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"Mass Effect" (2009): Why Fans Hated the Virmire Survivor

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Lee has an embarrassingly deep love of all things "Mass Effect." Her favorite is the original first game.

Kaidan or Ashley?

Kaidan or Ashley?

Over the years, I have watched in amused silence as fans have defended Kaidan and Ashley from their supposed horde of haters. Funnily enough, I almost never see people complaining about Kaidan and Ashley themselves but rather the railroaded writing in Mass Effect.

After Commander Shepard is essentially forced to join Cerberus and work with them, Kaidan and Ashley are both used to fulfill the role of opposing Shepard's actions.

And probably the most frustrating thing about it is that Shepard is never really allowed to defend herself, at least not until Mass Effect 3, where she can essentially tell the Virmire Survivor to shut the hell up. In Mass Effect 2, however, Shepard's responses are dumb as hell and it's frustrating.

I have seen an endless amount of forum threads defending Ashley and Kaidan for this, but as someone who found their behavior really intolerable (yes, both in Mass Effect 2 and 3), I'm going to explain why I and many others really hated their role from Mass Effect 2 onward.

The first reason?

They Were Really Harsh

Ashley faces Shepard on Horizon in "Mass Effect 2."

Ashley faces Shepard on Horizon in "Mass Effect 2."

What some fans don't seem to realize is that the level of vitriol shown toward Shepard depends on the commander's gender.

If Shepard is female, then Ashley is a lot nicer to her about joining Cerberus. If Shepard is male, then Ashley is very abrasive and harsh to the point of telling Shepard bluntly to F off. This is because she is in love with Shepard if he is male, and so she is twice as disappointed and furious than if Shepard were female.

I remember meeting Ashley on Horizon as female Shepard after I decided to stop saving Kaidan and how relieved I was that the conversation was ten times less intense. With Ashley and female Shepard, the encounter feels like less of a relentless, accusatory attack and more like a simple argument between old friends.

With Kaidan and female Shepard, it's entirely different.

Romanced Kaidan confronts Shepard on Horizon.

Romanced Kaidan confronts Shepard on Horizon.

Kaidan will sneer and be very abrasive toward female Shepard, while being a little more neutral with male Shepard. This is why male fans continuously call Ashley a b*tch while insisting that Kaidan is better.

Meanwhile, I hate Kaidan because he's unnecessarily harsh with female Shepard. Even if she didn't romance him, he behaves as if they were married, demanding to know why she didn't contact him and tell him she was alive. (Um, because I hate you, Kaidan . . .)

The difference in disgust and rage between the scenarios is stark. And it has to do with the fact that the Virmire Survivor possibly has feelings for Shepard, who didn't bother trying to contact them after she was resurrected (Gee, I wonder why . . .) .

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It's even worse with Kaidan. On top of his abrasive attitude toward female Shepard, he will later send her a letter if he romanced her, telling her that he tried to move on and see other people and that maybe they can be together again one day.

The letter reads like a break up. And yet, you get to Mass Effect 3, and on top of continuously being lectured about Cerberus, you're accused of cheating as well.


They Make it Personal

I kind of agree with this confession.

I kind of agree with this confession.

No one is asking the Virmire Survivor to trust Shepard blindly or be an ass-kisser or whatever. The problem is, the Virmire Survivor continuously attacks and criticizes Shepard, not Cerberus, (and by proxy the player) for something she had no control over.

That's right. Shepard had no choice but to work with Cerberus. The Illusive Man manipulated events so that no one else would possibly help her defeat the Collectors, forcing her to work with the organization, the end goal being that she would hand over the Collector base to them.

Shepard couldn't just walk up to the council or the Alliance and ask for help. But because she is a hero, she is also not going to look the other way while the colonies are in danger. Her morals are used against her to manipulate her, and everyone can see it, especially the Virmire Survivor.

The problem is, the Virmire Survivor does not trust Shepard to work morally within the limits of her manipulation. This is what makes their continuous accusations so insulting.

Tali on Freedom's Progress in "Mass Effect 2."

Tali on Freedom's Progress in "Mass Effect 2."

By comparison, Tali can meet Shepard at the beginning of the game at the colony Freedom's Progress. Shepard has been brought there by Miranda and Jacob, who claim they want to prove that the colonies are being attacked.

In reality, Freedom's Progress was Cerberus' attempt to manipulate Shepard into thinking they were trustworthy and were just looking out for humanity. This is why Miranda is annoyed when Tali shows up: being able to connect with old friends who would speak out against Cerberus might turn Shepard away from cooperating with them.

Cerberus hasn't exactly given the Migrant Fleet a reason to trust them, and Tali is very vocal about not trusting the organization, to the point that she refuses to join Shepard on Freedom's Progress.

The difference here is, Tali does not make personal attacks on Shepard. She doesn't go into a sneering "HOW COULD YOU?" spiel where she calls the commander names (Kaidan compares Shepard to Saren) and tells her over and over what an idiot she is for trusting space Nazis.

If anything, Tali never once insults or doubts Shepard. Instead, she cautiously observes the commander from a distance, and after deciding that it really is Shepard and that Shepard is in trouble and needs her help and support, she comes back.

Once Tali is aboard the Normandy SR-2, she tells Shepard that she had assumed Shepard was working undercover (and not a literal prisoner of her own morals). She then offers her help, realizing that Shepard is in a bad situation she can not escape.

So unlike the Virmire Survivor, Tali does not assume that Shepard is evil and working merrily with known terrorists. She also doesn't assume that Shepard is stupid or gullible the way Ashley and Kaidan do. She knows Shepard well enough that her first thought is to assume the commander is taking the organization down from within.

The Virmire Survivor just assumes Shepard must be evil, stupid, or both. Given the fact that Shepard has known them longer than the other squadmates, and given the fact that they could have been romanced, this is infuriating.

Why shouldn't players be upset?

And They Never Let It Go

Shepard tells Kaidan to shut up on Mars.

Shepard tells Kaidan to shut up on Mars.

Wrex, Garrus, Tali, and entirely new followers who have only ever heard of Shepard's heroic exploits are willing to believe and trust in the commander, even if they don't trust Cerberus. But the Virmire Survivor doesn't trust Cerberus and also doesn't trust Shepard.

And it might have been fine to have the Virmire Survivor behaving like an ass in Mass Effect 2. Okay. For the sake of realism, someone needed to question Shepard. After all, Shepard could have been a husk or maybe a robot (which isn't far off the mark), and we know that Miranda wanted to put a control chip in Shepard's brain at one point.

But having the Virmire Survivor harp on and on about this for the first half of Mass Effect 3 was just too much. And what's more, it makes no sense whatsoever.

Between the events of Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, Shepard has spent six months in Alliance custody. One can only assume she has undergone some sort of procedure to ensure she is really Commander Shepard and not some controlled robot or husk. And on top of that, she was being watched constantly, all her messages were being read, and she was being kept in a little apartment under lock and key.

Anderson and Hackett, who both expressed suspicion and even disdain (in Hackett's case) toward Shepard for working with Cerberus back in Mass Effect 2, now completely accept that this is the real Shepard and she is not evil in Mass Effect 3.

And yet, despite the judgment of their superiors, Ashley and Kaidan can't let it go.

Ashley turns her back to Shepard on Mars.

Ashley turns her back to Shepard on Mars.

The Virmire Survivor really annoyed fans in Mass Effect 3 and there's a long laundry list of reasons why.

  • They refuse to acknowledge that Shepard didn't join Cerberus, she woke up in a lab and then was forced to work with them or let the colonists die, as no one else would help her.
  • They refuse to acknowledge all the good Shepard has done since she's been awake, instead acting like her "joining" Cerberus was an unforgivable act of evil.
  • They refuse to accept that Shepard is the real Shepard.
  • They refuse to stop antagonizing Shepard about Cerberus and even accuse her of being a spy on Mars. Which is really dumb on their part. If Shepard really was a spy, why would she tell them?
  • They are the only people in the literal galaxy who are still hung up on Shepard working with Cerberus. Everyone else looks at all the good she achieved and acknowledges that she is not, in fact, evil even if she was forced to work with terrorists against her will.

To be fair, if Shepard completed Arrival, the final DLC for Mass Effect 2, then that does make her look pretty bad. But the Virmire Survivor knows about the reapers, and Anderson and Hackett do, too. If they can accept that Shepard did what was necessary to stop the reapers, why can't Kaidan and Ashley?

Shepard saves Ashley on Mars in "Mass Effect 3."

Shepard saves Ashley on Mars in "Mass Effect 3."

Even after saving their sorry ass on Mars, visiting them in the hospital, making nice, apologizing profusely, Shepard is still not trustworthy, to the point that the Virmire Survivor winds up pointing a gun at her face on the Citadel.

It feels a little contrived after all the effort Shepard can make to resolve the Virmire Survivor's fears and after six months of sitting in the brig, dealing with interrogations and intrusive examinations.

Those six months had to be taxing for Shepard, who was left to defend herself against the Alliance and basically all of Earth, in whose eyes her reputation had been tarnished. No one was there supporting Shepard, as no one from her Cerberus crew was allowed to visit her or even contact her.

Miranda mentions wanting to break in the window to see Shepard, and Thane sends several messages that fail to get through (and can be accessed in the Citadel DLC). Liara was busy trying to find the Crucible to save the galaxy (while the illusive Man kept trying to kill her) and apologizes later for not visiting.

Meanwhile, the Virmire Survivor, the one person who could have visited Shepard in those six months . . . did not.

Ashley points a gun at Shepard during the Citadel Coup.

Ashley points a gun at Shepard during the Citadel Coup.

I think it's worse in Ashley's case because it makes her look like a huge hypocrite.

Back in the first Mass Effect, Ashley will tell you about her grandfather and how her family was blacklisted because he surrendered to the turians during the First Contact War.

Ashley's grandfather was caught between a rock and a hard place. If he didn't surrender, the turians were going to annihilate humans. They had superior technology, enough to wipe out entire cities in one go. To stop bloodshed and protect his people, Ashley's grandfather would have to sacrifice his career and reputation.

It was an impossible situation, and yet, he made the right choice for the sake of humanity. He was a hero who protected many lives, even though the cost was his own life.

Shepard does the same exact thing by working with Cerberus. And yet, even though Ashley spends the first game boohooing about her grandfather and hating the big bad turians, she never stops to make the connection that she is treating Shepard the same way she has been treated all her life due to her grandfather's impossible situation.

As I said in my Ashley character analysis, Ashley is completely lacking in self-awareness.

Confused Kaidan points a gun at Shepard.

Confused Kaidan points a gun at Shepard.

The Virmire Survivor's constant harping in Mass Effect 3 amounts to nothing but annoying Shepard for choices she didn't make and by proxy, annoying the player for choices we didn't make.

It seems their entire arc is centered around their anger and bitterness toward Shepard about Cerberus, because as soon as the Citadel coup is over, they stop being angry.

Within the story itself, Kaidan and Ashley have just massively embarrassed themselves. They spent the first half of the game chewing Shepard out for working with Cerberus, only to wind up working for a Cerberus agent (Udina). It's especially humiliating for Ashley, who accused Shepard back in the first game of being the council's lapdog. Now suddenly, Ashley finds herself in that exact position, with Shepard having to stop her.

I think the Virmire Survivor suddenly stopped their whingeing because they just humiliated themselves in front of the entire galaxy and wanted to fix their now-broken reputation by riding on Shepard's coattails again. If they can join up with Shepard, they can hide from their embarrassment on her ship while possibly fixing the damage by doing some galaxy-saving missions with her.

In the end, Shepard is used by the Virmire Survivor so they can hide and lick their wounds. After all they put Shepard through, the audacity is astounding:

  • They accuse Shepard of being evil and/or like Saren during the confrontation on Horizon.
  • They refuse to visit Shepard while she's incarcerated (six months!) which is pretty shitty if they were romanced. I suppose this was payback for Shepard not contacting them while she was in a freaking coma.
  • They accuse Shepard of being a Cerberus spy on Mars.
  • They rant possessively about Shepard "cheating" even though they dumped him/her on Horizon (Both Ashley and Kaidan do it).
  • They nearly shoot Shepard in the face during the Citadel coup.

And after all of that, they have the gall to take advantage of Shepard's goodwill and use her to hide on the Normandy from their mistakes. Shepard is written to be very forgiving (we almost always see her forgive people who have offended her . . . if they don't get shot), and so, it's easy to see how she would forgive the Virmire Survivor and allow them back on the ship. The Virmire Survivor takes full advantage of it.

I think Ashley actually gets drunk on the Normandy because she feels bad about her behavior. She even apologizes after the coup and seems properly ashamed of herself.

Kaidan is the exact opposite, though. After the coup, he criticizes Shepard if she was the one who killed Udina, then he has the gall to ask to join her crew. On top of that, he never really apologizes for his behavior and just goes on remorselessly like nothing happened, then accuses you of causing Sanctuary at the end of the game!

God, I hate Kaidan.

So that's the reason they "stop being angry" from the in-story perspective (to be honest, I don't believe they ever really stop being angry). The other reason is, Kaidan and Ashley were in reality little more than plot devices used by the writers to make Shepard's life more difficult. After their issues with Cerberus are resolved, they mostly fade into the background. This is crappy for people who romanced Ashley or even just liked her as a friend (the way I did), but at least Kaidan fans got a romance arc, I guess.

It Was Done on Purpose

Joker salutes Shepard in "Mass Effect 3."

Joker salutes Shepard in "Mass Effect 3."

What's more, Ashley and Kaidan being annoying wasn't an accident of bad writing. It was done deliberately, as the game itself acknowledges it.

If Shepard doesn't shoot the Virmire Survivor during the Citadel Coup and allows them back on the Normandy, Joker will point out how silly that is by reminding Shepard that the Virmire Survivor didn't trust them and nearly shot them (and I agree. Who's to say they won't be manipulated against Shepard again if they think she's working for Cerberus?).

If Shepard doesn't shoot the Virmire Survivor but also doesn't allow them back on the Normandy, Joker will stand up out of his chair and salute Shepard. When Shepard asks what he's doing, he'll say he's giving her the respect she deserves.

So even the writers acknowledge that the Virmire Survivor's continuous suspicion and paranoia is an insult to Shepard, who has always done nothing but protect humanity at the cost of everything, even her own life.

But should we be surprised by any of this? Given their role as expendable-for-the-drama in the first Mass Effect, Kaidan and Ashley have basically always been mere plot devices used to create conflict for the player.

Which is probably what makes it so fittingly tragic when both of them die.

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