One day, nobody will have ever heard of you, #PCName. If you’re lucky, they might have heard of humanity, but you will be long gone. But you know this. This isn’t anything new to you (and if it is, sorry for Spoilers).
If you regularly read this esteemed publication, chances are a not-insignificant portion of your life is devoted to video games and other similar entertaining pastimes. And if you’re anything like me, you enjoy the getting lost. I value expansive worlds where I can be a badass, where I can put myself in a position, not merely of power, but of heroics.
We consume entertainment, embrace fiction, fill our time with pleasant trifles, all in the name of passing the time on the long carriage ride to the grave. Ultimately, after the human race has been swallowed by the sun (assuming we don’t luck into finding a Mass Relay), our finest works, our greatest triumphs of artistic expression, will be unmade. Mass Effect, Tolkien’s oeuvre, Watchmen, and (yes, even) Batman, then, are in-flight movies on our journey to the abyss. In short, we waste our time to distract ourselves from our own mortality.
In short, the Reapers are coming.
There is a memetic virus that made the rounds here at this most esteemed publication, Porpentine’s game howling dogs. Though this is beside the point, it’s a stupendous work of art and has a habit of kicking some of us right in the reality. Though this is also beside the point, play it. Experience it, rather, because you realize that it is not you who play the game, but the game that confronts you with an unsettling truth.
This article is not about howling dogs. In fact, this article serves as a defense of the escapism and tunneling against which howling dogs doggedly howls. As a creator of worlds into which I (and I flatter myself to imagine) others would like to escape, I like to believe that all that time spent in God Mode isn’t entirely fruitless, even though there exist an infinite number of more practical alternative uses of my time. And though I do acknowledge that, one day, nobody will have heard of me, I know I can’t let that keep me down.
I recently adopted a mantra: Be Your Own Badass. It’s why I do the things I do, including play games. I like to be able to feel powerful in a world where just about everything in my life tells me that there is a huge problem and the problem is me. Perhaps it is this Badass Drive that compelled me to blaze through the Mass Effect trilogy over Winter Break. Being at home, where nobody calls me by the right name, I live in exile from the things that make life easier.
The thing is, it worked.
Playing Mass Effect, I wasn’t Hannah, nor was I Hannah’s‑alter-ego. I was Commander Shepard. People listened when I talked. People called me ma’am. I effected change on a grand scale. I like to believe I saved lives. It made it easier to handle living in a problematic environment where I need to hide who I am in the name of preserving the peace. Did I devote seventy-five hours of my life to a fictional reality that’s not even of my own devising? Yes. Did I “waste” those seventy-five hours? That’s debatable. But was it wrong of me to seek, and find, escape in the guise of Commander Jane Shepard of the Alliance? I don’t think so.
Matt Schanuel retrospected upon Mass Effect about a year previous. Before I chose this topic, I didn’t quite agree with or understand his thesis, that the series is about coming to terms with death. But now I see the wisdom in his words. Shepard seems to have unlimited agency. Shepard can decide the fate of frillions of people, all in the name of the fight against mortality. But no matter which choices you make, fate will always bring you to one place, and the options will always be the same.
The theme of escapism is rampant throughout Mass Effect. Despite hir best efforts to show them reality, the Council is blind to Shepard’s dogged doomsaying. Even in vol. 3, the crewmembers of the Normandy repeatedly observe that normal people are not acting as though there’s actually a war on. Even Shepard’s courtship dance with the intrepid cub reporter Khalisah Bint Sinan al-Jilani is centered around the theme of running from the truth (albeit in a very problematic, Fox News kind of way). Ms. al-Jilani may slander those with whom she tangos, but she is in earnest; she seeks the truth and it costs her her reputation.
Mass Effect 3 introduced the concept of a Readiness Rating. As Shepard plays nanny for the Council races and attempts to convince them to come inside and eat their peas, various entities will pledge themselves to the fight against the Reapers. These things are illusions. In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter how much of the galaxy can be united; the Reapers will beat you. As great as it would be to turn the Reapers into ice cream, you are not so lucky. You will always, always, have a hot date with Anderson and a guy who is very hard to get a hold of. And it won’t go very well for any of you.
Alright, so I’ve convinced you by now that things don’t end merrily for the Shepard. Permit me to change my approach. Remember the part where I sank seventy-five hours into the series? I did it, apart from wanting to catch up with the rest of everybody, to feel like a badass. We play games like Mass Effect to feel powerful. The player is repeatedly given tough choices with real, far-reaching consequences. Mass Effect isn’t merely the story of a badass. Mass Effect is the story of your badass.
But even a badass can fall.
All I will say of the now-past ending controversy1 is that most players weren’t ready for the game’s ultimate lesson. They squealed like entitled piggies because it wasn’t made DeLargianly clear to them that they saved the galaxy. But guess what? You can’t always save the galaxy. Not even the Protheans could, and they fought the Reapers for hundreds of years. Despite their best efforts, the Protheans became a memory and the cycle rolled on. But that’s the point. Everything dies, baby. That’s a fact.
Sometimes, you must take a mental vacation from the shithole of your life. Not doing so, dwelling on the negative that is very often bigger than you are and insurmountable, will only deepen your pain. Don’t feel bad about your need to go to your happy place. As someone who has grown up around clinical depression, and has wrangled with it herself for four years now, I know that there are some days when you just can’t go outside. The option to move is unselectable, like a unit in Civilization V you cannot yet build. I’ve had those days, and on some of them I’ve done nothing, stewing in my misery and the abject fuck that is existence. And those are some of my darkest days.
howling dogs urges you to lower the controller and go outside. To tunnel, to hide within a virtual world, is isolating and will ultimately consume you as it falls apart around itself. Eventually you find yourself alone, amidst the ruins of trash and poor hygiene, incessantly following Pavlovian programming to get to the next level/dream/instance of your chosen pastime. And the kicker is, the dread author Porpentine has a point.
Facing the crushing inevitability of our mortality, we humans have three options. We can deny that the issue exists and bury ourselves in distractions, we can give up and give in, or we can stand and fight. The Council, valid though their reasons for ignoring Shepard’s warnings and hir call to fight the Reapers certainly are (I was frequently on the Council’s side when it came to seeing Shepard as a raving loon, and I, with Shepard, had actually seen the Reapers!), are depicted as useless and impotent, obstacles to be overcome, and a waste of our time. Those who have been indoctrinated, who submit to the Reapers’ will, are the most nefarious of our enemies. We all love Shepard because Shepard fights and fights hard, and at times is the only one doing what we all know in our hearts needs to be done.
Mass Effect, though it will not let you escape your mortality, can also empower you. It gives you options not typically found in everyday life. And I believe it is perfectly reasonable to want to be like Commander Shepard. A few times, I’ve actually found myself asking what Shepard would do in situations that required badassery or death of one kind or another. Shepard kills a few Reapers during hir tour of duty, and is frequently reminded that ze is the galaxy’s last hope for survival. Ze is a symbol of hope for the galaxy, and fights for us when we can’t fight for ourselves. Shepard is, in this way, a real-life hero.
And that, friends, is why it is sometimes okay to go someplace where we can at least feel like we matter. Unfortunately, we aren’t always able to do likewise in the face of our own Reapers. It’s not weakness, but a fact of life. The world’s problems, and even our own, are sometimes bigger than we can directly tackle. Sometimes we cannot fight. And in those moments, we escape. We turn to video games or Netflix or Tumblr, anywhere we can find strength, or at least a strength-simulator. We all must, on occasion, be our own badass.
- Except that anyone who clamored for a re-do of the ending, who felt cheated by BioWare, who felt as though BioWare OWED THEM A BETTER ENDING GODDAMMIT, is a whiny little bitch who can’t appreciate a subtle, nuanced finale when it is gracefully presented hir. [↩]