Quick panic-edit: I wouldn't consider anything below even approaching spoilers, hence the title; however, I cannot guarantee that you are not the kind of person who would consider "Rico kills some bugs" as a bite of information that completely ruins Starship Troopers, so if you don't want to take my word for it then read at your own risk and I cannot be considered liable for etc.
So, by now, you've probably seen the ending to Mass Effect 3
Fortunately, I'll be doing my utmost to stay far, far away from that topic - instead, I want to go a bit more general and write about why the third installment of Bioware's space-epic whipped me me into its little space-bitch, and why I'm incredibly happy it managed to do so.
You see, this is actually my fifth pass at writing an article about my Mass Effect 3
experience. When I finished the game on Friday (having stayed up until 6 AM, of course), I was subsisting purely on the unstable vibrations of a two-hour adrenaline rush, brought on as much by fatigue as by what I'll be trying to describe below. My feelings were an appropriately twisted and contorted jumble of conflicting thoughts and emotions, so I stumbled into bed without changing clothes and hoped to sort it out over 10 hours of sleep and the mid-afternoon breakfast-lunch compensation to end all meals.
13 hours and 5 pounds later, I'm here at my computer, fingers poised over the keys, mind racing, tongue quivering, emotions storming, eyes blinking at wind velocities, staring at a blank word processor and writing absolutely nothing. For what I'm pretty convinced is the very first time in my entire life as a gamer, I'm unable to form any kind of conclusive opinion on a game. So I write "I don't know what to think." I erase it. I write "When playing Mass Effect 3
I..." and then erase it. Okay, screw this. More sleep, try again tomorrow.
Academically, there's not much ambiguity. In a typical review analysis, I'd remark how the combat and progression strikes the sweet spot between the first two games, providing plenty of excitement, depth, and challenge; I'd say how the writing continues to strike eight hits for every miss, compelling me to care about the game's many characters and their uncertain fates; I'd note that, except for a certain 10 minutes I've promised not to mention, the story successfully and satisfyingly ties up all three games' worth of dangling, variable plot threads in a neat little ribbon. Incredible game, would recommend, neat/10, generational landmark, monumental achievement, etc., etc.
So, thought I, once again meeting the blank, indifferent glow of my monitor with an equally vapid stare, why the tits do I keep impulsively backspacing every time I try to say so? I tried to think about the moments I remembered most. A picture of me lifting bad guys out of cover and flinging them cartwheeling into the skybox as I danced my squishy Adept between and around hostile projectiles emerged, and then sunk just as quickly. It was replaced by moments. Story moments. These moments triggered emotions. "Bad" emotions. This scared me.
I've experienced the "OH YEAH MAN WE'RE GONNA F**K SOME SHIT UP" feeling before. This is not of note. I've bro-fisted the screen before. This is not of note. What I haven't done - and I mean this quite literally, as in "have never ever" - is been pissed
at a fictional character for their fictional actions. I've been mad at writers for being jerks to their characters, sure, but (to try and avoid spoilers), when given the option to punch a supposed ally in the gut and order him/her/it/etc. the hell off my ship when he/she/it/etc. does something not very nice, I did so, in complete and total violation of my character's (and, as I like to play and would like to think, my) better judgment and usual manner.
I didn't do it because I wanted evil points, or because I'd thought I'd divined what'd happen shortly down the plotline, or because I'm one of those people who hits all the interrupts (you know the type). I did it because I wanted to. Once again, this has not happened in a game (or a book or an etc.) before, but the significance did not strike me until after I had spent several days distancing and detaching myself from Mass Effect 3
's universe. Similar occasions - feelings of immense frustration, loss, hopelessness - began to pop into my memory as I half-consciously began to make words appear on the page. That adrenaline rush I mentioned earlier? That kicked up and into full swing as the game's final mission kicked off, triggering an imperfect but powerful marbling of complex and conflicting emotions which spiraled across my mind, filling the deep void left by the fact that I had no f***king idea what was about to happen.
I could die. Everyone I'd met could die. Things could go well, and we're better off than we were, but I can clearly and distinctly see all of my efforts marching the galaxy straight down the proverbial U-bend. And - this is the kicker - I cared
. I've felt the rush of excitement as Luke runs the Death Star's trenches; I've held my breath in anxious anticipation as Frodo tumbles around the narrow precipice of Mt. Doom; but never in my life has a work of fiction not only compelled me to feel tense about "how it could go wrong," but also made me purely, genuinely, 100% afraid that I would lose people
. Liara's immense information-based power is no longer applicable. Joker's prodigious plot armor could finally snap. Thousands of guns (along with my Shepard's vagina) may never see another Garrus-certified calibration.
Asking myself why this only happened now and not during Mass Effect 2
's caps-requiring Suicide Mission, I guessed it was some combination of the stronger central narrative, the extra 20 hours of character development, and the fact that this really, really is the end, and continue to believe so; but the point stands that I felt things - real, tangible, complex emotions - which no creative work on the planet or beyond has ever been able to coax out of me. Dig further, and the reasons are not unclear - were I to break each Mass Effect
entry down and scrutinize every aspect of its making, of course I'll spot cracks and bumps and a good few big gaping holes; but panning the camera back to the cohesive whole, all I notice is the incredible and colossal scale and ambition on display - and, perhaps more importantly, its variability.
I'm not going to tell you what my Shepard was like, or what she did and chose. You don't care. I don't care about yours, either, and, along with old-fashioned good writing and character development, that's the better half of why my for-real hands were for-real shaking over the potential fates of these not-for-real individuals. I am far from the first to note how the 1,000+ variables that Mass Effect 3
takes into account, whether as massive as a character who could've been dead for 2.5 games or as subtle as a single word in a single line of dialogue, amplified across what is now almost 70 hours and 3 complete narrative arcs, shape and color my playthrough in a way that's unprecedented in gaming and irreplicable in any other kind of media. But I will be far from the last.
During the next two days in which I tried and failed to put my thoughts into words, I didn't feel happy. The game dominated my mind - I was constantly distracted, trying to process my feelings. It wasn't dissatisfaction; it wasn't anger. I had no clue what I felt, except that I was convinced I could never go back and play Mass Effect 3
again. Doing another playthrough but picking different choices would amount to little more than an academic exercise, in which I play against my "true self" for the sake of measuring differences.
As the new week opened, I began to recognize the emotions as sadness and melancholy - my personal journey is over, and I can never experience it like that again. When I read a book, or watch a movie, or even play the average game, I am getting the "same" thing as everybody else who did likewise. Interpretations may differ, but the world and story remains there, like a photograph I can revisit. While, from a technical standpoint, Mass Effect
is no different, my mind treats it as if I'd lived it; as if it is not merely a record, but an organic memory. However illusionary such an effect may be, it is still profound and unique - no work of fiction has affected me as deeply in as many ways, and even with decades of potential in video gaming, I'm not entirely convinced anything ever will again.
And yet, at this moment, I am currently 16 hours into my second run of Mass Effect 3
. I didn't punch that person in the gut this time.