My Shepard isn't saving the universe in Mass Effect 3. I wanted her to, but as I play through the final instalment, she's still stuck half-way through the immeasurably dull scanning missions that would ensure Mordin and my other best people survive Operation: Certain Death. Instead, I'm playing with someone else. She looks the same - red hair, the right eyes, the same voice and the same no-nonsense approach to saving the galaxy. She's even had many of the same experiences. But she's not my Shepard. She's Bioware's - the sum of their choices.
And while I'm sure I could find a Shepard closer to my own, ready to import, from Mass Effect 2 Saves, that's even worse. Mass Effect is inherently a sum of Bioware's choices - a few more in character creation hardly makes much of a difference. But to just climb into someone else's story? That feels... weird. In an era where ownership of our own characters is an increasingly rare privilege, you may as well ask to borrow another gamer's underpants...
It's notable that of the last few major single-player RPGs, only Skyrim and Kingdoms of Amalur: Chinny Reckoning have embraced the idea of creating your own character. Fable 3 gives you moral choices, but is essentially locked down unless you want to put on silly trousers and fart around the kingdom instead of saving it. The Witcher 2 was built around Geralt and his existing story. Mass Effect has a very specific canonical Shepard, even if he is the wrong gender. Dragon Age 2 picked up on this with Hawke, which also subtly pushed players towards the character Bioware wanted them to play as by offering a higher-fidelity look than you can create by playing with the sliders, as well as heavily pushing a consistent vibe in marketing and advertising.
This part is increasingly important. Characters are, at least, one of the most important parts of any narrative driven IP. They're the face of the game, and typically the most instantly recognisable thing about it - even if they're not the specific hero. Bioshock for instance has a cool city and premise, but it's the Big Daddies and Little Sisters rather than Jack and Ryan who provide its most iconic elements. In Crysis 2, the character isn't the guy you play, Alcatraz, but the Nanosuit he wears. Still, the same rules apply, even with an inhuman face.
This is a lot of both creative control and marketing power for any company to give up, even discounting the additional effort it takes to offer character creation tools and heavy customisation. Without a big license or established lore, it's easier to sell an experience as "This could be you!" than "You could meet this guy!", as well as dodging issues of why you're not playing as whoever it was who drew you to the franchise in the first place.
(Oddly, MMOs are the exception there, since it's assumed that you're going to be a scrub compared to the world's actual heroes. In most cases, it's even reversed, with the marketing and any spin-offs used to try and get you excited about exchanging a handful of words with a character in game, who'd otherwise be little more than a generic opponent/quest terminal.)
The result of all this is a general slide away from player customisation and anything approaching freedom. Even Shepard and Hawke are bastions of empowerment compared to, say, a MOBA, where you simply pick a character and have the option to put a unique spin on them by buying one of a couple of custom skins that hopefully not everyone else is using. This lets the creators cash in, as well as make a big fuss over newly released characters, keep their games balanced, and have over a hundred chances to create something iconic. It makes sense. It makes for a more interesting cast. Still, it feels like a missed opportunity - especially when something obvious gets overlooked. Gotham City Impostors for instance is built on the idea of creating your own Batman or Joker fanboy/girl, but only one of the five available body types is female.
For Mass Effect though, the real question is about ownership of choices - especially as it's the only big game series where you could have been waiting up to five years to see the result of one. Bioware talks about over 1000 decisions being ported across, and while a handful of those are obvious (who died, how you dealt with the Council, whether Udina or Anderson is in charge, who you had a hysterically awful sex scene with), you're never going to find a save with everything just right - being mean to Conrad while not punching Al-Jilani for instance.
Even the obvious choices simply aren't the same when you're using someone else's game. Personally speaking, I rarely feel guilty about anything my character does that I didn't specifically initiate, and in Bioware's fresh start of Mass Effect 3, I'm always one-step removed from the big decisions, even if I made the same ones. By default for example, and pardon the minor spoiler, Bioware's canonical Mass Effect background has Shepard killing the Rachni queen back in the first game. I did that too, and if I was playing with my Shepard from ME1, there'd be a sense of lingering dread at this whenever said aliens appear. Any deaths would have felt like a direct result of that choice. Anything good would have been a testament to my mercy. Even if nothing happened, there'd be the tension before finding out in the all-important first play.
Instead... honestly, it's on Bioware's head. They made that specific decision, not me. More to the point, I have no idea what their motivations were at the time. Distrust of the Rachni Queen? The needs of the many? Already planning to help the Krogan and deciding that one potential galactic plague is enough? Simply being a kill-crazy psychopath whose idea of fun is ripping off Quarians' face-masks and running off down the Presidium? None of this makes even the slightest difference to the game, but it's essential to giving the result the proper emotional resonance.
(As an aside, I still maintain that Bioware's biggest mis-step here was using the Cerberus Network pass for worthless DLC instead of automatically uploading your save ready for ME3. The second? The Mass Effect 3 Collector's Edition box not using that information to print out a custom cover for the series of your personal Shepard looking like a badass.)
Choices and consequences build a connection to a universe like no other, which at least in part is why Shepard is so successful. She may be a more defined character than someone like the Dragon Age Grey Warden Commander, but she's still one who gets to make big, galaxy redefining choices that feel like they might matter. By churning over the consequences in your head, you're forced to get inside hers in a way that simply doesn't happen with a Nathan Drake or a Guybrush Threepwood or a Marcus Fenix. By having to wait years and years for resolution... and having confidence that that resolution will come, rather than forgotten like most games or simply fizzling out like the average episodic... what would be a throwaway choice in another RPG becomes something you desperately want to see finally play out.
It's unlikely that many other games will build on Mass Effect's series-wide choices. Dragon Age 2 regressed, ignoring almost everything that happened in the first game and playing out much the same regardless of what you chose to do. Even The Witcher 2, so devoted to choices that a full third of the game is different depending on how you end the first act, largely shrugged off the idea. You can import a save game, sure, but you still start off in bed with Triss, and there are few big changes of note. It's a hell of a lot of effort to make a game this flexible, even if it's purely adding adding alternate conversations to explain things like how Liara still became the Shadow Broker if you didn't stump up for that (awesome) bit of DLC in the previous game.
None of this means that Bioware did a bad job with Mass Effect 3's defaults. If you didn't know how many choices there were beforehand, you could simply take everything on face value. Its smart decisions include swapping out one key character instead of bogging a mission down with unnecessary extra lore, filling you in on what happened in DLC like Lair of the Shadow Broker without pretending that Shepard was there, and (at least so far) treating most of the series' big decision points as merely Things That Happened rather than pinning them on Shepard/the player directly. It's an excellent, well-written epic that I'm having an absolute blast with.
It's simply... it's simply not the same. I wish I'd held off a bit longer, to finish up Mass Effect 2 and get the perfect start for this final instalment. I can't take everything on its own merits because I know full well what I actually chose... and any time something deviates from 'my' Shepard's story, it's jarring. I feel out of the loop in a world I feel I should know intimately by this point, and frustrated by the presets instead of empowered by the new choices emerging from them.
It's still another gamer's underpants. It's just better washed than most.
Sigh. If only Bioware had offered a more comprehensive starting questionnaire.