In Defense of Boring

Poor Jacob Taylor.

It boggles my mind when game critics whose opinions I otherwise find to be deep and insightful write off a character like Jacob as “boring.” It’s not that I don’t understand where they’re coming from. I’ve heard it explained to me: he is average, he is unremarkable, his backstory and his problems are all mundane in contrast to a crew filled with scaly raptor men, genetically perfect smarmy assholes, chatty AI, and creepy unblinking blue paladin ladies out to kill their vampire daughters. Compared to all that, yeah, Jacob is practically a blank slate. Kind of like… Shepard.

Here is the thing I don’t think anyone keeps in mind when they write off Jacob Taylor. Of the entire cast of the Mass Effect franchise, he is the only character besides Shepard to bear the distinction of full on player character. Not temporary PC, ala Joker. He has an entire game to himself, Mass Effect Galaxy. I haven’t played it (and I don’t know anyone who has) but I was personally thrilled to come face to face with the only character who might qualify as Shepard’s counterpart. Because that’s exactly who he is, and I’m sure that’s what the developers intended him to symbolize, whether or not that significance got across to the average player.

Granted, depending on your tailoring of Shepard’s backstory, it’s true she can have more interesting origins than most. But over the normal progression of gameplay, she is pretty much flat as a board when it comes to her own personal depth. You barely hear mention of her past exploits, nor do the details ever matter because whichever path you choose never influences the proceedings. That’s precisely why the game surrounds Shepard with the most colorful characters with the most outrageous daddy issues in the galaxy. She’s a freaking Jacob. The only significant difference are the number of opportunities she’s offered to do big and exciting things. Without three epics under her belt, she and Jacob are exactly the same kind of vanilla, utterly malleable stock character.

It’s not that I have no issues with Jacob. Making his loyalty mission yet another tale of black paternal abandonment is lazy in the least and excruciatingly problematic the deeper down into the issue you go. But I refuse to dismiss the entire character out of hand for that. To me, he’s an image of what Shepard would be if the narrative abandoned her before Eden Prime. Mishandled, tertiary, and as an unfortunate consequence: boring.

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Comments

  • Dan Cox  On 04.11.12 at 12:48 pm

    I had in mind to write something along the lines of what you have mentioned, that, because Shepard is so utterly boring, the characters around her must be more exaggerated and exciting. Jacob has the daddy issues to fill that niche, to be the mirror, for a moment, so that players can try out that reflection.

    “Maybe my Shepard has crazy daddy issues too. That might explain why she went into the Space Navy, survived a massacre or even grew up tough in a colony. She was driven by her scars, or lack thereof.”

    Without a history, even a player-created one, Shepard is just a name (or idea). if your sheep are boring, does that make your job less exciting? If you do not have to choose between saving one over saving another, is it boring?

  • Jonathan McCalmont  On 04.11.12 at 1:21 pm

    I have an interesting experience regarding Jacob:

    The first time that I played through ME2, Jacob struck me as boring. What made him boring was not so much the details of his backstory as the fact that he’s there right from the beginning and he’s almost uncritically loyal. Because that relationship was so easy and so straightforward right from the get go, Jacob struck me chiefly as a set of training wheels allowing you to learn how to interact with other more complex characters.

    However, the second time I played through ME2, I played as a FemShep and the relationship instantly seemed a whole lot more interesting. Suddenly, Jacob and Shepard were flirting and so Jacob’s unquestioning loyalty seemed grounded in sexual desire. Furthermore, because my FemShep was both ruthless and casually cruel, Jacob’s loyalty seemed to shed some light on his past. Sure he fancied FemShep something rotten and would support her because of that but maybe his attraction had something to do with the fact that he too had been in the shit…

    Jacob did take me completely by surprise on that second playthrough as it really did make a huge difference that Jacob and Shepard wound up shagging. It cast their relationship in an entirely different light and unlocked whole new facets of Jacob’s personality.

    So maybe Jacob simply works better with a female Shepard?

    • Kris Ligman  On 04.11.12 at 1:32 pm

      That could be. I habitually play as femShep, but I’ve always maintained a platonic relationship with Jacob. My Shepards do tend to become close friends with him, though. To me he’s more of a sibling figure, the brother who didn’t get the same opportunities I did (which is probably a huge heaping pile of projection as well).

    • circadianwolf  On 04.11.12 at 6:57 pm

      Jacob is also better with FemShep if you’re not at all interested in flirting with him, oddly because there seems to be no way to interact with him without flirting with him.

      My experience with Jacob both times I played through ME2 was:
      Shepard: “”
      Jacob: “Uh… Why is my commanding officer coming on to me?”
      Me: “Uh… I just want to know about him, not bone him right here. Is that possible?”
      Shepard: “”
      Jacob: “Uh, I’m really not comfortable with this, Commander.”
      Me: “Shit. How do I get out of this?”
      Shepard: “”
      Jacob: “……….awkwardness……….”
      Me: “FUCK. GET ME OUT OF THIS CONVERSATION.”
      Shepard: “”
      Jacob: “Thanks for the conversation, maybe we can talk later? And you won’t lean towards sexual pressure on an officer under your command?”
      Me: “OH GODS IT’S OVER THANK YOU”
      Me: “Don’t worry, Jacob, we will never speak again.”

      And we didn’t. Aside from the nobody-says-rape mission.

      • circadianwolf  On 04.11.12 at 6:58 pm

        Oh, apparently I shouldn’t use brackets in my comments. >.>

        Well, Shepard’s lines there are all variations on “flirty”, if that wasn’t clear.

  • Kateri  On 04.11.12 at 2:08 pm

    That’s interesting, I had no idea he was the PC of Galaxy.

    …doesn’t change the fact he IS boring though, does it! ;P

  • Cat Goodfellow (@CatG138)  On 04.11.12 at 2:57 pm

    In a way, Jacob reminds me of Ashley from ME1 – the straight-talking soldier type which, coincidentally, is the same way I play my FemShep. I like your analogy of being the “Shepard that never was”, because I got the same vibe from Ashley too. She’s undeniably capable, but when the history books are written both she and Jacob will get footnotes in Shepard: Biography of a Heroine.

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