Rise of the Soteriological Hero: Mass Effect


by Kevin Rigdon (pralix1138)

We all know the story paradigm wherein the hero saves the day, the girl, the world, and so forth. The Hero’s Journey (aka monomyth, a la Joseph Campbell) describes an identifiable pattern common to many stories, myths, and legends.  This structure consists of several steps, or stages in which the hero fights for justice, the right, or an ideal that represents something bigger than himself.  But in our postmodern world there seems to be a movement towards a different kind of hero.  I like to refer to this new template of modern myth as the Soteriological Hero.

This term may seem redundant as soteriology, which comes from the Greek word, σοτέρια (soteria), means “salvation,” and salvation is implicit in the title hero; it’s in the hero’s nature to save.  But the soteriological hero paradigm provides a different type of salvation than saving from danger or death. The soteriological hero saves on an ontological level.  In order to explain this, I’d like to offer a look at the epic storyline of Mass Effect from Bioware.

In the game, the player takes on the role of Commander Shepherd (either male or female) and proceeds throughout the three-game epic to save the galaxy.  So far, this is standard heroic monomyth.  The genius of what Bioware has done with this game, however, is that the player is given the opportunity to play as Paragon or Renegade.  These do not equate to “good” and “evil” per se, but each style affects the game universe differently, and even more appropriate is that playing Paragon or Renegade affects the other characters in the story.  For example, if I play my Shepherd as Paragon, the characters who become squad mates alter their behavior and mindset accordingly.  They become more Paragon themselves.

I always play the paladin, the good guy.  In fact, when I started Fallout 3 and went through the little test to determine my character’s profession, I was slated to be the vault’s next chaplain.  In Fable II I had the nimbus, and in D&D I’m usually Lawful Good–sometimes I’ll flirt with Chaotic Good, but that’s as close to non-good as I get.  So, naturally my Commander Shepherd in Mass Effect is Paragon all the way.

In playing the Mass Effect series, I was struck by something that I was not expecting.  Throughout the games, especially the first two, as my Paragon Commander Shepherd was doing good, helping the little people, and oh yeah, saving the galaxy, my squad mates began to change.  They began to grow, to become more of who they were supposed to be.  While going around being the lawful good hero, characters began to thank my Shepherd for showing them a different way of living, for helping them to realize where they had failed, to letting go of anger and bitterness.  In terms of story, the more Paragon my Shepherd became, the more radical the change in those characters around him.

Garrus, for instance, began as a disillusioned ex-cop ready to get the bad guy by any means necessary, regardless of the collateral damage to himself, his squad mates, or innocent bystanders.  My Paragon Shepherd showed him other ways of doing things; that we don’t have to lose who we are in pursuit of justice.  Garrus followed Shep’s lead and became a better Turian.

But no character changed under the influence of Paragon Shepherd more than Jack, that little, bald ball of psychotic hate and rage introduced in Mass Effect 2.  Not only was Jack hell-bent on destroying Cerberus (who wasn’t?), but destroying as much of everything else as possible, including herself.  Yet through her conversations with Shepherd, and her witnessing his actions, and so on, she begins to not only let go of the demons of her past and find some peace, she actually finds purpose.  She is transformed from a suicidal maniac to an instructor, a teacher and protector, all under the influence, and through the participation in the life of Paragon Commander Shepherd.

Now, what does this have to do with the concept of the soteriological hero paradigm?  The hero, in this case Commander Shepherd, actually saves the people around him.  By coming along with my Paragon Shep, his squad mates become better people (or aliens).  So in the game, you have the opportunity to not only be the hero to the galaxy, as an ideal or symbol, but you have the opportunity, through the choices that you make throughout the game, to change other characters.  This phenomenon is what I refer to as the soteriological hero.

And it’s not just in Mass Effect that we witness this paradigm shift.  Chuck Bartowski is another good example of a hero that doesn’t simply save the world from terrorists, despots, murders, and nuclear annihilation.  He, in himself, because of who he is and how he is, transforms those closest to him.  He not only saves the world, so-to-speak, he saves Casey and Sarah.  They become more fully human through their participation in the life of Chuck Bartowski.

This growing paradigm of soteriological heroism is indeed encouraging, because I think it addresses something intensely personal to each of us.  The classical Hero’s Journey can be a bit too abstract at times.  Yes, perhaps the world is saved from destruction, but how does that make me a better person?  Part of what I love about Mass Effect and Chuck is that characters develop, grow, and become more of who they are supposed to be.  They become more complete.  And this growth and completion is a direct result of a series of shared, lived, experiences with the soteriological hero.  I look forward to more stories like this, especially if I, as a player, get to take part in them.

    One Comment

  1. KarissaSeptember 17th, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    Anything Mass Effect and you’ve got my attention. 😀 Wonderful write-up.

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