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"There's no Shepard without Vakarian." Those words ring loud and true to anyone who's played through the original Mass Effect trilogy. It's an earned declaration; for years at this point, Garrus had been one, possibly the only, mainstay of Commander Shepard's journeys through the Milky Way galaxy.
Garrus Vakarian, a former C-SEC security officer turned dropout, rogue, vigilante, and later military consultant on kicking Reaper ass, is one of the few constants in the Mass Effect universe. He's by your side the longest—just barely beating Tali—and he's always eager to go wherever Shepard goes. He's a sniper rifle-toting commando with a heart of gold, but he doesn't start out that way. In going back to the first Mass Effect, you might barely recognize him.
When you first meet Garrus at the Citadel, he's a weary C-SEC officer chasing a lead no one wants him to chase. He knows Saren—the Turian Spectre who you discover killed another Spectre before going rogue—is guilty, but his higher-ups have closed the case.
He's an amiable ally to have, being one of the few people on the Citadel who knows what Saren is, and he also has the means to help you uncover the proof you need. But once Garrus' purpose is served, he fades into the background a bit. He joins the crew of the Normandy, leaving behind his old life full of rules and regulations, in order to galavant around the universe with the first human Spectre.
At this point you begin to shape and mold Garrus. It's really the earliest signs of how much your choices can affect a character: either encourage Garrus' notions that the law is ineffective and he should work outside it, or temper his vigilantism by reminding him that regulations help maintain lines between himself and the criminals. It's a dynamic that's been done before and done again, especially in narrative games like Life is Strange 2 and Telltale's Batman series, but there isn't a great deal that comes of it.
At one point, you get to do a special mission for Garrus, one of two character-focused missions that feel like the earliest precursor to loyalty missions. You can help him kill a horrid, wretched doctor who's been conducting terrible experiments on his subjects, or turn him into the authorities. It's the start of something, but Garrus largely ends Mass Effect 1 as he entered it: a cop who's questioning the law, seeking advice from a fellow enforcer of it.
There are a lot of incredible moments in Mass Effect 2, but I keep coming back to Garrus' introduction. Shepard is on the seedy outer rim world of Omega, essentially one giant hub of crime built into a floating bit of rock. There is sex, drugs, gangs, and violence everywhere, and disrupting the usual continuity of vices is one entity, the enigmatic Archangel.
Anyone who's played Mass Effect 1 probably knows what comes next, but it's the build-up to the reveal that makes it. After sneaking into a band of mercenary forces meant to distract Archangel, you work way through the carnage hearing hints and whispers: a sniper rifle, deadly aim, witty tactics, almost killed a Krogan warlord. Then, he shows up.
It's almost reassuring seeing how much Garrus has aged in the two years between Mass Effect games. Where there was once an idealistic and ticked-off rookie, now there was a certified badass with a sniper rifle and an attitude. He was more confident than ever, playfully bantering with Shepard about how he had to wing them a few times to make their deception work.
Soon, you battle your way out of an ambush together, annihilating three gangs' worth of mercenaries and getting out of it with only a scar on Garrus' face. He'll carry that, along with the charred and broken armor, for the rest of the game if you choose to; a nice reminder that he's still cobbling it together on the fly.
Mass Effect was built with the intention of choices and decisions carrying across all three games. It did, depending on who you ask, accomplish all that. But that continuity alone wouldn't have been as impressive if the characters hadn't felt like they were growing and evolving as well. As great as Mass Effect 1 is—some might say it's the best—it's how these characters grow over time that made them who they are by the end of Mass Effect 3.
As a standalone character in a single debut appearance, Garrus Vakarian is certainly memorable. He, along with Urdnot Wrex, and occasionally Tali, made up my go-to squad. But they weren't the characters who I know and love now. To create the Garrus that inspires the level of love he does today, you need a number of factors: growth, nuance, and time.
Mass Effect 2 introduced the idea of loyalty missions, which were special squadmate-centric sidequests that would ultimately prepare them for the game's infamous epilogue, the "Suicide Mission." It was Mass Effect at its absolute best, but there's something I really appreciate about loyalty missions in particular in Mass Effect 2.
Later games, like Mass Effect Andromeda, would turn these missions into routine expectations, part of a patented BioWare Formula. But Mass Effect 2's loyalty missions all had a tinge of sadness to them; these were bucket-list tasks. You were, in essence, helping your crew settle their affairs before heading off to what could ultimately be their last mission.
While other loyalty missions center on emotional loose threads, often turning to family dynamics like fathers trying to help their sons or mothers their daughters, Garrus' is about vengeance. He believes he's found Sidonis, the person who turned his crew in and led to a betrayal in the massacre of his vigilante force and backed him into the corner you found him in on Omega.
Your choice doesn't end up being about reconciliation or not, but whether Garrus takes the shot. You can either give him the catharsis he demands, or try to save his soul one last time. In it, you show Garrus whether you believe that someone like Sidonis can be redeemed, or whether his answer will always lie in the most fatal option.
Ultimately, Garrus' choice is about family. He has very little to speak of, other than a distant father in the Turian military. The only home he's ever found has been in the comrades who will stand alongside him, and now they've been taken from him. I've played out both ends of this mission, and I'm still not sure which sits right; Garrus calmly accepting that a shot at redemption is the better outcome, or simply allowing him to do what he came to do and avenge those who needlessly perished.
If you romance Garrus in Mass Effect 2, he remarks that he feels alone in the universe. In the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC, while talking to Liara, you can say you want to help Garrus find peace in the universe. He isn't just a crewmate anymore, but someone who means something to Shepard, substantial growth for the player-character as well.
As their romance deepens, Garrus can confide in Shepard that he just wants something to go right. Throughout the series, he routinely sees his efforts fall apart. You can almost sense that he fears that what happened to his squad on Omega might happen to those aboard the Normandy, and he'll lose another family.
Being able to finally romance Garrus in Mass Effect 2 reflects his growth as a character. In romancing him in Mass Effect 2 after just being his friend in Mass Effect 1, Garrus finally opens up rather than just bouncing crime-adjacent ideas off you in the vehicle bay of the Normandy. It's a powerful sign of maturity.
But whether you romance him or not, Garrus becomes less of an inquiring rookie and more of a confidant. He's a sounding board, sometimes snarky and pragmatic, who happily follows Shepard into the maw of the beast over and over again. He's one of the few characters you can trust to lead the crew of the Normandy effectively in the Suicide Mission. In Mass Effect 1, he's a fledgling and a decent shot; by the end of Mass Effect 2, he's the one squadmate you never want to leave behind.
There is no Shepard without Vakarian, and vice versa. Garrus is the culmination of three games' worth of development, molding and shaping a character who can be Shepard's constant. It's where he gets his swagger, his scars, and his fondness for calibrations. None of that happens if you don't see that change in Mass Effect 2, if you don't dive deeper into who this character is and what they fight for. Without that, it's hard to imagine Garrus would ever become the character who's so fondly remembered today. There is no Vakarian without Mass Effect 2.