Sunday, March 11, 2012

Rambling - Ignorance, Love, Pain

Well, it's over.

I generally like to stay informed on the gaming hobby as a whole; the movements of various developers, corporate actions of publishers, innovations and concepts, plus a whole general slew of things that generally won't appeal to anyone who isn't interested in the design of games in its own right as an activity.  As a result, I tend to be fairly well-informed about upcoming titles.

For some reason, in the summer and fall of 2007, there was a hole in my knowledge of upcoming events.  I honestly wouldn't be able to say why.  Maybe I was distracted by other things (I was living without a roommate at that point and pulling extra hours to cover rent), maybe I simply rolled a bunch of 1's and missed every relevant article, but somehow I ended up being completely unaware of an upcoming title called Mass Effect.  By all rights, I certainly should have been.  Baldur's Gate was and is one off my favorite games, and KotOR stands high as one of the best games ever made.  Given my distaste for the standard ideal for Japanese-made RPGs, as well as games that focused on gameplay in place of story, here was Bioware as the champions of story dictating gameplay, and choice being given a prominent place.

My first indication of this thing called Mass Effect didn't even really ping my radar.  A friend of mine mentioned the game being made, and I even saw a teaser trailer leading in to a special showing of a BSG special on the big screen (I think it was Razor, but my memory could be off).  For some reason, none of it stuck.  The game just didn't settle into the "GET EXCITED, GEEK!" part of my brain.  As a result, I was not ready.  I genuinely wasn't excited for Mass Effect when it was released, and can't even remember the impetus for which I bought it, other than "it is a game, therefore I must play it."

So I made my first character.  Being that the vast majority of RPGs tend to favor hack-n-slash combat over tactical, and thinking that this strange "biotics" the character creator talked about sounded an awful lot like magic, I went with the assumption that the gameplay would be easier for a soldier than an adept (being that, in most RPGs, a wizard gets killed right and left while a fighter can barrel through most of it).  I figured a soldier would be an easy-mode way to get the story on an initial playthrough, and went that route.  Messing around with things, I ended up with a female soldier, earthborn because it sounded gritty, sole survivor because it sounded harsh.  Figuring she was a career-minded girl dedicated to her job as her only escape from a harsh earlier life, I gave her a shaved head and pale skin (doesn't see planet-side much).  I named her Samantha, and went off to adventure in the galaxy.

The artifact that gave her a vision, the adorable little quarian in the citadel, the silly asari scientist I met in a dig site, giving that dramatic speech to my crew, leaving a friend to die on Virmire, that conversation with Sovereign, falling in love with a geeky blue girl, that final end-run with Sovereign ever imposing and ever closer.

When the credits rolled, I sat in shock.  Nothing had prepared me for Mass Effect.  I hadn't pored over pre-release interviews and dev diaries.  There was no foreknowledge of anything at all; not gameplay, not story, not characters, not thematic elements.  Nothing.  After the credits finished, for three days I was at a loss.  Some people might give me shit for this, but for three days I couldn't play other games; they weren't good enough.  I couldn't watch movies; they weren't good enough.  Couldn't read books, either.  I couldn't even start a replay of Mass Effect, because I didn't want to lose the tremendous high on which the game had left me.  Later, when I did try subsequent plays, I found I had a very unexpected problem.  So attached had I become to my character, that I couldn't playthrough as anyone else, nor could I make different decisions.

Samantha Lynn Shepard.  Grew up on the streets of west-coast North America.  Did what she had to survive, even ran with a gang for a while, and got out at the first opportunity.  Joined the Navy with a fake ID (she's three years younger than her service file would suggest), discovered she liked soldiering and had a talent for gunplay, and promptly saw her unit on Akuze get wiped out.  Sam survived, thrived, and found herself in the right place at the right time to be the savior of the galaxy.  She's a good person, to her core, but she's also harder than anyone she's met; she'd put a bullet in your head to save the rest of your family.  Do the horrible things that must be done, because that's what a hero is.

I waited for Mass Effect 2.  I practically frothed.  Realizing that my lack of foreknowledge about ME1 had been part of why the game hit me so hard, I deliberately avoided anything and everything I could.  Yet still, I frothed.  I chomped my bit like a raging animal, and I couldn't get my hands on that game soon enough.  The day before it was released, my friend Kris and I stayed up all night watching our package track from Amazon, chattering at each other via Google Wave.  We pulled hair out when our package seemed to not be moving, or went in a direction that indicated it might take longer to get here.  We wondered what might happen, how the story might progress, and how characters might react.  Then the package finally showed up at my door, and I asked my roommates to provide food for me the next few days.

That horrifically glorious opening scene, Joker's return and the SR2's reveal, realizing Garrus is Sam's best friend, hugging Tali when she finds her father, Jack holding her own against the swarms and then hurling a wave of rage and hate at them to clear the room, that reaper baby, defeating the Shadow Broker, wiping out an entire star system.

During the final segments of ME2, I was literally on the edge of my chair, face less than two feet away from a 47" television.  I knew that ME2 was touted as a suicide mission, and I was terrified for my beloved companions.  Every time Tali begged me to hurry and open the next vent, I couldn't shoot collectors fast enough; they had to die now now now and I had to hit that next switch and Tali was burning and I had to get them the fuck out of my way this very second.  Sam even progressed and had a bit of an arc in this one.  She grew her hair out (since she's not in the Navy anymore, why bother), and realized she's in it for her crew now.  It became less about "I wanna be a badass because that's how I survive" and more "I wanna be a badass and stand between my crew and the enemy."  She remained the silver-hearted badass; wiping out the batarian system is entirely what she would have chosen to do, and in my mind she watched the wave sweep across that system not because she had to, but because she chose to.  She makes the hard decisions, and then doesn't let herself ignore the consequences.

I waited for Mass Effect 3.  It simply could not come fast enough.  I devoured every tiny morsel of information that Bioware sent our way yet, as before, if anything even felt like it might hint at story elements I flung it away from me like a chunk of living disease set to infect me.  Despite my own misgivings about story spoilers, I even played the demo because I just couldn't wait for another ounce of Mass Effect.  Kris and I again fretted, via text this time, going into near panic when it seemed our games wouldn't be delivered in time.  When they did, we began playing in earnest, texting away like teenage girls as we gushed over the gameplay, the story elements, and wonderful moments as they came one after another, after another, and another, and another.

That opening scene of reapers on Earth, shooting Mordin in the back and betraying all krogan and crying to gain salarian aid, saying goodbye to Garrus in a wonderful way, saving the quarians to hear Tali so joyful, saving the geth and being so proud, shooting Wrex and crying when he learned the truth, that failure at Thessia, making the assault on Earth and knowing I'd die in the process.  That ending.

My gut still twists when I think of the ending.  Everything about Mass Effect has been glorious from the first moment of character creation in the first game; when it thrusts you into the world by turning the character creation screen into an Alliance database error.  Everything about every game was amazing, engaging, and wonderful.  Right up through the desperate, ugly battle in London.  Right through that glorious charge down the hill toward the beam, reapers tearing apart everything and everyone around you.  Right through slogging along with no strength left, just a pistol to force your way to a Pyrrhic victory.  Right through talking The Illusive Man down, or at least shooting his delusional ass right the fuck off.  Right through Shepard dragging herself, bloody and hopeless, to that last console.  But not past that.  Never past that.

I do not understand, and unless some major revelation comes very soon, I will never understand.  Bioware carried my emotions to greater heights than any video game of any genre or platform has ever done.  They made me care about my character more thoroughly than I can care about any protagonist of a movie or book.  They made me care about my character's friends, who are her family.  By the time of ME3, Sam had let loose just a bit more--primarily influenced by her relationship with Liara, but partly because she had stopped caring so much about the military as a way of life--and even gotten a bit more sun.  Her world fascinates me, inspires me, and excites me.  I love the species, the locations, the history, the technology, I even love the politics of Mass Effect.  And then....and then that ending.  The ending that literally undoes all of it.  The species become irrelevant, the locations become unavailable, the history is made pointless, the technology is rendered useless or outright destroyed, and the politics become entirely nonexistent no matter which of the so-called choices I pick.  The decisions I made through three games which, granted, shaped my story in a wonderfully personalized way, have no bearing on that so-called ending.

I had planned, as anyone who scrolls down this blog might notice, to write some Mass Effect fan fiction as an exercise to get myself writing on a more regular basis.  I decided to hold off on it, considering I didn't know how ME3 ended and I didn't want to jump the gun.  Figuring I would wait until after playing the game, I put my writing on hold until I knew how the story unfolded; I wanted to be sure my fiction didn't conflict with the state of the galaxy once the reapers were defeated.

Never, not for even an instant, did I suspect that Bioware would completely undo everything.  The entire setting.  It was said they were setting up a franchise.  Well what kind of franchise did they leave?  There is nothing left of the Mass Effect I might recognize.  Depending on which of the three staggeringly different endings become canon (which in itself is a fucking insult to the idea of my choices being important), the Mass Effect franchise that continues in the future will be nothing like the one with which I have fallen in love.

Everything about Mass Effect was perfect.  Right up until that last tiny little bit.

Now I don't know what to do.

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