for a lover. Keeping in mind that male queerness is presumably outlawed in the 22nd century, what were my options? The Justicar Samara's maturity and exoticism would have offered my Shepard quite the wild ride if not for sensibilities cutting that line of romance off before it had even begun.
Fan favorite Tali approached me on several occasions on the subject forming an intimate relationship, but was politely declined. My Shepard found Tali to be a little too self-centred for his tastes, deciding that her joining the crew in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 was a result of her own necessity, with loyalty to my mission being only a secondary concern.
At this point, I was running out of options. I had Shepard put on a brave face and have a crack at Jack. By playing off her vulnerabilities and offering nothing but harsh words, commander Shepard succeeded where he had failed in his previous adventure. Mission accomplished. But I didn't get my Achievement points.
It was at this point that I realized that the infernal "Paramour" Achievement was the focus of my sleazy search for love. If my time spent with Jack didn't reward me with some arbitrary units of my worth as a gamer, then I was left with only one choice, Miranda.
I hate Miranda. A lot of people do. My Shepard hates Miranda, too. She sticks her nose in where it doesn't belong, she tries to tell Shepard what to do, and she constantly goes on about the terrible burden of being a perfectly constructed human. All the while strutting around in her ridiculous skin-tight outfit with that same infuriatingly smug expression on her face.
Into Miranda's office we ventured, my Shepard and I. We started to chat — my Shepard putting on his best fake smile as we both pretended to care about her father, her sister, and her other tales of woe –while she posed, bending over desks and chairs presumably wondering if she should just make the jump to full-on body paint. Eventually, I cut to the chase and my Shepard told her what it was I had come in for: a one-off bit of fun before we headed out to what may very well be our doom.
There were still some loose ends to tie up before we set out on our final mission. I took this time to reflect on what I was getting my Shepard into and why. I was going to forever damage his already dwindling integrity as the righteous saviour of humanity over some useless Xbox Achievement. Essentially, I was going to whore out my Shepard like an omnipotent space pimp.
Xbox Achievements do unfortunately affect the way I play games even if I'd like to pretend that they don't. Because of this, I actively prevent myself from looking at a game's Achievements until after beating it. For titles I'm particularly excited about, I'll turn off the Achievement unlock notifications completely.
I'll jump through the odd hoop every now and again just to see that extra little picture on my wall of Achievements; however, my hunt for the "Paramour" Achievement in Mass Effect 2 actually made me feel bad about it. I felt almost as dirty and ashamed as my Shepard must have as I watched him and Miranda "enjoy" each other's company on the hard engine room floor. A room as cold and empty as their relationship.
The Mass Effect series offers an incredibly immersive experience for those willing to put a little imagination into what their characters think and feel instead exclusively defining them by the conversation choices and actions presented to them. It is a crying shame that the level of immersion I had experienced in the first Mass Effect was hindered in Mass Effect 2 by my inability to ignore something as trivial as an Xbox Achievement, and I wonder if this is something developers, especially of narrative-driven games, should be concerned about in the years to come.
Either way, developer BioWare's ability to have me emotionally involved in my Shepard's romantic escapades is incredibly impressive, and I look forward to Shepard and Miranda's awkward reunion in Mass Effect 3 — once I eventually get around to playing it. Successfully navigating my way through that social minefield will be an achievement in-and-of itself.