An in-depth analysis of Mass Effect drawing from psychodynamic theory. Just something I wrote for fun in 2016 because I couldn’t stop thinking about Mass Effect.
Plenty of people have pointed out that parent/child issues are a major theme in Mass Effect, especially in Mass Effect 2′s squad mate loyalty missions. But simply listing all the daddy issues that characters have make it seem like this is just an odd coincidence. I don’t think that is the case. Rather, struggles between parent figures and child figures are at the heart of the series, pervading virtually all of the major stories that Mass Effect tells. Though these struggles appear in many different contexts within the games, most of them reflect a similar dynamic as revealed by common themes like monstrous parents, rebellion and betrayal, and retribution.
Many of the discussions I’ve seen about Mass Effect daddy issues don’t include Shepard, and this is a major omission. Although her biological parents are minimally involved in the games, if at all, the Illusive Man played an important paternal role for Shepard starting in Mass Effect 2.
So how can we make sense of these important patterns and themes on a deeper level, with Shepard at the center, especially in Mass Effect 2? Well, who better to refer to when it comes to daddy issues than a neo-Freudian?
Jacques Lacan’s theories of psychosexual development are a take on Freud’s, which he expanded to describe the structure of the human psyche.¹ Lacan believed there are three “orders” of the psyche, corresponding to three phases of early childhood development. The Real order is a primal phase best exemplified by moments of birth and death, and experienced in the first few months of life (but I will talk little about the Real here). The Imaginary order—as in, concerned with images—is marked by the moment a child can recognize himself in a mirror. This mirror stage develops the child’s ego and his sense of self. It is characterized by the realization that others can objectively observe him, and that his person is separate from others. Lacan also argued that this stage introduces a lifelong sense of “lack” as the child realizes that he is disconnected from others. At the same time, the image in the mirror can be seen as the “ideal-I,” a perfect picture of a self that appears bounded and whole, in contrast to our often chaotic subjective experience of consciousness. The ideal state shown in the mirror is, therefore, necessarily unattainable. Finally, the Symbolic order of the psyche is marked by language acquisition. Lacan reasons that because laws are dependent on symbolic communication (language), the Symbolic order is essential for understanding the rules and customs required to effectively function in society. The laws of the Symbolic order are dictated by what Lacan calls the name-of-the-father. The name-of-the-father, also called the Symbolic father, does not have to be a biological father. It can be represented by anything or anyone that signifies the social order, particularly the restrictions placed on desires and behaviors (like that you can’t have sex with your mom, Oedipus). In contrast to the Symbolic father, the Imaginary father is a conception of a father figure that can be either an idealized or “evil” image, one that is usually not based in the reality of the father figure.² These three orders are always at play in the psyches of adults and the tensions of adult life. In fact, Lacan saw many psychoses as being rooted in conflicts between the Imaginary and Symbolic orders. His theory, especially his work on the mirror stage of the Imaginary order, has been applied to critical analyses of literature and film.
With that in mind, we can start to examine the commonalities of the squad mate loyalty missions on a deeper level. All of these missions in the core game (not counting DLC) have to do with parentage in one way or another, often with fathers or name-of-the-fathers, with a mother or second parent being absent or irrelevant. These literal or metaphorical father-child relationships have very similar qualities, as illustrated through a number of shared themes and repetitive situations that both reflect back on Shepard’s relationships and project outwards into many of the larger narratives of the series.
To understand how situations explored in the loyalty missions are relevant to Shepard’s story, we can first establish and examine the basics of Shepard’s parental issues. It starts at the very beginning of Mass Effect 2, when Shepard awakes two years after her death, resurrected and enhanced by the Illusive Man through his organization, Cerberus. It’s notable that this particular game begins with Shepard firmly in the Real order as defined by Lacan: slipping in and out of consciousness as she is being reborn. As the man responsible for her life, the Illusive Man becomes Shepard’s father, whom she is forced to obey as an instrument of his ambitions. Even if the player chooses to treat the Illusive Man as untrustworthy, there are points in the game where Shepard suddenly can’t progress unless she follows the Illusive Man’s orders, removing autonomy from a game that otherwise emphasizes choice.
The Illusive Man is the embodiment of the bad Imaginary father. He leads a human-supremacist terrorist organization and believes that the ends can justify any means. We have seen Cerberus’ many victims since the first Mass Effect. He is never physically present, but communicates through the vidcom’s empty holographic representation. He sees through glowing mechanical eyes, which emphasize his gaze (directed at Shepard and the player). This all reinforces the importance of the visual for his character. His moniker, Illusive, points to the imaginary. He has no other name, at least within the games, and so could never be a name-of-the-father. Cerberus might be bound by strict rules under his command, which would be Symbolic, but these rules are hidden rather than stated. Try to get any concrete information about Cerberus out of EDI in Mass Effect 2 and you hit a firewall. The Illusive Man is just an image, which means he is just an illusion, which means he is a deception. The game’s writing is complicit in his treachery: dialogue is written to primarily describe him as secretive and mysterious, misleading players to accept the definition of the homophone elusive, and distracting them from the true meaning of his “name” which reveals his nature. It is inevitable that Shepard must reject her evil father. Even if the player chooses to be cooperative throughout Mass Effect 2, we learn in Mass Effect 3 that she has left Cerberus to rejoin the Alliance, and Cerberus agents become the enemy targets.
The Illusive Man / Cerberus is not Shepard’s only father figure. Captain Anderson / the Alliance fills the role of her Symbolic father. It feels natural and right to obey Captain Anderson, as opposed to restrictive. And obey she does, from the first moments of Mass Effect 3 as he leads her through the tutorial mission. The emotional climax of Mass Effect 3 is a standoff pitting Shepard and Anderson against the Illusive Man, who has by this point become a hollow instrument of the Reapers, more Imaginary than ever. The Illusive Man’s eventual death can be seen as retribution for the pain and destruction he’s caused. Depending on how this plays out, Anderson utters his final words to Shepard: “You did good, child…. I’m proud of you.”
Now that we have seen how the major themes of Shepard’s parental issues operate from a Lacanian perspective, we can see how they reverberate in the loyalty missions. Specifically, those themes are: obedience; instrumentality and objectification of child-figures; rebellion or betrayal; retribution; father figures both Symbolic and Imaginary; and the violent monstrosity of a bad parent, who often leaves a trail of victims behind him. (Garrus’ mission, “Eye for an Eye,” is the only outlier from the general pattern. However, it is still thematically connected to the others since it focuses on themes of betrayal and retribution, which are central to the other parent-child relationships in the series.)
Jacob wants help investigating a distress call from his father, Ronald, who has been presumed dead for 10 years. Jacob had previously rejected him as a bad parent, but wants to have some closure. We don’t have to take Jacob’s word for it that his father is a monster: we find out that as acting captain, he’s murdered his fellow officers and many of the men from his crew. He’s also been sexually abusing the women, objectifying them for his own pleasure. With no one around to stop him on an unsettled planet, he has spent years playing “king” of his makeshift civilization rather than seeking rescue. In this way, he serves as both Imaginary father and name-of-the-father for his crew. This double-role makes him ambiguous, as we will also see for many other squad mate parents. Ronald imposes a rule of law, but one that does not fulfill the intended function of name-of-the-father, which is to bring order to society. Jacob’s characterization of those years as a “fantasy” reveals the Imaginary side of Ronald’s nature; he had constructed a perversely idealized life that is ultimately a delusion. In the end, Shepard must decide how he answers for his treachery and other crimes.
In a mission called “The Prodigal,” Shepard must help Miranda stop her maniacal father from finding her sister, Oriana. Their father, Henry Lawson, had manufactured both women through genetic engineering (without a biological mother) to be optimal in every way, including things like intelligence, combat skill, biotic powers, and sexual appeal (or was that simply the Mass Effect writers…?). Miranda describes her father as abusive, controlling, and manipulative, and says his motivation to create them was to cement his own “legacy” or “dynasty.” His name, Law-son, invokes the Symbolic order. But he is also the self-serving Imaginary bad father, and is thus ambiguous. (We later see the depth of his monstrosity in his complicity with some of Cerberus’ horrific, deadly experiments.) In the loyalty mission, the final moment of retribution is not with Henry himself, but with a friend who betrayed Miranda to take her father’s side.
Miranda eventually gets to have her final confrontation with Henry, but it doesn’t happen until Mass Effect 3. This makes Miranda’s story even more similar to Shepard’s, since the latter also confronts her bad father figure (the Illusive Man) in the third game. We must also understand that Miranda and Shepard share a father figure in the Illusive Man. Miranda became a Cerberus agent so that the Illusive Man could protect her from Henry, thus replacing one Imaginary father with another. Through nearly all of Mass Effect 2, Miranda defends the Illusive Man despite knowing so little about him, almost revering him. She builds him up as the image of the father-protector, taking his word as law without question. But Miranda eventually rebels against the Illusive Man by resigning from Cerberus, around the same time as Shepard. If Shepard chooses to disobey the Illusive Man by destroying the enemy base at the end of Mass Effect 2, Miranda will show her first signs of defiance by supporting Shepard’s decision. Miranda’s final confrontation with her primary bad father, Henry, even feels similar to Shepard’s with the Illusive Man under certain conditions: The father holds a beloved relative hostage (Captain Anderson as Shepard’s Symbolic father), and with the right words, Shepard manipulates the father into a position where she (or Miranda) can take a clear shot.
Grunt, a science experiment born from a tank and designed by the mad Dr. Okeer to be the perfect example of the krogan race, struggles to identify his place in the world. He craves belonging and recognition in a traditional krogan clan. He also tries to interpret the lessons his late “father” implanted in him while developing inside the “tank-mother.” Grunt’s loyalty mission shows his process of replacing Okeer as a parent, since he is not fit to play the role of name-of-the-father. One way we know this is by Okeer’s association with images. His only direct communication with Grunt is through the “images” he presented to Grunt while in the tank. Even though these communications must have included language, Grunt primarily describes them as visual and unclear. Okeer never names his creation. Grunt is left to name himself, and, knowing only what Okeer imprinted in the tank, chooses the word Grunt because “it has no meaning.” The overall implication is that Okeer left him only senseless or misleading pictures, nothing from which Grunt could derive any kind of Symbolic meaning or that could help him find his place in society. We also know that Okeer is a monster, the Imaginary Bad Father: in a previous mission we see his countless “failed” krogan creations, which Okeer casually discards for their imperfections. This makes Grunt and Miranda’s stories almost identical. As described on the Mass Effect Wiki pages, Okeer “is ruthless…to the point he is willing to sacrifice thousands of flawed tank-bred krogan to death or as mere cannon fodder against his enemies”; similarly, “Miranda was not the first offspring [Henry] engineered in such a way, but she was the first one Henry kept.” Such father figures must be replaced. Grunt’s replacement is Symbolic, and thus more successful than Miranda’s. He joins clan Urdnot, whose leader also serves as a centralized ruler of all krogan, a perfect example of a Symbolic patriarchal father. This makes Grunt the most content and well-adjusted member of the crew following his loyalty mission. (Grunt has one father representing the Symbolic and another representing the Imaginary, like Shepard.) Although Grunt adopts Shepard as kin during the loyalty mission, and he is often cast as her child, Shepard is not a sufficient parent figure. She might be a commander, but she has her own parental issues to deal with, locked in her own psychological conflict between the Symbolic and Imaginary. Without the more stable parental figure from clan Urdnot, who fully embodies the name-of-the-father, Grunt would likely not have achieved the contentment he did.
Jack’s loyalty is earned by helping her to obliterate the defunct facility where she grew up. As a child in the facility, she was held prisoner, tortured, and experimented upon in order for a Cerberus faction to shape her into a deadly biotic weapon. Cerberus scarified many other less powerful biotic children in pursuit of that goal: the trail of victims that signals their monstrosity. (This can be likened to the casting-off of imperfect models preceding Grunt and Miranda.) The writers set up Jack and Miranda as adversaries, but their situations are extremely similar: their parent-figures highly valued biotic powers, treated their wards as tools to be sharpened, and were closely associated with Cerberus. Both their characters are fundamentally shaped by their relationships with and rebellions against these fathers. At the end of Jack’s mission, she encounters another ex-prisoner who has Stockholm Syndrome. This character brings in the betrayal and retribution themes by aligning himself with the enemy and saying he wishes to continue the facility’s work. Jack is ready to kill him as a stand-in for the people responsible for her suffering.
Tali has been accused of treason by the Admiralty Board of the quarian Migrant Fleet—a board on which her father serves. Upon arriving for the trial, she is surprised to find that people call her by a new surname, vas Normandy, indicating that she belongs to Shepard’s ship and not to the flotilla. Shepard is therefore forced to represent Tali as her effective “Captain,” recalling Shepard’s parental role in Grunt’s trials. (Notably, Tali never gets a Symbolic replacement father-figure as Grunt does. Since Shepard is not a sufficient name-of-the-father, we see Tali struggle with her relationship to her dad into Mass Effect 3, contrasted with Grunt’s full resolution of his anxieties.) We learn that the geth materials Tali sent home to her father were not harmless, as she believed, and many quarians have died as a result. It turns out Tali’s father is responsible for those casualties: he had concealed the true nature of his experiments, which involved purposefully reactivating the geth. His motivations are complex, but include a hope to fulfill a promise he made to build Tali a house on the quarian homewold. She is desperate to preserve her father’s reputation by hiding the truth of his lethal tests. So her father is Imaginary in the sense that Tali holds him up as the “good father” despite everything he’s destroyed and his relative absence from her life in general; but his authority in the fleet means he is also partly Symbolic.
Samara asks for help accomplishing her centuries-long mission to kill Morinth, a serial murderer who happens to be her own daughter. Due to a birth defect, having sex with Morinth is lethal, and she becomes more powerful and more bloodthirsty with each victim. But Samara is also somewhat monstrous, and not only because shows no remorse for hunting her own child. Morinth’s rare genetic condition is implied to be Samara’s fault, because Samara reproduced with a partner from within her species; this is taboo among the asari. Thus, Samara is implicated in the monstrosity of Morinth’s actions, and both of their exaggerated sexualities are demonized. But Morinth retains primary responsibility for her actions because she is not only immoral, but disobedient: she refused to live in a special monastery for asari with her condition, as her mother demanded. It is not the child who is objectified in this case, but the mother who turns herself into an instrument—a monastic justicar who lives according to a strict code—in order to accomplish her goal. This means Samara is among the most firmly Symbolic fathers of all squad mate parents. She easily fits the name-of-the-father role, having devoted her whole life to a set of laws.
Thane’s mission, “Sins of the Father,” concerns his relationship with his son Kolyat. Against Thane’s wishes, Kolyat uncovers the truth about his distant father’s profession as an assassin, and attempts to follow in Thane’s footsteps. Thane has been a neglectful parent, and he has certainly racked up a body count in his line of work, but he’s not truly a monster. In Thane’s justifications for his murders, we actually see him in a reversed role: that of compliant child. Thane, like some other of his species, obeys the hanar race as repayment for the hanar saving the drell from their deteriorating homeworld. The hanar trained Thane to be an assassin since he was a small child, and he sees himself—or rather his body—as a tool honed for killing and not good for much else. He literally thinks of himself as a gun. Thus the hanar instrumentalize the drell for their own ends in much the same way that other squad mate parents objectify and control their children. This situation, where certain races impose themselves upon other races in a sort of higher-order paternal relationship, is not isolated. We see many examples of it throughout the trilogy. The quarians creating the geth as servants are another such case. Though the drell-hanar relationship is more harmonious than other examples of species-level paternalism, the drell still pay a price for their obedience. Primarily, this price is a fatal syndrome that all drell develop from living in a non-ideal climate. Drell also have perfect memories, so we see Thane pay an added price: he is haunted by the details of every murder he’s committed.
In what first appears to be a rescue mission, Mordin takes on a father-protector role for Maelon, who used to be his student. Maelon is not actually in danger, but is rebelling against his mentor by trying to undo their work on the genophage. At first it seems that the student is the monstrous one, as he is undertaking grotesque and deadly experiments on krogan in order to find a cure for the genophage. For these crimes and for his “betrayal,” Mordin is ready to execute Maelon at the end of the mission. But in the longer term, it’s heavily implied that Mordin is the more monstrous figure for leading the development of the genophage in the first place. Even Maelon’s ghastly experiments are ultimately excusable for yielding the key to the cure. Mordin’s eventual change of heart in Mass Effect 3 (under the right circumstances, this includes sacrificing himself to ensure the cure is disseminated) shows that Maelon was justified in his rebellion. The genophage plot line highlights another example of paternalistic relationships between Mass Effect races: salarians created (and turians deployed) the genophage to control the krogan population. Ironically, of course, the reason the krogan population exploded in the first place was because salarians needed krogan as pawns in a war.
Legion’s situation is metaphorically familial in a different way. In his loyalty mission, Legion is concerned that many of the geth have become “heretical” by worshiping Sovereign, a Reaper. These heretics have become indoctrinated, and they obey the Reaper’s commands without question. Sovereign views them as mere tools. Here, Sovereign functions as name-of-the-father for the heretics, a role reinforced by his name, with his will encoded into the geth’s very being. But at the same time he represents something false—only appearing to be true or right, an Imaginary father—as the word heretic implies. This term also suggests that the heretics have betrayed the established order of their kind. They have become monstrous as extensions of the genocidal Reapers. Especially if the player completed the first Mass Effect game, the horrors of both the Reapers and the heretical geth are obvious. So we have a double rebellion explored in this mission: the heretics against the normal geth consensus, and then Legion (representing that consensus) against Sovereign. A possible resolution to the mission is to obliterate all heretical geth in retribution.
Viewing Legion’s loyalty mission in this way offers an opportunity to recognize parent-child themes in the larger narratives of Mass Effect 2 and of the entire trilogy. The Reapers represent a perverse father for more than just the geth. They can indoctrinate any species, taking over their minds and turning them into obedient objects. Even without indoctrination, organic species are, in a way, unknowingly obedient to them. Reapers are the absent parent “raising” organic species as their children from afar until they reach maturity and are ripe to become instruments of the Reapers’ will. The Reapers reason that when intelligent species inevitably find the Reapers’ mass effect technology and use it for the advancement of their civilizations, they are developing along a path pre-determined by the Reapers. This repeating process, the “extinction cycle,” is the major overarching conflict of the Mass Effect games. It is especially relevant in Mass Effect 2 when we discover the true nature of the Collectors, the primary enemy of that game. Shepard eventually learns that the Collectors are in fact the corrupted shells of the extinct Prothean race. In the previous extinction cycle, Protheans were the primary species of the galaxy, but now the Reapers have re-purposed their bodies to have no volition, no culture, no self-consciousness, and no individuality. They are purely tools for the Reapers, indoctrinated husks, their DNA altered to ensure absolute obedience. (This last point echoes many other examples of uneasiness about genetic modification in the context of monstrous parents and unnatural births: from Miranda’s and Grunt’s creation stories and Shepard’s “upgrades” from Cerberus on the more benign or ambiguous side, to the devastating genetic alteration of the genophage, and even Morinth’s dangerous genetic aberration.) Collectors can no longer use the name Prothean, a symbolic word with no inherent meaning, but are known as Collectors because that’s what they do. (Yes, any word is symbolic, but we might see Collector as less symbolic than a word that only has meaning in the game.) For the most part, they do not use speech, further marking their disconnect from the Symbolic order. The Collectors serve as a warning of what might happen if a child does not successfully rebel against a monstrous Imaginary father. The final battle of Mass Effect 2 offers another horrifying picture of such consequences, a different way in which a species can be objectified: you fight the gigantic “larvae” of a human-Reaper hybrid monster, a weapon built from liquefied human bodies.
As if all of these similarities were not enough, the teammates of Mass Effect 2 unlock new outfits in the Cerberus color scheme at the resolution of their loyalty missions. This makes it possible for the squad to converge visually, making even a group of many different alien species seem to reflect each other.
By the events of Mass Effect 3, writers let on that they are self-aware about these parental themes, but only to a small extent. In one conversation with EDI after revelations about her creation by the Illusive Man, Shepard references the daddy issues theme. Separately, in reaction to Miranda’s final confrontation with Henry Lawson, Tali drunkenly reflects on her own relationship with her father. In both exchanges, we see that Shepard has “learned to ask about” paternal relationships and can recognize that one squad mate might “see a bit of” herself in another. But Shepard, suspiciously, never acknowledges her role in these issues or her own father-figure struggles. She never claims to “see” herself in these narratives despite their numerous similarities. Tali’s rhetorical question during their exchange could, in fact, easily summarize the major events of the Mass Effect trilogy: “When do we get to stop reacting to our parents and start living for ourselves?” Yet the significance of this statement appears to be lost on Shepard, who responds with a joke about alcohol. The humorous tone of these conversations makes them feel like a mere wink to players who have paid close enough attention, a throwaway Easter egg, rather than recognition of the major theme underpinning the whole saga.
Shepard’s participation in these missions goes beyond just meddling in the personal lives of her crew. As exercises in the Imaginary order of her psyche, the missions are deeply narcissistic for Shepard. To illustrate this, take Lacan’s description of the defining moment of the Imaginary order in which a child recognizes himself in a mirror:
This act, far from exhausting itself…once the image has been mastered and found empty, immediately rebounds…in a series of gestures in which he experiences in play the relation between the movements assumed in the image and the reflected environment, and between this virtual complex and the reality it reduplicates – the child’s own body, and the persons and things, around him.⁴ (p. 1, emphasis mine)
The loyalty missions represent “virtual complexes” of monstrous parents and disobedient children. They offer Shepard opportunities to repeatedly play with how she resolves issues which are ultimately central to her own reality—like playing at making faces in a mirror. From this perspective, we see that Shepard’s role in these missions is not simply of supportive (or even parental) Commander, but also as a kind of self-centered child.
The narcissism of the mirror stage also functions on the player-level, as is true for most video games.³ Player inputs are visually represented as a corresponding change on the screen, like wiggling our fingers in a mirror. We learn to see our digital representations as an external object, yet one that is intimately related to the self, and it is fascinating and pleasurable to repeatedly test that connection. Mass Effect‘s use of different moral paths (adding replay value with mutually exclusive Paragon/Renegade options) and its emphasis on choice and consequence provide the underlying structure to support the repetitive cycle of the mirror exercise. How do I look if I stand hunched over as opposed to with a straight back? Do I like my Shepard better in this situation if she’s aggressive or if she’s empathetic? This reinforcement of player self-centeredness naturally plays into the game’s power fantasy.
Shepard utilizes her squad in many of the same ways the player utilizes Shepard. To understand this, we must note that the mirror stage involves both a recognition of a defined self and a schism of the self that is necessary for this recognition. That is,
The ego formed through identification with a reflection or representation of itself is…forever split, rendered incomplete by the very distinction that enables self-recognition…. The roles of self and other take on a paradoxical or mutually contradictory quality; each contests its counterpart’s privileged wholeness even as it depends on the counterpart to confirm those qualities.³ (p. 105 – 106)
Shepard’s pursuit of her squad mates’ loyalties by helping them resolve parent/child issues is her way of repeatedly reaffirming her own wholeness (since the specifics of each situation exist externally to her; these are not her fathers nor her rebellions), but it necessarily and simultaneously reveals her own lack of wholeness (many of her companions are in situations eerily similar to her own; these are her fathers and her rebellions reflected back to her). The writers try to skirt the latter issue—Shepard doesn’t explicitly identify herself in her squad mates’ problems, even though opportunities to do so abound. To formally recognize those similarities would be for Shepard to admit the mirror-like, selfish function of these loyalty missions, and thus the inherent paradox of the mirror stage and the fractures in her self.
In Lacanian terms, Shepard’s engagement with her companions is analogous to her search for the “lost object,” or objet petit a, which is the sense of wholeness destroyed by the mirror stage’s ego fragmentation. This is also the function that any avatar in a video game can serve for the player.³ This repetitive search is related to the ideal-I, because the mirror image is seen as perfect. The player tries to shape Shepard into an idealized heroic form through repeated play experiences, building their vision of a perfectly-proportioned Paragon / Renegade Commander. If a scenario doesn’t turn out quite right the first time, the mission can be replayed. Similarly, Shepard engages in these thematically repetitive loyalty missions in an effort to attain an ideal picture of a child’s rebellion against her father. The father is a monster and deserves betrayal; the child is appropriately disobedient; she successfully gains autonomy and is no longer an instrument or object.
Ideal representations appear throughout the game and further illustrate the Lacanian nature of its narratives. Many of these idealizations come from evil Imaginary fathers: Henry Lawson creates Miranda and Oriana as idealized women, and Okeer crafts Grunt to be a krogan exemplar. Similarly, the Illusive Man is invested in Shepard as a perfect model of the human race. The fact that Shepard is idealized—not only by the player and game designers but also within the game world—reveals her association with the Imaginary order and thus her fragmentation. Shepard is, for instance, declared the first human Spectre in the first Mass Effect. This elite ranking indicates that Shepard is released from the bounds of Citadel law. She is pushed away from the Symbolic order and into conflict with the Imaginary order. The word “spectre” implies an image with no substance: an apparition, a shadow. Additionally, in Mass Effect 2, Jacob has a telling bit of dialogue with Shepard about the two years she was dead: “Did you know [the Alliance] used you on recruitment ads? You were the human ideal for like six months. Then they replaced you with a composite image they invented.” This reveals that Shepard as an ideal is interchangeable with a constructed image that doesn’t even represent something real. It is also a subtle reference to the fact that Shepard has been cooperatively devised by Mass Effect’s designers, the player, and even the Illusive Man as an image of a perfect hero, and so she is ultimately a compilation of idealizations from different sources. As much as players desire the fantasy of being the all-powerful soldier who can save the galaxy, details such as Jacob’s comment and the Spectre rank betray the fragility of that ideal. The game, perhaps in spite of itself, inevitably references the impossibility of its own fantasy in these moments.
There is no better example of Shepard’s struggles with the mirror stage and her fragmentation than the main mission of the Mass Effect 3: Citadel DLC. The antagonist of that mission is Shepard’s clone. Yes, the plot is meant to be a kitschy, lighthearted diversion. But it is no less remarkable that this diversion involves all-out battle against your avatarial twin. It is an exceptionally Lacanian gaming experience to be forced to shoot and kill a character that is indistinguishable from a character you have spent many hours crafting and embodying, while also acting as that character. Player-avatar alignment is particularly salient in a moment like this, with both player and Shepard feeling as if they are killing themselves, their living and breathing mirror image. Throughout the mission, Shepard refers to the clone as “me” or the “other me”—not unlike how a player might refer to their avatar while gaming. The clone is both the self and an external object, something you can observe as others must observe you, a perfect example of the psychological schism of the mirror phase. In the clone’s final moments, she protests, “What’s the difference between you and me?” (Remember that both “self and other…contests its counterpart’s privileged wholeness even as it depends on the counterpart to confirm those qualities”³ (p. 106).) From a Lacanian perspective, playing a video game with an avatar is similar to asking and answering the clone’s question, over and over again. We are the same, so what distinguishes us? Cloned Shepard asks it of real Shepard in the Citadel mission; Shepard asks it of her companions in Mass Effect 2‘s loyalty missions; and the player asks it of Shepard throughout Mass Effect. The reflection is recognized, affirming the identity of the original; the sameness of the reflection threatens the integrity of the original; the reflection must be differentiated, destroying it. Shepard dies and is resurrected. The clone must be killed. The similarities between Shepard and her squad go unmentioned. Shepard dreams of an externalized version of herself, and watches as her copy is consumed in flame. The save file is reloaded after a Critical Mission Failure. The player and player-as-Shepard are twinned, synchronized participants in what Lacan calls a “vicious circle of ego-confirmations”³ (quoted p. 106).
On close inspection of the similarities among loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2, we uncover refractions of the same essential plot, iterations repeatedly played out with variations on context, character, and scale. These are not simply “daddy issues,” but a pattern that extends even to the most central conflicts of the trilogy. At the origin of this fractal—as at the center of nearly every video game—is the player character. The primary conflict of Shepard’s psyche between Imaginary and Symbolic fathers, most clearly illustrated through her relationship with the Illusive Man in Mass Effect 2, is reflected in all of these other significant plot lines, which function as her distorted mirrors. As Shepard participates in these narratives, she is confronted with images of her own personal situation, reminders of the fragmentation of her self. Like the cycle of confirming and dis-confirming our egos in mirrors both literal and metaphorical, as Lacan described, so Shepard and the player repeatedly engage that “drama”¹ in synchrony, a process at the heart of the experience of playing the loyalty missions and Mass Effect as a whole.
2. Evans, D. (1996). An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London; New York: Routledge.
3. Rehak, B. (2003). Playing at being: Psychoanalysis and the avatar. In M. J. P. Wolf & B. Perron (Eds.), The video game theory reader (pp. 103–128). New York ; London: Routledge. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/3751080/Playing_at_Being_Psychoanalysis_and_the_Avatar
4. Lacan, J. (1982). Écrits: A selection. (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Norton.
masseffect.wikia.com for plot and gameplay reference, including information on alternate outcomes for decisions I didn’t make in my own playthrough. My analysis assumes that all squad mates are recruited in Mass Effect 2 and survive to participate in Mass Effect 3, for the most complete picture of their story arcs.