Excellence in Characterization – Dr. Chakwas: Mass Effect

This is the first part of what I hope to make a reoccurring series on excellence in characterization. Be warned. This edition contains minor spoilers on Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.

One part Bones, One part Hollywood Rebel.

Take one part Helen Mirren, one part Bones of Star Trek fame and you will come up with one Dr. Chakwas of Mass Effect. Dr. Chakwas has become one of my favourite female, minor characters in gaming.

I have loved the way she was written from day one. She represents the best in what I feel minor characters should do; she adds flavour to the series, she further adds layers and nuance to other main characters and to the universe in which they all coexist. She also leaves you wanting to know a little bit more.

First: the facts. Dr. Chakwas is the Chief Medical Officer on board the Normandy, and thus is under the main protagonist, Commander Shepard’s, command.  She is a veteran military doctor, I’ll put her around 50 or older. When tragedy strikes the Normandy, she ends up once again under Commander Shepard’s command, this time with Cerberus.

Pretty standard “the good doctor” fare. Nothing new so far.

Where things get interesting is when you speak with the doctor about her motives for being on board the Normandy.  Her answer is simple yet nuanced. She talks about how she wanted to save the lives of brave soldiers with steely eyes and deep, sensitive souls (le sigh). The writing could have been hokey, and perhaps a bit insulting, however she comes across as poking gentle fun at her much younger, naive self. Yes, that is what she thought then, and how silly. Yet, there is a twinkle in her eye. You see that she had an adventurous streak in her, and you can see that still as the game progresses.

Later, Commander Shepard basically has a chance to ask Dr. Chakwas this question again. After Normandy v1.0 got blown to bits, she had the opportunity to go anywhere. Shepard also makes  a point of stating that it’s a suicide mission, they probably aren’t coming back. Once again, is she SURE she wants to be here? 

Again, it’s not a simple answer.  She says how she has gone through hell and high water with the Alliance Military, suicide missions don’t bother her. What this shows is that she is not the same bleeding heart romantic that she once was. She ditched the romantic, but kept that sense of adventure and duty. She could not be herself anywhere else but in a military type outfit. Damn what she is “supposed” to do or want. She is doing what is good for HER. Even if it means a not so comfortable life.

I stated in the opener that Dr. Chakwas is one part Helen Mirren. I said this for a reason. although there is a physical resemblance, the similarities are deeper. I once read somewhere that Helen got a tattoo ages ago: before it became the norm. It was a *statement* back then. Something you did if you prided yourself on doing and being the unexpected. There would have been consequences. Women DIDN’T do things like that. And I suspect that Dr. Chakwas has many such stories of her past, ones that she may not shout on the tallest mountain (like Jack) but that she quietly keeps close to her self.

When further pressed, Dr. Chakwas does what a minor character’s role is to do. She provides insight into the other characters. In general, we come to know characters not just through their own words and actions, but from the words and actions of those around them. Dr. Chakwas performs this role perfectly. She speaks about how she would basically follow Shepard to hell and back. Now we already established that Dr. Chawas is no one’s fool. She does her own thing, she has her own mind. If this strong woman is willing to follow Shepard, what kind of person must Shepard be?

She also provides layers to the universe. She says that another reason why she is on the Normandy is that she feels the need for family. She can patch up soldiers, and they will go do their job, but Joker- the ship’s pilot-  has special needs. His brittle bones mean that he will always need medical care, and she has come to care for him. She needs him, as much as he needs her. There is a real caring and empathy. 

In the middle of a dire, dangerous mission for the very survival of humanity,  Dr. Chakwas gives us reasons why humanity is worth saving: we love each other. This is a distinct counter balance to some of the terrifying and shocking things that the universe of Mass Effect shows us. It gives us hope for better and this hope was written as a realistic interplay between two people and it didn’t hit us over the head in some ham-fisted manner.

When we look at the overall picture we see a distinctly feminine character, but one that is different from what we are used to seeing. She is strong, caring but there is steel and humour. She has a naive history, but grew up fast. She provided insight to other characters and to the universe of the game itself.  Although she is a minor character she is extremely important to the game and her part is played with perfection. I want more.

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  • glamgeekgirl  On August 23, 2010 at 10:17 am

    Haha, you’re so right about that Helen Mirren part!!!

    Interesting observations! I liked her too, but I feel like I haven’t paid as much attention. I was more focused on Kelly Chambers being so cliché (remember yeoman Janice Rand in Star Trek, ooing and aahing around Kirk? I HATE that cliché!) that I wished I could talk her into joining my ranks for the real deal. 🙂

    • yellingatpixels  On August 23, 2010 at 11:07 am

      Oh I hated Kelly. She added nothing to the story and, like you said was a pathetic stereotype.

  • Falelorn  On August 25, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    The Doc was actually one of the more memorable 3rd Tier NPC’s from ME and ME2. She is a very well designed character both emotionally and in her characteristics which as you deal with her, especially in ME2, you realize she is a very important character even if she does not pick up a plasma rifle and ping off Geth.

  • 2Belts  On September 5, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Dr. Chakwas really is an amazing character. The writing for her and her voice actress were both top notch to the point that she felt like a part of the team even though she never went planetside with you. I really loved that fleet ships weren’t just an means to an end for her, she wanted the thrill of deep space just like the rest of the crew. If it weren’t for Joker she’d definitely be my fav NPC though the 2 Cerberus engineers BioWare added were pretty good as well.

    I had a completely different read on Kelly than the other commenters here though. I didn’t really see her as a stereotype but using her femininity to ensure she maintains access to the crew. As a mental health professional most people on that ship would be at best cool to her if not openly hostile to her given the stigma most soldiers attach to her profession. If she were to be as clinical as Dr. Chakwas nobody would open up to her and she becomes unable to maintain morale. Her job boils down to her giving Shepard enough warning before someone is about to seriously go off the rails in a situation with an already low chance of survival. I don’t think BioWare wrote her as someone who is meant to be viewed as simple “eye candy” and 1 dimensional rather as someone with an extremely challenging job. Now that I think about Kelly provides a very interesting juxtaposition with Dr. Chakwas. Really it would have been pretty awesome if you had gotten each team member’s loyalty mission from Kelly rather than the actual person as a way of showing Kelly interacting with the crew.

  • JLJ  On September 14, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    I never really paid much attention to Dr. Chakwas in ME1, but I was certainly happy to see her in ME2. I think the character really resonated with me with she and I sat down in the medical bay and had that talk. It really opened my eyes to her loyalty and her motivations.

    That was a wonderful piece. I hope there are more posts like this one.

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