An Ode to Ashley Williams from Mass Effect

To the woman who never saw her story finished.

The following will contain spoilers for Mass Effect and its sequels. Reader discretion is advised.

Every time I play Mass Effect, Kaidan Alenko survives the mission on Virmire. That quest is a pivotal moment in the first game, where players are forced to pick between Kaidan and Ashley Williams, as they both can’t make it off the planet alive. It’s a diverging point for a lot of players, making it a crucial bullet point to run down when you look at your choices across the trilogy.

Last week, BioWare released some statistics on how people are playing through the Mass Effect: Legendary Edition remasters, and comparatively speaking, Kaidan and Ashley’s divide is much smaller than it was a decade ago. But it also means the conversation about which character is the “right” choice has naturally come up. 

I obviously advocate for saving Kaidan on the basis of him being my love interest, but I’ve also made the argument that he has the better arc across the trilogy. Ashley is still seeing the end of Mass Effect 1 for 60 percent of players, and while some people are playing the series for the first time, there’s an argument frequently made by established fans that Ashley grows across the trilogy and that’s something worth seeing. To which I have to ask: what game is everyone else playing? Ashley carries the unfortunate distinction of being one of the only Mass Effect characters that distinctly lacks a proper conclusion. Which is a shame, because, despite her divisive nature, she has a pretty strong foundation at the start.

Ashley Williams, like everyone else in the original Mass Effect game, sets a pretty strong basis for a character that could, hypothetically, have an overarching story across all three games in the trilogy. She’s a military brat turned military herself, but her family lineage within the human’s Alliance Navy has a difficult history. Her grandfather was the first human to ever surrender to an alien force during the First Contact War between humanity and the Turians. As a result, her own military career has been rife with baggage. She claims she’s dealt with a lot of professional stigma surrounding her family, and her work with protagonist Commander Shepard is the most action she’s seen.

But that same lack of experience working with aliens, plus the resentment she feels for her grandfather’s surrender, has all culminated in a distrust of other species, which has given her the “space racist” moniker that followed her for over a decade of fandom. Early on, she confides in Shepard she doesn’t think the human crew should allow aliens like Garrus Vakarian and Urdnot Wrex free reign around the ship. The player does have the option to shut her down and tell her she’s out of line, but if you hear her out, her explanation is rooted in a nihilistic view of the galactic community, and humanity should be ready to solve its problems without the help of others. This goes on until she makes the comparison of siccing a dog on a bear during an attack, because, “as much as you love your dog, it isn’t human.” She says it’s “not really” racism, but argues members of one’s own species will always be more important to them. 

So what comes next for this character? She can argue semantics all she wants, but it’s totally justifiable for a player to see her beliefs as prejudiced. And like everyone else in the first Mass Effect, Ashley’s story is left as a hanging thread because more games are coming. Should Ashley survive the mission on Virmire, it seems only natural her relationship to aliens would gradually get better, and by Mass Effect 3, we’d see her disavowing these views. 

Well, that never really happens. And it’s why Ashley’s arc across the trilogy pales in comparison to pretty much everyone in that first game. Quarian party member Tali’Zorah vas Normandy has similar dialogue in the first game regarding the synthetic species known as the Geth, with which her own upbringing instilled some greatly held prejudice. But in Mass Effect 3, she outright says working with Legion, a Geth squadmate from Mass Effect 2, helped her see past what her culture has taught her, and is working to find solutions to help her people see the machines as allies. Wrex, who cared nothing for his Krogan people in Mass Effect 1, is uniting the clans together and searching for a cure to the sterility plague that has haunted his people for centuries. And even Kaidan, who spent the first game in fear of his own telekinetic powers, is teaching other human biotics to ensure these kids don’t go through the same rigorous, off-the-books training he did, and is actively interrogating his own preconceived notions about the people of Cerberus. Ashley, meanwhile, is pretty much just vibing in Mass Effect 3. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.

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In Mass Effect 2 and for the first half of Mass Effect 3, Kaidan and Ashley occupy the same mechanical role. In the second game, whichever human squadmate survived shows up in an early mission on the planet Horizon. Shepard comes in and saves them from being abducted during a Collector invasion, but the only conversation you have with them is full of wariness. The player is working with Cerberus, which is, as far as Ashley or Kaidan is aware, a human-centric terrorist organization. Neither character will join you on your mission, but Ashley does have a specific line that shows her views on aliens haven’t changed:

“I’m no fan of aliens, but Cerberus has a history of being extremist. I’ll never work for a group like that.”

Alright. That’s all well and good. If Ashley’s role in this game is going to be smaller, we can leave that hanging thread for Mass Effect 3. So this is where we get into it. Does Ashley Williams have an arc? Is she going to confront her past like Mordin Solus, Urdnot Wrex, Tali, and even Kaidan? No…not really.

The first act of Mass Effect 3 allows you to reconnect with Ashley after you left on such bad terms in Mass Effect 2. She still doesn’t know whether she can trust Commander Shepard, and Cerberus has become an overtly antagonistic force. So, she naturally has a lot to contend with. But if the player chooses to do so, it can have a happy ending, and Ashley can become a squadmate once again. This all begins on Mars, where she’s nearly killed by a Cerberus android. The player can go visit her as she recovers, eventually mending their relationship.

But who is this woman now? We haven’t had a really meaningful conversation with her in what’s been several years of in-game time. Professionally, she seems to have punched through the ceiling her grandfather’s surrender put above her, as she’s been promoted to Lieutenant Commander and is up for Spectre candidacy. But beyond that, most of Ashley’s story isn’t about her, really.

The player can talk to her about her family, who are going through tough times during the Reaper war of Mass Effect 3. But that’s about all that differentiates her from Kaidan in terms of early character growth. The rest of the relationship in the first act for both of them is about whether they’re going to trust Shepard again and if they’re taking the Spectre offer. When both characters deviate after that final trust check, Ashley is mostly just present for her family’s grief. Then she also has a fun conversation where she’s wasted on the ship. But that’s it. Despite the common talking point that Ashley “grows” and denounces the things she said in the first game, that scene doesn’t actually exist. Here’s a full video of her romantic relationship in Mass Effect 3, and you’ll notice her racist beliefs never once come up.

Some might argue Ashley’s growth comes in the form of her willingly working with aliens in Mass Effect 3 without making a stink about it. But that feels like ignoring a basis of the character you introduced, rather than a fulfilling conclusion to a story that, despite its justifiably divisive beginning, was paving way for a meaningful and redemptive ending. There’s a fundamental difference between not talking about your prejudice and disavowing it. And Mass Effect 3 is a game full of characters actively letting go of who they once were. Mordin can sacrifice his life to save a species he nearly damned. Tali will fight wholeheartedly to defend the Geth she would have gunned down without thought two games ago. Kaidan even has an entire scene where he sits down with Shepard and realizes he hastily wrote off everyone at Cerberus based on conjecture, which is introspection Ashley doesn’t get in the same role.

All of this is to say, the basis each of Mass Effect 1’s characters laid out is the beginning of a trilogy-long story of people learning to be better to one another. Even as Shepard has their own decisions that can introduce friction to that, the people on their ship are constantly learning more about the people they once demonized, and it results in acts of unity that would have seemed unfathomable even a game prior. Ashley Williams, meanwhile, never gets the chance to reach the same conclusion. Her own redemption is swallowed whole by the stories of her family, and a gag scene of her coming back aboard after shore leave.

I was hoping Mass Effect: Legendary Edition would be a chance for fans to revisit old conversations that have long been written in stone within the series’ community. And perhaps even the “space racist” memes have become so embedded within the way we talk about her that even the positive sides of Ashley can’t escape that narrative. But that narrative also exists because BioWare never actually subverted it. We still talk about Mordin as a war criminal (which he is), but the conversation around him eventually circles around to his regret and the amends he’s made. Ashley could have made amends, but doesn’t. It’s not that I doubt her ability to overcome her internalized biases, but she simply never gets around to saying it out loud. And in a game where everyone is coming to grips with the pain they’ve caused others, I can’t give her points for simply deciding to not say racist things. But I still wish she’d gotten the chance, because even if she’s a character who never sees Mass Effect 3 in my playthrough, she deserved better than a voyeur’s role in her own story.