Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Roger Ebert Didn’t Play Mass Effect 3

Saya Shepard is saying goodbye to Garrus Vakarian and I can barely breathe.  There is no one in the room with me and the darkness outside matches the shadows who linger within the walls.  I am alone, the lights are out, and all I can hear are the strained voices on the television and my inconsolable tears.  This moment marks the near end of my journey with Mass Effect 3, and while I knew that my immersion in this game would be emotional and turbulent, I had no idea that a video game could elicit such a visceral and haunting reaction.

I have watched movies and cried, I have read books and cried, but I have never felt such a thoroughly affecting and realistic heartbreak.  The dismay which twists and turns in my stomach is real, and I share this pain with a pair of pixelated characters.  I want to give up, throw in the towel, and walk away from it all because Saya Shepard is leaving all she loves behind so that she can save the galaxy yet again; for the possibility of  death and sacrifice appears as the odious truth.  The date reads as March 12, 2012 and the silence fuses the space with an echo.

In the Mass Effect games, a player is invited to create an individual version of Commander Shepard, a space marine on an impossible task to rid the galaxy from the genocidal machinations of a race of ancient omnipresent machines.  It’s a Bioware game so there’s obviously more to it than that, but the rest is, as they say, spoilers.  Shepard can be male or female.  Shepard can also be any race or ethnicity.  Players are invited to choose from three backgrounds and three psychological profiles as a means to shape their characters' personas.  Saya Shepard is biracial: her mother, Japanese-American and her father, African-American.  In envisioning her background as Earthborn (an orphan who is a former gangbanger) and War Hero, this character tries to make good, ethical, moral choices despite the bit of hard edge that seems to align her speech and her actions. 

Saya Shepard is not my favorite Shepard.  She’s my throwaway, a grand "what if?", my own personal experiment with the Butterfly Effect.  When the video game Mass Effect 3 was initially released, I had the fortune (or misfortune) to find myself right at the start of Spring Break.  The Shepard that my husband and I created together was ready to go.  There was only one problem.  I had to wait for my dear partner to have time off from work so that we could play her together.  On a whim, I loaded up Saya initially due to my impatient nature and mostly to troll my husband about the events of the story (I took great glee in teasing him with obtuse spoilers) and while I enjoyed playing the game, I found something had changed within my interactions with the narrative.  I found I began to care very deeply about this Shepard.

The controversial endings in Mass Effect 3 were the buzz of the internet for many weeks after release.  Yesterday, the extended cut of those endings was available as a free download due to the disappointment and rage of dissatisfied fans around the globe.  The resultant fandom backlash razed the internet, and catalyzed and inspired a discussion about artistic integrity, artistic vision, and narrative coherence.   This first step forever changed the way we looked at narratives in video games and its subsequent relationship to fans and consumers.  There are many things I could say about the endings to Mass Effect 3, but that isn’t what this particular essay is about.   This moment of fanboy and fangirl outcry alerted the masses to the changing nature of games.  My moment came a bit sooner.  It came by way of that goodbye between my Shepard and her Turian boyfriend, Garrus.  It came in that brief moment when I shared her pain, when I felt her come alive as books and movies had often done for me.  Video games have arrived truly and wholly.  They are art forms worthy of respect and study and have the capacity to explore the deepest enclaves of the human heart.

Shepard lives.

By Safiya O'Brien

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