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.
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.