Mass Effect Service History & Psych Profile: how to choose the best background

When you first begin a new file in Mass Effect, you'll be tasked with creating your very own Commander Shepard. Regardless of if you choose to craft a custom face for your very own Shepard, we do suggest that you don't just select the default Male or Female John or Jane Shepard options - because even if you skip facial customization, you'll be prompted to make some choices that define Shepard's background.

On this page, we explain the various character history and background choices for Shepard, and what they mean in the progress of the full trilogy. In many ways, it's your first of many choices that matter in the Mass Effect Trilogy - so choose wisely.

Mass Effect History & Profile Background: choosing between Spacer, Colonist, Earthborn, Sole Survivor, War Hero, and Ruthless

These choices, marked in game as Pre-Service History and Psychological Profile, will give your version of Commander Shepard a more detailed background that you'll learn about in the story. Each background is home to some exclusive side quests and characters, and Shepard will sometimes have unique background based on this choice - so while it isn't strictly critical, it certainly matters.

Alongside choosing the best class, which determines how exactly your Shepard will fight and in Legendary Edition picking between classic or legendary level scaling, these are vital parts of your character creation - so you should consider carefully. This guide will help you to do that.


Pre-Service History: Spacer, Colonist, or Earthborn

The first of the two character-based choices you'll have to make is on Shepard's life and military history before the events of Mass Effect begin. This determines everything from if Shepard's family is still alive right through to where they grew up and what sort of background they come from. The options are as follows, accompanied by the descriptions found for each in Mass Effect's in-game codex:

  • Spacer: Both of your parents were in the Alliance military. Your childhood was spent on ships and stations as they transferred from posting to posting, never staying in one location for more than a few years. Following in your parents' footsteps, you enlisted at the age of eighteen.
  • Earthborn: You were an orphan raised on the streets of the great megatropolises covering Earth. You escaped the life of petty crime and underworld gangs by enlisting with the Alliance military when you turned eighteen.
  • Colonist: You were born and raised on Mindoir, a small border colony in the Attican Traverse. When you were sixteen slavers raided Mindoir, slaughtering your family and friends. You were saved by a passing Alliance patrol, and you enlisted with the military a few years later.

As you can see, each of these backgrounds is quite different. The truth is, there is no right or wrong choice here - you really should pick something which you think makes a fun starting point for your Commander Shepard, as the background will help steer you with dialogue choices if you want to deeply, truly role-play the character.

Every background is also broadly equal; each offers a side quest, and will be referred to in minor ways throughout all three games. However, if you want to know how each Pre-Service History background impacts things in-game, here's the rub:

  • Spacer: Shepard's mother, Hannah Shepard, is alive. You never see her across all three games, but she'll appear in voice-over here and there, and in ME1 offers a unique side quest, "Citadel: Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things", which involves a soldier that Shepard's mother used to serve with. 
  • Earthborn: In ME1, Shepard will be approached by members of a gang they were part of when they were younger, on Earth. This triggers the side quest "Citadel: Old Friends". This background is for a more rugged Shepard who came from a difficult background.
  • Colonist: This background went through a major traumatic event - and a unique sidequest called "Citadel: I Remember Me" in ME1 will see you meet another person who suffered the same event. 

Psychological Profile: Sole Survivor, War Hero, or Ruthless

Much as with the history, the Psychological Profile section also refers to Shepard's past, defining their character's basic mindset by referring to an inciting incident in their life, a significant past event that shows exactly who they are. This event is even used as justification for Shepard's potentially becoming a Spectre. Here's the in-game descriptions:

  • Sole Survivor: During your service, a mission you were on went horribly wrong. Trapped in an extreme survival situation, you had to overcome physical torments and psychological stresses that would have broken most people. You survived while all those around you fell, and now you alone are left to tell the tale.
  • War Hero: Early in your military career you found yourself facing an overwhelming enemy force. You risked your own life to save your fellow soldiers and defeat the enemy despite the impossible odds. Your bravery and heroism have earned you medals and recognition from the Alliance fleet.
  • Ruthless: Throughout your military career, you have held fast to one basic rule: get the job done. You've been called cold, calculating, and brutal. Your reputation for ruthless efficiency makes your fellow soldiers wary of you. But when failure is not an option, the military always goes to you first. 

Like the backgrounds, the psych profiles are all roughly equivalent with each other, though instead of a unique story mission, each offers some specific bonuses around the game's morality system. Choosing the right background is useful if you're planning to go for a Paragon (or good, kind of) or Renegade (dark, sorta) play-through of the game. In addition, you'll have access to unique dialogue in certain missions that are directly relevant to your chosen psychological profile.

  • Sole Survivor: This background means Shepard went through a disastrous event involving a Thresher Maw attack. This is the 'middle ground' option, where this background starts you with an equal amount of both Paragon and Renegade alignment points.
  • War Hero: In this background, Shepard is a highly decorated War Hero who was instrumental in a major Alliance Military victory. They've even been awarded with the highest ranking of medals. As you'd expect, this Shepard will begin the game with bonus Paragon alignment points.
  • Ruthless: The Ruthless psychological profile did something befitting of the name, sending much of their unit to their deaths - and even comitted a war crime by murdering surrendering enemy forces. Naturally, this Shepard begins the game with bonus Renegade alignment points.