Kaidan Alenko and the importance of visual storytelling
(Since this post was unable to appear in searches on my old blog, simpingforaymeric, I have chosen to repost it here on my new one)
One of the most prominent criticisms leveled against the character of Mass Effect’s Kaidan Alenko is that he is, in a word, boring. It’s a comment that seemed confusing after first playing the game and falling almost immediately in love with the character, but gaining some distance after ten years and playing the games more critically than before, starts to make more and more sense.
Don’t get me wrong - Kaidan Alenko is perhaps my most favorite character across all Bioware games. He is by far the one I relate to the most. The following… experiment? Thesis? Elaborate soap box? Is therefore not meant to convince anyone that, Actually, He Is Boring, or even criticize the character of Kaidan Alenko in that sense, but aims to explain why “boring” is the gut reaction of so many (often slightly more casual) players. I want to propose a theory of what issues there are, why they appear across all three games and finally propose a range of edits and changes that might alleviate them. And when I say changes, I in no way mean to change anything about the character of Kaidan Alenko - but to change how that character is communicated to the audience.
I will preface this by saying that this post is roughly ten years in the making and does not reflect just my own personal observations, but relevant input from other fans across social media, from the BSN, to twitter, to tumblr. Many of these people have moved on, many of them have changed blog names so often it is simply impossible for me to look them up. So while I can no longer source any person in particular for any specific observation, I still want to make clear that this is the result of many thoughtful and insightful posts from many thoughtful and insightful people over a span of years. I have no intention of taking the credit for myself, I am just trying to bring it all together in one project. Once we get to the “How to fix it” part, I will only discuss the ideas that I’ve come up with myself over the past few weeks of replaying the trilogy.
If a post like this already exists and is already in circulation, please let me know. I have not been active in the fandom for some years and would be very interested if anyone has done a write up similar to mine before.
Also, this will likely include spoilers for most titles in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect game franchises (not books, or comics, though), so if you haven’t quite finished Inquisition, ME3, or any other game, you may want to hold off on reading this.
You may also want to hold off on reading this because it’s honest to God 19 pages long. I like this character a normal amount.
2. The core issues
If there is a thesis statement to this, it is that Kaidan Alenko sounds like an incredibly interesting, multifaceted, uniquely skilled and powerful character who you never see fully represented on screen. My own particular love of Kaidan comes, if I am honest, less from the cutscenes the game actually puts him in and can instead quite often be traced back to deep analysis of dialogue, codex entries and tracing and connecting implications of the two.
To give a concrete example, I know for a fact that Kaidan Alenko is a very powerful biotic. Most companions in the first game can remark upon this fact and all of them seem impressed. His powers don’t just contribute to an ambiguous Coolness Factor, though. They also impact his personality significantly. They weigh heavy on his conscience, something we learn when he states in early ME1 party banter that he has been deliberately holding himself back for fear of hurting someone. He learned the hard way that his powers are a massive responsibility when he accidentally killed Commander Vyrnnus, something he confesses to you in one of his more powerful conversations in the first game. It’s also a physical burden as we hear from Dr. Chakwas that he suffers from chronic migraines. On top of that, his unique power and his suffering both come from the L2 implant he wears, an outdated model that is considered dangerous. Kaidan has debilitating migraines, but he is one of the luckier ones; other children suffered anything ranging from severe mental disabilities to fatal brain tumors. During the timeline of ME1 there is a serious legal battle raging in the background, of the surviving L2 biotics trying to get reparations for what was done to them. And finally, he is one of the first human biotics to even exist, wearing only the second generation of implants that allow him access to manipulating dark energy. Human biotics are essentially space mages and are socially ostracized and feared by much of humanity.
It’s safe to say that the entire character of Kaidan Alenko hinges on his biotics. His abilities are a fundamental part of him. They have shaped his personality, his ethical code and his sense of personal identity. Kaidan Alenko as a character simply does not make sense without his biotic abilities.
The problem is that you can count the amount of times Kaidan Alenko, one of the most powerful human biotics in the alliance military, actually uses his biotic abilities, on one hand. In fact, you can count them on one finger, because there is exactly one scene - a very simple, not particularly impressive use of Throw on two random goons in the Citadel DLC. Not only is this cutscene not particularly reflective of Kaidan’s extensive ability, it only happens for people who have already locked in his romance and therefore made the game prioritize him. The specific scene could theoretically happen with most other characters. That means anyone who isn’t already completely and entirely sold on the character of Kaidan Alenko, to the extent that they ship their personal OC with him, will likely never see this. I’ll get into why he doesn’t have those scenes a little later.
You can extrapolate this basic issue for most of the other fundamental cornerstones of his character:
Kaidan’s morality is strongly rooted in the concept of Paragon, that is to say, he is not an “ends justify the means” kind of guy. He will often try and resolve things peacefully, like when he talks down his fellow L2 biotics from committing homicide during UNC: Hostage in ME1. But because of how the game’s companion system works, Kaidan is never afforded the ability to do more than politely disagree with a renegade Shepard who happily commits war crimes. Voluntarily leaving the squad, as companions in a Dragon Age game might, is simply not on the table. In fact, his personality is so malleable in the first game that it takes one conversation to turn him into more of a renegade and, by proxy, a xenophobe. This option likely exists to ensure that players of a renegade Shepard have a choice in surrounding themselves with companions that do not fundamentally disagree with their ethics and choices, but it significantly weakens a character we are told values integrity.
Kaidan is an officer. He held the rank of Staff Lieutenant with over a dozen special commendations in ME1, putting him barely one rung below Shepard. The reason Shepard’s initiating dialogue is “Just trying to get a sense of where the crew’s at. Thoughts?” is that Kaidan handles staffing issues and is for all intents and purposes in charge of the marine detail of the Normandy. This simply does not come up. The only thing that is even peripherally mentioned is that Kaidan was the one who recommended getting Ashley Williams on board after Eden Prime. By ME2, he is Staff Commander and outranks Shepard. By ME3, he’s a Major, which is equivalent to the rank of Captain that Anderson held in the first game. As a Major, Kaidan was specifically put in charge of a spec ops team of human biotics. We will never meet them, never see Kaidan commanding them or even talking to them. Never be able to reflect in any way how this changed or affected Kaidan, who was himself abused in an alliance military project under a bad teacher. The game sometimes even forgets that he holds a significant rank at all and will generally consider Shepard to be his superior officer. And I haven’t even gotten into the Spectre stuff.
Kaidan is a chronic pain patient. You will never see him actively suffer the effects, unless we count an idle animation in the first game.
Kaidan values self-control. He will never be put into a position where that self-control is tested and he either overcomes or lets loose. Or, at the very least, highly emotional scenes that could tempt his self-control, simply don’t.
3. The importance of visual impact
Kaidan Alenko is a very interesting character. On paper. Anyone who doesn’t spend the extra effort reading codex entries, reading character meta on tumblr and investing a considerable amount of time into wrapping their head around the particulars of his character will likely miss a great deal of his personality, because it’s just not on the screen. It used to be my instinct to argue that, well, reading codex entries is important and putting in a little effort to understand a character is fine and dandy. Anyone who isn’t doing that is simply cheating themselves out of appreciating some wonderful fictional guys. And in some cases, I think it is generally fair that not every aspect of a character need be spoon fed to the player. Fans engaging with the text, rather than passively observing it, is a natural part of media consumption.
However, I have to admit that at the end of the day, video games are a visual medium. Furthermore, the old adage of “show, don’t tell”, still applies. And when a character is fundamentally underrepresented, when even the most basic, core concepts of a character are simply missing from the screen, then I can no longer fault anyone for not immediately connecting to a character who is for all intents and purposes absent.
If you are having trouble wrapping your head around the importance of visual input in video games, let’s contrast Kaidan’s lack with other characters’ plenty.
If you don’t think showing Kaidan’s biotics would contribute much, then think about how Samara’s biotics are serene, precise, beautiful. Picture her sitting on the Normandy carefully meditating, shaping a perfect, beautiful little galaxy between her hands. Now contrast it with Jack, violently and impulsively ripping through three heavy mechs to escape her prison. Biotics aren’t just technically something these characters are capable of - their personalities are reflected in what situations they use them in, how they use them and what they look like.
If you don’t think it matters if a character is afforded an opportunity to show a strong sense of morality, then think about how most companions in Dragon Age do not follow blindly, how big choices like templars vs. mages can cost you the loyalty of one or more companions, if you didn’t invest enough time into forming strong relationships with them. Think about how even in a romance, even at 100% approval, Alistair will leave the party if you choose to spare Loghain. How he will never even consider making that choice if he is put up for that final duel at the Landsmeet. Sure, you can toughen him up a little, you can give him a different outlook and in so doing have some impact on his potential epilogues, but the player is never afforded the opportunity to fundamentally change him. If Alistair leaves, it’s not just a codex entry or a mention on the side. He will confront you and he will walk out on you.
If you don’t think seeing Kaidan in command of his troops is important, then think about how Cullen’s leadership in Inquisition is reflected on screen. How, at the temple of sacred ashes, in one of the very first cutscenes you may meet him in, he is shown carrying his own wounded soldier off the battlefield. How he is present in some way for almost every major battle in the game. In practice Cullen is stuck behind a desk for most of the game so the player can talk to him, but you don’t feel like he is a passive observer. You know that when battle rages, Cullen leads from the front because you have seen that happening consistently throughout the story.
I could even be more concrete and talk about how much Jack manages to develop as a character when you see her interacting with her own gaggle of biotic students in her very own mission. How much care is being depicted in how fiercely she protects those she has come to view as “her own”.
If you don’t think it might be relevant to see Kaidan suffer the migraines we’re told about, think about the gut reaction you have when you see a character like Cullen double over in pain at his desk, how he breaks down, visibly shaking in front of you when he is overwhelmed with the debilitating effects of his condition.
And if you don’t think seeing self-control depicted on screen would be all that impactful, think about how you reacted when you first watched Anders visibly fight to control his power. How his own anger, his own suffering cause him to struggle with his abilities, blue light literally pouring through the cracks in his veneer.
You cannot adapt any of the above mentioned scenes 1:1 to Kaidan. He has neither the perfect asari control of the centuries old Samara, nor do I think he has quite the raw power of a royally pissed off Jack. Kaidan is not afforded the opportunity to walk out on Shepard due to how companions work in the trilogy. Kaidan is not in charge of a whole army like Cullen, nor is he likely ridden with trauma quite as intensely as him, since his pain manifests differently and there are modern treatments available to him. He’s not literally possessed by a spirit, like Anders. But all these characters showcase the potential of how a character can impact an audience. They show what can be visually communicated, when care and resources are spent on portraying a character on screen, rather than purely through dialogue and world building.
4. How did we get here
I promised earlier I’d circle back around to the why of it. For all three games, the causes are slightly different and often the result of what I generally call gameplay or story “technicalities”. That is to say, certain aspects of the game or story are simply constructed in such a way that they do not afford Kaidan (and often by proxy, Ashley) the opportunity to do much of significance, if they get to act at all.
I’ve already mentioned how Kaidan’s morality is entirely malleable in the first game based on a mechanic that has less to do with strong characterization and more to do with affording the player the ability to essentially customize their squad. The same applies to Ashley - though I reckon we see her conversation as a little less glaring since turning Ash into more of a paragon generally aligns her morally more closely with most players, while very few people are likely to enjoy turning Kaidan into a raging xenophobe.
The first game offers up little opportunity for Kaidan to display either his biotics or his position as Staff Lieutenant of the Normandy. The latter is easier to explain - the marine detail of the Normandy are just NPCs. They aren’t relevant to the story in any meaningful way, so leading them isn’t a particularly relevant job for Kaidan to be doing. In theory it’s incredibly important to keep an entire detail of soldiers in line, especially when the CO decides to mutiny three quarters through the story, but the plot is driven by Shepard and the squadmates, not the marines of the Normandy. Therefore, there is no real opportunity to showcase Kaidan’s abilities as a leader of soldiers.
The first is a bit more difficult to explain and seems to me like plain oversight. Kaidan doesn’t actually have any character introduction scene. The scene where we first meet him on the Normandy is not his introduction, it’s Joker’s. Joker is being characterized as our snarky, cynical pilot - Kaidan is just the person he is being contrasted against. Every other character on the Normandy has a strong introductory scene. Ashley is seen fleeing the geth, before we see her determinedly reload her rifle and turn back to enact some good old fashioned vengeance. Garrus is first seen arguing with his boss, marking him as a not-by-the-book kind of cop, then established as a crack shot by resolving a hostage crisis with a single precise shot of his pistol. Tali is seen negotiating with shady dealers, shown to be self-sufficient and clever enough to know something is up, characterizing her as intelligent and resourceful. Wrex is hilariously unintimidated by the space cops on the Citadel and thus presented as a certified badass. Finally, Liara is our traditional damsel in distress. And Kaidan… well. Nothing. There isn’t a Kaidan-specific scene in the first game.
At a guess, Kaidan might have played a bigger role in the cut segments on Eden Prime. For those not in the know, dialogue from the game files indicates that the Eden Prime level used to be longer (look for DanaDuchy’s “party banter” video on youtube and start from around 28 minutes. I had it linked originally, but it seems it prevented this post from showing up). Maybe there was a cutscene somewhere here that introduced new players to the concept of biotics in general and Kaidan’s abilities in particular that eventually ended up on the cutting room floor when the Eden Prime level was shortened. Maybe it’s just a general oversight and it truly never hit anyone that a) new players to the universe might want a crash course in what the heck is up with that space magic thing or b) players might need a strong, effective cutscene establishing Kaidan as a character.
(Incidentally, that cut dialogue from Eden Prime also states that Kaidan was originally intended to be vegetarian, which is, if nothing else, damn funny in hindsight.)
In ME2 the issue can be summed up summarily as “missing out on content”. Kaidan isn’t really afforded any space to act in the story. The one brief moment of involvement he has in the plot - Horizon - is once again reduced to mere dialogue. The one scripted cutscene he has, he shares with Ashley, in which both are fruitlessly shooting at a swarm of insects, trying to protect colonists, but are immediately and forcefully removed from the plot via convenient sedatives. They only return for yet another dialogue-heavy segment, which a lot of people dislike for understandable reasons, but is to me one of the few moments in which the characters display a firm moral stance. I might hate the scene because I hate Shepard and Kaidan fighting and the dialogue itself leaves a bit to be desired, but I like it in the sense that it provides decent characterization by making both Virmire Survivors stand their ground, even against someone they respect or possibly love.
To make things worse, thanks to the loyalty mission concept, ME2 was actually the game that best handled its character driven storytelling. Every squadmate is afforded the care and resources of a completely unique mission that tells us something important about them and provides ample characterization through their motivations for the mission as well as its outcome. Liara manages to circumvent the problem of not being there for those loyalty missions by getting her own story-driven DLC, which pushes forward her character development and resolves the lingering tension between her and Shepard, whether in a platonic or romantic sense. Kaidan and Ashley are not afforded the same opportunity.
Some people have pointed out that it is a positive thing, that Kaidan and Ashley do not need a loyalty mission, that their loyalty is gained organically and through actions throughout the trilogy rather than in one specifically scripted mission. I agree with that interpretation, but it does gloss over the fact that loyalty missions are not just a sign that a character is struggling and needs or wants something from Shepard, but an opportunity to spend time with a character on a mission tailored completely to them. Resources and time are dedicated to their portrayal and in so doing communicate what the character is all about to the audience. And Kaidan and Ashley lacking that kind of content is not a net positive.
In ME3, the preceding issues are not addressed and compounded by new decisions. The lack of a strong, initial cutscene remains unsolved. Kaidan’s introduction in 3 is short and dialogue-heavy, before he is once again forcefully removed from the plot, so Shepard and Anderson can shoot their way through the combat tutorial. When he reappears to effectively save Shepard with the Normandy, he doesn’t do much more than fire a standard assault rifle at a bunch of husks. He briefly returns for the segment on Mars, where the dialogue begins to meaningfully address the tension that was resolved for Liara in the preceding game, but he is then forcefully removed from the plot a third time, getting punched straight into hospital. Even the Citadel standoff, one of the few scenes the VS gets with some general plot-relevance, is undercut by the fact that it has to accommodate both Kaidan and Ashley - two characters who are very different. This is where the problem with the biotics really kicks off.
You see, the reason Kaidan is never using his biotics prominently during cutscenes is because he shares a majority of his cutscenes with Ashley, who isn’t a biotic. Outside of the few romance and friendship scenes, such as the Citadel dates, cutscenes for the Virmire Survivor have to accommodate two characters who are fundamentally different. Ashley is more renegade, Kaidan is more paragon, Kaidan has biotic abilities, Ashley does not. Their personalities and skills are almost at opposite ends of a spectrum, but because any one player of the series will only ever be able to keep one of them alive, fewer resources seem to have been spent on each character individually and their biggest, most important scenes have to operate on an ambiguous middle ground. Ashley is impulsive, a renegade and only has her gun at her disposal, so if Shepard hesitates to shoot Udina during the Citadel standoff, Ashley will shoot him for them, same as she did with Wrex in the first game. For her, this is a fine scene. But Kaidan in contrast is supposed to be calm and controlled, has a strong paragon personality and a range of abilities at his disposal. If the cutscene reflected him truthfully, this scene could diverge significantly for Kaidan. He might choose not to kill Udina and instead wrap him in a stasis field, both to spare his life and so he can be interrogated. These are options Ashley does not have, so the cutscene can’t go there.
In general ME3 gave me the distinct feeling that a majority of cutscenes are written with Ashley in mind first and then dialogue is adapted for Kaidan. Liara’s comment about the Virmire Survivor becoming “very capable” makes some sense for Ashley, who started out as gunnery chief and was new to serving aboard a ship, alongside aliens and operating in deep space. Ashley was a bit of a rookie in some sense. Kaidan starts the series as an officer, already in charge of a significant number of soldiers. He already had over a dozen special commendations. I’m certainly not offended on behalf of the character, but this commentary doesn’t make sense unless you ignore everything the world building and codex establishes about Kaidan and just see him as any other soldier, some kind of raw recruit who was looking up to Shepard. Instead, it is Shepard who is afforded several opportunities to ask Kaidan, three years their senior, for advice on both tactics and politics in the first game - and Kaidan who looks out for Shepard in turn. Liara’s commentary is simply not reflective of Kaidan’s role in the story up to this point, or his relationship with Shepard.
His role as Major is undercut on several occasions. After the Citadel standoff, the game briefly forgets that Kaidan outranks Shepard by now, as Joker complains that Kaidan “almost shot a superior officer”. His leadership of the spec ops squad is mentioned and party banter even indicates he finds at least one squad during the game, but we will never meet them. This time I really don’t understand it. I can easily see that you can’t rewrite the entire structure of ME1 to give the marine detail of the Normandy a more active role to play in the story just to better reflect Kaidan’s rank - but I honestly don’t know why there isn’t even a small cutscene involving Kaidan in the Normady’s communications center just talking to his spec ops squad. It’s a huge wasted opportunity to not put names and faces to his students (like we do for Jack). If we don’t have the time or money for a full loyalty mission (which at this point may be sorely needed) that’s one thing. But to choose to ignore the one, cool new thing that is unique to Kaidan, to not spend five minutes on exploring that aspect of his character? It feels like such an obvious problem in hindsight.
His chronic pain barely comes up, which again just feels a bit odd. If you ask me, ME3 is the perfect opportunity to showcase some vulnerability, to display your companions cracking under the pressure of the end of the world. The game does that quite admirably with Shepard, in fact. It doesn’t have to be a scene where he breaks down the way Cullen does, but it wouldn’t take that much to show some of the facade starting to crack.
You can easily add the issue of self-control to that. It might have been interesting for Kaidan to be put into a situation where that self-control could be on display, where a difficult decision might make or break him. It could intensify his romance, to really portray the emotional difficulty of finally reuniting with the person he watched die after two long years.
If you ever catch me complaining about the date at Apollo’s or even the scene in the Citadel DLC, this is why. I don’t hate the idea of Kaidan cracking jokes about his Canadian-ness or his fondness for steak and beer. It’s that these are the things the game chooses to spend time on, to spend money on, when the more fundamental parts of his character are left either entirely on the cutting room floor or restricted to off-handed mentions. There isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with having a cutesy home cooked dinner scene. I could and would even argue for the fact that this kind of normalcy is a great contrast for a character who didn’t have much normalcy in his life. What bugs me about it is the knowledge that money and time were devoted to a custom beer clink animation when the character of Kaidan Alenko, after several years of game development and an entire trilogy, does not have a single cutscene where he prominently displays the extent of his biotic abilities. What bugs me is that the lighthearted and fun stuff ends up taking precedence over the deeper, more meaningful cornerstones of his character, rather than flesh out the strong foundation that could already be there.
Even the fans who really enjoy Kaidan in ME3 seem to be at least tacitly aware that Canadian in-jokes and memes about Kaidan’s fondness for steak and beer feel like a little much. They don’t technically take up that much time - it’s only two cutscenes - but because the character lacks so much on every other front, they become overwhelming. They don’t become a cute contrast of normalcy to a character who has lived a life that was anything but - they become the fundamental cornerstones of his character. They become the thing that people take away from the story. They displace and overshadow everything else that was not prominently featured on screen. And even those of us who have dissected his character to hell and back, who know that a strong foundation is there if you dig deep enough into every codex entry, every smidgeon of dialogue - even we are not immune to the impact of visual storytelling. And even we can end up feeling like there’s a bit too much memeing about Canada, too many discussions of steak and flavors of alcohol.
In the end - what about Kaidan was visually presented on the screen?
That he’ll spend a disconcerting amount of time aimlessly shooting at insects. That he’ll shoot Udina if you won’t. That he really likes steak and alcohol. Anything else, we just don’t see.
If you take all of this together, is it any wonder the main takeaway from a more casual observer is that Kaidan is some relatively uninteresting, painfully average kind of guy?
5. So what?
It’s one thing to identify the issues and even how we got to those issues, but another thing entirely to provide actual, constructive feedback on how to do things better. So I want to spend the next and longest part of this cry for help thought excercise by finding ways to address the issues identified earlier. I’ve already alluded to a few ideas but I want to bring some structure into it.
As such, I want to outline a script, an editor’s note of the existing franchise. I want to brainstorm some basic ideas for cutscenes and interactions that untangle Kaidan from Ashley, that give Kaidan a bit of a space to breathe and develop as a character and in so doing, create better contrast for Ashley, making the choice between the two seem a bit more meaningful.
What I want to avoid is airing my own personal grievances with the way Kaidan was portrayed in ME3. I do not intend to win any arguments over who the “real” Kaidan is. Kaidan is a fictional character who was originally conceived by one writer and then adapted for the third game by another. Small inconsistencies, differences in creative decisions and focus are often unavoidable, so I am uninterested in fostering some kind of bizarre fan civil war. Some people prefer Kaidan in ME3. Some people prefer Kaidan in ME1. I cannot objectively prove which version of the character is better - some fans might never even have felt a tangible difference - so I won’t. And I won’t try and change anything about ME3’s Kaidan that I believe to be my entirely subjective preferences, or result from the kind of differences in style of writing that are inevitable under a new character writer.
Instead, I aim to limit myself to critiquing only those scenes which I believe don’t so much portray Kaidan as “ooc”, because that can mean something different to every single person, but instead simply fail to portray him at all. The scenes that do not provide strong characterization either way, the scenes where I feel like time and money could have been allocated more wisely. I will try and explain my reasoning for why these scenes are often not bad, but achieve less than they could.
I also limit myself in what can feasibly be displayed on screen, if we consider that games are made under time and budget constraints. I will not do anything that would require large rewrites of any of the games. I will try to achieve as much as possible with as little as possible and won’t replace quiet, dialogue-heavy scenes with busy, animation-heavy scenes. I will try to think as a game dev and writer might, with the caveat that a) I am not actually in game dev and might over- or underestimate certain issues and b) I’ve had the past 10 years to think about this in hindsight with the input of an active fanbase, which is a very different environment to be in, than a game dev who’s been given a certain number of months to come up with or adapt someone else’s fictional guy.
This is why I am also uninterested in discussing questions of writing competency, or talk about things in terms of “bad writing”, because I do not feel comfortable rendering that kind of judgment on people working in a field I have no tangible experience in and who worked under conditions so very different from the ones under which I am able to comfortably analyze and critique their choices with a decade of hindsight.
Ultimately, my proposed edits are just my own personal thoughts, though. The idea behind this is to analyze how you visually represent certain characteristics. If you don’t end up liking any of my proposed solutions, if they don’t really match up your interpretation of Kaidan, I hope they at least provide a decent framework for you to come up with your own.
With all this in mind, let’s see what we could do to address the existing problems.
6. How to fix it:
I will be writing this segment mostly with a paragon Shepard in mind. Renegade dialogue options are often confrontational or shut down a conversation, rather than extend it, so for now I am uninterested to also include an “and you can tell him to shut up too!” option at every turn. In a realistic scenario I would of course need to script a full dialogue wheel including diverging paths, but this is already embarrassingly long for a thought exercise. When actions, rather than dialogue, are supposed to reflect a specific morality, I’ll accommodate both paragon and renegade options, but for conversations I will outline a simple click-top-right-on-the-dialogue-wheel path.
All we really need in the first game is a Kaidan-specific cutscene during Eden Prime, affording him the minimum amount of time and resources that are afforded to every other squadmate in the game. I propose the following: As the team encounters the husks for the first time, during the cutscene where they slowly descend from the dragon’s teeth, Shepard, Ash and Kaidan almost get swarmed. Kaidan manages to pull a barrier around them all, pushing the husks out and smashing some of them against the prefab homes. Combat starts after that. Dialogue back on the Normandy will reference this and Shepard can comment on Kaidan’s extensive abilities.
I would also plainly cut both the conversations for Ashley and Kaidan that allow a player to modify their morality. This change is not really reflected in later characterization of either VS, so it has become redundant in retrospect. Removing it makes both characters seem less malleable and more firm. Any character development or change they might go through would be on their own terms.
I suggest altering the Horizon segment and extending it by a little bit. A lot of this comes down to extending dialogue and adding concrete consequences.
In the initial cutscene, neither Kaidan nor Ash stand around firing pointlessly at a bug swarm. Both of them attempt to cover the colonists, but upon realizing their shooting doesn’t accomplish much, they follow the colonists, shooting at the swarm once or twice (Kaidan maybe even remembering to use those biotics that he has), but ultimately run with them to the nearest prefab house and hunkering down.
Shepard, partway through the colony, breaks into that exact house and finds themselves face to face and gun to gun with the Virmire Survivor. They are disbelieving, but there is not much time to ask questions, similar to how we first encounter Tali. To gain their trust, Shepard can share the swarm-countermeasure with the VS, at which point the path diverges depending on which VS is alive and if they have been given the countermeasure:
If Kaidan is alive:
If given Mordin’s countermeasure, Kaidan decides to head back out and try to find as many survivors as he can. He has figured out by now that his biotics can slow the swarm down and barriers hold them off effectively (as we see in the suicide mission later on), so he focuses on protecting people. A paragon Shepard will agree with him, a renegade Shepard may try to get him to focus on killing Collectors instead, but ultimately Kaidan is immune to their influence right now and will move forward with his plan.
Later, when hitting the Collector ship, more of the pods will be empty, but the ship is almost fully staffed. Companion banter indicates that Kaidan protecting the colonists has saved more lives than initially thought. More paragon inclined characters will note their approval, more renegade inclined characters will bemoan that it’s a hollow victory if they don’t finish the rest of the Collectors off. Shepard’s agreement or disagreement depends on their own alignment.
If Ashley is alive:
If given Mordin’s countermeasure, Ashley decides to head back out and shoot as many Collectors as she can. She has enough explosives to blow a decent amount of them to hell and wants to slow them down, so they can’t hit the next colony like they hit Horizon. She lacks the biotic abilities that would let her meaningfully protect the colonists. A renegade Shepard will agree with her, a paragon Shepard may try to get her to focus on protecting colonists instead, but ultimately Ashley is immune to their influence right now and will move forward with her plan.
Later, when hitting the Collector ship, more of the pods will be filled, but the ship is running only a skeleton crew. Companion banter indicates that Ashley going after them has taken out more Collectors than initially thought. More renegade inclined characters will note their approval, more paragon inclined characters will lament that a lot of colonists are dead now to give them this advantage. Shepard’s agreement or disagreement depends on their own alignment.
After the final battle on Horizon, if Shepard gave the VS the countermeasure, they are slightly more amicable in the ensuing dialogue, but ultimately do not join Shepard, still citing distrust of Cerberus and still not fully convinced Shepard isn’t just a clone or a particularly clever VI. They will say that they will share the countermeasure with the Alliance and bolster other human colonies against the seeker swarms. In the debrief, the Illusive Man will be pretty ticked off for sharing such useful tools with the Alliance, but ultimately agrees since this saves human lives. This will also count favorably towards the Citadel stand-off in ME3.
If Shepard did not give the VS the countermeasure, they were unable to participate in the fight, forced to remain locked down with the colonists. They are even more distrustful in the ensuing dialogue and do not join Shepard, still citing distrust of Cerberus and still not fully convinced Shepard isn’t just a clone or a particularly clever VI. Without the countermeasure, human colonies will remain vulnerable to Collector attacks, but a renegade Shepard’s reasoning is that they will put a stop to the attacks themselves. The Illusive Man will compliment Shepard on being discreet and sticking to the mission plan, revealing perhaps in some sense that his care for humanity only goes so far. This will count negatively towards the Citadel stand-off in ME3.
To provide one more, at least marginally stronger initial cutscene for the VS, I would involve them a bit more in the flight from Earth. I would have most of it play out as is but modify the touchdown of the Normandy, giving Kaidan and Ashley something more interesting to do than providing broad, unfocused cover fire.
If Kaidan is alive, he could use his biotics to protect Shepard, raising a barrier and pushing away husks similar to how Jack/Samara can push out the seeker swarms in ME2’s suicide run. This is not just to use the same idea twice - if my proposed scene from ME1 is added, this could be an effective callback.
If Ashley is alive, she could use her marksman ability (her tactical scores are, according to dialogue in ME1, exemplary!) and protect Shepard from husks with a few well-aimed headshots, similar to how Legion protects Shepard during the derelict Reaper mission in ME2.
The important thing is to visually portray both characters as distinct, with unique abilities all to themselves.
I am fine with a majority of the dialogue on Mars (barring earlier criticism of the “very capable” conversation as it applies to Kaidan).
The main change I propose on Mars is that during the final cutscene where the VS is attacked and almost killed by Dr. Eva Core, rather than shoving Liara out of the way, the VS should be shown visibly protecting and saving Shepard. Dialogue later in the game seems to indicate that this is the scene’s intent. Shepard is later portrayed as concerned, possibly guilty over the VS’ injuries and in some dialogue outright states that the VS “got hurt protecting me”, but this is just not what is reflected on screen. Sure, it sounds like pedantry to even bring this up, but players identify strongly with their avatar and a scene in which a character visibly gives their life for the player’s avatar has a very different impact than a scene in which a squadmate visibly protects another.
So, in my opinion, it should be Vega helping Liara away from the fire, while Shepard and the VS approach the shuttle. When Dr. Eva Core turns out to be alive and tries to attack Shepard, the VS pushes Shepard out of the way, after which the VS gets grabbed, affording Shepard enough time to get up and into position to fire at Dr. Eva Core. The rest plays out as is.
This has the added advantage of turning the scene into a more obvious parallel for the events on Eden Prime that kick off the first game. Where once Shepard pushed Kaidan or Ashley out of the way and they had to carry their commander’s unconscious body back to the Normandy, the VS finally gets the opportunity to save Shepard at the risk of their own life in turn.
(Optional: None of the scenes on Mars can be adapted to truly reflect Kaidan’s biotic abilities without fundamentally altering how they play out. For example, the encounter with the turret would have to be amended considerably if Kaidan could meaningfully impact this scene with a biotic barrier, since it’s a tutorial on how to move from cover to cover. Therefore, I am omitting this. If we want to really be sure that no one shouts “plot hole!” just because, dialogue later in the game can posit how Kaidan was tapped out biotically after the fighting in Vancouver and on Mars and therefore was unable to construct a strong barrier when facing the turret or Dr. Eva Core. But that is rationalization of scenes via dialogue and those things missing are not the games’ most glaring issues. Not when contrasted against the missing visual impact of certain cutscenes. This scene is made impactful by Kaidan being severely injured, being pedantic about how he got put into that position isn’t helpful in this case, provided he has ample opportunity elsewhere to show off his abilities.)
I suggest adjusting the Citadel standoff as noted in one of the earlier sections, with one additional change. The Citadel standoff primarily works for Ashley and in my opinion requires no great adjustment. But I would enable Kaidan to make a different choice. Since the standoff is a big emotional scene I would have it test Kaidan’s self-control and show Kaidan’s biotics flaring slightly when confronted by Shepard, then once again more dangerously when Udina pulls out a gun. In a twist, Kaidan, instead of attacking, uses his biotics to trap Udina in a stasis field, allowing Udina to be taken in alive. Maybe that achieves nothing in gameplay terms, maybe Udina is just not high enough up the chain of Cerberus to carry valuable intel, but it would still show that if pushed, Kaidan will remain calm and controlled, take charge of a difficult situation and try to preserve what life he can as a Paragon would.
A renegade Shepard can still choose to shoot Udina anyways. This gives the resulting recruitment dialogue more possibilities too. Kaidan can be grateful that Shepard extended the same trust to him that he has extended to them, enabling them to resolve the standoff peacefully. He might butt heads with a renegade Shepard who shot Udina, as his current dialogue reflects.
By contrast, Ash might butt heads with a paragon Shepard who was hesitant, but might approve of the quick reaction time and decisive action of a renegade Shepard, who shot Udina themselves.
The standoff can largely function as it currently does because it’s not a bad scene in theory - it’s one of the most meaningful the VS ever gets - it simply needs to provide stronger and more distinct characterization for either VS. Two fundamentally different characters should not be making identical choices.
To better display the impact of the war on Kaidan and his chronic pain, I would add visible pain to the very first conversation on the ship, the one about his parents. The scene is already suitably heavy and Kaidan is already voiced to be deep in thought and in emotional turmoil, so it wouldn’t take much. Slap in the idle animation from ME1 of him rubbing his head, add a line of Shepard asking him if he’s doing ok and bam! - players can see the stress of the war getting to him.
There are a number of ways to diversify how this plays out. Maybe a romanced Kaidan puts in more effort to hide his pain, maybe Shepard is shown to quickly cut through his bullshit. Perhaps an opportunity could be offered for a Shepard to reach out and attempt to comfort him in the form of a paragon interrupt, falling into familiar motions from before the Normandy went down. It can be a little tense, a little awkward, a little emotionally fraught.
Most of those ideas hit better than the very general “there’s strength in camaraderie, in empathy” line. This is the first interaction for Kaidan back on the Normandy. It should be a little more personal than that.
(Re-) Initiating Romance
In a more controversial decision, I would toss out the dinner date at Apollo’s entirely and replace it. I’ve said that I would not remove scenes based on personal preference and this is one of those cases where I just don’t think the scene provides adequate characterization.
The basic idea of the Citadel date is a sanity check - a break for Shepard and Kaidan. The restaurant, the food and the drinks are vectors to communicate that idea, but the vector is not the important part, the message is.
Moreover, while a date is cute, this is the scene that potentially reunites Shepard and Kaidan. Whether we’re talking about a female Shepard who romanced Kaidan in ME1, a male Shepard who was never afforded that possibility but for whom the lingering romantic tension can finally blossom into a real relationship in ME3, or a new player who is trying to make sense of two characters who, romantically or platonically, clearly have a history - this scene is pretty significant. Does a romantic dinner date provide useful contrast or does it undercut the potential emotional intensity of what actually happens? Your mileage may vary, but for me, it is the latter.
And that is why I propose a change. Kaidan’s love for steak and beer will a) return in the Citadel DLC anyhow, where food and drink are not just a vector of a message but part of a message. Namely they set the backdrop for a moment of domesticity and normalcy, providing a valuable contrast to the rest of the games and their more emotionally heavy, serious scenes. And b) it returns at least one more time as a throwaway line, which is better suited for that. Food preferences are almost always communicated in small mentions at the periphery of a character. Fandom made a big deal about Alistair’s love for cheese, but that’s one, maybe two off-handed lines in the first game.
(Maybe Kaidan’s original writer was somewhat aware of that idea when he wrote that “I’m glad I’m a vegetarian.” line to play on the sidelines, rather than devote an entire cutscene to it. Maybe it’s entirely incidental. But either way, I think it was the right idea.)
My proposition would be to take that break at a location that is significant to Kaidan and Shepard from the first game. My mind almost immediately went to the scenic view from the wards where Shepard, Kaidan and Ashley first have their moment to just talk. It is the first instance of flirting between Kaidan and a female Shepard, symbolically turning it into the place where their relationship kicked off and making it an emotionally significant location from which to pick that same relationship back up. The locale presents some difficulty from an animation standpoint - the wards weren’t put into the game for ME3 - but the game already reuses assets from the first game when talking to the Council and I see no reason why we can’t do the same here. The location can be polished up with new assets and the view over the ward arms exists in the game, in ME3 you just see it from the docking bay.
With refugees pouring into the docks and shortly after the coup on the Citadel, this part of the wards could be comparatively quiet, empty streets reflecting a Citadel during war time, with people either spending time with their loved ones or letting loose in clubs. Dialogue could clarify this to set a scene of quiet reminiscing and establish that, just as the Citadel’s residents, Kaidan and Shepard take a moment to spend time with the people that are important to them, platonically or romantically - each other.
The conversation would be nostalgic, looking back to their first day on the Citadel, reminiscing about Ashley and bonding in their shared grief. Regardless of specific lines, I think a nostalgic, contemplative mood a) reflects Kaidan as a character better, b) has a heavier, emotional impact on the player (esp. with that incredibly sad music that suddenly overshadows the cozy mood of Apollo’s) and therefore better fits into the narrative arc of ME3, c) better communicates the characters’ shared history, both to returning and new players.
The confession can play out rather similar to the original date, but I would support the emotional tone a bit more with animations. Rather than the calm hand kiss we see, I want to showcase Kaidan’s self-control one last time - this time, by breaking, rather than maintaining it. Regardless of whether this is a returning or a new romance, I think I can justify an impulsive, sudden kiss between the two, initiated by either Shepard with an interrupt, or, if missed, by Kaidan, finally and symbolically giving in (possibly once again) to his feelings for Shepard. If Shepard initiates the kiss, it mirrors the kiss in ME1 on the flight to Ilos. If Kaidan initiates it, it becomes a parallel that maybe indicates some measure of character development on his part has taken place - here, at the end of the world, he’s finally, truly letting go. (Can you tell I like parallels?) A harmless flare of his biotic corona underlines this idea and could give rise to a bit of jokey flirting.
Animation-wise, think Solas’ first kiss in the Fade or Cullen’s first kiss on the battlements. If that’s not in the budget, maybe they can reuse it from the first game? This is where it probably shows that I am not in game dev and therefore cannot properly estimate how easily animations are converted from one game to another, so it’s entirely possible that this kiss is a bigger challenge than I think it is. But a hand kiss is a unique animation too, costs money and time to make too, so I like to think a regular kiss would not be completely out of the question or out of the budget.
One criticism that can be leveled at this idea is that this isn’t as much of a break - not as much of a sanity check as the original date at Apollo’s, but for me, creating strong characterization is more important than sticking to any one writer’s original plan for a scene, even if their original idea was good on paper. If you feel very strongly about the date at Apollo’s, if you have an emotional connection to it, I understand if this seems like an unnecessary and unwelcome change. I hope it’s at least understandable why I think changes like this are valuable, even if any one person does not agree.
The only thing we’re missing now is something that adequately portrays Kaidan as an officer, teacher, leader of people. I’ve already said I won’t script additional, animation-heavy content like, say, an entire mission (loyalty or otherwise) and want to come out under or within the current scope. So I am replacing another scene that isn’t fundamentally wrong or “bad writing”, but underutilizing the character.
I’m specifically talking about the Cerberus debrief after Jacob’s mission. While I think it’s a decent portrayal of Kaidan’s character - he is shown to be introspective, thoughtful and empathetic - I don’t think it adds enough to really justify its existence. Kaidan reflects on Cerberus and comes to the realization that some people in Cerberus might have been “good” people. Which doesn’t seem like the kind of epiphany he needed to have.
This kind of dialogue implies we’re supposed to believe Kaidan had an extremely simplistic “evil bad people” view of Cerberus as an organization, which undercuts his intelligence. He was already pretty insightful about politics, especially when it came to the distinction of “pro human” and “human supremacy”. Dialogue about Udina, about humanity and its place in the galaxy and his responses to the presidential candidate from Terra Firma already establish Kaidan as savvy enough that he probably shouldn’t be so completely blindsided by the idea that some people working for Cerberus might have been doing so for the right reasons. Several of those people are already on the Normandy, including Kenneth and Gabby, Joker, Dr. Chakwas - and the person he is literally talking to right now. For Kaidan to have this epiphany only now and in such simplistic terms, visibly stumped by a morally complex situation, seems almost condescending.
In short - ideas are being communicated that a) don’t need to be communicated from a player’s perspective, who is already submersed in the moral complexity of working with Cerberus in ME2, b) wouldn’t be particularly useful in providing context for the new players and c) doesn’t communicate an idea that Kaidan would really be struggling with at this point. And if it doesn’t do any of that, then it seems arbitrary to have it and I feel no great sense of loss by replacing it with a scene that is absolutely sorely needed - an introduction to Kaidan’s spec ops squad.
With the upgraded communications room and the fancy new blue holographic imaging, the choice feels rather obvious. Shepard gets a message to join Kaidan for a call when they can. Biotics division has made contact with Anderson as they are currently fighting on Earth, who put them through to Kaidan and Shepard.
Shepard walks in mid-conversation as Kaidan is talking to the holographic images of his XOs; maybe Anderson makes an appearance too, bringing them all together. The particulars of the dialogue are once again not that important. I would simply include something that reflects Kaidan’s intelligence and tactical know-how, giving his people advice on things - maybe how to secure rations, maybe how to approach a specific mission. The important thing is - you are seeing Kaidan leading. Some informal banter between him and his squad can cement an emotional connection Kaidan has with his people.
There’s probably space here for both light-hearted banter/flirting, or other more emotionally heavy conversations about hope, tough calls and the end of the world. Kaidan could reflect on his position and how he feels about it after everything Vyrnnus once put him through. I don’t want to settle in favor of any specific idea because like I said, I don’t want to script out the exact dialogue wheel, but rather set the stage for a general scene that can go a variety of ways, be used in any manner to communicate something fundamental about the character. The important thing is seeing Kaidan having a relationship with his squad and Shepard, not me dictating what that relationship looks like exactly.
Aaaaand that’s it! There’s nothing else I think is in desperate need of extensive editing. The Citadel DLC scene can remain happily as it is - because now it has become a bit more stand-out, a bit of a better contrast to the rest of the games’ content. Anything else I might note would be based on my own personal preference, rather than meaningfully contribute to visual characterization.
7. The core issues: resolved?
After all that, let’s do a recap and see what original issues we have addressed and how we’ve addressed them.
Characterization through biotic abilities:
Added the display of biotics in all three games, mostly focusing on defensive abilities (barrier, one of his core abilities), showing us a more protective, caring Kaidan. When he uses offensive abilities, it is ultimately in service of protection, which is fitting for a sentinel - the resident tank class. The use of his biotics displays a character who is calm and in control of himself and the battlefield.
Cementing Kaidan’s morality:
No opportunity to change Kaidan fundamentally. He is his own person.
Paragon morality is depicted in both the main interactions in which Kaidan is presented with a choice - Horizon and the Citadel standoff. When Kaidan is permitted to act, he acts like a Paragon.
Displaying Kaidan’s leadership:
In ME2, Kaidan is shown doing his utmost to protect the residents of Horizon. That may not be leadership in a military sense, but it does show that he can take responsibility for other people’s lives and take charge of a situation.
In ME3, Kaidan is shown interacting with his students. While we still can’t see him in action without more extensive changes, we can get a glimpse of what he might be like as a leader based on how his troops interact with him.
Empathizing via pain:
Kaidan is now shown at least once to visibly strain under his migraines. It also affords Shepard the opportunity to emotionally connect with him in this moment of pain.
Kaidan now showcases strong self-control even in a very tense, high stakes situation during the Citadel standoff, using his abilities to pacify and control the situation, to avoid harm. It becomes an inversion of his original fight with Vyrnnus. Kaidan’s an adult now and he chooses to use his abilities to prevent harm, not cause it.
On the flipside, because he manages to resist the loss of control here, it makes it feel more significant when he finally loses it in the romance scene. It underlines how strongly he feels about Shepard and how liberating their relationship is for him.
8. I think we might finally be done here
In the end, your mileage may vary on how much you like my proposed changes. I am not the original writer of Kaidan Alenko, I can only give my interpretation of the character and at best speculate about narrative intent. Other fans might interpret characters differently, might prioritize different things. The things that I see, value and love in Kaidan Alenko might not be the things you see, value and love in Kaidan Alenko. The scenes I suggest removing might be so important to you that you can’t get behind the idea of changing anything about them. And that’s ok.
My goal with this… whatever the fuck this is, is not to prove what Kaidan’s characterization is or should be, but to illustrate how characters in video games are characterized and use that technique to construct a characterization for Kaidan. You can use the same thought exercise to come up with scenes that better reflect your Kaidan Alenko. Maybe you really just enjoy the character as he is and don’t think anything needs fixing, in which case, boy I hope you didn’t put yourself through reading this entire thing.
In the end, I made this mostly for myself, because I enjoyed it as a creative exercise and because in a way it allowed me to exorcize (get it? Exorcize, exercise? ) a lot of the things that have been itching in my brain for the past decade.
I may in the future fully script the proposed dialogue scenes, as another creative exercise and will happily post them here as well. If anyone else manages to get a kick out of it, that’s fine and dandy.
And with that, I rest my case.
Kaidan Alenko is one of the most interesting characters in the Mass Effect universe on paper. Because he lacks a number of character-specific cutscenes, misses large parts of the plot and ultimately shares a large part of his scripted animations with another character, players cannot pick up much of that character while playing the game. Seemingly small parts of his personality, like food preferences, do get screen time and become almost overwhelming, rather than provide additional detail to a well-defined character. The result is a character that requires a not-inconsiderable amount of time and effort spent dissecting dialogue and connecting codex entries to find the real personality underneath.