On Endings

The best moment in all of Mass Effect 3 is maybe five min­utes long.  Garrus invites Shepard to relax a lit­tle on the Citadel, and togeth­er they fly to some­where they aren’t sup­posed to be and just goof around for a few min­utes.  I laughed out loud at one of Garrus’s jokes, and I real­ized that I was­n’t laugh­ing at some­thing, I was laugh­ing with a friend, same as I would with Matt or Jarrod.  I caught myself, embar­rassed, and then decid­ed I had noth­ing to be embar­rassed about at all.

Because that’s the real heart of it, the core expe­ri­ence, the rea­son any­one gives a damn about this game.  You know these peo­ple, and you care about the con­se­quences of your actions.  I’ve never played anoth­er game that made me care so much about its char­ac­ters on such a per­son­al level.  Dragon Age 2 came close, but it can’t com­pete with sev­er­al years of real time.  Most of us first met Garrus five years ago.

They say Mass Effect 3 is sup­posed to be acces­si­ble to new play­ers, but that’s insane.  You should­n’t be allowed to play it if you’re not import­ing a char­ac­ter you brought with you from the begin­ning.  You need to earn these friend­ships before their pay­offs will mean any­thing to you, and once you have, it’s truly some­thing spe­cial.

It’s over, now, a story that began for me and Roth Shepard in fall of 2009, on a crum­my lit­tle tele­vi­sion in Matt’s room, in the house we shared with two other men my senior year of col­lege.  I skipped class for the first time that semes­ter to fin­ish the game, a pat­tern I would repeat with its sequel sev­er­al months later.  For the third game, I pulled two sep­a­rate all-nighters, the first the very evening I got the game, the sec­ond the night I fin­ished it.  I’m too old for such behav­ior now, and have a real job, but it felt appro­pri­ate.  To get so wrapped up in Mass Effect that I shirk my real world respon­si­bil­i­ties is a tra­di­tion.

I may never play it again.  Not out of spite, not as a boy­cott or in anger, but because it’s over.  The final­i­ty of it was stag­ger­ing.  I feel it would be unhealthy to play through it again, like I’d be liv­ing in the past, fail­ing to move on after the death of a friend, still cling­ing to things gone by, like leaf­ing through a high school year­book day after day after day.  If the games make any Statements about the Way Things Are, it’s that change is inevitable, and you have to adapt, you have to move on.

I replayed both pre­vi­ous games in breath­less antic­i­pa­tion before the third, and I was aston­ished by how clum­sy parts of them are.  The inven­to­ry man­age­ment in the first game is inex­cus­ably fid­dly and the physics and enemy AI would have been out of date a gen­er­a­tion before.  The Mako is embar­rass­ing.  While the sec­ond game improved the mechan­ics, it also made sev­er­al arcane and ama­teur­ish nar­ra­tive choic­es.  Why am I work­ing with the Space Nazis, again?  Was it real­ly nec­es­sary to kill and res­ur­rect the main char­ac­ter in the first fif­teen min­utes of the game?

But my wife was watch­ing when I picked up Legion, and as Shepard debat­ed with Jacob and Miranda about whether to keep the mys­te­ri­ous Geth or sell it to Cerberus, whether it was worth the risk, Erin shook her head.  “Wow,” she said.  “I did­n’t real­ize the game had you make these kind of choic­es.”

The games are flawed, some­times deeply so, but that does­n’t mat­ter.  Mass Effect tran­scends the sum of its parts.

Melancholy is the best word for it.  Everything from the music to the char­ac­ters to the sound the Normandy makes as it idles through space is melan­choly, bit­ter­sweet, some­where just north of heart­break­ing with enough humor and hope to make it halfway bear­able with­out hid­ing the truth.  Mass Effect is not a happy story, it’s one of strug­gle and fail­ure and the over­whelm­ing worry that maybe all of it is utter­ly futile.  It’s a strug­gle against Lovecraftian odds in an utter­ly indif­fer­ent uni­verse.  Those Internet folks who are mad there isn’t a pure­ly sunshine-and-bunnies happy end­ing clear­ly did­n’t pay any atten­tion through­out: there was no way every­thing was going to be per­fect­ly fine.

No, I did­n’t real­ly dig the end­ing, but I’m not going to com­plain about it too much.  I’m not mad and I get what they were going for, and can respect their artis­tic choic­es.  This did­n’t feel like Kirkwall, rushed out too soon, naked and unpre­pared for close scruti­ny.  This was clear­ly a delib­er­ate deci­sion.  I under­stand its brevi­ty and lack of specifics, so infu­ri­at­ing for those of us who want­ed to know what hap­pened to these peo­ple and places we have grown to love.  Freed in some form from the Reaper men­ace and all its asso­ci­at­ed trap­pings, the peo­ple of the galaxy must make their own way, and no one can know what they will do.  I wish it had­n’t been so divorced from the pro­ceed­ings pre­vi­ous to it, wish it was clear­er how my readi­ness rat­ing played into the end, but it does­n’t mat­ter, because it’s over, and done, and so be it.  It seems appro­pri­ate that Mass Effect should go out on kind of a strange, con­fus­ing note.  It’s a strange, con­fus­ing fran­chise.

I would have done things dif­fer­ent­ly, but I did­n’t make the game.  And those of you out there sign­ing peti­tions to get them to change the end­ing are wrong, wrong, so very wrong.  You don’t own other peo­ple’s art, and they don’t have to con­form their art to your pref­er­ence.

I some­times worry that it’s not healthy to play this kind of game, a game which con­sists in meet­ing peo­ple that don’t exist and becom­ing involved in their prob­lems.  My own life could prob­a­bly use some more of my atten­tion.  I know some peo­ple use these games as avenues of escape, and I worry for them, dou­bly so because I think I do it as well, some­times.  And there’s some­thing a bit weird about romanc­ing a per­son, even a dig­i­tal one, when you’re mar­ried in the real world.

I fear that some use the rela­tion­ships with these peo­ple, both roman­tic and pla­ton­ic, as sub­sti­tutes for real rela­tion­ships.  Hang out on any fan site for even a frac­tion of a sec­ond and you’ll see some­one moon­ing over Garrus or Tali and won­der­ing why he or she can’t meet some­one like that in the real world.

I want my art to be more than fantasy-fulfillment, I want it to mean some­thing, to make my real life bet­ter, too, or at least be beau­ti­ful.  That blur­ring between real­i­ty and the game is dan­ger­ous and addic­tive, but I think if you don’t get too caught up in it, you can learn some­thing about how peo­ple work in the real world.  Maybe by talk­ing to Ashley or Liara, I can learn some­thing about how to talk to my wife.

Or maybe not.  Maybe it is pure fantasy-fulfillment, pure escapism, maybe my time would be bet­ter spent on any num­ber of other things.

My wife is think­ing about play­ing Mass Effect now, and I’m ner­vous, ner­vous the way you are when a child gets up on stage for an ele­men­tary school play.  I want it to do well, and don’t want it to embar­rass itself too much and hope she does­n’t notice when it picks its nose.  I hope she can look past its flaws and weird­ness­es and see through to the beat­ing heart with­in, that won­drous Mass that under­girds the game, that almost inef­fa­ble con­nec­tion to the Normandy and her crew that caus­es me to tear up when­ev­er that lone­ly theme kicks in.

I worry, but I want her to play it, want her to get lost in it and laugh at its foibles and cheer at its moments of hero­ism.  I want her to have a favorite store on the Citadel, and be tired of that wom­an’s snide insin­u­a­tions.  Mass Effect is clum­sy and some­times shock­ing­ly ama­teur­ish, but it’s won­der­ful, and beau­ti­ful, and I want her to try it.

Maybe I’m just being hyper­bol­ic– still exhaust­ed from my ill-advised all-nighter and still high from that new-game smell, but I think maybe Mass Effect, in its three vol­umes, is the most impor­tant game I’ve ever played.  It’s not the best, nor even my favorite, but some­thing in it anchors deep down inside my soul and stays there.

Keelah se’lai

It’s all in that, real­ly, that Quarian say­ing: “By the home­world I hope to see one day.”  That’s all of it, the loss, and the hope.

Keelah se’lai.

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!