It Was The Sidekicks, Not The Hero, That Made Me Love Mass Effect

Tali was the one who made me realize that my world had changed. Tali—never even my favorite—who had become suddenly beloved and made me stop and think hard about what mattered to me most. And it all began when I got her killed.

[Spoilers for all three Mass Effect games follow.]

Two days before Mass Effect 3 officially launched, I sat up at midnight, racing through the game, trying to finish it in time to write a review. I hadn’t imported my own Shepard; I had no time to stop and reflect. I made paragon-coded choices again and again, going straight to the top of the dialogue wheel, not taking the time to think about their greater import. Blithely, I just assumed it would all turn out all right in the end.

On Rannoch, it didn’t.

I acted without thinking. Shepard, resolutely ignoring the scenic desert vistas around her, focused only on her mission. Two cultures were clashing in the sky; after three hundred years of war, one or both could be wiped out forever with a wrong decision. I ignored Tali’s pleading concerns, instead focused on my own goals and willing everyone to shut up for just a minute while I fixed things. But as this problem stood, it was one that the good Commander just couldn’t fix. Shepard gave Legion the go-ahead, and as a result the entire quarian population was wiped out. In clear-eyed despair over the genocide of her people, Tali’Zorah vas Normandy took off her mask, took one free breath of her homeworld’s air, and then committed suicide.

I went numb. “I killed her,” I kept thinking to myself in horror, a litany of shock and shame. “I killed Tali. Oh my god, what did I do, how can I fix this. I killed my friend.”

It Was The Sidekicks, Not The Hero, That Made Me Love Mass Effect

I never even realized when Tali had changed from a voiced collection of tech skills into a person whose input and companionship I valued... not, at least, until it was too late

***

The dark secret of me and Mass Effect is: I never even wanted to play Mass Effect.

I tried the Eden Prime mission that opens the first game once, in 2009 or so, and didn’t like it. I got bored, I got annoyed, and I drifted away from the title, confident (oh so embarrassingly confident) that this was one of those games destined to stay in the metaphorical pile marked “Not For Me.” I wanted all the talking companions to shut up, I didn’t want to spend my time moving around a ship chatting with fake people, and even a fearless lady Commander didn’t grab my attention.

Two people in my life knew better, though. My husband and a good friend of ours ganged up on me, promising that I would enjoy it if I gave it a chance, that they knew there were things in it I would love, that I would find it worthwhile to play the first even if only to get to the second. After much cajoling, and feeling somewhat under duress, I made a promise that I would at least try again, elevators and Mako and all.

It Was The Sidekicks, Not The Hero, That Made Me Love Mass Effect

They were right, of course; they told me so and I have given them both free rein to gloat about it more or less in perpetuity. And I owe them both, for making me get over myself and into the commander’s shoes.

Commander Shepard, Cosmic Badass. Once I finally settled in, I sang her praises loud and clear, even while I still felt burdened having to deal with the companions and the combat parties.

The transparency of so many of the tropes and choices in the game felt deliberately manipulative in ways that left me alienated. The story presented a romantic possibility for each Shepard, in Kaidan and Ashley, and then required that one of them be left to die—a real death, a consequential one, not to be overridden with a miraculous survival or clone down the line. I was annoyed that the two other human, Alliance companions each existed simply to fill a paint-by-numbers heartstring-tugging role. The game tried so hard to make me care that by the time I had to leave one behind to die nastily on Virmire, I was fresh out of damns to give.

It Was The Sidekicks, Not The Hero, That Made Me Love Mass Effect

Between Ms. Space Racist and Mr. Terrible Childhood, I picked Alenko to die. He flirted with the Commander too much, even though she didn’t reciprocate. At least Williams knew when to shut up. Was there more to them? Was it important that Kaidan was manipulated through his life in order to make him a valuable tool? Did it matter that Ashley felt deeply responsible for three younger sisters and just wanted to protect her family? Maybe there was more to the Disgruntled Ex-Cop, the Sexy Blue Ingenue, or the Other Ingenue, too.

I wasn’t sure I cared to see it. I chose companions whose skills would balance out with my infiltrator Commander’s sniping strategy, and went about my way. I was a pew-pew space marine, and I kicked ass. It felt good.

I felt incomplete.

***

A few months later, my first declaration about Mass Effect 2 was, “I hate this.”

I felt profoundly disoriented, unsure I’d ever find my footing or even that it was there to be found. The drastic change of UI and inventory systems from the first game, though clear improvements, left me feeling nearly as adrift as the good Commander. I stormed Omega because the game told me to, but mostly I wished I could rebel against the Illusive Man and his orders.

Trapped in choices I didn’t want to be making, I didn’t trust Miranda, and I hated the way her perfectly-detailed booty kept sashaying across my screen. Jacob had all the personality of a bologna sandwich. Shepard had been shaken, had lost the world she thought she knew, and so had I. The glistening orange everything (I hate orange) of ME2 and I were not off to a good start.

But then there was this sniper...

My job was to head to Omega and recruit this mysterious Archangel, to bring him to my side. The only information in the mission dossier was that he was a turian, and a troublemaker. I began to develop some suspicions about why the Batman routine and lack of a given name, and as Shepard and I fought closer to him, got a glimpse of blue armor, and failed to get sniped, I started to smile. The closer I got, the faster I moved.

It Was The Sidekicks, Not The Hero, That Made Me Love Mass Effect

When Archangel took off his helmet and said hello to his old friend, the no-longer-Alliance Marine, I grinned at my PC. I wanted to hug someone, or at least clap like a happy child. Shepard wasn’t the only one who’d just run into an old friend.

Somehow, in this universe that was hostile to Shepard and to me, I’d found a touchstone, a boon companion, a sign that everything was going to be all right. Back in the first game, I hadn’t even given Garrus much thought. To me he was a collection of tropes, a morality play dolled up in fancy futuristic lingo.

He was a cop with daddy issues and a case that went bad—haven’t I seen this movie a thousand times? And yet, suddenly he was Shepard’s strong right arm, as loyal a friend as ever she or I could have dreamt of finding. Eventually they became lovers, and years later I would weep bitterly at their parting.

Duty sunders all. Truth be told, I might rather have just let the universe burn.

***

Party-based games and I always had a rocky history. The first Mass Effect was not sure what it wanted to be: it was an RPG, it was a shooter. It was new in 2007, the now-landmark year in gaming that also brought us Portal and Bioshock.

It Was The Sidekicks, Not The Hero, That Made Me Love Mass Effect

As unsure as ME was of what it wanted to be, I was just as unsure of how I wanted to play it. What was most important: accumulating better gear and more money? Leveling up? Shooting more? Listening to seemingly never-ending litanies of voice-overs from everyone and their computer-aided grandmother? I wasn’t sure how to adapt.

Through my entire gaming history, back to the late 80s and early 90s, companions in RPGs had always been one of two things to me: either secondary combat skill-sets given a face, or secondary narratives that I could only kick back and observe. I rarely ever connected with the galleries of fighters I could bring along on my various game journeys, preferring instead to create go-it-alone types whenever possible. I never played summoner classes, but always rogues or snipers; I skipped games chock-full of NPCs in favor of games where I could look out only for myself, without babysitting an AI buddy.

The approach I brought with me into Mass Effect was one I’d learned over twenty years of playing games. If I needed guidance, I looked outside: advice from a friend, strategy from a FAQ, tips from anywhere.

It Was The Sidekicks, Not The Hero, That Made Me Love Mass Effect

But somewhere between the start of Mass Effect and the end of Mass Effect 2, the evolution in companions—their writing, their voiced dialogue, my fully voiced options in conversations, graphics that allowed them meaningful facial expressions and body language—turned my attention inward. By the time Mass Effect 3 rolled around, I no longer looked outside for advice. If I needed to make a decision about how Shepard should handle a mission, I walked her around the Normandy and sought conversations with companions.

In the first game, I viewed the missions and explorations as Shepard’s raison d’être, with chat sessions as a necessary evil to be tolerated in-between. By ME3, I was annoyed when I had to go do shooting someplace where I couldn’t just hang out with my crew—or, even better, watch them move around the ship just to hang out with each other. The series had evolved a clear purpose and direction, and it wasn’t any of the motivations I tried and abandoned during the first game.

My mission became crystal clear: to earn companions’ trust, to be worthy of their loyalty, and to know even without looking that they would always be there, by Shepard’s side.

***

Tali was gone.

It was my fault for failing her. And as I sat there on the sofa, wide-eyed and sleepless in the dark of the small hours between night and dawn, I came to only one conclusion: what I needed most in the whole world was to make this unhappen. Immediately. To this day I consider my second playthrough, with an imported Shepard who could fix the problem, to be what “really” happened.

It Was The Sidekicks, Not The Hero, That Made Me Love Mass Effect

Tali made me tackle a truth I had been avoiding: over the years since others sat me down with BioWare’s sci-fi epic for my own good, Shepard’s companions had become more than just skills or stories. To me they were people, friends in a deep and abiding weirdly static way that only people who never actually existed can be.

Ever since I was very young, I’ve felt a hollow grief—a strange kind of loneliness and abandonment—when I finished a story I loved and had to leave its world behind. In third grade I spent a few days feeling like Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy should have been behind my shoulder; in fifth grade, I missed Taran and Eilonwy. By adulthood, I variously felt the absence of Richard Mayhew and Door, of Sam Gamgee or Sam Vimes.

It wasn’t Shepard I mourned, when the credits rolled at the end of her definitively final adventure. Shepard I keep with me, because my decisions are her decisions. It’s Garrus’s wry joking I miss. Tali’s cleverness and optimism, Liara’s savvy brilliance, Wrex’s determination—I am sad without the people that each of the Commander’s companions became, and I grieve in a strangely jealous way that their future adventures now have no room for me in them.

It Was The Sidekicks, Not The Hero, That Made Me Love Mass Effect

This, I have begun to realize, is why some people write fanfiction. None of Shepard’s companions stopped existing for when her story ended; they simply stopped becoming people whose lives I had access to. I feel like I introduced two old friends of mine to each other at a party, and now they hang out with each other but no longer invite me.

In the end, though, that’s okay too. Sometimes people simply grow down different paths. Like friends I once had in my long-ago college life, the crew of the Normandy may not be in my life any longer, but I am still glad for having known them.