Editorials

Kaidan Alenko: A 22nd Century Jane Eyre

April 25, 2012, Author: Bryony Stewart-Seume

Kaidan Alenko, Alliance Marine and crew-mate of Commander Shepard is one of my favourite game characters. Actually, that is patronising. He is one of my favourite fictional characters, and his is a story that I have enjoyed and will miss now that is has reached its conclusion. Imagine then, my surprise on discovering that my large soft spot for Kaidan Alenko was not shared by the majority of the general population. I am mostly retrospective in my reading around a game; spoilers are the work of the devil, and I like to go in with an open mind as much as possible.

Having now completed Mass Effects 1 through 3 and found Alenko to be the character with whom I could empathise the most, I decided to take an in-depth look at him, how he fits with the Mass Effect world, and what makes his a Jane Eyre for the 22nd Century.

What I found myself now creating is more of a defence for him. He deserves your love and respect.

Please note: This article contains plenty of spoilers. Enter at your own risk!

Kaidan tends to get sidelined, even in the promotional material. His face is missing from box art, and you don’t often see him in screen caps. There may be an explanation for this, and that’s probably because the promo art focuses on a male Shepard, but Williams (about whom I shall talk momentarily) features more. If this is the case; it is almost understandable, except in the larger context of friendships, relationships and partnerships, which is a large aspect of his character, as I will demonstrate.

I have played many Shepards since the early days of Mass Effect, but unfortunately imagination is something I have lacked for almost every iteration. I always plan on making each Shepard a different Shepard, but for one reason or another, they all seem to come out as largely Biotic and mostly Renegade. One thing has always been the same and that is that I have never played a male Shepard. Shepard is a woman, and I have never had a desire to play as a man. For the purposes of ease, throughout this paper I will refer to Shepard as a woman, except where expressly necessary to do otherwise.

Eden Prime: Jenkins, Williams and Alenko
Alenko is the longest-serving member of Shepard’s playable crew, and as such has an existing rapport with her. He is part of the ground crew on Eden Prime at the beginning of the first act and, unlike the unfortunate Jenkins, manages to make it around the first corner and up the slope without dying. It isn’t long before the two of you bump into Ashley Williams in her pink and white bubble-gum armour, running from the battle with the Geth that has broken out.

Try as you might, you can’t avoid being joined by Williams, and so you become a trio of humans seemingly almost solely responsible for the defence of humanity’s colonial flagship that is Eden Prime. There are a few moments in Mass Effect where Kaidan Alenko says or does something that shapes his character, and it is not long before we come across the first. After meeting a couple of survivors, one of whom is clearly a bit doolally, Shepard engages them in conversation. Without feeling, while choosing exorbitantly harsh responses, Shepard smacks the babbling man over the head with the butt of her pistol.

“That… may have been a little extreme, Commander,” says a quiet but firm Alenko.

He remains unfazed behind her, yet lets Shepard know what he thinks. His manner is relaxed, as if this is not the first time he has pointed out to his superior officer where she may be a little out of line. The lack of response from Shepard serves to reinforce the hunch I have about the depth of their friendship; she will smack a stranger over the head on little more than a whim, but not pull up this particular insubordinate subordinate.

We do not know the military etiquette of the future, but it is safe to assume that one would need an unusually good relationship with one’s superior officer to get away with such a remark, especially in front of others, and even more so in the presence of a brand new comrade, as is true of today. The military of Mass Effect does not seem to be too dissimilar from our own, for all their fancy guns and motorised jointed armour upgrades.

They have big guns in the future

Kaidan later accidentally triggers the Prothean Beacon on Eden Prime and is pulled out of the way by Shepard, who receives the vision and suffering in his place. If you choose to have Shepard vindicate Kaidan of blame upon regaining consciousness, Kaidan seems quietly pleased. While the nature of Kaidan and Shepard’s friendship seems natural, unfortunately, his smile at this point does not. It seems shy and for the audience only, which is a shame, because you are momentarily taken out of the game to be told (albeit visually) that Kaidan is someone whose character is manipulable from a gameplay point of view. It feels disjointed and out of place.

Ashley Williams, by comparison, is harsh and brash. Maybe witnessing Kaidan’s remark made her believe that she could get away with speaking back to Shepard, but having just met her, her attitude is out of line. For reasons that will become apparent, I sent out a plea for help via Twitter for this article, and one thing that came up time and time again in the feedback, although not directly related to the questions that I was posing, was that Alenko and Shepard’s relationship goes back beyond the start of the story; Williams, (and all the other selectable characters) meet Shepard along the way.

This validates the friendship between Kaidan and Shepard, and gives them a common and unique bond. I felt Williams was out of line in some of her responses to me, and therefore so did Shepard. In fact Shepard even asked “do you have a problem with me?” If it were me, I would have told her where to shove it… or just shoved her out of the air lock.

Virmire: Williams or Alenko
Kaidan and Williams shadow each other throughout much of the first Mass Effect in the trilogy, in that you are ultimately working towards sacrificing one of them, although you won’t know that at the start. It is fitting that out of the two humans that you have on board; you have to send one to their death in order to advance the struggle for the survival of humanity against the Reaper threat. For me, this ‘choice’ was not a choice at all.

It seems mean, but having not really wanted Williams on the Normandy in the first place, and having never needed her, nor picked her for my squad, she was easily dispensable. You get the option to tell Kaidan afterwards that there was no way you could have chosen him to die in her place. He is suitably humble, yet sad that your decision came down to the fact that you like him a lot more than her. I can’t help it, Kaidan, and here is why.

Kaidan Alenko gets written off as being boring and ‘whiny’ (whatever the hell that means). What we are really witnessing is a quiet and sensitive man that will open up to you if you stop for a chat.  He doesn’t like crowds or a lot of noise, but he appreciates a good view. He could so easily be a stereotype. He is a soldier. He carries guns. He is handsome. He could be a tough, macho sort that scores high on the Rambo scale of Being a Man, but BioWare chose to subvert this. In what is a bold move they opted to make him surprisingly reserved and stoical.

It is perhaps a little saddening that such a choice has been ridiculed by many. The emphasis in media is on the perception and representation of women in video-games, and yet few people stop to point out the stereotypical nature of many of the men we see. Alenko is not a cardboard cut-out handsome soldier, and for this alone he, and BioWare, should be praised, and certainly not laughed at.

Kaidan’s reservation and self-control is a direct result of an incident from his youth. As a human of significant biotic talent, he found himself part of a small group on ‘Jump Zero’. The conditions there were poor, and he and his classmates were treated badly by a Turian named Vyrnnus. Kaidan recounts an incident to Shepard in which he lashed out with his biotic powers and killed the Turian in defence of a girl to whom he had become close. The girl was shocked by this, and as a result rejected him. It can easily be argued that this made Kaidan who he is today; determined not to make the same mistake again he keeps himself together, even to a fault.

Kaidan with all his biotic awesomeness.

@ShepskiGuy had this to say on the matter in response to my Twitter plea: “People always say how interesting Jack [another human Biotic] is as a character. I like her too, but Jack is predictable. I expect her to snap, get angry, etc… She is like that all the time. With Kaidan you can’t exactly predict when he will snap. Unpredictability is more dangerous. Emotions that aren’t unleashed build up over time and when they are finally released they will be much stronger than if they were gradually vented.”

So not only is Kaidan in all his quiet glory not a corny stereotype; there is also a good reason for his manner. Does this make him boring and ‘whiny’? If you say so.

Captain’s Cabin: Shepard and Alenko?
As a female Shepard, the option to have your wicked way with Kaidan is open to you. Why not, I thought? Again this came up time and again in the feedback I received from people. Kaidan and Shepard have an existing friendship and have a lot in common; there is a natural progression. Liara (the other option open for my female Shepard) was a bit too full on; she speaks very passionately about a lot of very interesting things, but when it came down to it I thought my Shepard would want to be rogered up against the wall. Smouldering, brooding Kaidan seemed the most likely to offer that sort of release.

The inclusion of a ‘romance’ storyline is logical and not surprising, given that some time passes on board the Normandy, and Shepard is cooped up with the crew… What isn’t so realistic is that in the first game the characters appear, on the surface, to be heterosexual (with the exception of Liara, but being from a species with only one gender, to ‘her’ any relationship is a relationship). It also strikingly odd that you are unaware of relationships around you. You do not get the impression that your crew are busy having some ‘how’s-your-father’ in the Communication Room while you are plotting your course on the Galaxy Map. At this stage, you are the centre of all sexual attention, and out of three possible bed mates, only two are effectively open to you.

Megan Smith, another to kindly give feedback regarding their experience with Alenko added this: “As for Kaidan liking me? Not really surprised. One of the best lines I ever heard was that the NPCs of games are not ‘bisexual’, they are starstruck. Despite your race/gender/origins, they end up falling for ‘you’, whoever you are.”

This backs up my point; there are no other obvious romances on-board the Normandy. Those that are so inclined will make themselves known to you, and you alone. It is then a nice change when you meet with Cortez in the third instalment of the series, and he tells you that he is mourning the loss of his husband, whose life was lost in the on-going fight to save humanity. Up until this point there is a definite feeling that people in the Mass Effect universe are hero-sexual, rather than anything else.

Moving away for a moment from the discussion about sexuality before I run too far with it, by the time you reach Mass Effect 2 Shepard has been killed. This is just a teensy hiccup for her, and she returns stronger. Shepard runs into Kaidan Alenko on Horizon, and the man is all grown up. He has been promoted, and is doing very well for himself, thank you very much. Yelling out to him had no effect; he was pissed off with me beyond belief. This is the second particularly significant point in his Mass Effect career that I want to point out to you.

Horizon: Alenko and Shepard don’t quite reunite
Having been resurrected and duct taped back together by Cerberus, an ever so slightly dodgy human organization, you now find yourself working for them. You will remember that I banged on for a while about the length and depth of Alenko’s relationship with Shepard? Well, his total mistrust of Cerberus (which we all know to be well placed) prevented him from running back to Shepard wholeheartedly, or, in fact, at all. This should alone tell you that something pretty massive is going on with Cerberus, and they really are bad people. Yes, personally I was annoyed (no, ‘heart-broken’) at his reaction. For a start I was getting pretty bored with Jacob and Miranda who I was being forced to play with.

The general fan reaction to this event was, in my view, a little narrow-minded. I read the phrase that he “dropped Shepard like a hot potato”, and that was one of the nicer comments. Kaidan remains firm at the expense of a friendship, and quite possibly a relationship, whereas I believe that previously he may not have. He has begun to fulfil his potential as a leader rather than a follower.

The trouble is, without knowing exactly how much was planned for Kaidan from the start, it is hard to say how much BioWare were out of line. Kaidan got a largely negative reaction (for being ‘whiny’, remember) and was then almost side-lined in the second instalment. How much of the first influenced the latter?

I can only hope that BioWare stuck to their guns, and that this was always the plan for Kaidan (although with the recent debacle about the ending I don’t know that I can be too confident). The point that I am leading to is that Kaidain’s treatment of Shepard on Horizon stands to show that the quiet, reserved man that needs a few nice words from his commanding officer to open up (and boy does he open up?!) has enough integrity to step out from the shadow of that very officer and even has the balls to tell her where to shove it.

If he was starstruck in Mass Effect 1, he isn’t any longer. While I would have loved to have Shepard continue her night-time antics with Alenko aboard the Normandy, for the purposes of the overall story and Kaidan’s character arc, I am pleased I wasn’t able to. As it was, Garrus and Shepard grew much closer. Awesome turian is awesome.

So, on to Mass Effect 3.

There is a lot to be said between Shepard and Kaidan whether or not they are exes. For a start, when he accuses you of cheating (if you romanced anyone else in Mass Effect 2):

The infamous line!

Kaidan is now very much his own man. He becomes a Spectre, which I think is a nice touch, as he follows in Shepard’s footsteps, but out from under her wing. Kaidan is unfortunately laid-up in hospital for a while following an incident on Mars (I say this is unfortunate, but it does allow for quite a few shirtless Kaidan scenes. I am okay with that, to be honest). Anyway, it was at this point that I knew that Kaidan was now an independent and confident officer in his own right. While I was happy for him and so proud of him, I did feel a little pang and a slight twanging of the heartstrings that he was no longer mine.

The final defining moment that I would like to talk about in this rush through of Kaidan’s development arc is that happening on the Citadel involving Udina. Shepard comes gun to gun with Kaidan, both of whom are protecting that which they believe to be the victim of an attack, rather than the perpetrator. Being not entirely sure myself, I hesitated, and as a result Kaidan was shot and killed.

Thank goodness for the ability to reload previous saves.

Just in case you didn't believe me...

I have never loaded a previous save to reset any unfortunate incident or poor choice in the whole of Mass Effect up to this point, but so angry was I that Kaidan lay dead that I would have replayed hours to see him live again. I have largely played Shepard how I would have reacted in similar situations (with a little more attitude and a lot more daring) so it is worth noting here that should anyone want to conscript me if we ever get invaded by aliens: I would have risked humanity and the rest of the galaxy for Kaidan. I didn’t care whether Udina was good or bad. I just cared that Kaidan lived. Seeing him all grown up and fully fledged and then all dead on the floor seemed like a terrible joke.

So for entirely selfish reasons Shepard invited Kaidan back onto the Normandy, and the two were reunited. Shepard felt momentarily bad for essentially stifling her protégé in this way, but not bad enough to say “no, you go and be fabulous without me”.

I realise this has been a fairly long and rambling recounting of my Mass Effect experience, but I think it is important to highlight the moments that really make Alenko the man that he is. There is one final aspect of Kaidan Alenko that simply cannot be ignored, and that is that by Mass Effect 3, he is available for romancing again, and this time, if you are playing as a male Shepard you also have this option. For some people, this was a long time coming. For others it was disgusting. For some it was a lazy and shoehorned reaction to satisfy those that wanted a male homosexual storyline.

Kaidan Alenko, “WTF? I THOUGHT HE WAS STRAIGHT LULZ!!?”
Having never played Shepard as a man, this side of Kaidan’s character was completely cut off for me, so I sent out a tweet asking for input from anyone that had seen a male Shepard relationship through with Kaidan. I didn’t expect many people to have done so (as by this time I was discovering that ‘boring and whiny’ perception of him, and coupled with the many barriers there are to Kaidan actually being alive at this point, the field narrows significantly) so asked for a retweet (a practice which mostly I find abhorrent). Seventy or so retweets later I was being inundated with responses from people that had done just that, and who were only too happy to help me out.

I was mostly interested to explore whether the relationship was forced, shoehorned or tasteful and natural. The majority of people that responded were male, although I wasn’t specifically looking for that. Most claimed to initially like him, although one (Malcolm Swoboda @MalcolmSwoboda) still found him boring and whiny.

I found his experience interesting, as his perception was not strong, but negative none the less. This boiled down to the fact that he did not feel that the character was developed especially well; his experiences as one of the first human Biotics was under-explored, and that Jack got more out of this in Mass Effect 2. The ongoing saga of Cerberus and Kaidan’s subsequent mistrust was also a cause for concern, although I disagree here. I believe that Kaidan needed something like this in order to grow into himself.

So it is interesting that despite the reservations that Malcolm had about Kaidan, he had romanced no one else in all three games. I asked him whether he had ‘saved himself for Kaidan’ he had this response: “Yes. Exactly, and no one else. In ME2, I found no one appealing except maybe Jacob for a lay. In ME3 James and Cortez were somewhat tempting, but when I mistakenly kissed Cortez I immediately reloaded my game, as I knew Kaidan was waiting for me.”

One might question why you would wait for someone who you don’t even know is likely to return your affections, and I did. “He is hot enough. I think Shepard needed a calming person to help him through things, and aside from the Cerberus stupidity, Kaidan was exactly that”. People have often cited Liara as the ‘canon’ romance in Mass Effect, and aside from the fact that I don’t know how an undefined story can be canon, several people I spoke to would nominate Kaidan for that post, for the reason that Malcolm stated.

Malcolm was not the only person to have not romanced anyone else. People play RPGs differently from the next person, but it is unlikely that nothing of one’s self is put into a character build, and game developers should know this. It is perfectly reasonable to expect all reasonable tastes to be catered for.

“My Shepard was gay, just like me, and I always hoped there would be a romance option as the series went on. Even if they wouldn’t implement it in ME3, I told myself that Jay (my Shepard) would just end up saving the universe without a paramour; his sexuality being one of the many unexplained facets of his life unnecessary to completing the mission,” says Jay Lee Warren, another respondent.

I don’t intend to lambast BioWare for any decision they did or did not make during the making of the first Mass Effect, however I will point out the double standard of allowing a female Shepard the option of romancing Liara. This is a slightly grey area, though, as an individual from a one gender species, Liara is technically neither male nor female. However, to look at she has clearly been designed as a lesbian fantasy wet dream, so that argument is thin.

A fully and properly homosexual relationship was offered in Mass Effect 2, but only if your Shepard was a female Shepard. There was still one chunk of society (if we divide society up by their sexuality; another issue) that were not catered for. It was not until Mass Effect 3 that people with male Shepards were in a position to do what everyone else already could; have their Shepard sleep with whichever gender they desired. Some people, however, argued that making that option Kaidan Alenko was wrong, because Kaidan is ‘straight.’

Now, I haven’t played every possible permutation of Mass Effect, so I may have missed it, but I don’t believe Kaidan has ever said “I like women. I only like women, and I will never have sex with a man because I like women”. This is where I came across a startling amount of homophobia, ranging from the casual to the deliberate and disgusting. I saw this aspect of character design referred to as a ‘re-mod’, as if he could not possibly have ever been interested in men.

Aidan Dullard put it very eloquently in an email to me: “I always had a firm view that unless a character ever popped up on-screen and said “Hey Shepard, I only like men/women/gerbils”, we couldn’t definitively state their sexuality, and so the screaming about Alenko (or Shepard!) being ‘straight’ for two games is, quite frankly, nonsense.”

This isn’t just true for fictional characters; it is true for life. Even stranger was the idea that Shepard was straight, and therefore should remain so. This is a character that you can impose whatever attributes you wish, but he (or she) ‘isn’t gay’. People complain that there is not enough substance to Kaidan, but when another aspect of his character is revealed, it is wrong, because he wasn’t that before. Double standards.

Several of my lovely volunteers shared my view on why it is hardly surprising that Kaidan isn’t fussed which type of plumbing his partner has. I have already talked quite extensively about the state of the friendship between the two, and also the reservation of Alenko. He doesn’t give much of himself away, but will open up if you talk nicely to him. The two share a lot, so it isn’t unlikely that they share a mutual regard, and love. Whether or not Kaidan himself knew it, I suspect he has been in love with Shepard for a long time. Should he have been saved on Virmire by a male Shepard, his reaction on Horizon serves to prove this. He feels betrayed and conflicted.

Don't worry, humanity!

There is another theory that I have about Kaidan’s sexuality, and that is that sometime in the (hopefully) not too distant future people will just learn to accept that people fancy people regardless of gender. I am not suggesting that everyone will be bisexual, but the subject of who a certain person is, or is not attracted to does not boil down to the contents of their underwear.

Captain Jack Harkness is a good example in media of this attitude. He makes the point early on when Gwen Cooper kisses another woman. “I thought she had a boyfriend,” says Owen Harper. Jack Harkness responds with “You people and your quaint little categories…” BioWare may be making a subtle statement that sexuality is a non-issue, and whether or not Kaidan has ever found another man attractive is irrelevant; he finds Shepard attractive now, and that is all that matters.

Another criticism of Kaidan’s apparently late declaration of his bisexuality was that it was wedged in to satisfy those that had campaigned for a full male homosexual story line. Why not introduce a new character? Well, BioWare did, in the shape of Steve Cortez, although as Jay Lee Warren pointed out it seemed a bit ‘vulture-esque’ to leap into bed with someone who has just lost their husband.

The fact that Kaidan was not available for male romance in the original Mass Effect cannot be undone, but to exclude the option of a deep, meaningful male homosexual romance would have been short-sighted and potentially damaging. The suggestion would be that homosexual relationships are short-lived… That is how I would read it, anyway. By implementing a Shepard/Alenko relationship, BioWare are not undoing the mistake they made in Mass Effect 1, but neither are they leaving themselves open to accusations of homophobia regarding the length, depth and significance of homosexual relationships.

Time to move on before the remaining readers among you fall off your chairs and into a deep coma. Raphael Sbarge (Kaidan’s voice actor) produces a podcast. He recorded one after a session working on Mass Effect 3 and claimed that it was shaping up to be the most emotionally charged of the three, and I believe he was spot on. During the final scene down on the streets of London, Shepard has the opportunity to speak to her remaining crew one by one, before she selects the final people that she will lead into battle. Should she speak with Kaidan, assuming they reconciled, or started up a fresh relationship, you will be rewarded with some genuinely moving moments between them.

You will remember that I yelled at the screen when Shepard was on Horizon, to no avail. Well, yelling “kiss her, godammit!” at the screen during this scene does work. Shepard and Kaidan embrace, and kiss once more. This felt a lot more climactic than the proposition scene, in which Kaidan buys you dinner and the two of you come to the decision that you need to do something about all the hormones.

Too much?

It seems to make no difference whether Shepard is a man or a woman; this scene is not what it should be. Several years have passed since the two of you met, and whether or not you have previously had a relationship should not matter; you have been through a lot together and come out the other side stronger.

Finally Kaidan says the two of you need to get back to the Normandy quickly, and on hearing this I expected to see them on the floor or against the wall in the docking bay. I told you he appreciates a good view, didn’t I? Well, once you do get back to the Normandy Kaidan takes up residence in the Starboard viewing deck for what seems like an eternity. He will talk to you briefly, but not engage in a full conversation until sometime later. However, when he turns up at your cabin door with a bottle of wine and a smile you can feel fairly sure that it isn’t out of the window that he will be looking.

Kaidan Alenko, and Jane Eyre
The development arcs of Jane Eyre and Kaidan Alenko are remarkably similar. Kaidan is shy, reserved, and excessively self-controlling, and like Charlotte Bronte’s heroine, he built his persona on a traumatic event from his youth. Jane Eyre snapped early in life, and suffered the consequences of her aunt’s rage for much of the rest of her life. Kaidan’s suffering, or at least his inability to relax and release his emotions, came as a result of his own turmoil.

He also snapped and suffered the consequences for many years to come. Jane Eyre’s story and Kaidan’s mirror each other further, as they both felt betrayed and let down by those to which they had respectively opened up. However, they did not let Shepard nor Mr Rochester get the better of them, and they both found the means and strength of character to pull themselves together, learn from their experiences and return as the equal of their former mentors.

One of the points I am really trying to make is that it is entirely possible for people to see two (or many more) totally different sides of a character’s development and arc, especially in this example, in which the narrative is not entirely set in stone. I accept that many people have some valid points regarding Kaidan Alenko in terms of his personality: Some people may find him dull, others may be amused by his cynicism against the backdrop of a barely explored galaxy.

It is unfortunate (especially for Kaidan himself) that the option to kill him off part way through the first story in the trilogy could stunt any chance you have to get to know him. That said, the same could be said for Williams. I killed her off because I found her abrasive, and because I liked the other choice more. Therefore the chance to find out why she is so grating has not been open to me, as the chance to explore Kaidan’s self-control has been to others, such is the nature of choice in games.

That I am able to draw a meaningful comparison between Jane Eyre and Kaidan Alenko serves to highlight the current quality and depth of game writing. Yes, I am slightly tongue in cheek, but the analogy is valid. Kaidan Alenko is a complex enough character with a story arc developed sufficiently well for him to be compared to a classic character from English Literature. Surely now you can see how important, misunderstood and well written he is.

  • D.B. Cooper

    Reading this, assures me that I made the right choice saving Ashley.

  • Tyrsi

    Absolutely love what you have written, thank you for given a more in depth view to Kaidan’s character that a lot of people wouldn’t have even given the time of day. It is pretty ironic when people will say Kaidan is so dull and whiney when they wouldn’t even give him a chance past Virmire