In the Mass Effect series, you are Commander Shepard. You lead a rag-tag bunch on various missions to save the galaxy. Lives are at stake. Choices are in your hands. You can be a saint or a jerk, but at the end of the day, you must make decisions and move on. Such is life.
But things aren’t that simple in the real world. “Moving on” from a decision, especially important ones, is no easy task. Yet our Commander Shepards and their ilk make huge decisions all the time, never once batting an eye.
Sure, there may be a line of dialogue claiming to represent a feeling of guilt or something similar, but the moments are few and fleeting, and we are told of them after the fact; rarely do we actually feel them as they happen.
More troubling still is the lack of a character arc. Shepard’s decisions will always be from roughly the same mindset, and the events of the game will not really affect that reasoning. She is static, and not able to grow.
This makes for a boring character.
The problem stems from the very thing that makes video games unique: the literal insertion of the audience into the experience. The player makes Shepard’s decisions, and is, in essence, Shepard.
As such, an arc would only be possible if the player herself experiences an arc that changes her thinking. Some may sidestep this fact by “manufacturing” an arc under the guise of role playing, but such a thing is a far cry from “sincere” breakthrough moments a character may make in other media.
A character arc can be a very powerful thing, and it reflects a basic and important fact of humanity — that throughout our lives, we change and grow — and yet our “empty shell” protagonists (which include the likes of Gordon Freeman and the Vault-Dweller) are exempt from it.
More frustrating still is the fact that the player can help with the arcs of other characters. Mordin can change his ideas on the Genophage with Shepard’s help. Tali can learn something about her father with Shepard’s help. Yet Shepard’s train of thought does not waver because the player will not waver.
Allowing the audience to be an active participant is the most valuable thing our media is capable of, but it comes with risks. The more our protagonists are empty vessels to be filled, the less they can be changed by the world they inhabit.
I’m not proposing a solution as I do not see one as of yet, but it is something we must put thought into if we want our stories in video games to increase in quality.