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Note: Due to the nature of this blog, there will be spoilers.
One of the most perplexing aspects of Mass
Effect 3 are the plot devices that the narrative incorporates to convey the
feelings of Shepard. Usually, this is conveyed through how Shepard reacts to
various incidents that occur, such as the fall of Thessia or the loss of
Mordin. However, there are several moments in the story where more subtle
events occur and show us the mind and character of Shepard in a complex and
meaningful fashion. Instances like these – such as conversations with Liara,
Anderson, or James Vega – give the narrative the authenticity we strive for.
However, in spite of these instances, one plot
device perhaps is the most provocative: a series of dreams that Shepard has
throughout the development of the game, which essentially show the same event
occurring, with slight alterations each time. These dreams could mean
absolutely nothing whatsoever; they could be simple tools used to drum up
dramatic tension in the player to a rather gimmicky effect, however I think
they hold a greater meaning. I’m probably completely wrong about their purpose,
but as Barthes once famously argued, the author dies once the text has been
created, and with respect to this story, all the signs are there to corroborate
my interpretation, so I will use them readily.
So, what do I think those dreams represent?
These dreams are a powerful means of conveying the hopelessness and burden
Shepard feels in the struggle to defeat the Reapers. As a Aesthetic Cognitivist,
I’ll show you how Shepard’s subconscious conveys this to the audience.
So, let’s start with a primer: what exactly is
Cognitivism? Cognitivism has a range of applications, although the most common
association is with Psychology. In this particular case, I’ll interpret the
subject from the position of aesthetics. Aesthetic Cognitivism is a
Philosophical concept that proposes two very important things:
1) That art has
the power to impart some modicum of knowledge to its audience, and
2) an artwork’s
value is inherently tied to its ability to successfully impart this knowledge
to the audience, usually about the general lived experience of humanity.
Ignoring the questions about whether this is “art” and all the baggage that
accompanies it, what differentiates Cognitivism is that the “thing” taught to
the audience isn’t vague, but a particular
thing that exists in the minds of both the artist and the audience. This particular thing expressed, according to the Aesthetic Cognitivist,
is not a symptom of the artwork, but an active communication between the artist
or artwork and the audience interpreting it. In other words, if a work makes
you sad or gives you a better understanding about a lived experience, it’s not
by accident. For sake of argument, we’ll assume there might possibly be
something intended by the individuals who conceived these sequences for their
audience to interpret. What then, do the dreams of Shepard – which, for all
intents and purposes are the body or work I’ll apply this interpretation to –
convey to us about Shepard? In order to understand them, we’ll need to take a
brief look at each of them. For a look at each of the dreams, click here.
The first dream begins with Shepard lost in a
foggy wilderness, seemingly at night. A sea of trees that are mostly bare
surround Shepard, with leaves that closely resemble ash floating through the
air as he wanders aimlessly inside. Shepard then eventually encounters the
young boy that we remember from the escape from Earth, and s/he soon
watches as the young boy runs away when the sound of a Reaper fills the air; a
bright flash of red light covers the spot briefly as this happens. Shepard then
chases the young boy until the player has found him again, and we witness
Shepard reach out to him in vain. Shepard pauses as the boy faces us and slowly
lights aflame. The audience then watches Shepard gaze in shock as the boy
supposedly burns into ash – the sudden rise and disappearance of light
reflecting on Shepard’s face suggests the latter.
The second dream is set in a similar
environment, with Shepard searching for the boy again. The key difference this
time is that there are tall, wispy black entities floating around Shepard.
Squadmates call to Shepard, including those who’ve died. Shepard will spot the
boy running several times from the booming sound of a Reaper until Shepard finds
the boy in the distance. We watch Shepard pause yet again as the boy faces him/her,
lights aflame, and disintegrates.
The final dream is also in the wilderness, but
there is a very important difference: in this instance, even more of the
ghostly figures from before fill the area surrounding Shepard. We don’t hear or
see the blaring sound of a Reaper in this dream, and witness Shepard pause as the
boy continues to flee ahead and rests in the arms of a doppelganger of Shepard.
The two hug each other and face Shepard, lighting aflame and disintegrating
At first glance, it’s obvious that these things
reflect Shepard’s emotional mind state. Shepard’s in a period of extreme
challenge and, depending on the events of ME 2, considerable mental strain. A
common trope in symbolism is the use of a forest to convey a period of
tribulation or personal introspection- quite a few myths in fact describe their
deities being tested in a wilderness of sorts before attaining enlightenment. The
fog in the background symbolizes a future that can be seen, yet remains
uncertain; in this case, Shepard knows s/he must find a way to defeat the
Reapers. Whether or not Shepard succeeds however, is something that remains to
What then, does the boy represent? This part requires
context in order to understand. Shepard first meets this boy while traveling
with Anderson and finds him hiding inside a ventilation duct. Shepard tries to
console the child, yet the child refuses, saying that Shepard can’t help him,
and eventually disappears. Later, the Normandy arrives and Shepard spies the
boy again, trembling as a Destroyer closes in on them while uttering a powerful
groan. Shepard watches the boy get inside the shuttle evacuating them, only to
see it destroyed by the Reaper in beam of red light.
Children often represent purity, some form of
innocence, or in this case, vulnerability. I believe the child represents a weakness
that Shepard has: the inability to avoid the sacrifices that come with the
battle against the Reapers. The Reapers are symbolized by the singular flashes
of red light that accompany the sounds they make – red is a color commonly used
since time immemorial to convey danger – and obviously are the threat the child
is trying to escape.
Shepard wants to avoid losing innocent lives in
the war but can’t, as the child aptly tells the player. Yet, Shepard tries to
prevent this anyway, only to fail due to its futility. We then witness Shepard’s
hopes symbolically being destroyed each time the child lights aflame and turns
What do the dark, ghostly figures represent?
This also is a common trope that has existed in myth for quite some time:
shades. These are believed to be spirits of the deceased, and given Shepard’s
situation are not out of place for being implemented. When this is taken into
account, the whispering Shepard hears makes perfect sense: these shades
represent those who’ve died, and the calls that haunt Shepard signify that
Shepard has not yet reconciled their deaths. Instead, the losses Shepard has
suffered will not disappear and remain permanently engrained in Shepard’s
psyche. As more appear – in tandem with the new losses incurred as the events
of ME 3 unfold – it’s clear that these shades represent the cumulative toll the
war against the Reapers has taken on Shepard’s life. The lines mentioned by
those who passed serve as powerful reminders.
Now, the final scene, in the way that I
interpret it possibly suggests an epiphany Shepard has. The child runs to the
doppelganger and we watch as it embraces the child before they both gaze at
Shepard. The key difference in this case, is that they are both smiling while
they are destroyed by flame. This particular scene is probably going to be one
of the most debatable in the dream sequences, but one thing we know for certain
is that Shepard subconsciously is confronting the desire s/he has: to be able
to save those s/he can instead of losing them.
Shepard is slowly realizing that nothing s/he
can do will prevent people from dying, even his/herself; the future is uncertain.
Watching the clone of Shepard embrace the child and smile as the two both
perish in flames obviously conveys the feeling of sacrifice, but it also shows
acceptance: both are content with the fate that has come to them and find
comfort in each other instead. Perhaps Shepard has slowly come to accept the
inevitable; casualties of war and conflict, especially with enemies as powerful
as the Reapers, are unavoidable. The thing that matters most in these moments are
the bonds we can make in light of them; those last forever.
So, that’s it, my interpretation of Shepard’s
dreams. It could be full of crap, or I could be a genius. Either way, I got
something out of watching those dreams and thought I’d share it with you. Let’s
hear what you think instead.
What Do You Think Shepard’s Dreams Mean?