Mass Effect 1, as part of the Legendary Edition bundle, has this kicka$$ opening sequence. I saved the clip so you can watch it for yourself, but it gave me chills when I first watched. Ambassador Udina and Captain Anderson have a conversation about Shepherd the MC, how Shepherd grew up alone and lost their whole unit on Akuze.
Ambassador Udina: …(she) could have some serious emotional scars
Captain Anderson: Every soldiers has scars. Shepherd’s a survivor.
Ambassador Udina: Is that the kind of person we want protecting the galaxy?
Captain Anderson: That’s the only kind of person who can protect the galaxy.
Wow, I nearly stood up and cheered at that last line. It gave me chills, like, Mufasa, oooh, say it again. Controller at the ready, I had my Coke Classic and energy shots stacked up. I switched off my phone. I settled down in my super comfy gamer chair. This was it. I was in for one heck of a ride. That’s what gamers long for: suck me in, please suck me in! And though I had this amazing visceral reaction to the opening sequence, it also gave me pause. Without a doubt, it set up the MC as the trope of the Damaged Hero or Heroine (depending on if you chose to play as male or female). I have a problem with that, but I’ll revisit this in a second.
First, gotta talk about gameplay. Because Mass Effect Legendary Edition collects three older games and retools them, the gameplay is going to be wonky and clunky compared to more recent masterpieces. Mass Effect 1, being the earliest of the three is of course going to be the least polished. I don’t have a problem with that; I expected it.
The one issue I had was stumbling into content instead of finding the activating character first. If you’re used to open world or semi-open world games, you’ll likely have the same issue. By exploring as I’m working on the main mission, I found myself embroiled in lots of side missions that I had no clue I was starting. Again, the map and the HUD being very simple due to the game’s origins, there isn’t a complex systems of markers to tell you “Hey, you’re about to activate a side mission.” Everything is label as a point of interest so of course I’m gonna check out the point of interest. For example, I’d solved all of Feros’s water, power, supply, and geth in the tunnel issues as I completed the tower defense. Didn’t mean to, just happened. This didn’t hinder my progress, but it did make the story feel choppy. That being said, the story is extremely well constructed and a compelling mystery, if you can forgive the slow, sometimes disjointed gameplay, it’s well worth exploring.
Now for the good stuff. Let’s dig into the story. As I said in my opening, Shepherd is set up as The Damaged Heroine (I will use the feminine because that’s how I played this game). Right off the bat, we know she grew up on the streets of Singapore, totally alone, joined the Marines, worked her way up to LtCmdr, lost a whole unit at Akuze, and is assumed to have physical and emotional scars.
So, what happens when the body scars? To scar, you must be wounded. Once the dermis is cut or ripped open, the body rushes red blood cells to the site, therefore you bleed. Those red blood cells help create collagen, which is a fibrous material that forms new skin. This new skin, however, won’t look the same as your undamaged skin. As the body closes the wound it makes the new skin tougher and less flexible to ensure the wound doesn’t reopen. You are now whole again. (medlineplus).
Wouldn’t it be lovely if emotional scars worked this way?
Emotional scars, well, they are a whole other beast, aren’t they? How many times have you felt as though you’ve healed or at least moved on from a trauma only to be triggered by something out of the blue? Here’s where I think the myth of The Damaged Heroine can be dangerous. We’re told Shepherd grew up on the streets and never knew her parents. She somehow magically survived on her own. Odds are slim, but let’s suppose we suspend our disbelief and take this at face value. She then joins the Marines, is functional enough to rise to the rank of Lt.Cmdr (which by the by isn’t a current rank in the Marine Corps, but she’s a space Marine so I’ll let it slide) and then engages in a battle on Akuze. She witnesses the slaughter of her entire unit, comes out as the only survivor, and then throughout the rest of the game refuses to talk about what happened on Akuze.
What becomes of the stoic LtCmdr Shepherd? Does she struggled with PTSD? Does she take some time off to rest and heal? Does she seek out professional help to manage the trauma? Does she develop a substance abuse problem due to her refusal to manage her trauma? Nope. [Light spoilers ahead] She becomes a Spectre, a type of elite soldier, discovers a plot that threatens all life in the galaxy, foils said plot, and becomes the heroine of the galaxy.
Am I saying that people with serious emotional trauma can’t do great things? No, absolutely not. Quite the contrary. In my travels, I’ve met people with amazing stories, who have overcome all manner of adversity and accomplished their definition of success. To move past emotional and psychological trauma, one must heal. Repairing one’s psyche, more often than not, takes introspection, an understanding of how past emotional wounds inform present behavior and a willingness to change.
To make these kinds of massive changes almost always requires outside help. This help can come in the form of learning, researching all the literature out there about what you’re going through. It can be a trusted friend or loved one who sits up at night with you while you cry and vent. It can be a support group of people who have been through the same ordeal. Sometimes, and with no shame attached to it, healing requires professional help and perhaps medication. Let me say it again: There’s nothing wrong with reaching out for help. Period.
Yet, video games, movies, TV shows, books, all manner of entertainment idealizes The Damaged Hero. This trope sends a message of: hunker down, grit your teeth, bear the pain, ignore pain, just get over it. Almost no human being can do this and even if you can, it’s not a healthy way to process the emotional wound you’re nursing. When I would ask my father, a career Marine, how he was coping with my mother’s death, he would reply, “No one is shooting at me so I’m fine.” or “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.” These old-fashioned deflections can lead to unhealthy patterns later in life. And I firmly believed Dad’s refusal to express his grief contributed to his death two months after Mom’s.
So is the myth of The Damaged Hero or Heroine romantic and fun to fantasize about? Absolutely. And there’s nothing wrong with buying into the story and enveloping yourself in fiction as long as you understand it as fiction.
Is it a trope that works IRL. Not on your life. Traumatic events are by nature shocking and unsettling. They are outside our normal experience so how in the world would we have the skillset to process these wounds all by ourselves? A little food for thought as we round out Mental Health Month.
If your are in pain, struggling with mental health, if you’re depressed, in a toxic relationship, or just plain tired of feeling miserable, here are some folks who can tell you how to start getting better:
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What are you’re favorite examples of The Damaged Hero or Heroine? What did you think of Shepherd’s character in Mass Effect 1? How do you self-care after a traumatic event? All comments cherished and returned. If you like what I’ve got to say and want to hear more, please follow. It helps me 🙂