I've never been one for goodbyes. Sometimes goodbyes feel like a formality—I've known a person long enough that bidding them adieu is just mechanical, automatic, like saying "hello" or asking someone how they are, even if I don't actually care. The sentimental ones, those screw with me. It's like I have just one final moment to encapsulate how much I care about someone, like I have to find a gesture that serves as a parting gift...only there's no words, no embraces that can embody the sentiment. There's only crisis. And it's not like I can always run after someone and go, no, don't go...! So I play it cool, I measure myself, I don't let on as to how difficult it is to say goodbye.
But usually I'm the asshole that doesn't show up to the going away party, the one that's mysteriously absent, the one you didn't get to say goodbye to.
Five years ago, I started a journey with a group of friends, alien and human alike, who decided to stand by me when nobody believed in my crazy visions. Who were willing to put their life on the line despite the endless array of impossible situations and suicide missions.
Right now, that crew—what is left of it, anyway—is aboard the Normandy. We're on our way to the Illusive Man's headquarters, and from there, we're going to finally put an end to this galactic war. The game asks me, as is customary to make sure that I know that there's no turning back now, if I am ready.
No. No, I'm not ready. I refuse to say goodbye, especially when I don't have to say goodbye. I haven't beaten Mass Effect 3 yet.
I don't know what lies in the final portion of the game, but I have a hunch. It's a strong one, reinforced by endless murmurs and whispers. That's what happens when you have a franchise like Mass Effect, which could be considered almost a ‘cultural gaming landmark' for those of us who claim to care about games as a medium. You've either played it or know reasonably enough about it, because frankly, people won't shut up about the franchise.
It's difficult to avoid spoiling a game like Mass Effect 3 when that's the case, especially for those of us plugged into the Internet. Within hours of launch, (inconsiderate?) people will enthusiastically update social media to talk about major plot points. One can take preventive measures—going dark, or using some technical tricks to weed out certain keywords or people from your browser.
Eventually, though, the courtesy period passes and everything becomes fair game in a conversation. And while I got the game on Day 1, I knew there was nothing I could do to protect myself as thoroughly or for as long as I needed to. Not when I was going to take my time, anyway.
I've never been able to afford many new $60 dollar games—growing up, I could expect maybe a couple games a year—so I always tried to make the most of what I had. Sometimes this meant a completionist approach to games. Sometimes, it meant taking an absurdly long time to play through the game just so that it wouldn't have to end. I've probably spent more time sailing to nowhere in particular in Wind Waker than I did playing the game proper, for instance. This tendency to overly elongate a game has never left me—it's practically ingrained into the way I play things.
I need to feel like playing something is congruent with cherishing it, and that went doubly so for the finale to a franchise that has helped define me as a ‘gamer.' Like my own way of paying respect to what the game meant to me or something. Like a digital version of the slow food movement.
This approach doesn't mesh well with what feels like a communal desire to know what happens next or to participate in a marketing frenzy that keeps us hungry for more, more, more. After you beat this game, there's this other game, and after that one, there's this other one—you've got to keep up! Keep up with everyone else, or else the conversation will leave you behind. This game won't be ‘relevant' a month or two from now when nobody is talking about it and websites don't really mention it anymore.
You don't want to be that person that's marveling at something everyone else already experienced, made a ruckus about and then promptly got over as the next big thing spun around in their system's disc drive, right?
Realistically speaking, there was no way I could shield myself from things I didn't want to know. Even when I did a good job of phasing all of it out, there was an overarching tone to what people said, even cryptically. A heavy, somber tone. Stakes were high. Tears would be shed. Nothing, nobody is safe. Shepard might save the day, but not without heavy losses.
This foreboding feeling was overwhelming enough that it started affecting how I played the game. Everything became a constant paranoia: would this be our last conversation? I felt like I started clinging to my crewmates, not just to appreciate what little time I had left with them, but to seek out some form of comfort amidst an emotionally trying game.
I mean, really, that's why I was there, right? It wasn't about defeating Saren, or the Illusive Man, or the Reapers, and it's especially not about saving Earth. Naw. Mass Effect is about the characters and their stories. Like Ike from Fire Emblem says, "I fight for my friends."
I was so fixated on my crewmates that I started noticing some curious things.
Obviously, there's only so much you can say to a digital person. They have a set number of lines which they'll parrot back at you over and over again like a doll with a pullstring. That alone can be alienating. But then the number of people repeating those lines back at me started dwindling as I lost characters to the plot. Suddenly my own ship felt eerily large.
When someone's gone, you start looking for them in whatever you can find—even the floors, the walls. Alas, rooms that once held dear friends looked exactly as they did before, which made me realize just how unoccupied, unlived and impersonal these spaces were in the first place. It was like looking for ghosts. They could have never been there.
What especially drove a feeling of loneliness home was the new way in which conversations worked. Sometimes, I'd stop to chat with someone and the camera wouldn't pull up close to the character's face. The distance between us was programmed in.
Then again, why would the game go through that trouble when the character was just telling me a quick line? That, too, felt strange though. I knew it was because this method was a good way to ensure that a character's dialogue was well spaced throughout the game, that they'd usually have something new to say—even if not much at all.
I recalled how different it felt from the first couple of games, when I was getting to know the characters for the first time. Getting a good sense of a character meant throwing a lot of information at a player, meant long, drawn out conversations.
Kind of like when you lose track of the time and stay up all night talking with someone, which I adore. Maybe I exhausted the conversation options then more easily than I could now, but at least it mimicked what having a close relationship with someone was like for me.
Honestly it felt like I spent more time running around listening to the problems of strangers around the Citadel than I did talking to the people who mattered the most to me. At first this was jarring, and I felt resentful of how much lonelier this activity made me feel. This is it, Shepard spends his free time eavesdropping on people he doesn't know?
Eventually it became something I did as a weird act of consolation: I couldn't talk to my crewmates but at least I could listen in to other people. Their fears and insecurities were tangible, and I would be there to help them out. They needed me.
My crewmates, less so. They started having lives of their own in this game. I'd find them in new places, sometimes talking to each other. Some even started having personal relationships with one another! Woah.
Most were busy trying to either contribute to the war effort in some way, or to make the most of what could be their last days. Both reasonable, but damn if it didn't make me feel lonely, too. Their worlds didn't revolve around me anymore! I know that's ridiculous to say, but still.
I started feeling like the combat sections dragged on, like I was starved for what small heart to hearts we'd have between missions.
Very gradually, I started playing the game less, until eventually, I stopped playing it altogether. Despite my investment, dropping a game when you kind of know what's going to happen (thanks, Internet!) is easy. Or, well, it's more complicated than that.
In the middle of a depressive bout, when nothing I played 'did it' for me, I popped the game back in just to see if maybe Mass Effect 3 was the answer to my exasperation. I ran around my ship, I talked to everyone. The solidarity, the dedication to our mission was palpable. I liked that. I felt close to everyone, which was rare for me in this game.
I recalled the endless discussion around how dark things would get. About how futile the ending was, about how it made people feel unfulfilled. I thought about the list of casualties on my wall, and the empty rooms in the Normandy.
I thought about the void I felt every time after finishing media that was important to me, how difficult it was to follow up on. I thought about how desperation would keep me reaching blindly to try to follow it up, anyway.
Why should I brave that? No more loss, no crappy ending, no blind, hungry search for something to fill the void. Instead, I crystallized the game and everyone in it at a good moment.
It's cowardly. It's selfish. I know. I know. But it's perfect in its own way, too.