We’re pairing 8-bit music thematically, rather than based entirely on series. You can find this track and more Tater-Tot Tunes on YouTube! Stop by and jam to some great tunes.
Normal Happenings is proud to present The Characters That Define Us, a year long collaboration of 52+ incredible bloggers!
We’d like to welcome one of the most creative, philosophical bloggers in the sphere! Today we’re honored to have AmbiGamer with us, and this is a blog you should always pay attention to whenever a new piece is released.
Despite being a newcomer to our collaborations, AmbiGaming has always been super supportive of Normal Happenings. We are grateful for their support over the years.
Without further delay, please share with us the character that defines you!
Being asked to define ourselves can be one of the most daunting questions to answer. As complex beings, we can describe ourselves by physical traits, beliefs, shared histories, culture, likes and dislikes, and many other classifications. When I heard that Normal Happenings was having a Characters That Define Us collaboration, I jumped at the idea, and immediately felt overwhelmed.
One character that encapsulates who I am? Let the existential crisis begin.
We were asked to give three options, and the one character that has, above all others, truly shone as a definition of me has been…
Samantha Traynor, Communication Specialist on the SSV Normandy SR-2, from Mass Effect 3.
Very briefly, the two other options I gave were Solid Snake of Metal Gear Solid series fame, and Leliana from Dragon Age games fame. Even until a few days before beginning to write, I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision with Samantha. After all, Solid Snake has been a gaming hero of mine for longer than Samantha, and anyone who has glanced even passingly at AmbiGaming knows how much I love Leliana.
But Samantha is different. Samantha was one of the few video game characters that I have ever met and felt an instant connection with. I realized that she was the character most like me… and most like the person I want to be.
It was sort of interesting how my introduction to Samantha happened. It was my first playthrough of the Mass Effect series, and after playing the Shadow Broker DLC for Mass Effect 2 I was… rather unamused by Liara, whom my Shepard had been in a relationship with. Long story short, after Shepard falls out of a window, Liara runs past her without even stopping to ask if she was okay, so focused on her objective was she. It reminded me of a (minor) car accident I had been in and, after calling my then-girlfriend, was met with shuddering sobs and having to console her – and not once did she ever ask if I was okay, so wrapped up in her own distress was she.
But, my in-game Shepard stayed with her, because out-of-game Athena knew from her hours with Dragon Age and Leliana that Liara would probably do a lot of the story’s heavy-lifting, and so I didn’t want to miss out. And thus, on my first full playthrough my Shepard was dutifully loyal to the asari that I was so angry at.
But I’d be lying if I said that, as Mass Effect 3 progressed, I didn’t feel more naturally drawn to Samantha than I ever did Liara.
One aspect of Samantha that I found so refreshing was that, upon meeting Shepard, I got the feeling that Samantha was trying her best to make a good impression, but was also possibly very nervous and thus not always hitting the mark when it came to how she presented herself. But it was so nice – and again, I use the word “refreshing” – to see someone so… like me.
She was obviously someone not the most comfortable in social situations (and she admits this in the Citadel DLC) but never acts as if she is shy or retiring. She seems painfully self-aware, shaking her head at herself when she hears some of her poorly-timed jokes fall flat, but continuing on good-naturedly.
How nice to find a character that can make mistakes, doesn’t take herself too seriously, but navigates her world as effectively as any other, more archetypal, character.
Another characteristic that jumped out at me when I first met Samantha was that she was not willing to immediately tell Shepard every detail about herself. Sure, there were other characters who opened up more as Shepard got to know them, but one thing that I really liked about Samantha is that you really had to be nice to her in order for her to, you know, like you. And she’s a character that’s easy to overlook – Shepard actually needs to make the effort to talk to her.
I read an interview with the developer responsible for creating Samantha, and his original plan was to have her be a homosexual character whose big character arc was coming to terms with her sexual orientation while in a military setting. After running it by a few friends and relatives, this design was met with a resounding “NO.”
And I’m glad it was. While this is still a trait of Samantha’s, it isn’t her defining feature, and it sets the stage for her to be so much more than the glorified gay crewmember that Shepard can enter into a relationship with.
I’ve talked before in other articles about what characteristics make a player identify with a character. While physical characteristics are important, what draws people to a character most strongly are actual personality traits that they identify with. Our ability to find commonalities between ourselves and other people who might, at first glance, seem very different than us is an important human trait and enables us to empathize with characters who might otherwise seem vastly different than us.
At a first glance, Samantha Traynor and I really don’t have much in common, besides hair color. Our ethnic backgrounds, choice of career, chess acumen, and ability to
shower in someone else’s bathroom with the door open in order to attract them tend bar at parties are vastly different.
What struck me about Samantha was that she was… real. While I appreciated a canonically homosexual woman character, that’s not enough for me to identify along with someone. But Samantha’s sexual orientation was a non-issue. It had no bearing on the story, and wasn’t in there just so she could be ogled as a curiosity or sexual object. Her orientation was there but not expounded upon. That was refreshing. It was realistic. It was like me.
It was also so nice to see a character that, besides this somewhat (in my opinion) superficial detail, shared so many characteristics with me and yet was not overlooked. What I mean to say is that Samantha seems very introverted, even going so far as to claim that she is “allergic” to public speaking. She is incredibly hardworking, although much of her work is done behind the scenes, and doesn’t quite ask for recognition, but does expect to be taken seriously (as evidenced by her relationship with Shepard if he/she does vs. doesn’t follow up on her leads).
I remember my heart almost breaking when she seemed surprised while thanking Shepard for checking into a lead she had uncovered for Grissom Academy – it was a small, stealthily-time-sensitive quest that she brings up casually in a passing conversation that Shepard could easily ignore. It seems odd to say, but I could hear my voice sounding just as pleasantly surprised as hers, albeit in a different situation.
And it didn’t stop there. At every turn, Samantha demonstrated a duality of characteristics that I’ve had trouble finding in other female characters. She is brilliant and yet somehow a hypochondriac (and is aware of it, too), she can tend bar and play video games and yet wanted to save up money to go to the spa, she was gay and yet I always got the feeling that she never felt the need to lift heavy things for no reason, didn’t ever play softball, was probably useless if there was a big bug in the room, and could probably color-coordinate (this is a joke. Please, Internet, tell me you know it’s a joke).
She wasn’t ever a stereotype, either as a gay woman, a nerd, or a military analyst. She was a real person, and while she may not have automatically expected people she perceived as “better” than her to listen when she talked, she was always unapologetically who she was.
Finding Her Voice
Watching Samantha find her stride and become more comfortable as the events of Mass Effect 3 progressed was like watching a sped-up version of my college, early professional, and graduate school years. This may come as a surprise to you, but I was not always the witty, confident, and self-possessed Athena you see before you today. I am rather quiet, and have worked hard on how I present myself to the world, from studying body language to role-playing conversations with my parents and, when they were not available, out loud in front of a mirror so I could hear my voice and see how my face and body looked and moved when speaking.
But boy, did it take years to feel confident enough to put myself forward in an unassuming way and to feel confident in what I was saying – even if I objectively knew more about a topic than the person I was talking to, and even if I occasionally managed to fake it.
Samantha goes through a similar transition from the beginning of the game, when she is a somewhat-terrified communication specialist who thanks Shepard for taking her seriously, to the confident woman who – if in a relationship with Shepard – will give her a tough-love talk and standing strong for the hero at the end of the game.
What I especially love about this – and this relates back to Samantha being “real” – is that she doesn’t magically go through this transformation because the story demands it, or because she is somehow magically healed by Shepard’s presence. Her confidence seems to increase with each piece of data that is taken seriously, and when she falters, even EDI steps in to back her up, reminding her that, for lack of better words, she’s “got this.”
I appreciated that while Samantha doesn’t apologize for who she is, and doesn’t seem to have any “problems” with herself, her fellow crewmates (in this case, Shepard in particular) need to, you know, be supportive and nice to her in order for her to come out of her shell. She has a voice, and will use it when she has to, but it takes her feeling appreciated to use it most effectively.
That, and watching her going from the quiet, retiring comm specialist to admitting that she wants to physically rip a Reaper apart with her bare hands. I mean, everyone loves an unexpected badass, right?
Especially one that can save the galaxy with a toothbrush.
Learning About Relationships
When I was writing my notes for this, this section was summarized with the following sentence: Leliana showed me I could be loved, and Samantha showed me how to be loved (and how to love in return).
That sounds… incredibly sappy, but it’s true. Poor Leliana may have taken a piece of my heart when I played Dragon Age: Origins the first time, but when it came to Samantha, I saw the type of person not only that I wanted to be in a relationship, but also the type of person I was looking for.
Samantha is the only person in the entire series that Shepard can romance who does not have any kind of “personal quest” (not counting watching her Kepesh-Yakshi tournament in the Citadel DLC). She loves Shepard and, really, doesn’t ask for anything in return other than for Shepard to treat her nicely and take her seriously when she says things.
I mean, who could really ask for more?
As long-time readers of AmbiGaming know, my last relationship was not exactly healthy, and it left me shaken about the kind of person I was and, if I’m being honest, the kind of partner I could be in any hypothetical future relationship. Watching Samantha, I had an “a-ha!” moment, because there on the screen was what I wanted. She acted the way I wanted to be sure I acted in the future, and showed me that there could possibly be someone in the world who wouldn’t stomp all over me, even if I had a soft edge to me. Watching her and Shepard felt real in a way I can’t describe. I felt comforted, thinking that maybe the kind of even, give-and-take relationship I wanted could be real.
I often resist talking about very personal details in my blog posts, as I am a pretty private person. The things I talk about are usually things that I am not bothered by sharing. They are things that are private enough that I can expose something personal, while simultaneously not being emotionally charged so I don’t feel too exposed out here on the wild Internet.
I could ramble on and on about each detail of Samantha that has ever resonated with me (even more than I’ve already done), but what it boils down to is that here is a woman who is three-dimensional, realistic, and full of contradictions. She was like a breath of fresh air, not only reflecting my own traits back at me, but also reflecting back traits that I aspire to have, or to develop further.
Samantha Traynor defines me by our similarities, but also by defining me as I want to be. She defines the thoughts I have never been able to put into words. She showed me a character that was like me in more ways than I’ve ever seen. There was no “Yes, but…” It’s easy to point at a character and pick out all the things that make you different from them.
The most profound description I can give is that, in a long lineup of characters that help me express the “no” (or “Yes, but…”) about who I am, Samantha was the only one who has ever wholly and completely been a “yes.”
Adventure Map! *FINISHING UP!*