Video gaming is something I've done my entire life. When I think of the most thrilling moments of my childhood, many of them involve gaming. Zelda II on the NES, which I watched my uncles play in our crowded 3-bedroom condo. Playing Shinobi on the Sega Game Gear with my Mom. Even playing Sonic the Hedgehog on Sega Genesis with my sister. It was purely a social and familial activity, but over time as games got more complicated, they all dropped out in favor of real responsibilities or other hobbies. I stuck through it, despite always being an entire console generation behind the other kids at school. I remained current on the internet and hooked up to last year's glowing machine at home.
Despite this connection, gaming isn't something I've really written about. For something that has been such a consistent hobby through the years, I haven't really made it an apparent part of my identity. The reason for this is that gaming is usually what I do to turn off. There will always come a time when my head is too full of something heavy and toxic, and the best thing I can do is escape for an hour or two. It's always been this way. As a child, I would daydream for fun, inventing new lives and adventures in my head until I didn't need to because video games caught up with what I had always pictured.
This is what the MASS EFFECT series has represented to me. The Xbox 360 was my first foray into modern, popular console gaming, and MASS EFFECT was something I picked up used on a whim. What I found was a technically complicated RPG coupled with the best world-building I've ever seen in the medium. I've always been a fan of any game that had writers create a huge backstory, like FIRE EMBLEM or OGRE BATTLE. Anything with long imagined histories, or deep mythology, or extensive lore has always sucked me in. MASS EFFECT was the most interesting and most accessible of those that I had played. It was novelistic, stretching out in every direction, available to learn in depth if you wanted to dedicate yourself to exploration and reading. It was made for nerd obsessiveness.
What was also important in my love for the MASS EFFECT series upon my discovery of it in 2007 was the element of choice and freedom. GRAND THEFT AUTO III changed the industry with it's open sandbox gameplay. STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC introduced us to the idea of making your path, either good or evil, through the events of a game. MASS EFFECT took those new cornerstones of game design and executed them in a way that truly felt like role playing. You were Commander Shepherd, with a customizable appearance and gender, you went anywhere in the galaxy, solving problems by being a noble hero or ruthless pragmatist. You chose what to say in every conversation. Your decisions would echo not just through out the game, but through out the games to come.
That blew my mind at the time. Previously, my role playing game experience was limited to the efforts of Japan. While I loved CHRONO TRIGGER and FINAL FANTASY, the role you were playing wasn't your own. You played a character as conceived by the developers and the studio writers, but MASS EFFECT allowed me to live out a life as a space-faring hero for a few hours at a time. It was pure, unfiltered, uncut escapism.
When MASS EFFECT 2 came out in January 2010, I eventually realized that I had no choice but to declare it my new favorite game series. The ability to import the choices I had made in the first game, and play them out in the second, was addictive even if the results were sometimes small and tentative. I played through the first game a couple more times with different variations. I ended up with 5 different completed playthroughs, all with different choices/outcomes in MASS EFFECT 2. I had become so enamored with the universe, story, lore and characters that I bought all of their downloadable content, resigned to being a consumer slave to the most creative storytelling team in video games.
Video games are what I do to do turn off, but MASS EFFECT allowed me to find a happy balance. I could turn off and shoot robots and aliens and pseudo-zombies for a bit, or, as I do when everything is new, I can take my time and think about the storytelling implications of every new moral conflict, political struggle, and tough decision presented in the game. Self-determination, imperialism, noble savagery, cultural genocide, physical genocide, macro morality, ends and means, pragmatism versus idealism, diplomacy, the nuances of culture -- these are topics, off the top of my head, the game not only tackles but allows you to make a decision on. It's not just about deciding whether a corrupt mob boss lives or dies. It's about imposing your worldview into a wholly realized fictional universe, and seeing it play out.
Don't get me wrong. It's not THE WIRE. There are plenty of times where the writing dips into bad exposition, or gaping plot holes, or leaps or logic, or inartful techno babble. This is not writing on par with Pulitzers. But it's some of the best in the medium and, in a way, the fact that it's sometimes dumb lets it achieve a precarious balance between comfort food and fine dining. I can "turn off" but still feel like I'm experience a story with substantial insight.
I got my sister into the games, and I've been watching her play through the original & part two for the past month. It's fun to see all the plot twists and character development have an impact on a new person. We always enjoy sharing what we love with others, but this feels like I'm sharing something bigger, like a whole new view of video games and their art potential.
MASS EFFECT 3 comes out on Tuesday, and for the past week or so I've been all a-titter with anticipation. I even bought the extra-priced Collector's Edition, something I never do, but if not for this, then when? The demo has been thrilling, and I spend a couple hours every other day on the brand new co-operative multiplayer mode. The soundtrack scores I've heard from Clint Mansell, composer for Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and Moon, has been divine. But mostly, I'm looking forward to seeing how the story I've created within their boundaries plays out. Five years ago, in the original MASS EFFECT, I made some tough decisions that I'm still not sure were the right ones, but they were the ones I'd make. This week, I'll finally get to see what the results were. And then probably do it all over again.
There's something about seeing a creative person's vision wholly and completely. Regardless of whether it turns out as beautiful and elegant and heavy as I imagine it to be, there is worth in being able to see someone's grand idea from start to finish. For Casey Hudson, Drew Karpyshyn and the other folks at Bioware behind this series, I'm just glad that they finished their goddamn epic. And I got to experience it, in its entirety, as it happened. Saving the galaxy in a fictional world is great, but in the real world, there are so few opportunities to witness an auteur's grand opus in its entirety.
This is, essentially a 100 hour story, with variations in its outcomes and middle acts, something serialized TV dramas like LOST can't accomplish. It's no wonder that it feels like more than a game's release, but an actual event, a capstone to something with implications for the medium's future.