Over the course of seven days I fell in and out of love, only to find it again in the arms of another. I stopped a genocide, only to cause two others; I talked people off ledges, helped mend broken minds and hearts while being a harbinger of death and destruction wherever I went. I discovered ancient secrets lost for countless millennia, and stumbled upon smaller secrets of unrequited love. In one week I became the catalyst that led to destruction, yet victory; death as well as life. I went from an Executive Officer to Spectre to War Hero. I died, was brought back to life, then joined a terrorist organization. I encountered a force of abominations building a super weapon and destroyed them. Over the course of a week, many people died under my command, and the worst part is I could have done more to save them.
Over the period of a week, I played the complete Mass Effect trilogy.
The impetus to this story is a scenario that can only be deemed ridiculous. I managed to significantly hobble myself the day prior to this playfest beginning thanks to the perilous feat that is running to first base in kickball. This limited my range of movement to that of a small child. This, coupled with an at times crippling OCD, led me to spend essentially an entire week in front of my computer living out the life of Commander Shepard, and in many ways, become him. Playing one hundred hours of a videogame over a one week period was an odd experience, full of periods of mental puritanical recrimination about how I was wasting my life, and of real physical pain in my leg thanks to a hamstring injury that nagged for days, all coupled with the many emotional moments I was experiencing within the game space. When I wasn’t playing, I thought about it, when I was sleeping, I dreamt about it. For exactly a week, I was an obsessive, poring over details in the game’s codex, finding minerals and dig sites — hidden Prothean ruins trapped under mountains and what they meant became singular focus of my life. There was a moment during that week when I looked into the mirror and was genuinely surprised to see the actual me reflecting back.
Even though I tell people that I’m a “RPG guy,” I usually only make it about halfway through before I start losing interest. For a long time, my experience with Mass Effect fell directly in this category. While the game was obviously a gem, it was always something that I felt disconnected from. I had started the game many times prior, only to either get turned off by the ludicrousness of the controls, or the feeling that I had somehow missed the boat. Now, with absolutely nothing else to do, and the maddening immobility of a pulled hamstring I was given the perfect storm to attack the series. I did so while perched on an old uncomfortable, creaking office chair with my right leg to extending out onto a mountain of bedding, fashioned into something Dalek-ian in design, and an ice pack shoved under my ass.
Mass Effect has the ability to do what many games cannot — it can make you feel like a hero. I cared for the people on my ship and for their safety, to the point where I was afraid of letting someone down. Tali’Zorah’s pilgrimage, Ashley’s needing to reconcile her grandfather’s failure, and Garrus’s struggle with regulations (and calibrations) all became important pillars of the story that added depth and meaning to the experience. It was these relationships with the characters on the Normandy that kept me playing past my usual two-hour mark. The beauty of the series is that the amount of attention you’re willing to give it is directly correlated to how much it is willing to give back. Thanks to the implementation of a detailed codex and a mature world in which the game is nested, a player willing to dive in is not met with the bottom of the pool quickly. Instead, they may dive seemingly as deep as they wish to go, gaining more and more insight into why things are the way they are. For me, this is how Mass Effect was able to capture me. It was in these moments of studying the political ramifications of the Rachni Wars and the Genophage that I first began to feel a part of that world, simultaneously becoming detached from the real one. My leg was still hobbled and all weird, but the virtual me was fine and planet-hopping, taking care of all manner of intergalactic shenanigans, all while seeing these personal relationships evolve.
It was along this thread of thinking that I consumed the original Mass Effect. All of the sudden, the terrible driving sections with the Mako became adventures in mountain climbing and trailblazing. Decisions were no longer made in a vacuum — they had weight, and everything I did felt interconnected. I remember languishing over hard decisions like whether I should save the Rachni Queen. What was interesting here is that unlike other games, the question was not “What would my character do?” but “What would I do?” This subtle change enraptured me in the game, and that line between Shepard and myself was blurred even more. I became Shepard’s homunculus — an adventure leech huddled up next to the screen, mouth most assuredly agog — acting out the paragon of morality that I wished to be.
I began to feel that ever-increasing momentum when I woke up on the second day in which I immediately returned to my computer. Although I was bed-ridden, I had books I could read, things I could write, things I could do besides play this damn game… yet I returned. As dusk set on the second day, I realized I was getting scarily close to the end of the first game. I am not exactly sure what happened to time. All I know was that I was staring down the barrel of Wrex’s sidearm, remembering in a slight panic that the second game might not be finished downloading by the time this story ended.
While I was running down the side of the Citadel, the download of Mass Effect 2 was at 57%. The days here begin to meld together. I don’t know if this was just my agoraphobia running amok, but this seemed to be a perfect storm of factors that left me not only indescribably driven to finish the game, but also somehow vindicated that what I was doing made sense. How exactly I convinced myself of this is essentially indecipherable at this point — a mess of Escher hands, drawing each other and morphing shapes colored in those endorphin-inducing colors of red and yellow — but at time, destroying Saren and Harbinger became not only worthwhile, but seemingly noble goals.
By the time Harbinger fell, and the council was saved, Mass Effect 2’s download was complete. I clicked out of one and straight into the next.
At one point after rescuing Miranda’s estranged sister, I put my inchoate real-world mind to the task of assembling some manner of how much time had passed since I had left the physical plane and entered my electricity-fueled silicon dream. I looked at my bedside clock from across the room, and while my eyes attempted to focus, I realized that it halfway didn’t matter. I realized that I didn’t think to check the clock when I started. I postulated that since it was three in the morning, I had ostensibly been playing for twenty hours straight although there was no way of knowing exactly for sure.
I woke up on Friday morning with my leg feeling significantly less likely to fall off, and all around happier. A bird’s aria sounded from a new nest in the branches of a tree across from my window, and the shock of cloudless blue sky called me out of my dungeon of solitude. Surely on this beautiful day I could wrest myself from the chair and take to the meatspace and appreciate humanity and beauty. I steeled my resolve enough to make it to the coffee shop down the road with my laptop to bang out an article that I have been promising people for longer than I cared to think about. I ordered coffee, I opened my laptop, and began to type. Or rather, I attempted to type, but nothing came.
There is such a thing as writer’s block, but this felt assuredly different. My mind felt like it had come in contact with a Prothean ruin, misfiring and sending my thoughts crashing between flanking strategies/power combinations, creative ways to string words together, and my old puritanical self glaring at me, admonishing my evil and self-gratifying ways. I meditated and listened to music in an attempt to clear my mind and let myself rest, but when I closed my eyes, all I saw was the scope of my sniper rifle, staring down those Collector bastards who had captured my comrades. The longer I sat there, the more pronounced the condition became. After an hour of this, I packed my things and went home. I had business to attend to. I managed to write an email and a paragraph of something that would later come to be cut from an article.
Returning to my computer after this failure of an experiment felt like some odd cocktail of excitement and regret that, when quaffed, made for a special sort of deliriousness. I took stairs too quickly, leading to shooting pain through my hamstring, but I didn’t care. The Normandy needed its captain; my men needed their captain.
The second game ended unexpectedly. All of my crew, save for Doctor Chakwas, perished at the hands of the Collectors. I had no idea that this could happen, leading to a very powerful moment of returning to the ship after destroying the human reaper, and being greeted by the oppressive silence of failure. All ambient music on the Normandy was removed, and all there was to hear were the lonely machinations of a metal enclosure, hurtling through space. To walk past the unmanned terminals brought on feelings that I had not experienced in a game in a long time — a sort of self-hatred set in from the idea that I could have helped this, had I known.
I was set in my goal to return to the game and avenge those who I had lost. By the time I beat Mass Effect 2, the email from Origin thanking me for my purchase was still in my top ten most recent correspondences. The uppermost email was also from Origin, thanking me for buying the third.
The familiar neck cramps and eye strain began to take hold soon after I began Mass Effect 3 on Saturday morning. My once hobbled leg was now able to be tucked underneath my chair, affording me the ability to sit up straight, which revivified just enough to make the continuation of my Shepard-piloting marathon possible. The lingering idea that ending of the third game was incoming was something that both fascinated and repelled me. It was a line that I felt I was crossing too soon. Too unnaturally. But that irreconcilable inertia had already been generated, and I had already been falling far too long. By the time the reapers made their landing on Earth, and I was blasted off to Mars, I knew I was in this until the end. Where the first two games felt like friends, the third felt like an enemy.
This sensation was catalyzed even more when I returned to the Normandy in the third game and was confronted with the names of all those who had died at the Collector base. Every name emblazoned on a plaque, to remind me of my failure. This led me to play through Mass Effect 3 with the same breathless intensity in which the other two had been consumed. In many ways, I felt a certain kinship with Shepard through his fight; the destitute, weary warrior, raging at the circumstances and the indefatigable nature of his opposition. Where through the first game, I was the geriatric homunculus, I was now the weathered familiar, nodding sagely in understanding when characters spoke of their weariness. Perhaps it was just my own state, but that seemed to be the overarching theme of the third game — weariness. By the time I made it to Earth after work on Monday, I was ready for the fight to be over. I had experienced almost everything that these games could throw at me, and I had taken it in stride. I wouldn’t let Earth down the way I had with so many others.
When I returned to the Citadel for the final time after being blasted by Harbinger’s beam of death, Shepard took on the look of a weary man, beaten and dragging. As we marched up the incline to where Anderson and the Elusive Man stood waiting for us my eyes were bloodshot, and my body felt weak. I simply wanted to end the killing at this point. The world was crumbling down around us and here we were — three humans — fighting each other. Throughout the final two games, this was one of the key themes that resonated with me. It’s a powerfully sad message: humanity will never see peace. Even when confronted with impending annihilation, we will shoot each other. In these final moments, with The Elusive Man raising my gun at Anderson, I felt a true sense of a fevered panic. I had had enough killing.
In the end, my Shepard’s story ends as it was supposed to. He dies.
The Mass Effect series was an experience that I took all at once. Finishing the game, I felt somehow strengthened by the forces I had fought and conquered. I was still me, but I was also Shepard. As I imbued him with my self, so he did with me. Watching Shepard dissolve was a moment of triumph for me not because he died, but because this was how his particular story was supposed to end — tired and confused, head spinning with questions that had no answers.