Ash has an embarrassingly deep love of all things "Mass Effect." Her favorite is the original first game.
I've been playing the Mass Effect trilogy remaster over the weekend and having a blast. It's the first time I've played Mass Effect since 2019 (ha), and it's bringing back so many feelings . . .
As I'm writing this, I'm still playing the first game, which was my favorite for years. But if I'm honest with myself, I really, really love Mass Effect 2, maybe more than the other installments, and I find myself sort of blasting through the first game just to get to the second, with its superior combat, hilarity, and characters.
One of my favorite things about Mass Effect 2 is seeing the hero die in the opening, and then getting to see how all the characters in the game react to it. How each character reacts to Shepard's death is deliberately and carefully depicted in order to shape that character, and it's pretty awesome. In fact, I find it so awesome that I'm often amazed that fans don't acknowledge it more. It is one of the best parts of the story, encountering old characters as a freshly resurrected Shepard and seeing how they have changed as a result of her passing. Sadly, this is something we will never get with Dragon Age (may that series rest in peace . . .)
Ah well. Welcome to another nerdy analysis of Mass Effect 2!
Anderson's reaction to Shepard's death seems pretty subdued if you don't pay attention to detail . . . and if you don't have the Shadowbroker DLC.
What I love about Anderson is that he's completely loyal to Shepard, always stands by her, always supports her. When the council disrespects her, or when anyone disrespects her for that matter, he is there, ready to start slapping people willynilly. In the first Mass Effect, he risks his entire career and gives up everything for Shepard, first to help her chase Saren and then again later to help her escape custody of the council at the end of the end of the game.
His love and loyalty for Shepard is absolute. It's revealed later in Mass Effect 3 that Anderson never had a chance to have children of his own. It has always been his one regret and the reason he sees Shepard as his child. In my personal head canon, Anderson is also the one who rescued Shepard from Mindoir, meaning that he's known her since she was sixteen.
But let's not skate off into head canon territory.
In the Mass Effect 2 DLC, Lair of the Shadowbroker, Shepard can find a recording of Anderson meeting with a Cerberus agent. (I couldn't find an image of it, so enjoy a picture of Liara instead.)
Many fans think Anderson is too stupid to be planting spies on the Normandy, and that he is, in fact, being approached by Cerberus for possible recruitment. I actually think this is wrong, though.
The reason? The Illusive Man (henceforth referred to as TIM) hates Anderson. Why would he ask Anderson, who he is effectively trying to replace as Shepard's father figure and mentor, to join him in his schemes?
If you examine the way Shepard's ship (aka gilded cage) is set up in Mass Effect 2, it's obvious that TIM wanted to replace Anderson in Shepard's life. He wanted Shepard to report to him, enthusiastically call him "sir," and do his bidding without question . . . The same way she was loyal to Anderson.
When Paragon Shepard dismisses TIM, you can see the hurt and disappointment in his face. The Illusive Man is a manipulative liar, but I've noticed that one thing he's always honest about is how he feels. If Shepard has hurt his feelings or upset him, he shows it without hesitation. The hurt look on his face when Paragon Shepard completely rejects his attempts at friendship is indicative of his complete lack of self-awareness, and how he can't see that what he's doing to Shepard is objectifying to the extreme. By Mass Effect 3, however, he's so angry that he admits Shepard was always just a tool (and not a person).
What TIM doesn't understand is that Anderson earned Shepard's admiration and respect through their long years of working together. There was a choice involved there. Meanwhile, TIM is trying to force a relationship with Shepard by "saving" her life, gifting her extravagant gifts, and manipulating her with lies and promises . . . All very creepy. And yet, TIM hardly seems aware of his own creepiness. He's an obsessed fanboy who thinks his behavior is justified and that Shepard should be groveling in gratitude.
In reality, Shepard does nothing but resist him (if a Paragon), and his fantasies of having the great Commander Shepard be his friend and protégé (much as she was with Anderson) are shattered. Because despite how Shepard behaves in Mass Effect 2, she always betrays TIM in Mass Effect 3.
For this reason, TIM resents Shepard's rejection so much that he shoots Anderson in front of her at the end of Mass Effect 3, a deliberate attempt to hurt her for not siding with him and following him.
So that's the reason why I don't think Cerberus was attempting to recruit Anderson. I think it was the other way around. I think Anderson hired someone to infiltrate the Cerberus crew on the Normandy so that they could watch over Shepard. But because Anderson isn't entirely sure it's really the commander, he's not only watching over Shepard but spying on her to make sure she's real.
This is the reason why when Shepard shows up on the Citadel in Mass Effect 2, Anderson is distant and reserved (his greeting is barely enthusiastic in Mass Effect 2, but in Mass Effect 3, he actually hugs Shepard!) but still slips up and shows how much he cares by defending Shepard from the council. Shepard can even confront Anderson about spying on her through the Virmire Survivor on Horizon, unaware that Anderson has multiple spies.
Alas, you only see all of this if Anderson is ambassador. If he's not chosen as ambassador at the end of the first Mass Effect, then he doesn't even show up in the game, further distancing himself from Shepard.
The Shadowbroker DLC also reveals that he spends a lot of time drinking and looking at videos disparaging him and Shepard for their Reaper theories. Because of Shepard's death, he's very depressed and brooding but hiding it.
By Mass Effect 3, Anderson is angry and tired. He has spent the second half of his career defending Shepard and cleaning up her messes, and he is sick of it. During the opening of the game, he becomes frustrated and yells at her for Cerberus and/or the events of the DLC Arrival.
Anderson isn't really angry at Shepard but more angry that, this time, he cannot protect her and it's exhausting him trying to. He takes it out on her without really meaning to, but it's clear that he cares about her and feels bad about venting on her. He knows none of it is Shepard's fault.
Later during the prologue, when Shepard almost falls to her death, Anderson saves her. Shepard says "Thanks. I owe you one," and Anderson replies in amusement, "More than one."
To me, that small and brief exchange puts Anderson's entire arc into perspective: Anderson has spent the second half of his career mentoring Shepard, caring for her, and guiding her like a parent, and he has no real regrets about it. She's his child.
When the Normandy swoops down to rescue Shepard and Anderson from Earth, it's revealed that Anderson was carrying Shepard's dog tags the whole time. Just . . . walking around carrying them, like some kind of sentimental keepsake. I don't think he meant to give them back to her, since she was probably going to be trialed as a war criminal anyway.
Right before the events of the prologue, things are looking bad for the commander, which is why Anderson is so angry. He wants to protect Shepard but he can't. He knows Shepard is going to lose everything and possibly wind up in prison as a traitor and a criminal for working with Cerberus. He carries around her dog tags as a sort of sad memento, but when the Reapers attack Earth, he returns them to her, taking the sudden opportunity to reinstate her fully as a commander.
It was all done so subtly and yet so well. It had to be subtle so that fans who hated Anderson (ha ha, yes, these people exist) wouldn't feel as if the relationship was forced on them.
If only such precautions had been taken with Garrus (or Liara or Kaidan . . . So many forced relationships in this game).
When Shepard first meets Tali in the original first Mass Effect, she's very young, a frightened and homeless quarian on the run from Saren. C-Sec won't help her. She is all alone and is cornered by thugs when Shepard shows up and saves her. After that she becomes a loyal follower.
Through chatting with her, Shepard can learn that, while Tali's father is the senior member of the Admiralty Board, Tali herself is not much of a leader and doesn't want to be one because she doesn't believe she has what it takes. She even tells Shepard she will probably never be on the Admiralty Board herself.
Fast forward to Mass Effect 2, and the first time Shepard meets Tali, she is now a leader in command of her own squad. One of her people tries to take control of the situation by dismissing Shepard, but Tali swiftly commands him to get back in line and shut up.
This new Tali is more confident and is trying hard to lead. It is clear she is trying to follow in Shepard's footsteps, even though she just . . . doesn't seem to have what it takes to lead. Instead of commanding obedience and respect, her people disobey her and run ahead, leading to their deaths.
The same thing happens again much later in the game, where Tali loses an entire group under her command while searching quarian ruins for data. At this point, Tali realizes she'll never be like Shepard and joins the Normandy crew again.
You can even find some diary recordings from Tali, where she wishes Shepard was there to help her. She knows she's not a leader and that she'll never be like Shepard, but she keeps on trying to be, straight into the third game.
In Mass Effect 3, Tali joins the Admiralty Board, finally and officially becoming a real leader of her people. And yet, she still expresses doubts to Shepard in private that she can even do the job. She also admits in yet another cut scene that she bases her actions on what Shepard would do.
I like Tali's arc from a friendship angle because she comes off as this cute little sister trying to imitate her big sister. It's very sweet but, alas, it also gets a lot of people killed.
By the way, this is how Tali's face reveal should have been done in the game. I wish this fanmade video was an actual mod.
Why, oh why couldn't BioWare have done something as perfect as this?
Out of all the characters in Mass Effect 2, Wrex (aside from Liara) gives Shepard the warmest greeting. (And as a huge fan of both Wrex and Liara, I've always absolutely loved that.)
For those of us who befriended Wrex in the first game, we know that Wrex's entire character arc revolves around his people and the genophage. When Shepard first meets Wrex, he is a bitter and depressed warrior who left his home planet because he believes his people are doomed and beyond hope.
Shepard's conversations with Wrex mostly entail her encouraging him to help his people in some way. She keeps telling him over and over that he has the power to make a change. Eventually, Wrex gets so annoyed that he just goes, "What do you expect me to do, Shepard?"
In the first game, Wrex feels hopeless about helping his people, has given up on them, and has no desire to return to his home planet, even if Shepard gets his family's armor back for him so that he may return.
But after Shepard dies, Wrex feels inspired to do what his friend always advised him: he dons his family's armor and returns to Tuchanka to lead his people back to glory. When Shepard arrives on the planet, he enthusiastically tells her of his plans for reform. This was all a reaction to Shepard's death, even if it isn't explicitly stated.
Later in Mass Effect 3, if Shepard cures the genophage, it becomes even more obvious that her death and her conversations with Wrex in the first game are the reason Wrex finally got off his ass and believed in himself enough to help his people.
The Reactions of Garrus and Liara
I already analyzed both Garrus and Liara and their reactions to Shepard's death in the articles I wrote about them some years ago, but for people who don't feel like reading said articles, here's a quick recap:
- Garrus thought he was being like Shepard when he went around slaughtering mercenaries for fun. He failed spectacularly as a leader and actually wound up being more evil than the "mercs" he was trying to kill.
- There's even a story, told by the krogan leader of one of the gangs, that shows how hard Garrus was trying to be a badass and how he got his ass handed to him instead. Gorm will laugh about how Garrus tried to fight him one-on-one and got chased home. When Shepard asks Garrus about the same story, he lies and paints himself as a badass, but if the player spoke to Gorm, they know this isn't true. Meanwhile, Shepard kills Gorm easily later in the quest, showing the kind of raw power Garrus tried and failed to emulate.
- Liara is in love with Shepard regardless of whether or not they returned her affections, so when Shepard dies, Liara loses the last good thing in her life and goes nuts trying to get Shepard back.
- Before the events of the comic, Redemption, Liara lost both her mother and her job after she was laughed out for her Reaper theories. Between the events of the first two games, she was relying on Shepard for emotional and financial support. So even if she (hypothetically) hadn't fallen in love with Shepard, the commander's death shattered Liara either way. Much like Anderson, she carries around Shepard's dog tags for a time, as if the developers wanted the dog tags to be a clue of her hidden feelings.
I also wrote an analysis on Joker, so this is just me repeating myself some more. But I found Joker's transformation over the series pretty amusing. He went from resenting Shepard and being bitter and defensive to becoming like a brother to her.
Back when I first played the original Mass Effect, I remember how I really didn't like Joker. He was always being an ass to my Shepard, mocking her about having balls, eavesdropping on her conversations and spying on her and her romance. I thought he was a funny character but also annoying. I think I only gave him a pass at the time because he was voiced by Seth Green and I was a Buffy fan.
I also remember not understanding why he disapproved so strongly of Shepard's romance in the first game (he interrupts your conversations at least twice no matter who you romance). I've since come to the conclusion that he was just jealous. In my analysis, I theorize that Joker is angry that he's fragile, disabled, and stuck playing sidekick pilot while Shepard gets to go on adventures and have hot romances.
I also remember how surprised I was when I first played Mass Effect 2 and Joker was nice to Shepard. I remember thinking, "Who are you and where is Joker?" But it's revealed in Mass Effect 3 that Joker has a change of heart after Shepard's death. He blames himself for her death and wants to make things right by helping her with Cerberus. The end result is that the two of them actually wind up being good friends, to the point that he almost feels like family in Mass Effect 3.
Joker's is one of my favorite character arcs of the entire trilogy.
The Virmire Survivor's Reaction
And last but not least, there's the Virmire Survivor.
I'm going to say something most fans will not like: I don't believe the Virmire Survivor was supposed to be taken seriously as a romance option. I believe Kaidan and Ashley are both intended to die as mere plot devices in Shepard's story, much as we were not supposed to get invested in the romances in Mass Effect 2 beyond the frame of that story.
I say this because the Virmire Survivor's entire arc is about moving on. Their reaction to Shepard's death is to move on.
When Shepard dies, the Virmire Survivor agrees to shut their mouth about the Reapers. In exchange, they are granted a promotion and a new assignment. Compare this to Anderson, who never stops defending Shepard's claims about the Reapers, is shunned, and winds up drinking in the dark in his apartment, or Liara, who also never backs down about the Reapers, loses her job as a result, and can't let Shepard go to the point of resurrecting her from the dead.
Meanwhile, the Virmire Survivor has moved on to the point where not only will they not help Shepard in her mission but they will not stay in contact with her, either. Liara, Anderson, and Wrex don't rejoin the Normandy but still stay in touch with Shepard. The VS completely cuts her off, shuns her, and continues trying to move forward.
These were all clues that the VS was a plot device who was never meant to be taken seriously as a romance. They were just there to add sadness and conflict in Shepard's story. It's the entire reason why their arc is about moving on from Shepard. It's supposed to hurt that they're the only ones completely trying to blow Shepard off.
It isn't until the VS humiliates themselves in Mass Effect 3 during the Citadel coup that they come crawling back to Shepard, seeking a safe place to lick their wounds and hide from the galaxy's pending criticism.
It's pretty messed up actually. They blow Shepard off and leave her to fight alone, don't even visit her while she's on trial (even though they were fully able), and only come running back when they fail a mission and are embarrassed.
Sorry. I just don't get why the VS is even loved as a romance option. They disrespect and betray Shepard any number of times, and Joker even points this out in the game itself! And yet, fans still adore them. I just . . . don't get it.
I like them as characters. I don't like them as people.
The Reactions of Minor Characters
Aside from secondary and supporting characters, there were also minor characters who were shown to change due to Shepard's influence. One of my favorites is Helena Blake, a crime lord who becomes a social worker on Omega if you let her go in the first Mass Effect.
There was also that asari scientist, Rana Thanoptis, who tries to do some good by helping the krogan if you let her live (I started killing her though because what happens in the third game made me realize how dumb it was to let a self-admitted indoctrinated person go free).
So there you have it: the awesome character reactions to Shepard's death. I've always wished BioWare had explored this aspect of the story a bit more. They did something really cool with Shepard's death in the first few minutes of the game but then . . . didn't address it all. Instead, Shepard's death became a running gag, with no real exploration of her feelings or the reactions of others until the third game.
I think the problem is that Mass Effect 2 was supposed to be light-hearted and silly. Getting all serious and exploring Shepard's PTSD would have put a crimp in that.
Still . . . you can't help but wonder what could have been.