Hey guys. Long time no see. So… about that Mass Effect 3.
I played it. My plan to marathon it straight through was disrupted by the fact that I had to move to a new apartment just a few days after its release, and packing, stressing, cleaning and cursing my hoarders instincts all occupied time that would otherwise have been spent shotgunning things in the face. As a result, I got to the ending after the storm had started. There were already a dozen well-written articles about the flaws in the ending. There was already a back and forth about the nature of art vs commerce. There was already a movement and a sense of mourning. What did I have to add? Nothing, I thought. Or almost nothing. So I wrote some forum posts, whined to folks at work, ate pancakes, tore my hair, shredded my garments, wore ashes and sackcloth, you know… the usual.
But then it lasted. When did I finish Mass Effect 3? Before PAX East, certainly, at least a week before, so it’s been a month or thereabouts. You’d think I’d be over it by now, that I’d be focusing on Game of Thrones or distracting myself with Pratchett or making a costume or playing an MMO or… you know… getting on with my gorram life. Yet I’m not.
To paraphrase Harbringer, This Hurts Me. Why? Why does it hurt me? Why do I care? Xenosaga ruined Shion after the first game, so I just never finished that series. The ending of Season Five of Supernatural also had authorial hubris destroying my suspension of disbelief and I just stopped watching as a result. The end of Lost was less of a triumph than I was hoping for, but it didn’t torment me for weeks, and yes, I loved Lost almost as much as I loved Mass Effect. So why was one almost immediately forgotten, while the other occupies me even now, weeks later?
It’s about the nature of story itself. This is going to get long, silly, and personal.
Here I sit in my new apartment, waiting for the delivery of my sofa, alone with my thoughts. Why do I care so much about Mass Effect? What did I like so very much about it, and why do I feel like that is lost to me now? Those questions felt too big, so I tried to focus in – could I think of one thing Mass Effect had that nothing else had? The first thing that jumped out at me is embarrassing, but when have I ever let that stop me from running my mouth? Pretty much never.
I read a lot. I watch a lot of scripted TV, I read comics, I watch movies, I play narrative-focused games, and I have never, in my life, enjoyed a love story as much as I enjoyed the love story between Garrus Vakarian and Commander Shepard.
It’s not because Garrus is the most attractive character I’ve ever encountered; he’s not. He’s not even my favorite squadmate; that honor goes to Mordin Solus. My investment comes from somewhere else: it comes from the game’s ability to discard one of the most central requirements of the romantic narrative: the requirement that something dramatic separate the lovers, that they have something that keeps them apart until the climax of the story. When do we ever get to see the story of two best friends who trust each other implicitly, and never break that trust, falling slowly and gently in love? Pretty much never, because there’s no drama there. I’m thinking back on hundreds of love stories I’ve read or watched or played over the years, and never has the primary love story of a piece been written in precisely this way.
Not that I’m implying that Garrus is the most important love interest in Mass Effect; he was just my primary love interest. The fact that he’s one of many is what enables this kind of storytelling. In a story with only one romantic interest, I doubt any writer would dare to try this strange, uncertain, nearly conflict-free romantic arc. This is one of these narrative things that I think video games are uniquely suited to explore, something I think would die on the vine in almost any other possible media.
The drama in Shepard and Garrus’s relationship comes not from the denial of their emotions, not from some stricture keeping them apart, not from (and I hate this most of all) some comical misunderstanding that introduces a senseless conflict that must be overcome in the third act. The narrative interest in their relationship in Mass Effect 2 comes not from what is keeping them apart, but from what is bringing them together. It is about two people who are very important to each other realizing how much they mean to each other. That is a story that has been told before, I will admit, but there is a twist here. A twist that departs from the path of the standard romantic narrative, and creates something entirely new.
In many stories, the realization of how important a relationship is causes one or more of the parties to withdraw. “I realized what losing you would mean, and it scared me.” Or maybe the realization only comes after a lengthy slog through the ups and downs of doubts until someone finally realizes “you complete me” and then poof, reprise the theme song and roll the credits. It’s either a source of conflict throughout the story or a single beat at the end.
In Mass Effect 2, it is the story. The narrative focuses on and deepens that story in a way I have never seen before. Instead of a sudden realization that transitions us to happy-ending land, we get something that feels like real, productive, sometimes uncertain, but always positive growth. In the case of Garrus and Shepard, the admission of the relationship’s importance is not a source of artificial conflict, it is the relationship’s apotheosis. It culminates in a line that would, in any other work, come right before some dramatic fall: “I want something to go right, just once.”
Then, against all odds and reasons and narrative convention… it does go right. They fall in love and stay in love and make it out alive. They save the day and flip off the man and drive off in their souped-up rocket car staring incredulously at each other. Did that just happen? Did we actually win? Did we actually not lose everything?
I mean yeah, the world’s still ending… but the world is always ending. It never stops ending. I think we’ve all realized that. Every day is a tiny apocalypse and somebody’s not going to make it out alive. But this little armageddon, this little trap of doom and defeat, it didn’t get us.
And then we have Mass Effect 3. Again, no manufactured drama. “Hey, you want to… keep doing this?” “Yes.” “Oh good. That’s what I was hoping for.” “Me too.” So how are we going to spend this time together? Racing cars and shooting guns and making out on rooftops. We’re going to live the crap out of this life, and who cares. I can’t remember a single scene in any narrative media that made me feel as comfortable and happy and carefree as that Garrus scene on the Citadel rafters did. That whole narrative arc was an exploration of friendship and loyalty and trust and joy.
That’s my revelation: games can do that. They can do whatever they like, of course they can. Of course they can!
It leaves me standing at the top of a pile of crap romance that people have been trying to sell to modern, intelligent women for years yelling “Yo stupids, we don’t have to play your game anymore! It’s possible to tell the story of two intelligent, reasonable, awesome people who love and respect each other without any of your adolescent angsty bullshit.”
It was there, standing on my pile of crap, shouting at the romantic narrative establishment, that I realized what I wanted out of Mass Effect, what I wanted and almost got. I’m not looking for Mass Effect to mirror the Odyssey. I’m not lookin’ to be the hero with a thousand faces. I’m sure as hell not looking for another self-sacrificial messiah figure.
I’m looking for a story that leaves me laughing with a feeling of exhilaration and joy, because video games can do things no other form of storytelling yet invented can do. I’m looking for something that will make me pump my fist in defiance at the tired old narrative devices of yesteryear. I’m looking for something that will prove me right, that will illustrate that all the angst and grimdark and rote misunderstandings are not what make great art; that great art can come from a place of delight, and victory, and friendship and unity.
If I want to experience a piece of art that reminds me what it feels like to lose your sense of hope, compromise your ideals, and sink into a world of ruin and despair, I’ve got some Dostoyevsky on the shelf. If I want to read about how mankind is a doomed, foolish race in an unfeeling universe, I’d make myself re-read Mostly Harmless; at least I’d get a few laughs out of it. If I want to see a hero sacrifice everything he is to achieve a goal he is not even certain he cares about, Elric of Melinbone is standing just off screen, looking at me with those creepy eyes, silently judging me for only reading like seven of his books. I know that feel, bro. I can get it anywhere. I can get it wholesale from a thousand dead geniuses.
What I can’t get in unlimited quantities while wandering through the classics section is self-actualization and joy. If I want to experience a piece of art that evokes the feeling of falling in love with your best friend while punching your worst enemy in the face in the ultimate triumph of free will over fate, that piece of art doesn’t exist yet.
It almost did. Mass Effect was so close to creating a piece of art that culminated in the ultimate expression of everything that is good about existence… and then it didn’t.
That’s what I’m mourning the loss of.