(Warning, major spoilers ahead. Do not proceed unless you have completed all three major instalments of the Mass Effect video game series.)
Mass Effect 2, Horizon. Most M.E. players will remember the mission immediately; the yellow grass in the glaring sunlight and the black clouds of seekers in the smoky sky, the trapped colonists frozen in the dark stasis fields, the ghastly scions and terrible praetorians. But in spite of the unprecedented victory against the Collectors which the mission was, and despite the still horrible death-toll to the colony, what many players will remember most specifically is what happens after the battle, when Commander Shepard’s old ship-mate unfreezes and finds him (or her) there.
The internet rings with complaints of the marine’s harshness, intractability, and unreasonableness. If all the posts are to be believed, then deep resentments were engendered that day. The marine does the unthinkable, and refuses to accept, support, or join Shepard’s mission, they even go so far as to criticize Shepard over it and become distraught. And they walk away from their old commander.
Ouch. Yeah. Nobody likes that scene. (Or at least, I’ve never met anyone who did.) Depending on the playthrough – what kind of person Shepard is, which marine is there, what Shepard and the marine have been to each other, how Shepard chooses to handle the marine’s shock – both the content of the scene and its effect upon the player and the characters can vary. But the fact always remains … the marine vehemently reproaches Shepard, tries to argue Shepard out of the mission with Cerberus, and turns their back on Shepard.
Why? The marine is supposed to be Shepard’s friend! In some play-throughs, they are Shepard’s beloved. What happened?
But, let’s back away from Horizon and the marine for a little while. Because this post really isn’t about the marine, it’s about Commander Shepard, the Illusive Man, and what could have been.
From our comfortable ‘meta’ position as players, we can see well enough what is going on with Shepard and Cerberus. We know perfectly well that Shepard is real and acting freely. We can see what the Collector mission is all about, and how it is likely to unfold. An astute player will be aware that the Illusive Man is probably not telling Shepard everything and will keep their eyes out to avoid being manipulated. But the player knows what’s up.
It is easy to forget that this pleasant point of view is one that the characters inside the story do not have … not even Shepard herself. (Just for convenience sake, I’m using a feminine pronoun – I played Femshep.) Since she has an ‘inside’ perspective, she knows a great deal more than most other characters can – she knows who she is, she has a great deal of evidence about what she is undertaking. But that unsettling comment Miranda Lawson makes about a control-chip … until the moment in the Collector Base when it stands within Shepard’s power to give the Illusive Man this power he desires or to withhold and destroy it, she really has no proof that there isn’t a chip.
Because there could have been. Shepard was totally in the power of the Illusive Man for almost two years. If he had wanted Shepard primarily as a tool, he could have done it. And he could have used her very dangerously. I can only think that he didn’t because her chief value in his eyes was symbolic. While she was of course very useful, she was first and foremost not a weapon, but propaganda; the symbol of humanity against the reapers. That she be the genuine real deal was more valuable than that she be a dependable asset. But what if he had primarily wanted a tool?
If we look at it from an outside perspective, away from the player, from Shepard, the simplicity of the situation vanishes. The matter becomes cruelly complicated, the possibilities of what might be going on are suddenly multifarious.
A renowned Alliance soldier is spaced in battle, her body is lost in the void. It is accepted that she is dead. Two whole years later, a person who appears to be this same soldier enters the galactic stage, working with a known terrorist organization of great power and technical ability.
What exactly is this soldier?
Well, it really could be the soldier. But it could be an imposter. And yet again, it might be technically the soldier … but with something wrong. Any of these three, and the many possible variations they contain, would be reasonable to postulate under the circumstances. I’d like to take a minute, and explore a few of the possibilities here.
If really the soldier …
Shepard could have just been rehabilitated in secret, and is just coming back into the world now because she’s finally recovered. She’s still everything she was before, just has found herself in peculiar circumstances. (We have the benefit of knowing that this is the correct one.)
Or Shepard could have been much less badly hurt in the space battle than believed, and since then been living undercover purposely; perhaps working by choice with this organization due to a change of allegiance.
If the same soldier, but messed with …
Shepard could have had that control chip. Very very easily. This might not alter who she is, but it would very much alter what she has the freedom to do, perhaps even what she has the freedom to see.
Considering that she had been in the hands of an organization like Cerberus, brainwashing would have been a very real possibility. It could even have been theorized that those two years of absence might have been used not for healing her, but for twisting her. It could have been a very confused and psychologically damaged Shepard who reappeared; one deeply under the manipulative influence of the Illusive Man.
It could have been really Shepard, alive, aware, and there, but with some other will acting through her. Creepy, I know. But theoretically there are ways the Illusive Man could have done this. Shepard would have been little better than a prisoner in her own body.
She could have been simply indoctrinated. Not long afterwards, most Cerberus operatives were.
If an imposter posing as the soldier …
It could reasonably suspected that it is a Shepard clone. That thiscould have been done is so well established that such a clone actually appears in a M.E.3 DLC – and causes havoc.
An android is at least a superficial possibility.
Plastic surgery, facial transplants, voice synthesizers. This theory is easily disprovable, but could have been easily postulated by those who knew little. (Clearly, it wouldn’t have gotten past Commander Bailey of C-Sec.)
It could have been Commander Shepard’s real body, Commander Shepard’s own brain, working and functional, but with Shepard herself gone, and someone or something else in her place. (Yes, creepy again, I know. Sorry, this is a creepy subject.)
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the possible villainies which Cerberus could have perpetrated with and upon Shepard. It is merely to explore some of the possibilities which a person within the story could reasonably theorize. And if you look at the reactions of different characters and groups to Shepard’s reappearance, there are indeed a range of responses.
For a lot of people who knew Shepard only by reputation, the reaction was simply: “Hey! I’d heard you were dead! Weird!”
But when she returns to Alliance Command, they are so confused as to what happened, that they put her under house-arrest and take months to not make up their minds what to do with her.
Aria T’Loak, self-declared ‘queen’ of Omega, states straight out “That could be anybody wearing your face.”
Gianna Parasini (the corporate detective from Noveria) seems to assume that she had been undercover or something, and avoided asking awkward questions.
Tali Zorah, Shepard’s spunky Quarian friend from the fight against Sovereign, temporarily fears an imposter. Depending on the play-through, this can be brought to light or remain unsaid. If Shepard tells her at Freedom’s Progress something that only the two of them knew, Tali will then and there accept completely that Shepard is real and can be trusted. She still can’t go with her, since she’s got her own mission to worry about. But she doesn’t have to think about it for months before deciding to trust her.
Garrus Vakarian … bless his innocent heart! The idea of a fake Shepard or twisted Shepard clearly never even occurs to him. Such deceptiveness is not a concept Garrus seems to find easy to grasp. He is naturally a little reckless (okay, we all know Garrus, he’s crazy reckless!) and takes situations as they come without too much critical examination. By the time the idea of something being wrong is brought squarely before his notice, Shepard’s genuine presence has already rendered the idea preposterous.
Liara T’Soni was not quite in the same position as the rest of the galaxy. After all, she had helped to arrange this. She had given Shepard to Cerberus with the understanding that they were going to try to revive her. They were a pro-human organization, and they wanted to help the human hero. Voilà! Here she is. (Yes, I know Liara took a risk in giving them Shepard. I guess I’ve just been analysing the enormity of the risk. But I can’t for the life of me comprehend how anyone – especially in retrospect – could possibly have the heart to blame the dear girl!)
David Anderson, Shepard’s commander. It is difficult to say exactly what he thought. He never tells us directly. From the content of his message to Shepard, he thought the reports of her being alive were unlikely to be true. When she shows up on the Presidium, he treats her as though he assumes that she is Shepard, quite friendly and helpful. In the play-throughs where he is councilor, he reinstates her Spectre status. … But then he won’t give her classified information – security risk, he says. My guess is that Anderson did not know, and knew he did not know, and decided to stand back and watch her prove herself … or not. He treated her kindly, and was to a certain point willing to help her, but not trust her. Not yet. Of course, by the beginning of the M.E.3, when the reapers attack, he has clearly made up his mind.
This brings us back to the marine.
(It is difficult to talk about generalities. While I know there are a number of different ways this story arc can play out, the version I myself am most familiar with is one with Staff Commander Kaiden Alenko and a primarily paragon Femshep, in a serious relationship, where Shepard is actively seeking reconciliation. So, I write with that version in mind, but I believe that most of what I have to say applies quite broadly.)
I am aware I may be playing with fire. So be it.
Well then, the marine is shocked by the Cerberus connection, tries to argue Shepard out of working with them, and then retreats. Why would he do that? … In light of what we have just been examining, I don’t think his reasons are really so terribly obscure.
Firstly, there is just the fact that she is working with Cerberus. Please remember what Cerberus is, not only in the broad view, but specifically to Kaiden Alenko. From the player’s point of view, it may mean chiefly the irritating shady guy funding the mission. From some of Shepard’s alien friends’ point of view, it may mean merely that Human supremacist organization which doesn’t like them. But from Kaiden’s point of view, they are not only the evil terrorist organization he is currently assigned to fight, they are ideologically everything he stands against. Think for a moment of the racist agenda, the secret, cruel experiments, the terrorism, the treachery, the willingness to do whatever evil is convenient in the name of future benefits for a favoured group. And then think of Kaiden, and his decency and compassion, his unbigoted respect of persons regardless of race, his principled rejection of using unethical means in pursuit of whatever ends. He will of course have just learned the real culprit in the kidnappings. But that Cerberus was not to blame here specifically doesn’t change what it is. Cerberus is the enemy. And Shepard is with them. This alone would cause shock and horror. That his friend, his comrade-in-arms (let alone his sweetheart) would willingly do something as wrong and foolish as allying with this monster appals him. Of course he challenged her on it. Any friend in his understanding of the situation would have to. He tries to dissuade her so vehemently because he truly believes that she is making a terrible mistake which will seriously endanger both her and others.
But of course, it wasn’t just that. There was also the whole ‘what is the soldier?’ question. And as we have seen, that really is very complicated. Kaiden seems to assume at first, as thoroughly as Garrus, that of course it’s Shepard. And for those first few moments he is just glad to see her. Once the Cerberus connection is brought to light, this happy assumption is challenged. Right there, while they argue over the merits of the Cerberus mission, he openly suggests that she may be being manipulated by the Illusive Man. His fears moved into the second category (see above). And, as we find out later, they move even farther, into the third category – he realizes that this might not be Shepard at all. This fear is not brought directly to light until M.E.3, on Mars. Kaiden doesn’t speak it openly on Horizon. But in retrospect it is clear enough. When exactly this last terrible possibility arose in his mind is never stated directly. I am inclined to think it occurred toward the end of that conversation. But that he realized it at least by the time he sent that message to Shepard is evident – that quiet little ‘if’ … if you are the Shepard I remember. Taking into account both what he said in that letter and the fears he revealed later on Mars, we can come to a fairly clear picture of his response to that question, ‘what is the soldier?’.
He didn’t ‘answer it’ at all.
Instead, he considered the situation, came to an understanding of what the the possibilities were, and then chose none of them, but remained in conscious doubt for months … until he had proof which one was correct.
Meanwhile, he tried to act in a fashion appropriate to any of the theories. He tried to be kind and supportive to her. He reached an understanding of how she – if it was her – could be doing all this in good faith and perhaps even wisdom, and so encouraged her as well as cautioned her. And at the same time he tried to be firm and cautious lest he allow her to betray him and others into a Cerberus plot. And all the while he was in that terrible doubt, no longer clean grief – but balancing precariously between hope and fear. Was she really all right and back again? Was she enslaved? Was she gone? Was Shepard herself still in that form? He did not know. And so he waited to find out for real.
I don’t think he gets enough credit for this response. Not only did he think the matter through more thoroughly and come to a better understanding of the situation than most characters did, not only did he manage the really quite formidable feat of succumbing neither to the hope nor to the fear and maintaining his rational scepticism, but he took her seriously enough to realize that it was necessary to do so. The fact that he retreated, that he withheld from her his confidence, and doubted her, has seemed to some to be an act of disloyalty. It wasn’t. It was an act of faithfulness. To the Alliance, yes: he could not abandon his command and his remaining men, break his orders and disregard his oath – to run off on a Cerberus mission. To Principle, yes: he could not do this thing he thought was wrong because it called him in a voice he loved. But it was also an act of faithfulness to Shepard herself. What if it was not Shepard? If he did these things he believed (however mistakenly) were wrong for her, and gave everything (be it loyalty, friendship, or romantic love) which had belonged to Shepard to … an imposter, a monster, a perversion perpetrated upon her bones. … It would be to break faith with the dead as well as the living. What did he care who it seemed to be? He wanted to know who it was. It was Shepard herself that mattered. And if this wasn’t Shepard …
And when he actually has a chance to observe her first-hand, when he actually gets that evidence he has waited for, how long does it take him to come to the correct conclusion? Not long at all. And then he owns up as soon as he can.
So, did the marine handle Horizon perfectly? Not at all. A man of perfect intellect could have come to a complete understanding of the possibilities at once, rather than tripping over them as he tried to make sense of what was going on. A man of perfect patience might not have become overwrought at his old commander (or friend/or lover), might have been able to totally conceal his own distress and exhort her with utter serenity. A perfect man would have swallowed his own fear more than Kaiden was able to.
But Kaiden did good. He was a mere mortal man, and his own confusion, anger, and fear came through. He welcomed her back, tried to prevent her from making a dreadful mistake, and when he failed and realized how devilishly complicated the situation was, he retreated to try to make sense of it (oh, and he really did have to handle his responsibilities as commander of the resident defence force) leaving her with good wishes and the best advice he had.
And, back to the Illusive Man and Shepard. Let’s jump forward a bit. The marine didn’t trust Cerberus huh? Thought they were bad news all over, sure to betray, certain to do great evil? Do we just want to think of how closely Cerberus actually cooperated with the Collectors at times? Do we want to think of the trap in the Collector ship? Do we want to talk of Mars and its slaughter and theft? Of Eden Prime and its invasion? Of Omega and its Naziesque regime? Do we want to go back to the planet of Horizon again a year later and visit the damned death factory? Do we want to remember who it was who gave our plans to the reapers and stole the catalyst?!
Does more need said on that score?
And Shepard. Because we all know that Shepard is Shepard, we all assume that everyone should trust her (or him). But really, should they? Throughout M.E.2 Shepard can cooperate with Cerberus to an extent not justified by her mission. Does she upload the info to the Alliance? Or to Cerberus? At the end of M.E.2, that abominable Collector Base, all that devilry and power … if Shepard gives it to Cerberus she has committed the very evil and treachery that the marine feared. She will, in fact, have proved his angry, horrified warnings correct. And at the end of M.E.3? She can, if she so chooses, bring about the Illusive Man’s vision.
Shepard may always be the real Shepard. But that was not the only question. Let us not only say that more than one theory can be postulated upon Shepard reappearing with Cerberus. Let us remember that more than one theory can be true.