Yesterday I opened the latest issue of my beloved-and-exceedingly-expensive-to-import video game periodical, Edge Magazine. Inside I was given pause by this ad for Mass Effect 2:
My question is this: Who is that guy in the center?
I understand that it is supposed to be Commander Shepard…but let me tell you: I played Mass Effect, and that guy ain’t Commander Shepard.
Commander Shepard is a bald, black male with a scar running diagonally across his face. And he doesn’t scowl like that; he has a happy face (despite having been dealt a scar-crossed hand by fate). This is, of course, because I created him to look exactly that way. And then I proceeded to spend a brilliant 20+ hours with him exploring and saving the universe. The result is that I am now connected to Commander Shepard as I know him; not to the scowling generic space marine staring at me from my magazine.
Now, I’m not dense. I can put myself in the shoes of BioWare’s advertising team. Knowing full well that every Mass Effect veteran has his or her own personal version of Commander Shepard tucked away on their hard drive, the ad folks were in a pickle. Faced with the question of how to represent a character with a million unique faces, they clearly opted to create a “standard” version of Commander Shepard for use in promotional images, box art, etc. A difficult decision to come to, I’m sure. But was it the right one?
In creating a standardized version of Commander Shepard, BioWare inescapably sends a message to players that this is the “correct” version of the hero. Sure, I have the freedom to create my own Shepard and import him into Mass Effect 2…but he will never be worthy of appearing in magazine ads. In other words, he is not the “real” Commander Shepard.
And if that’s the case, then why should I bother creating my own Shepard at all? In establishing a standard Shepard, Bioware points out that my Commander Shepard is nothing more than a graphic skin, confined to a file that lives in the recesses of my hard drive. My illusion of Commander Shepard’s reality thus shattered, I can find little motivation to spend time on the character creation screen, breathing life into his appearance. Easier to simply accept the default character model, since it’s going to be thrust upon me in the end anyway.
In the end, advertisements depicting a standardized Commander Shepard model suffocate the character by stripping the player of his or her sense of ownership and attachment. Does the ad-depicted Shepard have a standardized morality as well? BioWare might as well tell me what it is up front, so I can avoid the hassle of making my own choices in Mass Effect 2.
What then, would be a better solution? After I explained the situation to my non-gaming wife, she needed about three seconds to generate one: Have the advertisements take place from the perspective of Commander Shepard.
A-ha! Rather than accept the problem of how to represent a character with a million unique faces, challenge the problem itself. Don’t represent him, and let the player fill in the blanks. Not only would my illusions of Shepard’s reality remain intact, but when I viewed the world of Mass Effect 2 through the eyes of the hero, I might even be reminded how much fun I had the first go ’round, and feel doubly compelled to purchase my copy of the sequel today.
Of course, Mass Effect is played from an over-the-shoulder view rather than a first-person perspective, but even this would present a superior alternative to my magazine advertisement’s approach. Show Shepard from behind, just like when playing the game. He could even wear his helmet to cover up any hint of an illusion-shattering face. Personally, I prefer the idea of a first-person perspective advertisement, but either idea would be better than what we’re currently facing.
An advertising campaign from either perspective could remain full of character appeal by focusing on Shepard’s new entourage. They are the ones I will be spending time with in Mass Effect 2 anyway – so why not use the advertisements as an opportunity to introduce me to my companions? Doing so would make me feel more like I’m in Shepard’s shoes more than ever.
When I look at the current advertisement, what does BioWare want me to see? The hero of the brilliant first entry in the series? Because right now, all I see is a stranger.