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.