Commander Shepard is, objectively, a hero. But he’s also a man. A man who likes women (in my playthrough, anyway). He spent his entire first adventure pining after Tali, the feisty but naïve Quarian girl, only to be seduced by Liara’s disarming bashfulness. But the charming commander had all along been hiding a selfish, uncompassionate self that would only manifest itself years later.
*Mass Effect 2 spoilers*
After spending two years dead the first familiar face he sees is that of Tali, her naivety gone. Her reciprocal attraction is immediately obvious; Tali’s demeanour in Mass Effect 2 has taught me more about body language than real life has up to this point. Shepard is immediately beguiled by her once more but they are just as immediately separated. Before their reunion, Shepard encounters Jack, a different creature entirely, a creature he finds deeply compelling. He turns down Jack’s initial, boastful offer of casual sex as he senses much more to the profoundly damaged young woman. When Tali returns she is distracted by events at home and Shepard, convinced that a relationship with Tali will be always out of reach, spends more and more time with Jack. She reveals herself to be as vulnerable as she is aloof, slowly expressing that her harsh and distrusting attitude has been born out of harsh experience and repeated betrayal; that this outlook has been necessary to her survival. Shepard slowly, patiently gains her trust and convinces her that she is surrounded by people that she can depend on and who she does not have to try so hard to frighten and push away. This care and friendship are things that Jack has not experienced in a long time, if ever, and she becomes attracted to Shepard and Shepard to her. But, at least to Shepard, there is always the suggestion that he is drawn to her more out of compassion and fraternity than a true sexual desire. Jack is obviously confused by these feelings and is honest enough to state so explicitly, so their future together is uncertain.
Tali’s trouble at home is finally resolved and she immediately renews her interest in Shepard, who is equally as powerless, and unwilling, to resist as before. This is certainly an attraction with a healthy contingent of lust, the absence of which hangs over his relationship with Jack. Both possibilities remain open, Shepard torn between them, until immediately before the attack on the Collector Base. This is a mission from which none are expected to return. With this as the backdrop, Tali states her feelings for Shepard and makes it clear that she has no desire to hurt Jack. She insists that Shepard make things clear to Jack. Shepard realises that Tali is the woman he wants to be with and that pursuing a relationship with Jack would be irresponsible, cruel and ultimately destructive. He knows that he will always feel pity for her and that this pity will poison their relationship and likely undo much of the good their friendship has wrought.
With the spectre of death hanging over the ship, Shepard reluctantly drags himself down to Jack’s nest to break her heart. However, when faced with the obligation of explaining himself to Jack, Shepard chooses neither to admit to the existence of someone else, nor to describe why he believes their relationship is doomed. So, unwilling to admit that he is at fault or acknowledge his hurtful, if unintentional deception, he chooses to betray a vulnerable Jack so that he can avoid the guilt and rightful consequences of her reaction to his behaviour. He coldly lies about how their break-up is entirely her fault, that she made him wait too long and that her constant insistence on solitude in life is finally giving her what she deserves and what she claims to desire. Jack reacts in a predictably caustic way, cursing Shepard and retreating to her former persona, her armour back in place, strapped even tighter than before. Shepard returns to Tali’s arms and proceeds to save the day once more, despite committing one of the most appalling acts of personal betrayal I’ve seen in a piece of fiction. Perhaps he is not such a hero.
I’m grateful to myself that I managed to pull Jack through the Suicide mission, because if she’d died immediately after having her heart broken, while fighting for the man responsible for this heartbreak, I think I would have cried. But that story is possible to tell within the Mass Effect universe and sits as brutal unrealised potential in my game. It’s an example of how rich a tapestry the player weaves in cooperation with the writer and how we create stories as we play, rather than simply consuming them.
(I went back and replayed this section, attempting to behave more considerately, but admitting the existence of Tali does not make the outcome better. At least when Shepard is a cad, Jack has a deserving figure on which to focus her rage. When Shepard admits Tali’s existence Jack truly blames herself without realising that she is not at fault. It’s almost as though breaking someone’s heart is always difficult.)