Even though it won't be posted there, I've written the essay (mostly) according to the community guidelines, including background information on the universe, character studies, fandom recommendations, etc. So even though most likely everyone who might read it already knows everything there is to know about Mass Effect, it's written so as to also be understandable for people who aren't familiar with the games.
Title: Here If You Need Me – A Shepard/Garrus Manifesto
Fandom: Mass Effect
Word Count: 4345
Spoilers: Mass Effect 1 and 2
In November 2007, the Canadian video game company BioWare—well known for its immersive role-playing games such as Neverwinter Nights, Baldur's Gate, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Jade Empire—released its latest creation: a so-called "action RPG space opera" titled Mass Effect. The game was an instant success with players and critics alike, logging impressive sales and earning numerous awards. Although it featured substantial amounts of exploration missions and shooter-style combat, its popularity was largely due to its story, characters, and the depth of its universe.
The story of Mass Effect was originally conceived as a trilogy, and the second installment, titled (surprise surprise) Mass Effect 2, was released on January 26, 2010. Part three will be unveiled
The first Mass Effect game (hereafter referred to as "ME 1") begins in the year 2183, and introduces players to a Milky Way full of alien races, powerful technology, unexplored planets, and tensions and issues that aren't all that different from modern-day ones. As the game opens, humans are low on the totem pole of galactic importance—having been part of the overarching community for a mere 26 years—but have already taken their baby steps and are pushing for a bigger say in galaxy-wide issues.
Humanity took its first steps onto this galactic stage in inauspicious fashion when it discovered a mass relay—an ancient alien device that enables faster-than-light space travel; i.e., Mass Effect's answer to hyperspace/lightspeed/jump drives/Stargates/etc—orbiting Pluto. Being a naturally curious species, the humans decided to activate the relay, and found that it could transport them into another solar system. Thrilled with the discovery, humanity began activating every relay it could find, eventually stumbling upon one that had been declared Off Limits by a bunch of alien species the humans didn't know existed.
Enter one of those species: the turians. Easily the most militaristic of Mass Effect's alien races (and sometimes viewed as overly rigid by the galactic community at large), the turians proceeded to inflict a beatdown on the newcomer humans, destroying several of the humans' ships as punishment for activating the relay.
To the turians' surprise, however, the humans didn't retreat back home with their tails tucked between their legs—at least, not for long. Instead, humanity retaliated with an attack on turian ships, and from there, the skirmish escalated into what the humans would eventually term "The First Contact War." (The turians, by contrast, referred to it as the "Relay 314 Incident.")
As the conflict began showing signs of blowing up into a full-scale interplanetary war, the galaxy's governing body—a council comprised of representatives from the three most powerful alien species—stepped in to resolve the conflict, and a truce was eventually established. As ME 1 begins, humanity is at peace with all the major alien powers, but there is underlying tension—particularly between humans and turians, due to residual frostiness from the First Contact War. Many aliens regard humanity as a "sleeping giant," believing that if the humans ever tried to establish complete military dominance, they could potentially successfully overthrow the current alien powers. This has led the galactic community at large to view humanity with some level of suspicion, while the all-alien Council attempts to put a damper on the humans' rising power and influence.
In the middle of this political and social climate is Shepard, a human soldier with the potential for greatness, and Garrus, a turian cop who wants to make a difference in the universe but chafes under bureaucratic red tape.
"Every soldier has scars. Shepard's a survivor."
— David Anderson
At 29 years of age, Shepard has already been through more than many people experience in a lifetime. Although the specifics of Shepard's past vary depending on the player's choices, all the possible options involve at least some measure of angst, hardship, bravery and heroism. In true video game protagonist fashion, Shepard is no ordinary individual. His or her abilities are specialized enough that near the beginning of the first game, he or she is named the first human Spectre—a "Jack Bauer in space" agent of the Council who is authorized to operate outside the law in order to ensure the galaxy's stability.
The game allows players to choose Shepard's first name, gender, and background, and customize his or her appearance. This level of personalization makes it easy for players to become attached to their own individual Shepards, often to the point of assigning specific traits, quirks, and even entire backstories that make their characters their own.
On the flip side, however, there are set aspects to Shepard's personality. As an experienced solider, he or she is tough, determined, and will stop at nothing to get the job done. While not an emotionless robot, Shepard is adept at making difficult decisions and dealing with the emotional fallout, which means that he or she is not likely to burst out in screaming fits or dissolve into a puddle of tears at the drop of a hat. Shepard is also a charismatic and persuasive natural leader, able to gain the respect and trust of those around him or her.
This combination of role-playing customization and established personality traits makes Shepard a curious mix of both self-insert plus already defined character. This can and has led to all sorts of interesting discussion on topics such as whether or not Shepard is a Mary Sue, or how difficult it is to read fanfic about a Shepard that's not your Shepard—but those are a little outside the scope of this essay, so I'll just leave it by saying that Shepard is many things to many people.
Regardless of how one views Shepard, one thing is for certain: he or she is a driven and competent individual whose actions over the course of both games push him or her into the spotlight. The galaxy's view of humanity is very much intertwined with its opinion of Shepard and his or her decisions.
Note: As I mentioned, Shepard can be either male or female; however, since the option to pursue a romance with Garrus is available only to female Shepards, I will refer to Shepard by feminine pronouns for the rest of this post.
"Damn hothead is what he is. Still figures he can save the world."
At the beginning of ME 1, Garrus is working as an officer at Citadel Security (C-Sec), the police force on the space station that serves as the center of galactic government. He states that he took the position because he "wanted to fight injustice, wanted to help people"—and also because his now-retired father had been one of C-Sec's top agents—but from the moment he meets Shepard, it's clear that his relationship with his job is strained at best.
Headstrong and impulsive, Garrus is continually frustrated by the political aspects of his job—the bureaucracy and red tape that surround his investigations. He leans towards the viewpoint that the ends justify the means, believing that he should be allowed to do whatever it takes to get criminals off the streets, and he sees C-Sec's rules as an unnecessary hindrance. As summed up by BioWare writer Patrick Weekes, "He's like the ideal of the compassionate renegade....He wants to help people, wants to stop the big bad guy and save the galaxy and protect the innocent, and he doesn't have time for rules and regulations that slow him down." [source]
However, Garrus is not merely a rebellious hothead. He is good at what he does (he has access to the Citadel Tower, which is open only to those with special clearance, and he appears to report directly to the head of C-Sec), and he is courteous and deferential toward those who earn his respect. He is passionate about what he believes, but not to the point of being obnoxious or overbearing, and he is flexible enough to consider alternate viewpoints.
Garrus also develops as a character during the two-year gap between ME 1 and ME 2. While he never loses his almost obsessive sense of justice or his frustration with bureaucracy, ME 2 presents him as a more decisive and hard-edged individual, one who takes matters into his own hands rather than chafing under others' rules.
But what is it about Garrus—a just-barely-humanoid alien that looks like some strange mix of cat, bird and dinosaur—that makes him appealing enough to be half of an OTP? After all, there's no shortage of handsome, even studly human men to ship Shepard with. And even for those with slightly more exotic tastes, Mass Effect offers love interests from alien races that are much closer to typical human aesthetic standards than Garrus is. Unlike those species, Garrus and other turians weren't specifically designed to look physically attractive to humans—and interviews with Casey Hudson, project director for both Mass Effect games, have made it clear just how surprised BioWare was by Garrus' popularity with female fans.
So why ship Shepard/Garrus?
Mass Effect 1
Out of all the squadmates in ME 1, Garrus is the one who is most open to Shepard's influence. Although they do develop a genuine comrades-in-arms friendship, Shepard is for all intents and purposes Garrus' commander, and their relationship initially leans toward that of a mentor and student. Garrus' respect for Shepard is plainly obvious and is woven throughout their conversations. Despite his hotheaded nature and tendency to rebel against authority figures—first his father, then his bosses—he listens to what Shepard has to say, and it's clear that he gives her viewpoints a lot of thought. For her, he's willing to go against the grain, and it's not hard to see the appeal of a man who respects a woman's opinion and genuinely cares what she has to say.
That said, the respect isn't a one-way street, nor is Shepard a hardass, unfeeling commander who treats her subordinates like dirt (unless, of course, the player wants her to be!). She encourages Garrus to speak his mind and considers him to be just as valuable to the team as the human squadmates, in spite of the tension that is still prevalent between their species.
"I don't think I've ever met anyone quite like you, Shepard."
Out of all the conversations and experiences Shepard and Garrus share in ME 1, likely the most notable is Garrus' quest to find Dr. Saleon, a criminal who slipped out of his grasp and evaded justice while Garrus was still a C-Sec officer. Shepard and Garrus track Saleon down, and Shepard can advise Garrus to either kill him or spare him so that he can be sentenced. Either result leads to introspection and character development for Garrus, and the entire incident signals a shift in his view of Shepard. Before, he had followed her mainly because of her title of Spectre—and her resulting ability to operate outside the law—but her handling of the Saleon situation makes him begin to respect her for her own judgments and opinions rather than merely her occupation.
Most importantly, this and the other experiences that Garrus and Shepard share in ME 1 help to build a foundation of friendship and trust that becomes critical for both of them when they find themselves thrown into trying circumstances in the second game.
Mass Effect 2
ME 2 begins with a bang—literally—when an enormous alien vessel shows up out of nowhere to blow Shepard's ship out of the sky. Unable to get to an escape pod in time, Shepard is blown out into space and suffocates to death.
In true sci-fi suspend-your-disbelief fashion, her body is recovered and reanimated by Cerberus, a powerful, resourceful, and shifty-at-best human supremacist group which had been introduced in the first game as a secondary antagonist. Cerberus' mission to resurrect Shepard, aptly named "the Lazarus Project," lasts for two years, and Shepard wakes up to find not only that the universe has moved on without her, but that the galaxy-wide threat she battled in the first game is about to make a reappearance. Hours after coming back from the dead, she is forced into an alliance with a group that's little better than terrorists, handed a stack of dossiers and told to go collect a team of experts to join her on a suicide mission to save the galaxy.
And as it turns out, one of those dossiers leads her straight to Garrus.
"Frankly, I'm more worried about you. Cerberus, Shepard? You remember those sick experiments they were doing?"
"That's why I'm glad you're here, Garrus. If I'm walking into hell, I want someone I trust at my side."
"You realize this plan has me walking into hell, too? Hmm. Just like old times."
— Garrus and Shepard
As the two of them begin to get reacquainted, a shift in the dynamics of their relationship is almost immediately noticeable. Whereas in the first game Garrus largely came across as someone who was young, a little naive, and who had a lot to learn from Shepard, the second game puts them on the same level. Although Shepard, as the commander of the mission, still holds a position of authority over Garrus, it's clear that his experiences in the two years between games have shaped him into someone that she can view as an equal rather than a subordinate or student. While each still respects the other, the tone of their conversations has changed from advice-giving sessions to discussions in which both parties give and take.
This factors into one of the more appealing aspects of this pairing: its sense of realistic development. Unlike many fictional relationships (and especially video game relationships), it doesn't just spring up out of nowhere and consist of a rapid progression from being total strangers to tentative flirting to professing deep feelings and/or jumping into bed together over the course of a mere few weeks or months. Instead, it begins with a strong foundation of friendship, respect and trust that endures for years, even surviving Shepard's temporary demise. From there, building to something non-platonic is a natural progression in spite of the obvious interspecies differences.
An Eye for an Eye - Garrus' Loyalty Sidequest
As the Dr. Saleon sidequest did in ME 1, Garrus' loyalty sidequest in ME 2 serves to develop the relationship between him and Shepard. It follows a pattern similar to the Saleon mission: Garrus requests Shepard's help to track down Sidonis, a former squadmate of Garrus' who betrayed him and directly caused the deaths of his entire team. Garrus is hellbent both on avenging his team and carrying out justice on Sidonis, and from the start, he intends to execute that justice by killing Sidonis in "eye for an eye" fashion. As with Saleon, Shepard can either encourage Garrus to pull the trigger, or she can attempt to pull him back from his rage and convince him to spare Sidonis' life.
"I understand what you're going through, but do you really want to kill him?"
"I appreciate your concern...but I'm not you."
"This isn't you, either."
— Shepard and Garrus
While all twelve of ME 2's squadmates have loyalty sidequests, most of those squadmates are complete strangers to Shepard at the start of ME 2, and thus, the primary purpose of their sidequests is to remove distractions and prepare the party members for the suicide mission rather than to develop their relationships with Shepard. In contrast, Garrus and Shepard's already-established connection gives his sidequest a deeper, more emotional impact. It isn't just about removing a distraction that could hinder Garrus' concentration during the final mission—it's something that Shepard does because she genuinely cares about Garrus and wants to help him put his ghosts to rest. (This isn't to say, of course, that Shepard doesn't care about her other squadmates, just that she knows Garrus better than almost any of the other party members.) Garrus and Shepard's interactions during this mission, particularly if the player chooses paragon dialogue options, are evidence not only of how well they know each other, but also show that they can work through their disagreements rationally—even though they're both strong-willed individuals. In addition, this mission more than any other shows how Garrus has moved beyond the role of Shepard's "student." She offers help, suggestions and advice, but doesn't lecture as she was more prone to in the first game. Garrus is now her equal, someone with whom she can pursue a relationship.
"I don't want something 'closer to home.' I want you. I want someone I can trust."
Out of all the different facets of this pairing, likely the single most important element is trust—an obvious essential component of any relationship that becomes even more paramount when the participants are from different species. Before they even begin thinking about becoming romantically involved, Shepard and Garrus have been to hell and back together. They've already faced long odds, difficult battles, and rampant skepticism. Each knows how the other responds to stress, to criticism, even to staring death in the face. They have each other's backs, and they know it.
When Shepard first recruits Garrus for her mission in ME 2, he doesn't even ask what it is they're doing. Unlike the other squadmates, he doesn't need to be sold on Cerberus, the Collector threat, or even the fact that it's a likely one-way trip. He just knows that Shepard wants his help and he's willing to follow her, telling her that he'll be fit for duty whenever she needs him. One of the most prominent indicators of his level of confidence in her is his attitude regarding Cerberus. While he is initially wary at the prospect of working with them, given their shady reputation, he trusts Shepard enough to take her at her word when she tells him she knows what she's doing.
Likewise, Shepard's trust in Garrus is also nigh unshakable, and most strongly shown when she helps him track down Sidonis. If the player chooses to have Shepard try to talk Garrus out of taking vengeance on Sidonis, she buys time by positioning herself directly between Sidonis and Garrus' sniper rifle. She tells Sidonis "I am the only thing standing between you and a hole in the head," knowing that Garrus won't harm her even for the sake of avenging his team, carrying out justice and giving himself closure. Interestingly, the situation is similar to one experienced by Thane—another squadmate and a professional assassin—who met his wife when she spotted his sniper rifle's scope on a target's head and leaped in front of him to block the shot. It's unknown if the parallels were intentional (and probably unlikely), but they're still intriguing to consider.
Garrus and Shepard's trust in each other is all the more significant because of their respective circumstances. During the entirety of ME 2, Shepard badly needs someone she can rely on. As if the shock of waking up after having spent two years dead wasn't enough, she no longer has the network of support that she once did. She's surrounded by Cerberus personnel, reporting to the Cerberus boss, flying on a Cerberus ship that's bugged with Cerberus listening devices and continually monitored by a Cerberus AI. Worse, most of the allies she knew and worked with in the first game refuse to help her, their reactions to her unlikely partnership with Cerberus ranging from chilly skepticism to biting anger. Garrus, one of the only people willing to believe that Shepard knows what she's doing, is there for her in a way no one else is. For his part, his trust in Shepard is huge given that when Shepard finds him, he's still reeling from Sidonis' betrayal—a deception that killed his entire squad and nearly led to his own death. The fact that he's willing to unconditionally accept Shepard's word despite having suffered such a severe and recent betrayal speaks volumes of his respect for her.
The Canon Romance
BioWare's games have long been noted for their romantic subplots: each game has an array of "romanceable" squadmate characters with whom the player character can pursue a relationship. Naturally, however, BioWare's concept of an ideal love interest sometimes differs from that of its audience. This was the case for many players of ME 1—mainly women—who wanted to romance Garrus, only to find that he wasn't an option. Believing that turians were too alien to appeal to most people, BioWare had decided to stick to love interests that were either human or aliens that looked practically human.
However, the lack of a canon Garrus romance in ME 1 didn't deter his many fans, who posted messages all across the internet stating how much they would like to see a Garrus romance in future games. The requests were numerous enough—and intense enough—that BioWare listened and obliged, making Garrus an official love interest option in ME 2.
It should be stressed that the pairing didn't need to be made canon to hold shippers' interest. Many a pairing has thrived on subtext and fan imaginations alone, and Shepard/Garrus was no exception before it became canon. Indeed, most shippers count subtext and insights into the pairing from the "non-romantic" ME 2 sequences (e.g., Garrus' recruitment and loyalty missions) to be just as central to the pairing as the actual romance conversations. That said, the relationship becoming canon obviously opened up whole new avenues for shipper enthusiasm and, BioWare willing, laid the foundation for an even deeper exploration of the pairing in ME 3.
Because Garrus and Shepard already know each other at the beginning of ME 2, their romantic plotline deviates somewhat from the traditional formula that most BioWare romances follow—i.e., light, testing-the-waters flirting -> confession of deeper feelings -> sex. Shepard and Garrus are already good friends who are familiar and comfortable with each other, so they don't need lovey-dovey faces or dramatic confessions of feelings—neither of which are in character for them anyway—and thus they can skip right past the awkward "I like you, do you like me, let's get to know each other" phase.
That's not to say, of course, that the entire relationship buildup is free of awkwardness or tentativeness. Like any couple who start out as platonic friends, they must face the task of keeping their friendship intact and strong while moving into something romantic—and then there are the obvious challenges of an interspecies relationship to consider.
The tone of the romance conversations runs a range of emotion, progressing from nervous awkwardness on Garrus' part to increasing confidence to vulnerability and tenderness in the final scene. As the romance dialogue begins, Garrus' initial response to the idea of a relationship with Shepard is positive if somewhat disbelieving, in no small part due to the interspecies differences. When he expresses these concerns to Shepard, telling her he knows she could find someone "closer to home," she assures him that trust is higher on her priority list than automatic physical compatibility. He responds by saying that he's never had a "fetish" for humans, but that "this isn't about that. This is about us," making it clear that he's interested in Shepard because of who she is, not merely out of xenocuriosity.
Garrus' nervousness at the prospect of romancing Shepard underscores what a potentially daunting undertaking it is for both of them. Right off the bat, their relationship faces obstacles, the most immediately obvious of which being the physical differences. Any sort of physical intimacy would undoubtedly require a great deal of careful trial and error—even something as basic as kissing, seeing as though turians don't actually have lips. And, as salarian squadmate and doctor Mordin points out in a flurry of interspecies relationship advice, going beyond kissing would be an even greater challenge, running the risk of anything from chafing to anaphylactic shock due to amino-acid differences.
Even beyond the already-significant physical differences, there are social and cultural issues to consider. While human/turian pairings are probably not completely unheard of in the Mass Effect universe, the game gives no indication that they are common, likely due in part to the lingering animosity between the two species. For Shepard, a well-known public figure who gets mixed up in galactic politics more often than she would like, entering a romantic relationship with a member of the species that once declared war on humanity could be disastrous. Garrus faces potential negative outside pressures as well: his father is a strict, by-the-book turian who holds an avowed dislike of Spectres and likely would be less than thrilled by the prospect of his son dating one—and a human one at that.
But what makes Garrus even more nervous than any potential physical, social or cultural difficulties is just the very fact that it's Shepard he's romancing. During the course of their conversations, he tells her that she's virtually the only friend he has left "in this screwed-up galaxy," and that he respects her more than anyone else he knows. The possibility of damaging that friendship should the move to romance not work out weighs heavily on him, but he cares about her enough that he's willing to risk it, and it's clear he puts a lot of effort into making it work.
"I've seen so many things go wrong, Shepard. My work at C-Sec, what happened with Sidonis...I want something to go right. Just once."
And that right there is one of the main reasons I personally find this pairing so irresistible. It's not just my inner xenophiliac geeking out over the ~*exotic*~ thrill of roleplaying a human romancing a noble masculine alien with a deep sexy voice (although that doesn't hurt). It's the appeal of these two characters who have such a strong connection to each other that they're willing to face untold hurdles to be together. Neither Shepard nor Garrus is the kind of person who takes the easy way out of anything, which makes their unlikely-yet-so-right relationship all the more apropos.
Here's hoping that BioWare is equally unwilling to take the easy way out, and that they give Shepard and Garrus' relationship the development and culmination it deserves in Mass Effect 3.
Fandom Recs - These are just a few of the many Shepard/Garrus fanfics and fanarts out there!
The Difference Between by gaarafreak (WIP)
Field Research by Thorncastor (WIP)
Holiday by popehippo
The Hundred Year Distance by fondleaf (rated M)
Invictus by Fever Dream
Masquerade by KSCrusaders
Translation Unnecessary by noobcake (rated M)
Trust by KSCrusaders (rated M)
After the Reaper by ghostfire (sliiightly nsfw)
Aliens in Love by aimo
Aquamarine by TheSilverRaven
The Calm by aris ravenstar
I Can't by Armesan
Kiss and make better by drawanon
Momentary Standstill by ElysianOrchid
Reach and Flexibility by aimo
Right Behind You by Kira Mayer
Secrets by koucha (This one's just Garrus, not Shepard/Garrus, but it's just too pretty not to post.)
General Fandom Links
masseffect - the largest, most active ME community on LJ
BioWare's official ME forums
The LJ Mass Effect Kink Meme. There's plenty of Shepard/Garrus fic there, along with fic for pretty much any other pairing you can imagine. Ratings are obviously mostly mature, but there are some PG-13-ish fics over there as well. Subsequent Kink Meme posts: 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6
The Mass Effect Wiki
Fanfiction.net's ME section
One final note: I have the 360 versions of ME 1 and 2, so taking high-quality pictures is difficult at best. Therefore, the images I've used in this essay are not mine, they are all PC-screenshots I've found in my various travels on the interwebs. If any of the owners of the Shepards in these pictures come across this post and don't want their images used, please let me know and I'll take them down ASAP.