This theme is probably the least solid of the three I’m going to discuss, but I want to bring it up, if only because I see so many people talk about it as a positive. So, please bear with me on this.
Oh, and just so no one yells at me for this…
In all three endings, Shepard willingly sacrifices himself (gender-neutral ‘him’, by the way. Typing s/he and him/her fifty times in a post makes my head hurt), either to destroy the Reapers, take control of them and lead them away, or to, quite literally, remake the galaxy in his image. This is after conversing with the controlling intelligence behind the Reapers, something fairly justly referred to as a Deus Ex Machina (God from the Machine). And then, in the coda after the credits, we see him referred to as “The Shepard”. Not Commander Shepard, not by his name, but with a term and reverence that makes him seem like a deific figure to these people.
To quote Kotaku’s Katy Cox:
The self-sacrificing savior is the central figure of modern Western mythology, and has been for centuries. That’s the core of Christianity, and it’s a major factor in countless stories. Even at the subconscious level, the story of the redeemer who gives his life for the future of all has become a deep and immutable link in our collective narrative tradition. Shepard is practically the platonic incarnation of the messianic archetype, inevitably martyred for the saving of all.
The inevitably bit is something I’ll save for the next post, but Shepard being a messiah?
Last Minute Messiah
Lets be clear: To list off every theme that the Mass Effect series has touched on would take a long, long time. But, looking back, the games have a very non-theist slant to them.
I can think of only two party members where religion comes into play: Thane (who has a HEAVY atoner streak) and Ash. Its even explicitly mentioned by Ash that her religious beliefs aren’t exactly common within Humanity in Mass Effect’s era. As for the religions of other races?
Its generally not focused on. The Turians seem to have a religion, but its really never mentioned outside the codex. Asari worship a Goddess, but the nature of that worship is generally glossed over, with “Goddess” being used more or less as an all-purpose swear word. That is, until Mass Effect 3, where its turns out that the Goddess was a Prothean. Quarians are very much not religious, their trademark term “Keelah Se’lai” turning out to be a vow of sorts, that they’re doing this so they can return to their homeworld. The Hanar explicitly religious: They worship the Protheans, and are generally seen as a nuisance by the rest of the galaxy for their insistence on pushing their faith into other people’s faces.
Oh, yes, and some of the Geth worshiped the Reapers.
As for Shepard? You get one chance to decide if he’s religious: One dialog option with Ash. It never becomes a central theme of the games. Its generally treated more like an element of a group’s or species’ culture, and how it reflects on them.
Thane’s a good example of this. His strong religious beliefs are deeply tied into his guilt for his actions and need to atone. He doesn’t seek out Shepard for forgiveness (perhaps he does in the romance, though), but its more about coloring his character and what his urges and concerns are.
She’s Just a Woman (or He’s Just a Man)
The other problem with this is that there’s very little in the games, aside from the last several minutes, that has a religious connotation.
His name does, sure, which makes me wonder if this was the eventual intent from the start, but everything else has a decidedly mortal bent to it. Yes, he saves lives and soothes souls, but more through hard work, courage and persuasiveness. He saves the galaxy, but it comes with a heavy cost, and, in most playthroughs, a lot of decisions that, in the end, turn out to be costly mistakes (my playthough, going heavy paragon, got some people killed that could have been avoided).
He can talk someone down and ease tensions, sure. But he’s more than willing to kick ass and take names if it comes to that. Not exactly ‘turning the other cheek’.
Honestly, though, its the rebirth thing that really cements the non-theist theme that the series has.
Shepard is killed at the start of ME2, because he went back to save a friend. Its heroic, absolutely, and serves as a new player’s introduction to Shepard: He’s willing to take that sacrifice.
But being put together? Its explicitly said that it took an unimaginable price and two years of hard work to do. Its done by a known, sinister group, but one that’s on the right side of the fight (at least for now). And in the end, it feels like its done for a PR boost. Shepard reborn isn’t greeted as a savior: He’s greeted with suspicion, distrust and, in some cases, disgust. The religious aspects of it are never brought up by other characters (as far as I know: It wouldn’t surprise me if Ash brings it up, but my Paragon playthrough had her in the grave since Virmire), I don’t even recall a joke about “Did you get to heaven?” or “Was there a bright light, or was that re-entry?”.
But the ending of the series? You’re a messiah for an entire galaxy now. You’re not longer “Shepard” or “Commander Shepard” or “Bob” (Spacer Shepard. Born on Board. Marathon fans would be laughing now…). You’re “The Shepard”.
And pulling religious symbolism out at the end of a massive series that generally avoided faith? Just rings hollow.
In the words of James Vega:
Don’t get me wrong, you’re good. Probably one of the best. But I know you’re human, just like me.
EDIT: Please read the comment section. It turns out that the Mass Effect universe does have more religion than I gave it credit before, although I do stand by my statement that the religious connotations with regards to Shepard are still weak and sudden, being-returned-from-the-dead aside.