“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
- Luke 21: 25-28
The Mass Effect trilogy has constantly been argued by me as one of the most important game franchises in the past decade. Its strengths as a cinematic role-playing experience, buoyed by strong character writing and, in my view, a rich contextual narrative are often discussed (or dismissed) but rarely explored. What separates Mass Effect from other franchises is the thematic elements to the game, those that work on a dramatic and philosophical level. This richness in depth makes the game epic but perhaps more remarkably, relatable in the scope of its themes.
This is the first in a four part series looking at Mass Effect characters Garrus, Mordin, Legion, and Commander Shepard. With Character Select, the goal is to showcase some of the best video game characters ever made and dissect why they are memorable. You can find more of them here.
Of course, the series is not without critics, but one of the better aspects of the trilogy is how open it is with its context. Often people view the games as the sum of its parts, an epic space-opera where Commander Shepard is the stand-in for the player's own power fantasy. However, another reading of Mass Effect that I find much more complex and intellectually rewarding is through the lens of philosophical theology. The trilogy is filled with biblical references and themes, and many of the game’s own choices, right down to the ending itself, correspond to complex issues of individuality, destiny, and the role of God in determining our free will.
While I am not religious by any means, I did grow up with the Catholic church. The pageantry that comes with the Church, the hope and strength given through prayer and faith, is still a fascinating aspect that, if viewed a certain way, transforms Commander Shepard into one of three distinct heroes: a redeemer, an Übermensch, or a messiah.
To understand this though, we need to explore not only Commander Shepard as a character, but members of the series' cast that help embody these three roles. To start with, we should perhaps go with one of the most popular characters in the series, everyone’s favorite Turian Garrus Vakarian. Garrus is arguably the most developed out of the squad mates in the franchise, with his progression from the first to third game being, if you really look for it, both remarkable and often harrowing through his ultimate role as the redeemer searching for control.
Garrus starts Mass Effect as a C-SEC officer, a kind of detective for the major metropolis space-station known as the Citadel. You first meet him arguing with a superior about the rogue spectre Saren, angry with the fact that red tape and bureaucratic practice is holding him back from busting Saren for heinous crimes. Garrus is later seen dealing with hired thugs assaulting a doctor on the Citadel, and from here we can see the inklings of his morals: he is quick to fire on these men even when they take a hostage, showing that he has a strong sense of morality but is willing to put others in jeopardy and outright break the rules to uphold this sense of true justice. He took a risk that, depending on your own dialogue choices, is either praised or scolded by Shepard.
From then on Garrus is a permanent squad member. His actions in the first game are mostly reflective on your conversations with the player, often with him being courteous and compassionate towards the innocent and fellow squad mates but ruthless towards enemies and anyone trying to go above the law. From speaking to him you learn about his father, a fellow C-SEC officer who had a by-the-books attitude, and the pressures of following in his footsteps, sometimes by force over his own personal choice.
Garrus often states that he would enjoy living with no rules or restrictions, that he would bring more criminals to justice without the bureaucracy blocking him. In this regard, many of Garrus’ cohorts see him as naive about the world around him. His superiors at C-SEC say he tries to do the right thing but often approaches problems poorly. He is quick to act in extreme situations, not thinking about the consequences or his own well-being when pursuing an enemy. Even Urdnot Wrex, a ruthless Krogan mercenary, goes as far as to berate Garrus for this quality.
It is these qualities that set up Garrus as a flawed character in the sense of his own pride and adherence towards justice at any cost. One issue Commander Shepard can resolve for him is his failure to bring an escaped criminal to justice. Shepard is given the option to track down an organ thief named Dr. Saleon. From this, Garrus can learn several things, depending on dialogue choices and whether mercy or justice was given to Saleon. If given the option to be spared, Dr. Saleon would run and be shot down, but the wisdom imparted by Shepard is that their response matters more. If killed outright, it would impress Garrus more in the short term—that evil can be squashed if you are just and decisive.
This black and white objectivity is an aspect of Garrus’ initial characterization, which he heavily adheres to. In most sections of dialogue, we see him often complain about the problems with C-SEC and his own desires for freedom over the law. Like many anti-heroes before him, Garrus takes matters into his own hands regardless of how people perceive him and the consequences his actions may have. The problem ultimately is how such actions lead to unintended consequences.
Mass Effect 2 sees Garrus at his low point, taking the mantle of "Archangel" and dispensing vigilante justice in the image of Commander Shepard in the crime-ridden asteroid of Omega. A running theme with Garrus is how he functions as an apprentice towards Shepard, often seeking advice from Shepard constantly in the first game. As Archangel, Garrus becomes an open protector akin to the role of the Abrahamic Archangel of Michael, the protector and leader of God’s army against the Devil in the Book of Revelation.
Molding himself based upon Shepard’s teaching goes beyond just the surface level connection to biblical themes for Garrus. His new title as Archangel also bestows the responsibility of his own choices, and the parallels of Garrus as the protector waging war against evil are uncanny in the second game. He goes so far that he angers the criminals of Omega to the point of them allying together to kill him. He sacrifices everything for his pursuit of justice, from his squad to his morals, to even becoming scarred in the conflict with his crusade.
This is where the arc of redemption comes in for Garrus. His entire theme in Mass Effect 2 is about taking revenge against a member of his own team named Sidonis. He is a Judas, a betrayer who sold out Garrus and his squad of twelve for his own benefit. Garrus bears the scars of this betrayal, and for him the action that must be taken is clear: to demand justice from Sidonis.
Mass Effect 3 has Garrus in a fixed position, but the lessons learned in Mass Effect 2 play a role for him in how he comes to his redemption. The option of killing Sidonis is seductive and maybe appropriate, depending on the pushings and actions of Shepard. Sparing Sidonis, however, offers a moral quandary that conflicts with the naive sense of justice that Garrus has. Garrus’ world is black and white; everyone has a choice to be good or evil. What is foreign to him is how anyone can be both while seeking their own redemption, as Sidonis explains if given the chance.
As we see the scene with Sidonis play out, Garrus has a pained expression in his eyes when Sidonis admits he struggles to live. Garrus clearly laments the sleepless nights that haunt him over the death of his team as much as Sidonis. If Shepard convinces Sidonis that death is his redemption, Sidonis thanks Shepard as both he and Garrus share kinship once more, admitting they both struggle with their choices before Garrus pulls the trigger
Garrus is ultimately led to redemption, not necessarily for himself. It is Garrus that becomes the arbiter of redemption, choosing to kill or spare Sidonis in the end. Garrus can see Sidonis wishes to atone in those moments, so the lesson that Shepard imparts on Garrus is that some sinners can be redeemed if we choose not to pursue vengeance. Everyone has a choice, why not Sidonis too?
Garrus can become the redeemer in his endings, but it is mostly for Sidonis over himself. It is only in the full paragon outcome do we see Garrus find his own redemption, but this, in turn, coincides with Shepard's own fate. Is redemption, when guided by external voices, a choice? Shepard's involvement with Garrus and Sidonis can be interpreted many ways from a theological framework, a condemnation or reinforcement of the themes of salvation, free will, and determinism. This ties specifically with the actions of Shepard, who ultimately makes choices for Garrus, robbing him of true free will in his loyalty mission.
Garrus’ sense of justice is deepened regardless of his actions, overcoming his self-doubt that was hinted at throughout the game. The renegade options see Garrus closer to his status as an Archangel for Shepard, who later exercises the "ruthless calculus" on the war with the Reapers. Garrus learns to make the tough choices that send millions to die, again echoing Shepard on hardcore renegade story paths.
The paragon option provides a more optimistic view for Garrus, but one still steeled for the fight ahead. His role as the Archangel is still present but has been softened somewhat to further reflect the teachings of his mentor. He becomes one who worries about the wear and tear the Reapers have on him, the sacrifices of the war weighing just as heavily as the bodies rise.
Garrus is pigeon-holed into a specific role in Mass Effect 3 as the confidant to Shepard, the culmination of his arc being the student surpassing the mentor through their example. The teacher-student dynamic is another typical aspect of storytelling. We have seen it in any movie, game, or novel with the mentor’s sage advice for the eager young hero, and eventually the teacher would have the student surpass them, either through the conquering of their enemies or finding the inner strength they had all along.
This Joseph Campbell trope of myth telling is plainly obvious in Garrus’ relationship with Shepard. The resolution of Garrus’ story arc is one of confidence in his role, in learning that his own self is redeemed through the tutelage of Shepard. His final moments reflect this, him finally finding a center to view Shepard as more than a teacher, but a closer friend who has guided him (and in some playthroughs, a romantic partner) down a worthy path.
Garrus, more than any other character though, is defined by his need for control of the world to combat its sins. His frustrations with bureaucracy, his desire to make the world right through justice, however objective it may be, is morally ambiguous at best and, depending on the context of the choices made, dangerous to those deemed unworthy. Garrus provides redemption in his choices, but that redemption is through a vengeful or sorrowful lens often for others over himself. In the end, Garrus is mostly defined by the actions of Shepard, and while he grows into the leader that exemplifies the Archangel namesake in Mass Effect 3, his actions are ultimately guided to that point.
The arc Garrus goes through works on many levels due to its context. In game, it is a story path seeping in character growth for sure, but philosophically, it is an arc that ultimately runs parallel to the morality of Shepard, giving weight to the player's own decisions. Garrus becomes Shepard, and Shepard sees in Garrus an extension of their own will. There is little to discuss in Mass Effect 3 due to how his character arc peaks in the 2nd game, though what is there is telling; Garrus has become the right hand of Shepard, Shepard's own personal Archangel thanks, in part, to Shepard's actions.
The next character we need to discuss however, provides another perspective for the player; one that is about finding meaning for themselves over the forces of outsiders. As flawed as Garrus is, the more individual we become, the less we rely on the guided hands of gods and angels...