On the Player-Character Relationship and Character Agency (Mass Effect example)

mass_effect_3_female_shepard_wallpaper_by_suicidebyinsecticide-d4rwt2vA few years ago, a friend and I were having a conversation about the relationship between the player and the game character. I argued that on games with a first person perspective, the game is inviting the player to “be” the character. This is specially true of games where players create their own characters (think Bethesda). Even when the player takes control of a predefined character, as in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the player is encouraged to think that they “are” the character. I also argued that when the game has a third person (broadly defined) perspective, the character becomes an extension of the player. In games that allow choice and have multiple consequences, such as Mass Effect,, the avatar becomes a vessel for the values of the player, and the player has the character act accordingly.

My friend, however, argued an odd perspective. Being an avid WoW role player, she said that the characters themselves were alive, that they had an agency of their own, and that the behaved and acted according to their own set of beliefs. My friend argued that the player was simply an “it” that gave characters the mechanic ability to move and communicate. She strongly argued that the things said and the actions done by her character, Kil’Gora, were the character’s own, and that if she would have had any say in the matter, Kil’Gra “wouldn’t have said or done some of the things she did”. In essence, she argued that her WoW characters, and arguably all virtual characters located in a virtual space that allows them multiple options, are “self-aware”.

I contemplated the idea for a whole second before I dismissed her as delusional. The However, after having recently played through the Mass Effect Saga for the first time (it was part uf my Summer playing list, along with Remember Me and The Last of Us), I’m starting to think that her idea has some merit.

Paragon / Renegade options aside, I played through the first and second Mass Effect titles while creating a Shepard that was a peace maker. My Shepard would always try to reach a peaceful resolution, but she would not hesitate to use violence as a last option. Because of the way my Shepard evolved, I as a player didn’t fully commit her to full Paragon or full Renegade, which means that, as a player, I lost out on some parts of the game – at least that’s what I have read since finishing the games. Still, even though I didn’t get the full benefits of either Paragon or Renegade, I felt pretty good about my Shepard. As far as her personality, I built a Shepard that, when on public, would present herself with the most professional attitude possible; and while she would never pass up the opportunity to flirt with one of her close crew members, she wouldn’t go out of her way to seduce them or look for conversation. She was a highly professional Shepard who didn’t look for distractions, but welcomed them when they appeared. I felt that this was a good balance – work hard to save the Galaxy, and blow  off some steam when the opportunity allowed. She was a Shepard dedicated to the wellbeing of the Galaxy, a Shepard who would do anything for the sake of the Galaxy, and – ultimately – a Shepard who did many things I didn’t want her to do and who didn’t do some things I wanted her to.

The first time I got into a disagreement with my Shepard was at the very beginning of the third game. Players have the option of dressing their Shepard avatar for casual situations in an Commander uniform, an Officer’s uniform, an Engineer’s uniform, a Soldier’s uniform, or a party dress. Now, Shepard’s casual attire, both on male and female versions of the character, are the ones that look the best. When wearing some of the other outfits, Shepard looks normal, like any other character in the Mass Effect universe. Their casual attire (male Shepard’s jeans and jacket and female Shepard’s dress) give Shepard personality. These attires simply “look cool”. As soon as I saw the dress, I had Shepard change into it and walk around the Normandy (her ship) for a while, but it felt wrong. Shepard is too professional. She wouldn’t walk around the Normandy in a dress, and she certainly wouldn’t go to the citadel (a giant space station, the capital of the Galaxy)dressed like that. After less than a minute, I had Shepard change into the standard Commander outfit. She would alternate between Commander and Soldier outfits depending on the state of the galaxy, and only use the dress when inviting someone up to her room. That “felt” like something that the Shepard that evolved from my Mass Effect 1 and 2 saves would do.

The next disagreement I had with Shepard was during a quest when she met Grunt, an ex-crew member. In this quest, Shepard had to investigate the presence of the Raccni, an alien species that went all but extinct after “The Raccni Wars”, and which she had saved during Mass Effect 1. During this specific quest, Shepard is forced to make a choice – retreat and save all of Grunt’s Krogan (an alien race) squadron while leaving behind the last Raccni Queen, or use Grunt’s Krogan squadron to protect the Raccni Queen so that she escapes. As a player, I thought “to hell with the Raccni Queen”. “I” saved her on Mass Effect 1 when she made the promise of going back to her homeworld and staying away from the rest of the galaxy, and in Mass Effect 2 “I” learned that she was using an Asari (another alien race) through mind control to maintain trade with other galaxy races, and in Mass Effect 3 “I” learned that she was under Reaper (giant bio-cybernetic creatures that destroy all advanced life throughout the galaxy every 50,000 years) control. In every single game, the Raccni Queen has proven to be nothing more than a burden at best. Most often, she has been a threat to the galaxy. And so, as a player, I thought KROGAN! – because the Krogan are my favorite race in Mass Effect. However, that’s not what Shepard would have done. Shepard is a bit more calculating and considerate. Shepard knows that if she gets the allegiance of the Raccni Queen, she will have a formidable ally. Shepard knows that the Raccni Queen can lay thousands of eggs and create a formidable force for the final battle against the Reapers. More importantly, Shepard knows that this Raccni Queen is the last one in the universe, and while the Krogan are at the verge of extinction because of the effects of the Genophage (an infertility virus) over the last centuries, the Genophage had already been cured. There were fertile Krogan female, and there were still millions of Krogan across the galaxy. Sacrificing a few dozen Krogan special ops, even if they were Grunt’s squadron, is a worthwhile sacrifice to make for the sake of the Raccni. And so, after choosing the Krogan four times, feeling uncomfortable because “my Shepard wouldn’t do this”, I reluctantly chose to save the last Raccni Queen and silently weep for Grunt’s squad.

Another difficult choice came about during the Geth – Quadrian wars. The Geth, the main enemies of the first Mass Effect, are a race of sentient networked artificial intelligences. Although they are software, they can transfer themselves into mobile platforms. The Quadrians are a race of hyper-intelligent aliens who focus on technology engineering. In their distant past, they were the ones who created the Geth as servants. Without meaning to do so, the Geth software became self-aware, and transcended from a Virtual Intelligence (personal assistant) to an Artificial Intelligence (self-aware sentience). Quadrian lore tells that the Geth revolted against their Quadrian creators and drove them off their homeworld. Since The Geth Rebellion, the Quadrians have wondered the galaxy in a giant fleet. During Mass Effect 1, the Geth side with the Reapers and begin invading other worlds. During Mass Effect 2, Shepard discovers that the Geth who sided with the Reapers are a minority, and that the majority of the Geth, “the consensus”, wish to live in co-existence with “the organics”. Using Legion, a Geth unit, as a representative and guide, the Geth help Shepard integrate the “rouge units” into “the consensus”. Shepard relays the information that the Geth are peaceful and no longer wish to engage in battle to all the races of the galaxy, including the Quadrians. On Mass Effect 3, against the recommendations of Admiral Tali Zora vas Normandy, one of Shepard’s companions and a respected Geth expert, the Quadrians launch an attack against the Geth. Naturally, Shepard steps in and attempts to stop the conflict.

After investigating the Geth consciousness and discovering that The Geth Uprising is not entirely factual and that the reality was that the Quadrians grew afraid of the Geth sentience and hunted them down, and the Geth reacted in self defense and to preserve themselves, one of the Quadrian admirals fires at one of the bases where Shepard is working. When Shepard escapes, she comes face to face with the rogue admiral and punches him in the stomach. This isn’t a significant moment in the overall scheme of the conflict, but one that will later show how my Shepard is. Further incursions by Shepard into Geth territory land Shepard working as a mediator between the Geth and the Quadrians. Above the homeworld, the Geth are temporarily offline and the Quadrian fleet is shooting at them. Meanwhile, in the Quadrian homeworld, Legion is uploading an update that will make the Geth fighting above the planet incredibly advanced. When the Geth come online, they will shoot down the Quadrian armada. Shepard has the option of stopping Legion from updating the Geth and letting the Quadrians destroy the Geth, or the option of letting Legion upload the codes and letting the Quadrians be destroyed. As a player, I wanted to stop Legion. In the first Mass Effect, the Geth are the main enemies. In the second Mass Effect, the Geth are one of the various enemy groups. In Mass Effect 3, the Geth go into a temporary alliance with the Reapers. Like the Raccni Queen, the Geth have consistently been a threat to the galaxy. However, my Shepard wouldn’t stop Legion. Shepard knows of the history of the Geth and the Quadrians, and knows that the Quadrians are the ones who started both the Geth Uprising and the Geth-Quadrian War. More importantly, Shepard is a gambler. Shepard knows that, if she can earn the allegiance of the Geth, she will have a more formidable force against the Geth than if she secures an armada of civilian Quadrian ships. Somehow, my Shepard managed to convince the Quadrians to cease fire and strike a truce with the Geth – the ideal outcome for this scenario.

Remember how I previously said that my Shepard wouldn’t hesitate to use violence when nescessary? Punching that one Quadrian admiral in anger is something that my Shepard would have done. And it is something that would have risked a Quadrian alliance. Somehow, it all worked out for both Shepard and myself. However, the truth is that had it been me, not Shepard, I would have lost the Geth Armada.

All of these show how, in a way, game characters in open world choice-based games can behave in ways that the player does not agree with. The most crucial example from Mass Effect 3, however, comes at the end of the game. After fighting through Reaper-controlled territory, killing the Illusive Man (I must admit that part felt nice), and speaking with the Reaper consciousness inside the Crucible-Equipped Citadel, Shepard is faced with the option of destroying all synthetic life on the galaxy, including the Geth and EDI (an AI companion since ME2), controlling the Reapers and becoming an overlord of the Galaxy, or combining all organic and synthetic life in the galaxy at a genetic level, thus making every species both organic and synthetic. Both Shepard and I would reject the synthesis option. As a player, I have some ethical hesitations about forcing every being in the galaxy to become a bio-synthetic creature. Personally, I would have no problem with taking part of some of the theoretical technological singularities (uploading my memory to a super computer and then into a cyborg’s body, for example), and while I have no problem with genetic manipulation, I do have a problem with forcing others to engage in any of these practices. Shepard would agree with me. As a player, I would have chosen destruction. If I destroy all synthetic life it means that I sacrifice EDI and the Geth, sure, but it is often stated throughout all games that these entities are software. EDI and the Geth can be re-coded. The Reaper Sentience admits as much. My Shepard, however, chose control. If Shepard were to mix her consciousness with the Reapers to control them, she wouldn’t have to sacrifice synthetics, specialy her friend EDI (who is also the pilot’s love interest) or organics, and although she would become a bio-synthetic entity, she would not be forcing it unto the rest of the galaxy. She could make the reapers withdraw and let life take its course. And so, reluctantly, almost not realizing what I was doing, and approaching the glowing blue Reaper control station, I guided Shepard to control the Reapers.

This experience reminds me of some formulations that James Paul Gee wrote in What Videogames Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy in the section regarding player identities. In it, he writes about a similar experience he had while playing Arcanum, and used his example to explain virtual, real, and projective identities.

All these experiences with Shepard in Mass Effect 3 have taught me that fictional characters can, in fact, have a sort of will of their own. I should note that I still don’t think that characters are self aware, or even that this agency they have is their own. All of these choices weren’t made by Shepard the character in the game, they were made by Shepard the character as I built it in my mind. And so, it’s not so much that the characters have a will of their own, but that players empower these characters with a certain agency. The characters are not individuals into themselves who can function independently, but the way that we construct them do allow for some disagreement between the player and the character-player.

Now about that ending… that deserves a post unto its own.


*Image by http://suicidebyinsecticide.deviantart.com/


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on August 11, 2013, in Video Game Commentary and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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