Thoughts on Mass Effect: My Six Months as Commander Shepard

Sometime in early June 2012, I bought a copy of Mass Effect for my Xbox 360, fully intending to play through the entire three-part series in one sequence. To be honest, part of me wasn’t sure I’d make it through, but here, in November, I’ve done just that.

And, if you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about it. You might want to grab a cup of tea.



This isn’t a review, or a critique, or an essay. It’s simply a long monologue on my experience with this most Canadian game series. It’s a collection of my thoughts and reflections, now that it’s over. And, obviously, it contains spoilers, so please do not read unless you’ve finished the games yourself.

It was in the final, crazy weeks of releasing my narrative-horror game, Home, that I decided I’d give this Mass Effect thing a try. In the past few years I’d become, surprisingly, a constant devourer of RPGs—first it was Dragon Quest IX, then Final Fantasy XIII, Skyrim and eventually Final Fantasy XIII-2. It was only because of this newfound interest in the genre that I was able to make a statement I would have previously thought ludicrous: “I will play all three Mass Effect games back-to-back.”

If you’ve played Home, or read some of my previous entries (such as this one, on Metroid, or this lengthy one on Another Code: R), or have attended any of my talks, you’ll know that I’m heavily invested in narrative-based games, and gaming narrative in general. (You could quite literally say I’ve staked my entire career on the notion.) You’ll know that I often participate in game narrative both within and without the games themselves—unabashedly allowing myself to become emotionally invested in characters, worlds and ideas when they resonate correctly. I’m not ironic or cynical about it; if it suits me, I’m all in.

To me, games are emotional experiences, meant to be felt, absorbed, troubled over and thought about, and not just stat-machines or playfield manoeuvres. Games to me are not sports or pastimes—they are stories, and they are personal.

But first things first.

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My avatar through all of this was Commander Mango Shepard. She had a shoulder-length, red bob, and high, sharp cheekbones that I took a little too far. She was supposed to look a little like Noomi Rapace, whom I’d just seen in Prometheus. She was tough but ultimately good-hearted, and I marvelled every day at her strength against increasingly impossible situations. She taught me a lot about myself, and sometimes made me feel like a shithead by comparison.

I played all three games on their easiest setting; in the case of Mass Effect 3, that was “Narrative” mode. As you might have guessed, I’m a lot more interested in exploration and story than combat. I played as an Infiltrator; I got pretty good at disappearing and then sniping enemies from behind cover, but I was never a brilliant tactician. I always set my squadmates to auto-level and manage themselves; I manually upgraded my Shepard and chose her skills and weapons.

I played the entire series on Xbox 360, and I imported my character from one game to the next. I wasn’t ashamed to use an FAQ, either. Since I knew I had months of gaming ahead of me, I was only too ready to look something up if I was stuck for too long.

And with that in mind, here is my journey.

One

Looking back now, I realize there was a lot of lore and subtext I missed in Mass Effect because I was too busy gawking at everything and figuring out how the whole thing worked. In a pattern I would repeat for the sequels, I absorbed a lot of information at times, and skipped over an equal amount either in impatience or misunderstanding. Reading over wikis and websites now, I see how much was in this first game that flew completely over my head.

One major through-line that affected me until the very end was that of the Keepers. Learning that they were a sort of neutral force that wasn’t always for your benefit was unsettling; it was like learning your child’s nanny didn’t have your best interests in mind. When I saw that one final Keeper in that bloody hallway in Mass Effect 3, harvesting victims of the war, I wanted to shoot it right there (I didn’t). How could it be so unfeeling? How could it betray us like that? It turned out they were part of the ruse, and our laziness let them aid in our demise.

Unlike a lot of players, I love the first entry in the series, even—perhaps especially—for its seemingly vacuous combat and slower-paced Mako sections. Rolling along those beautiful alien vistas in that awkward, lumbering vehicle felt like the ultimate expression of the game’s desire to push me to bizarre new places, to really explore this new, untold galaxy. It was in the seat of that Mako that I first thought, “So this is why people like this game.” Odd, I know.

When it came to choosing a love interest, I’ll admit I was pretty eager. But I quickly discovered that my desire as a player to participate in this particular system quickly gave way to a weird synthesis, where I played Shepard as genuinely as possible. I flirted with a few folks but none of them seemed right; it sounds incredibly disingenuous, but once I met Liara, that was it.

Now, let me explain: I didn’t choose Liara because, as a female Shepard, I was in for some greasy hot girl-action. I tend to play female characters whenever I can; I feel that in games (just as when I write them in books) they are often better ciphers for a wider array of emotions and expressions. It’s sexist, but audiences freak out when their heroes cry or lose hope; they’re expected to square that square jaw and soldier on. The same is not true for heroines, and their voice actors tend to show broader range because of it. I figured female Shepard would act the part more convincingly.

And, it should be said, I tried to flirt with some of the male characters to see how that would go. But I guess I’m just too lame-hetero; I just couldn’t play along. (More on this when we get to Mass Effect 3.) And for the record, my wife wasn’t bothered by any of this; she just laughed at my awkward attempts to woo the in-game characters.

So I chose Liara T’Soni, the young, blue-skinned asari outcast, because though she seemed sort of naïve, it was obvious she would one day prove the better of us—both because she was a long-living asari and because while I (the player) felt like a fish out of water, she (the character) seemed to have a better grasp of what was going on. It was an interesting reversal. And though I would lament endlessly about her near-vacancy in Mass Effect 2 (and I will, later on), my eventual separation from her made the events of the third game incredibly poignant; I don’t know if Bioware intended to string people along this way, but for me at least, it worked wonders.

In all three games, in both love and in action, I was almost strictly Paragon, but I tried not to think about it too much. I said what I felt—sometimes I was rash—but for the most part the game seemed to naturally mirror my real-life opinions and reactions.

But along with trying to find myself, both as a character and as a player, I was trying to understand the world around me. Not just in terms of lore—most science fiction is nothing but rife with lore—but in terms of how this world worked. At least, theoretically.

Walking throughout the Citadel was a huge revelation; that landscape dwarfed and confused me, but it was the first thing in Mass Effect to kick my brain into high-gear. Did it work like a torus world? How was gravity maintained? Isn’t that sky fake? How would you live there, knowing that? How long did people usually stay on the Citadel? I imagined a clueless, planet-dwelling foreigner finding himself totally in awe and uncomfortable at being there—like my rural relatives being plopped into rush-hour Tokyo for the first time. The beauty of the Citadel’s views and construction were equalled only by my constant discomfort with its artifice.

Now understand, good science fiction isn’t about pure power fantasy; it’s about creating discomfort and unfamiliarity—by twisting familiar images, like Blade Runner’s just-future-enough urban locale, into places of genuine and unsettling contrast that make you consider your own situation. When you watch Blade Runner, don’t you think, “How could anyone live in Deckard’s claustrophobic, dark apartment?” Good science fiction uses all the same techniques as horror, which results in the audience asking itself, “What would I do if that were me?”

In between play sessions, I would walk around town, thinking about if the sky above was an artifice, if I knew I was living in a falsified archology like the Citadel. How would I feel about that? It mostly unnerved me. What about such an overly urban environment? Even just recently, as my wife and I walked the streets of Tokyo, that thought came back to me. What happens when a species, like the Quarians, completely lose their roots, and their lives are so dependent on the artificial? You see folks caking themselves in antibacterial soap and face masks, and you recall those sarcophagus-like pressure suits the Quarians wear.

I grew up in rural Canada; things like that keep me up at night.

Oddly, visiting other planets felt more familiar, even when they were hostile—nothing in that first game matched the sheer alienness of the Citadel, and nothing better gave you the notion that you—as both a human character and player—were merely a trespasser in a larger world you didn’t understand.

And as the plot progressed, I related to being the new kid on the block—in fact, I thought that Shepard and company should have been less comfortable with the world than they were. Only 35 years as galactic citizens, the humans seemed almost a little too lived-in, but maybe that was the point. They were cocky.

There was also something about the inherent theme of racism—towards humans, other species, synthetic forms—that provided a narrative angle from which to relate to the more fantastic elements. It was almost to spite the other players in the galaxy that I wanted to learn and understand more. I wanted to prove them wrong.

And when, in the end, I chose to sacrifice the council while battling Saren and Sovereign (Saruman and Sauron, I thought—pawn and king), I didn’t do it with a human agenda in mind, though upon being immediately accused of such, I kind of stepped back and wondered. Here I was, chiding Ashley for being a racist; was I as guilty too?

That one scene at the end of Mass Effect, where my—my—Commander Shepard emerged from the rubble and struck a bit of a too-obvious hero pose sent my heart leaping. Okay, Bioware, you had me. I was invested. What was next?


Two

I jumped into Mass Effect 2 the day after I finished the first game. Perhaps because I didn’t have the benefit of a real-time waiting period in which to stew on it all, the second act was the hardest for me; it was the biggest shift in the series, as the game became far more sophisticated in terms of combat, and as it outright changed how menus, HUDs and other key elements behaved. To most players, it really was “two years later.” For me, it was a matter of hours.

But more than that, it was the toughest shift for me as a player because of how Mass Effect 2 addressed (or ignored) events from the first game. It took me many hours—about fifteen—before I became re-invested in the world and characters to the level I had become by the end of the original; and you’ll see why as you read on.

The game’s premise of a rebuilt Shepard was a pretty bold move—that amazing opening spacewalk itself was totally worth it—but one I struggled with all the way.

First off, where was Liara? After building a rapport and then a fledgling, kind of innocent relationship at the end of the initial chapter, all I could think about was her. It seemed like such a key component to the game but there I was, alone in the universe again. Having her photo on my desk was salt in the wound—yes, yes, how-do-you-do and all that to all these new people, but where the hell was my space girlfriend?

As the game progressed, I became increasingly irate at the fact that I was recovering old comrades and meeting new ones, never to meet Liara. When I finally made my way to Illium, I was genuinely excited to see her. It was those fifteen hours in that we were finally reunited, and you know what? She didn’t even really seem to care.

I was honestly and truly hurt by this—both as a character and player. I joked on Twitter: I just spent two years crawling my way from death to reunite with my lady, and all she wants to do is talk about work?

This meeting, for me, was in hindsight a real highlight of the series, because it brought about genuine frustration and real emotional depth to how I approached the game. In the fifteen hours prior, I constantly thought about moving on. Maybe Miranda was a better listener? Kelly Chambers was sweet and genuine, but that didn’t seem right. At one point I hugged Yeoman Chambers, and felt immediately guilty. When at some point she asked about having dinner, I bluntly refused.

So when Liara, now much less naïve, and much colder, wanted to talk about work and nothing more, I felt like a fool. I felt totally betrayed. But I went along with it—I held out some hope.

(For the record, I didn’t play the Shadow Broker DLC.)

After this point, I found my footing again with Mass Effect 2. I learned to actually utilize my squad better in combat. I paid a bit more attention to the finer details. But always I was thinking about this rebuff, and the world around me.

Omega was the Citadel of the second game; unreal, confusing, both beautiful and hostile, I loved going there. I loved the club! But I found Omega’s underbelly stifling and sad; how could anyone actually live there? And when I met with a grieving mother in one of the station’s dark, windowless apartments, I felt that same pang you feel when you see someone you know in dire financial straits. How could anyone raise a child there? Was it always like that?

It was in the middle of Mass Effect 2 that I started to pay very close attention to a lot of the domestic details of locations—likely because I was visiting fewer science centres and frozen landscapes, and more people-centric living spaces. As well, meeting races like the volus was very illuminating; everything started to feel a lot more alien, and I felt like I didn’t want to be the hick human who didn’t get it. But like some homegrown Canadian farmer visiting Hong Kong, I kept wondering, how do you live here? Is this all our progress has got us—constant war, bickering, and degrading living conditions?

In real life, between play sessions, I would think about the parallels around me. As we progress, we mostly seem to multiply and occupy less and less space as individuals. What ten years ago we took as standard and essential to life, we now are easily sold as old-fashioned and naïve. We dress up 500-square-foot condos with lovely wooden sheens and granite countertops, but that still doesn’t mask the fact that you can’t have your family over to visit when you live in a shoebox.

It was art imitating life, for the most part, but it made me think—we write and illustrate this stuff because we perceive it to be true in some fashion; but then we make it true because it’s there as inspiration for the next generation. It made me wonder if science fiction should have a duty to be positive and subliminally suggest change for the better.

There were times when I felt so disquieted by the projected future that Mass Effect 2 supplied—as fantastic as it really was—and looked around. I’d see my living room aglow with a TV, a tablet, a smartphone, a laptop—and wonder if those dark, technology-centric worlds were really that far away. We all carry our own OmniTools; they just say “Samsung” or “Apple” on them.

After sessions in Mass Effect 2, I would feel grateful that I live in a large of a space that I do, in such a comparatively green and open city. Still, at times I would secretly wish I could see local traffic in the skies, and wonder if Toronto would do with a few high-reaching, white towers. I would start to pine for a nightclub as fun as the Afterlife to go to.

For the most part, I didn’t like the replacement cast nearly as much as the original crew. But they grew on me over time, and once I learned what I needed to do to get the game’s best ending, I fell into the loyalty missions with no small amount of interest. When I completed the game with the “No One Left Behind” achievement, it all seemed worth it. The universe had taken a bit of a detour, I thought, but I found myself re-committed to this new vision.

For the record, my favourite part of Mass Effect 2? That hacking mini-game. I loved it each and every time.

Three

Within an hour, Mass Effect 3 had me worried I wasn’t going to like it very much, and at the same time affected me in one of the most profound ways of the entire series.

I didn’t play any of the DLC for Mass Effect 2, so I didn’t understand why Shepard had been stripped of her title at the beginning of the game. But I didn’t really mind so much, because holy shit the game takes place in Vancouver. I can name three video games in all of existence that take place in Canada—Mass Effect 3, Scott Pilgrim and my own, Home (I’m sure there are more—right?). This alone was a huge deal to me.

But the big moment at the beginning of the game was one of the final scenes on Earth, when Shepard, about to take off in her shuttle and separate from Admiral Anderson—spies the little boy that would become a surprisingly important image throughout the game.

As he runs to safety aboard another shuttle, we see one those huge Reapers touch down to cut off their escape, and then—that music. That music! Clint Mansell’s “Leaving Earth” seems like a musical cheap shot—all ominous quiet, seemingly obvious piano and that bleating brass—but during that cutscene, my goddamn mouth was dry and I couldn’t say a word. I absolutely loved the original game’s electronic soundtrack, and missed it thoroughly afterward, but that one moment defined an entire 26-hour experience for me, and hasn’t left my brain even now.

Mass Effect 3’s refined shooting mechanics threatened, at first, to alienate me and compromise my determination to play the series as a narrative-heavy RPG and not a shooter, but I grew into it pretty quickly. I’ve never been a fan of military-themed games, and Mass Effect 3 weighed on me the most with its themes of war and increasing number of military characters.

My major sticking point was—and is—the complicated system that decides your final options in the game. In many ways, the game was less personal because I was constantly worried about my Effective Military Strength, and not my squadmates. But I suppose when you’re charged with facing the greatest threat the galaxy has ever known, you have to think a little larger than yourself.

The third game streamlined a lot of things I missed (no more hacking mini-game? Nooo!), but in retrospect, I can see why. The focus was always about the universe at large; why sweat the details when you can just quickly award credits instead of having to stop in the middle of an assault to hack a safe? People are dying, man.

But by the time you get to Mars, the game had hooks in me that would stick until the very end. For me, at least, this was it—I was a mere hour or two into the game, and there she was—Liara T’Soni, my ever-distant love interest. Moreover, she wasn’t plotting some faraway scheme that didn’t involve me; we were finally solving this problem together again.

I loved the tension in those first moments; my Shepard seemed like the eager one now, no longer the only real adult in the relationship—and Liara held all the cards. As the game progressed, I was grateful to have her back on board the Normandy, and available all the time to talk. (I chose her and EDI as my squadmates every single time I could, once they became available.)

The game’s new “Narrative” mode was a godsend after what I felt were overly-long firefights in Mass Effect 2. There were definitely protracted battles in the third chapter, but for the most part I felt the balance was better. I got worried at times, though, when asked to use a gun turret—one of my least favourite tropes in modern games.

And, at times, Mass Effect 3 had me torn more than the previous two games; there was so much planet-hopping, Citadel-revisiting and worrying about my EMS score, that the game seemed to progress in fits and starts. I had a hard time choosing side missions versus priority missions, and particularly because it was the final game, I was more anxious about getting a “good” ending than I should have been.

But every mission, once I embarked on it, was enjoyable, and after two games I really started to dig into the world and ask more questions. The now-familiar threads of racism, genocide and class warfare all interested me, but as the game progressed, I really latched on to how personal to each character the game started to make things.

It was when the game started presenting more hollowed-out cities, ruined areas like Thessia, that I stood up and really paid attention again. Being on the Geth dreadnought—especially via another brilliant space-walk—was a real treat, and got my brain spinning. Areas like the human city (I forget where) that looked like Hong Kong at sunset were amazing.

But if Mass Effect was about getting my feet wet, and Mass Effect 2 was about going in for the high score, Mass Effect 3 was about nervously juggling incredibly high stakes.

I had to play the “Priority: Rannoch” mission twice; the first time, I was utterly confused as to the choice I was being asked to make and its consequences. In a pretty big betrayal of how one should probably play this series, I reloaded my game and tried again, this time taking different steps to ensure success.

I still didn’t do it all correctly, though, and in the end, I sadly sacrificed Legion and his entire species—man, that felt like such a huge failure on my part—in favour of Tali’s Quarians. It wasn’t an easy decision, and I didn’t like it. I was glad that Tali was upset about it; I felt that my Shepard wasn’t as broken up about it as she should have been.

The only thing keeping me going throughout everything was the same out-of-game as in; getting to interact with Liara and see how our little romance was progressing.

Though Shepard remained until the end a cipher and the galaxy’s most resilient straight-man (er, woman), Liara’s journey from naïve youth to clinical information broker and then again to a feeling, mature leader who probably let herself get way too emotionally involved was exactly the kind of storyline in which I wanted to participate.

By the time we hit Thessia—and I was totally shocked that we weren’t going to win that battle at all—Liara was a mess. She started to seem a bit like her less-assured, younger self again—but like a maturing 40-year-old instead of an innocent child or devil-may-care twenty-something, whose perspective afforded her a little more humility than was possible before.

From that point on, I was happy that the game let me explore more of this aspect of her character, and how that affected our relationship—no doubt the game was hoping to rope me in before ultimately tearing us apart to great effect.

In fact, all characters seemed to reflect this extra level of personal pain and stress. One of the most memorable scenes in the game, I caught my shuttle pilot, Steve Cortez, quietly weeping as he did his duties aboard the Normandy. In the conversation that followed, I learned that Steve’s husband was killed not long ago, and it was still a fresh wound for him.

I was taken aback—was there seriously an openly gay male character in a triple-A, blockbuster videogame? And it wasn’t even a thing? And he was able to cry about his lost husband and be granted the fucking dignity to do so? I recall yelling at nobody in particular, “That is fucking awesome.” Then I tweeted my praise, because I couldn’t hold it in; many thanks, Bioware, for doing things like this. How incredibly Canadian of you.

From that point on I noticed lots of other characters in the game—mostly extras on the Citadel or in other places—referring to wives and husbands from both sides of the gender line. And of course the asari, a species not particular with the gender of its mates, added to the mix. It was an odd thing to note, because to that point it might have been all around me, but I never paid it any mind. Yet when Cortez flew me into one danger zone after another, I wasn’t thinking about his orientation; I was thinking, Man, don’t freak out right now, okay? I don’t want to die in this tin can.

I don’t know what that says about me, or anyone, but I genuinely appreciated it.

Speaking of love: I have never chosen “I love you” as an option in a video game before. Think about how terrible that is; in two and a half decades of playing video games, I do not recall ever getting a chance to do this. Fucking kudos to you, Bioware. Seriously.

From the point in the story where Shepard and Liara get serious, everything that happened had much more weight for me. For one, during that last visit in my captain’s quarters with Liara, I (the player) knew what my fate would be. I knew what ending I was going for; I knew I was going to die. Shepard, the character, didn’t, and when she spoke to Liara about things being okay, I felt like a goddamn liar. I also felt selfish, knowing that by fully committing to this relationship—now, at the absolute worst of times—it was she who would be hurt the most.

The plot, thankfully, didn’t shy away from the fact that you’d done this, and it seemed to me that Shepard was less “all-business” than usual. I was likely projecting—one of the most valuable things a game designer can make you do—but it was there for me all the same. On that last shuttle down to London, where poor Cortez met a quick and unfortunate end, everyone was putting on a brave face, but I knew the score.

So in that final assault, when my squadmates (as always, Liara and EDI) got injured and were forced to evacuate, the little scene that followed (and was, apparently, added to the Extended Cut) gave me the emotional payoff I thought the series deserved.

Liara and I both know we have to separate; she’s injured, and I need to press on. I know for a damned fact this is the last time I’ll ever see her. In most games, this kind of stuff is entirely glossed over, or made laughable by poor, lofty or needlessly long dialogue (*cough* Final Fantasy XIII *cough*).

But thankfully, not here. I chose the “good” dialogue option—are there any “good” goodbyes?—and Shepard simply leans in and says, “You mean everything to me. You always will.”

The game shows the back of your head, its shadow revealing only the wide, terrified look in your partner’s eyes as she realizes along with the player what that means—in what I believe to be the entire series’ single greatest composition—and then, boom, that’s it. You’re out of there, and even if you didn’t know what was coming, you do now. Eighty-plus hours of gameplay, and I knew it was over. No matter what else happened, that was it. I had to discreetly clear my throat a few times at the point, lest the cat thought I was some kind of wuss or somethin’.

If I complained about worrying about war assets, or making bad decisions on previous missions, or losing sight of the bigger picture, I didn’t think about any of it then. I knew what was I doing and why.

In the end of all things, after limping past that final Keeper, after losing Anderson and seeing the Illusive Man come back to reason and then again to a final crack of madness, I was genuinely startled to see that boy from Vancouver again, this time as an elaborate, sentient AI. I understand the Extended Cut improves this sequence greatly, and I enjoyed exploring it all.

But even as I Iearned all the extra backstory and context for what was happening and why, the thing I noticed the most was the almost-subliminal effect of seeing the war on Earth quietly clashing all around us. It was as if it was meant to evoke your most human emotions, to push you towards that ultimate decision.

Though I knew it meant dying, I chose to control the Reapers. I will admit that as I saw Shepard disintegrate, I felt a real sense of personal loss—six months, man—but once the ending played out, it felt like the only option there was. It also felt like the game’s “real” ending, and thus the “right” one. As the extended scenes narrated my fate, it only seemed appropriate. Commander Shepard was still there, guardian of the galaxy, doing her best despite it all. The only difference was that no one else really knew that, and no one gives medals to a meta-evolved consciousness controlling giant Cthulhu monsters in space.

There was a whole world still out there that I only barely understood; billions of people I didn’t always relate to. But at the very least, what I said to Liara was true, I imagined, and I wondered as the credits rolled if whatever Shepard had become still thought about such things.

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