Role-playing games are a staple in gaming. Indeed, some may argue that most all video games allow for a degree of role-playing, as it is us, the players, that control the character we see on the screen. Every time we pick up a sports title, we become the athlete throwing the ball; when we boot up a strategy game, we inhabit the mind of a master commander; even when we play Super Mario Bros., it is us that determines where the plucky plumber will go, which power-ups he’ll use, and how he’ll rescue the Princess from the dreaded King Bowser Koopa. Role-playing games are not, despite popular belief, all about experience points, random encounters, and dungeons full of dragons.
There have been plenty of incredible role-playing games over the years, most of which star fascinating heroes for us to guide on an epic journey. Many games allow us to name our character, determine their likeness, choose their skills, and even make crucial decisions that effect that game’s world. Even those that don’t, such as with Link in the Legend of Zelda franchise, often do an incredible job at allowing the gamer to step into the role of hero and imagine ourselves undertaking these grand tasks.
Yet there have been few video game protagonists that have made me actually believe I was the main character like Bioware managed to do with Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect trilogy of games. In Mass Effect, the player begins the game by creating their space hero: they choose the gender, craft the facial appearance, select a class, determine a backstory, and even a first name for their Commander. This all allows for Shepard to really become an avatar for the player on the other side of the screen.
Mass Effect of course wasn’t the first game to allow for this kind of in-depth character creation; Bioware had even attempted this with several of their previous titles, such as Baldur’s Gate, Knight’s of the Old Republic, and Jade Empire. However, many games that do let us fully shape our protagonist don’t do a great job of integrating that character into the overall game world. Often, protagonists kind of fade into the background while more developed characters take center stage; the protagonist may be the hero that saves the world, but by and large they are viewing greater events from the sidelines until they are called into action to kill something.
On the contrary, Mass Effect provides Shepard with a voice, with clear motives, with a personality, and thus a soul that makes him or her a fully realized character. A lot of this is shaped by the player, too, as they can determine Shepard’s responses to all kinds of actions, from minor conversations, to major diplomatic hearings. The player can choose to make their Commander be a by-the-books military Commander, or a rebel badass that couldn’t give a damn about the rules, or perhaps a hero that’s somewhere in between. All of that really depends on you.
Part of what makes Shepard so enjoyable to play as is that players are expected to carry their character across all three games, along with the choices that they have made along the way. This provides a unique opportunity for deep growth, not only for the protagonist, but also the game’s world, it’s characters, and their situations. Players get the sense that their decisions really matter, and it was because of these decisions that the galaxy has been saved (well, all the way up until the third game’s ending, but we won’t go there). Some RPGs let players guide their character on a journey, but Mass Effect with its shared storyline split across three games allows players to take Shepard on an adventure that is literal years in the making.
There have been other RPG protagonists that have nearly reached the high’s of Bioware’s space opera hero. CD Projekt RED made one of the most awesome video game protagonists with Geralt of Rivia in the Witcher franchise. Bioware’s own Dragon Age series also attempts to replicate a Shepard-like hero with their Hawke and Inquisitor protagonists. We also can’t forget games like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV, and others that truly let gamers inhabit another world. But very few gaming protagonists have the perfect mix of customization, story inclusion, choice, and personality that Bioware was able to achieve with Commander Shepard.
I’m certain you have your own personal favorite game to play when you want to really role-play, so tell me in the comments below! Let me know where I got it right, as well as where I’m wrong in my assessment. Also, don’t forget to join our official Discord server where you can debate topics like this and more with other passionate video game fans!