Mass Effect is about a lot of things. Shooting. Flying. Driving. Talking. Space magic. It's also a series about relationships. Life, love, loss and all the wonderful - and terrible - emotions that go along with them.
I love romance in video games. It fascinates me. Developers are able to implement the acts of shooting, punching and racing other humans to a terrifyingly nuanced degree, but when it comes to shacking up with a virtual soulmate, things tend to get really primitive, really quickly.
You usually get together with - or, game-depending, just get together with - a prospective partner as a result of simply passing a level, or answering a few questions, or, if a developer is feeling really adventurous, doing both. It's all terrifyingly simple.
Not that this is a problem! I've long suspected video game romance is so simple because it accidentally stumbled upon the secrets of real-life romance. A series of binary decisions, yes and no, matching responses, risk and reward. Maybe we all have so much trouble with it in the real world because we overthink it!
How that's implemented, though, can be fascinating, revealing more about a developer's approach to relationships than any interview or press tour. Are there multiple options? Are the objects of your affection fawning over you or are you in hot pursuit? Does it end in sex, or just a health kit and a change of pants?
If there's romance to be had, then, I'll do my best to have it. Not just for me, though. Insights into the mindset of a video game developer are all well and good, but as lame as it sounds, when it comes to role-playing games, I like to role-play. It's, uh, kind of the point! So if there are partners to be had in a game, then I'll roll up my sleeves and woo my ass off. Not for me. For my Shepard.
Despite this, in the first Mass Effect, a game in which it seemed you could make a move on anything that moved, I failed to romance a single soul. Or, shall I say, I politely declined the opportunities. Tali seemed too...impractical. Liara too soppy. Ashley, no, space racists are not my Shepard's type, thanks. It wasn't a failure of BioWare's systems; more a failure of their characters.
Come Mass Effect 2, though, well. Miranda. Ah, Miranda. With your sexy Australian accent, your ridiculous space suit, your dark and deeply troubled past papered over with a blend of strictness and compassion. She was a more complete character. Finally, my Shepard had found his match.
And what a match she was. Stringing Shepard along for 3/4 of the game, dancing the line between friend and enemy, she was as feisty in the dialogue tree as she was handy in combat. She and my Shepard were made for each other.
Stopping the Reapers, or the Illusive Man, or giant robot babies, whatever the hell I was meant to be doing in Mass Effect 2, that "game" took a back seat to making sure Shepard put an end to his reliance on fish and hamsters for company.
I managed it, of course. This is video game romance we're talking about here, not rocket science. I got my awkward "sex" scene which was satisfying in terms of achievement, if not virtual arousal (Mass Effect's "mailbox mouths" put paid to that). When I finished the game, and my Normandy reward was a snuggle on the captain's bed with the woman Shepard had fallen in love with, all seemed right with the universe.
Then Mass Effect 3 came along.
And my Shepard's Miranda was gone.
Separated by war and space, no longer part of my galactic crew of travelling badasses, the tough-as-nails mercenary girl who had fought by my side had gone soft. Instead of playing the Murtaugh to my Sheapard's Riggs, she was now always one wrong decision away from getting herself killed in situations that, a game ago, she'd have shot her way out of with her eyes closed. Seriously. Read through this list of options and see how smart, or lucky, you need to be to keep Miranda alive to the end of the game.
She was no longer the Miranda Lawson my Shepard had fallen in love with. She'd become...Princess Peach. The damsel in distress. That's not what I - well, my Shepard - had signed up for.
What's worse was that she'd become, well, a bit selfish. Here I was flying Shepard around the galaxy, racing the clock, trying to save every living thing in existence, and all she could talk about was her sister. I get it, it was bad news, your Dad was a monster, but I think my guy's news was badder. Not even an "oh, hi, how's your fight to save life itself going?".
If this was real life, yes, I'd have flown Shepard in there in a flash to help her, support her through her tough times. She'd had a rough life, and deserved a shoulder to cry on.
But this wasn't real life. In Mass Effect I was Shepard, an immortal space super-soldier from the future who was single-handedly saving the galaxy. He liked his women heroic and available for direct assistance in combat, not for mopey conversations at the end of a video message. And with the Reapers killing every living thing in the universe, I was kinda busy.
We'd grown apart. She was sad about her family. Shepard was still punching reporters. She was sad about her family. Shepard was about to be teleported into an ancient space station overflowing with human corpses. She was...sad about her family. Shepard was about to end all life as we know it by picking a colour.
The pathetic way in which the relationship, such a cornerstone of the second game, was given such short shrift was in hindsight a blessing. Where at first I'd wondered why she hadn't been flown into the extended ending, giving me a loving embrace and kiss for luck as I headed for what was left of London, I later became glad she'd stayed away. Had given me a half-assed goodbye over the phone.
That cold, empty few minutes was about all the remains of our relationship deserved. We'd just become...two different people. Too different. As strange as this sounds with regards to Mass Effect 3, it was best things end the way they did.
Note: I haven't played the Citadel DLC, which I'm told grants you one last hook-up with your love interest of choice. After all this, I'm not sure I'd bother!
It's Mass Effect Week at Kotaku. All week, we'll be taking a look back at the last five and a half years of galaxy-saving heroism, cross-species romance, and awkward dancing. You can follow along here.