In Defense of the One True Playthrough

OR: Why I Love Mass Effect So Much that I’ll Never Play it Again

Three years ago I sat down with a used copy of Mass Effect, know­ing next to noth­ing about the game. I mean, I knew about ele­va­tors, I knew peo­ple hated some­thing called the Mako, and I knew you couldn’t play past the end­ing. In essence, I knew all the things peo­ple hated, because peo­ple are a lot more vocal and chum­my when they’re irri­tat­ed. Looking for val­i­da­tion that the problem’s with the prod­uct and not them­selves, I guess.

I cre­at­ed my face, hav­ing no idea it’d be one I’d come to iden­ti­fy with over a peri­od of three years and over two hun­dred and forty hours. I’d just read Dune, so I gave him a Gurney Halleck inkvine scar, and the longest hair­cut a mil­i­tary space-barber would allow. I chose the War Hero and Earthborn pasts because Sole Survivor and Ruthless were both a giant drag, and I had the idea that any­one not born on Earth was born on some sort of space sta­tion. I chose Vanguard because, as a child of 90s car­toons, I want­ed psy­chic pow­ers and a shot­gun.

None of this means any­thing to you, of course. You had your own rea­sons for the seeds you scat­tered the first time you played Mass Effect. But if you’re any­thing like me, you were try­ing to make the clos­est thing to your ide­al­ized vision of your­self that still made sense in the set­ting. That’s why play­ing the Mass Effect series has been such a unique­ly vis­cer­al expe­ri­ence, and it’s why I can’t ever play it again.

Every deci­sion I made over the course of the games—from the deci­sion to be sassy or sweet-talking all the way up to the Big Choices—was a prod­uct of what I, not some char­ac­ter I was play­ing, felt was right at the time. I’ve come to regret some of those deci­sions, because I’ve changed a lot as a per­son since I began. I didn’t save the coun­cil in Mass Effect large­ly because I thought we’d need the human fleet to fight off the immi­nent Reaper threat. A year later for me, and two for Shepard, I saved the Collector base because I hoped that maybe we could learn some­thing, maybe we could make those grue­some liq­ue­fac­tions mean some­thing more than Reaper Pennzoil. I can’t ever make those deci­sions that way again. Saving the Collector base because you hope Cerberus will help fight the Reapers is an act of mis­placed faith—but know­ing the events of Mass Effect 3 make deni­a­bil­i­ty impos­si­ble.

I am shack­led by the insin­cer­i­ty of pre­science, and this goes beyond the Big Choices. I romanced Ashley in Mass Effect because I didn’t like Liara’s space-elf mysticism—how was I to know that Liara would grow to be one of my favorite char­ac­ters in the series, or that Ashley would dump me on Horizon, or that sweet, sweet Tali would be avail­able in Mass Effect 2? I’m not com­plain­ing; the char­ac­ter devel­op­ment was real­is­tic, and my deci­sions at the time were mean­ing­ful because they were based on the char­ac­ters as they were at the time. And yet, if I play Mass Effect again, I couldn’t help but avail myself of the fore­knowl­edge. There’s some­thing dis­hon­est about lik­ing some­one, even a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter, because you know who they will become, as opposed to who they are.

Conversely, know­ing everyone’s future would make me feel like a shot­gun Tiresias, stain­ing every con­ver­sa­tion with the weighty melo­dra­ma of their death scene. How can I laugh at Mordin’s show tunes, know­ing he sings Scientist Salarian as he sac­ri­fices him­self to atone for the genophage and to give the Krogan a future? And wouldn’t every con­ver­sa­tion with Kaiden or Ashley be at least par­tial­ly about which one of them was going to be free-radiating over Virmire? It would be fair to say that know­ing the future is a prob­lem for re-experiencing any story-driven media, but Mass Effect puts so much con­ver­sa­tion­al and nar­ra­tive agency in the hands of the play­er that it just seems ghoul­ish. The belly of the Normandy is haunt­ed by the soon-to-die.

Some peo­ple over­come this, I sup­pose, by role-playing as some­one else; the swarthy-yet-gullible engi­neer or the no-nonsense adept, act­ing accord­ing to what that char­ac­ter would do. I can’t help but feel like that would be some­what sad, given the con­nec­tion I felt with my crew. It would some­how cheap­en that to get all the same cama­raderie and respect as Tough Chick Infiltrator. Maybe I take all this too seri­ous­ly, or maybe it’s a tes­ta­ment to how pow­er­ful the story is—was—that I real­ly can’t imag­ine it hap­pen­ing any other way.

Cohen Edenfield

About Cohen Edenfield

Cohen Edenfield is a biomechanical construct with a BA in Literature, commonly found in the American Southeast. He’s the author of Reign in Hell, an infrequently-updating comic just gearing back up again. You can follow him on twitter @skullmandible, or read his uncomfortably honest journal-comic here.