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When the Illusive Man shot himself near the end of Mass Effect 3, it was an oddly emotional moment for me. He was the dark reflection of Commander Shepard; dedicated, smart, and determined. Shepard was on the side of the angels, seeking the good of all life in the galaxy. The Illusive Man wanted to protect human kind above all and dreamed of homo sapiens as preeminent in the galaxy. In the end, he failed and his last words were, “I tried, Shepard.” Then he shot himself in the head.
For a moment, I contemplated his life—his achievements, the compromises he’d made, the depths to which he had sunk, and the heights to which he could have ascended before I returned to the mission at hand (the galaxy needed me, after all, I couldn’t just sit there mourning his death forever).
Long after the final credits rolled, my mind kept wandering back to the Illusive Man. Certainly, Martin Sheen’s voice acting gave the character gravitas, but my fascination went beyond just enjoying a good performance. The Illusive Man is an intriguing, complex character. It would be easy to write him off under the category of “does evil in the name of a greater good.” Except that his goal had nothing to do with the greater good. He started from a wicked premise and followed his goals relentlessly.
The Illusive Man founded a pro-human terrorist organization called Cerberus. Using his personal wealth and companies he created, he sent operatives on missions to advance his humans-first agenda. He was willing to sacrifice lives to achieve his ends, pursuing his goals without compromise. The government condemned his group as terrorists. His followers—people who believed humanity had been put down by the galactic powers—loved him all the more for that. I, on the other hand, loathed him and all that he stood for.
And yet I owed him.
In Mass Effect 2, he resurrected my character. He believed that Commander Shepard was the most effective weapon humanity had developed—not only in the fight for supremacy, but also in a coming war against a life-destroying force called the Reapers. I was reluctant to be allied with a terrorist group, but I felt indebted. The Illusive Man had brought me back and offered me the resources I needed to fight the Reapers.
Of course, the Illusive Man manipulated and betrayed me. Nothing mattered more to him than his own agenda. He sincerely believed that he was the only one capable of taking the right steps to secure humanity’s future. Near the end of Mass Effect 2, I had to choose between destroying an alien base or taking it over as a prize of war. I feared that it’s technology might give the Illusive Man near-limitless power and I couldn’t see that ending well; I destroyed the base.
“I knew you would choke on the hard decisions,” he sneered.
I wasn’t so sure I hadn’t made the hard decision, but the Illusive Man wouldn’t hear of it.
At the beginning of Mass Effect 3, his commitment to the cause had gone one step further. No longer content to just defeat the Reapers, he wanted to harness them.
“Imagine how strong humanity would be if we controlled them,” he said.
His mistaken belief in his own superiority was staggering… and tragically misplaced. Yet his final words stuck with me for reasons it took a long time to understand.
“I tried, Shepard.”
From the very beginning, it had all been his show. He had rejected the idea of anything that wasn’t part of his agenda. He had walled himself away from the citizens of the larger galaxy because he wanted humanity to “win.” Even that wasn’t enough and he showed himself willing to kill humans who weren’t on board with him. Everything really was about him.
In the end it wasn’t enough. HE tried. HE failed.
By contrast, I spent most of the third game building alliances to aid in defeating the Reapers. Without that willingness to be inclusive—to recognize and acknowledge the limits of my own resources—I would have failed as well.
In the larger world outside of the game, it’s easy to fall into the Illusive Man’s trap. It is easy to believe that I can “lean unto my own understanding” and go it alone. Other people will just confuse me and slow me down. At work and at home, I’m tempted daily to say I’ll just do things “the right way”—my way.
Except, of course, that’s just a lie I tell myself. History pretty much proves that my way isn’t always the right way and even when I happen to be right, it’s better to bring other people along with me than drive them away. If I give in to the temptation of being always right, I’m choosing to be the villain of my own life.
It isn’t all about me. There are other people and other points of view to consider. I’d rather my last words were, “I served my community.” That, I believe, would be an epitaph to be proud of.
He has been married to an extraordinarily patient woman for more than three decades and they have two adult sons. Kevin also has entirely too many DVD boxes with the words "Complete Series" on the cover. He enjoys exploring themes of faith through his fandoms.
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