First some background: In March of this year, video game developer Bioware released the much-anticipated third installment of Mass Effect. The game tells the story of a human soldier called Shepard living hundreds of years in the future, who, with the aid of an intergalactic crew, saves the galaxy from a mysterious ancient threat. Bioware games are known for allowing players a large amount of leeway in developing both the main character and the larger story, presenting in-game choices that determine how the character is treated by others and how the story unfolds. Players also have a great deal of freedom in designing the look of the hero, which is how I can save the galaxy as a middle-aged black woman with a sharp ‘fro.
It’s probably safe to assume that I am the only Bioware fanatic who started playing the games because a blogger at the Atlantic told me to. I hadn’t fallen in love with a video game since Tekken 3, and I hadn’t found myself really immersed in one since the King’s Quest series (it still boggles my mind to think how far graphics have come since the awkward, pixelated Sir Graham of my childhood).
It was slow-going at first. The first Mass Effect was pretty to look at, and who doesn’t love space, but I’ve always been a little weak when it comes to actually killing bad guys and rolling around a lot of uninhabited planets in a glorified jeep bored me to tears. It wasn’t until I encountered Matriarch Benezia that I found myself sucked into the game. First, there was the adrenaline rush—I died no fewer than 4 times taking on Benezia and her multi-species army, making that final win one of those awesome, dance-around-your-desk-in-celebration-of-your-bad-assedness kind of moments.
And of course, that was followed by the Tough Choice. The Bioware writers do love their moral dilemmas, and this was the first really difficult one of the game. You are face to face with the Rachni Queen, the last living member of an insectoid species that had previously provoked a galaxy-wide war. She vows that, if you let her live, she will travel to a remote part of space and regenerate her species in peace. You have to decide whether to trust her, and risk another bloodbath, or condemn her species to extinction. Not five minutes after I had the pleasure of shooting the last Asari commando, I was forced to examine basic beliefs about how and whether I might have the right to take the life of a being that posed no immediate threat to me.
The first and (especially) second Mass Effect games did a wonderful job of balancing the pure satisfaction of shooting at shit with a complex, nuanced story that touched on issues of race, gender, violence and the effort to impose order on a diverse, chaotic universe.
And then came 3. I knew before it was released that a hectic schedule would keep me from indulging right away. I kept my head down and did my best to avoid spoilers as I heard people first rave about the game, and then begin to complain about how awful the ending was. When I heard rumors that the ending might be changed to appease critics(thankfully untrue), I rushed to finish it so that I could have the original experience intended by the team of creators I had so come to admire across 4 games (the two Mass Effects and Dragon Age I and II).
As much as I enjoyed the first two games, Mass Effect 3 was the first in which I can say that I loved every second of gameplay. There was no mission that dragged, no character that didn’t pull me in, no mini-game that became tedious. And the third game managed to resolve the central tension of the first two in a way that impressed me beyond anything that the Bioware folks had done before.
Throughout the first two games, Shepard is constantly walking the line between a sclerotic galactic bureaucracy on one side and the pull to a lawless vigilantism on the other. In the first, the focus is on the Council, a panel made up of the galaxy’s three most advanced species, that does as much to hamper Shepard’s mission as to empower her. In the second, Shepard has no choice but to throw her lot in with Cerberus, a rogue organization run by a shadowy figure for whom the ends always justify the means.
Most of the Tough Choices in the previous games are variations on this theme; as a player is faced with one option that may have rough consequences but is in keeping with principle and another that violates some moral rule but is arguably justified by circumstances.
But the chaotic events of ME3 render that dichotomy obsolete as galactic civilizations are shredded one after the other. Some are destroyed right away, others manage to linger a bit longer, but all are torn apart by something too large to be constrained by the choices of individuals.
In this new reality, even Shepard’s personal relationships become unpredictable. Lovers have moved on, friends leave for other crews, and some of them die in gut-wrenching scenes. Embarrassed as I am to admit it, there were times while playing the last game when actual tears formed in my eyes, when an hour after I’d stopped playing I still found myself feeling sad, as though I’d really lost someone important to me.
I can see how some people saw this as a betrayal. After 80+ hours living in a universe of fairly clear-cut choices with somewhat predictable consequences, a player must now sit by, helpless, watching events unfold with only the most limited ability to affect the outcome.
The game could have ended with Shepard and her team dead but the galaxy saved. It could have ended with the hero and his/her betrothed on a beach, toasting the defeat of the galactic threat. The creators might have written up these and several more endings, and allowed the choices of players to determine which actually materialized. The latter is what most of the disappointed fans seem to have wanted. But for me, there was something honest and grown up about the shift from Tough Choices to Cold Reality—an acknowledgment that those battles for power and control that seem so hugely important can only come to nothing when placed against the vastness and chaos of the universe.