Mass Effect: Legendary Edition Presents Shepard as An Idea, Not a Default

Now, everybody's Commander gets to be on the box.

If you missed it over the weekend, this Saturday, Bioware announced that Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is real. The trilogy is being remastered internally at the studio for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, with PS5 and Xbox Series X/S updates planned when the collection launches in spring of 2021. While the studio did confirm a few details, like that it had been working primarily on technical aspects like “super-sharp resolution, faster framerates, and beautiful visual enhancements,” we weren’t shown any footage of the remasters in action. All we got was a teaser trailer and one piece of art. Presumably, this is the art that will grace the cover of the collection when it’s finally out, but one piece of it stuck out to me, specifically: protagonist Commander Shepard’s place in it.

Unlike most promo art for the Mass Effect series, the Legendary Edition puts Commander Shepard in the background, covered by standouts from the game’s supporting cast like Garrus Vakarian, Liara T’Soni, and Tali’Zorah vas Normandy. They’ve got their iconic N7 helmet on and are looking away from us. Their face is entirely obscured here, and it’s not even clear if it’s the male or female version of the character on the cover of the collection.

In contrast, all three covers of the original Mass Effect trilogy featured default male Shepard, whose face was based on Dutch model Mark Vanderloo. In most of the marketing material, whether it be videos, screenshots, or cover art, Vanderloo’s face was presented as the image of Commander Shepard and Mark Meer’s voice was the one heard in nearly every trailer. This is a protagonist who was portrayed as a straight white man every time he was presented to the public.

Things started to shift during Mass Effect 3’s development, where Bioware had fans vote on a default face for female Shepard, which was then included with physical copies as a reversible box art, as well as in dedicated FemShep trailers that came out in the lead up to launch. In the end, the fans voted on a redheaded version that was about as close to the original “default” female Shepard as it could get (which was basically just a premade face using character creator assets), but it did give Bioware a face to put on promotional artwork and trailers so it was clear, two games late, that Mass Effect’s hero could also be a woman. 

But even so, Mark Vanderloo and the fan-voted face aren’t the only appearances Shepard can have. Ultimately, Shepard isn’t solely defined by any default Bioware can put forth in its marketing. My Shepard looked nothing like the default version, he was gay (despite Bioware’s insistence that he wasn’t for two games), and he was never going to be represented by art on the box of Mass Effect 3. The same goes for anyone who made a Shepard that wasn’t white, a man, or didn’t ascribe to the same choices and personality of the version of them Bioware presents. When a character is malleable in the way that Shepard is, no default is going to convey the breadth of who they can be when they’re put in the hands of the player.

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Between now and next spring, the trailers will come and they’ll probably feature the default Shepard’s face. But Mass Effect: Legendary Edition’s art here shows an awareness that the character can’t be encapsulated with a face, but can be with a symbol. Both in the teaser and in the art itself, you can’t see what Commander Shepard looks like under the helmet. The lighting doesn’t hit it right when it’s facing the screen, and they’re facing away in the actual art. As their face is obscured, everyone is free to imagine their Shepard is the one underneath the helmet. It’s something Bioware’s leaned into in the years since 2012, with Dragon Age: Inquisition and Anthem hiding the face of its protagonists on covers, and Mass Effect: Andromeda doing the same for Alec Ryder, the father of main character Pathfinder Ryder who automatically resembles the hero the player makes. 

Part of the appeal of Bioware games is that sense of ownership we can have over our character. It’s why omissions like a lack of queer romance for male Shepard for two games sticks out as a strange antithetical choice at odds with a game that has otherwise doubled down on player expression. And while the remasters will likely still carry the same stumbling blocks of awkward, character-breaking moments, the Legendary Edition’s art is at least an acknowledgement of past failings, and that the original tools used to communicate who Commander Shepard is are outdated. Because now that the face and body are obscured, everyone’s Shepard is on the cover. That includes mine, yours, and the people who chose to say “fuck it” and go with Mark Vanderloo.