“I am near the end of my life. It is a good time to be generous.” – Thane, Mass Effect 3
“That’s the thing about getting old, Shepard. The platitudes get just as old.” – Garrus, Mass Effect 3
Someone spoiled Mass Effect 3 for me. Shepard dies at the end. That’s all I know.
There’s a term for this condition. It’s called “dramatic irony.” That’s a situation where a character is unaware of something the audience knows. It’s the irony arising from a situation due to the audience having a fuller knowledge of circumstances compared to a character.
So, burdened with dramatic irony, Shepard’s role has transformed in my mind. This is no longer the typical hero’s journey, because Shepard is now a doomed hero.
But let’s rewind. There is a video game development studio called BioWare. BioWare crafted a lot of highly regarded games over the past 17 years. Games that are considered classic, timeless. Things that are classic and timeless amass followers–followers both vocal and passionate about their experiences with said timeless things.
BioWare’s audience takes ownership of its experiences with BioWare games. There was Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. Dragon Age and Mass Effect. You’ve heard of these games before, even if you’ve never played them. They’re applauded in forums. They’re given spotlight in opinion columns. And if they’re discussed in a comments thread, another commenter inevitably threatens to reinstall one of those games for a second, third, or nth playthrough.
I’ve played through some of them. I’ve liked a few. Disliked others. But I’ve never second-guessed the so-called BioWare Docs’ vision. The BioWare Docs are Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuck, founders of BioWare in 1995 after graduating medical school together. (A third founding BioWare Doc, Augustine Yip, left after their first game, Shattered Steel.) While I don’t think their vision is flawless, I also respect the flaws of artists and visionaries, and I accept “mistakes” as part of the artistic process.
So, when Commander Shepard died at the end of Mass Effect 3, a vocal minority of BioWare’s audience indeed got vocal. Wrong, they shouted. It shouldn’t end, they said. And if it ends, they conceded, it shouldn’t end like this.
That’s what happens when a player attaches to a character in a trilogy five years in the making. A player gets notably upset when things end. Yes, there are plenty opportunities for Commander Shepard to “die” in the video game sense of the word. Bullets, lasers and grenades fly to and fro from the opening titles to the closing credits. I can hear the pulsing, bloodshot death soundtrack in my ears even now. But those aren’t permanent deaths. We’re still talking about video games here. Death is never permanent. Even “perma-death” in a game is solveable through a procedure know as “start over.” Increased health, regenerating shields and healing medikits are ultimately redundant in Mass Effect 3, because the almighty Load Saved Game button washes away all errors. Life is restored. Please try again.
But Load Saved Game can’t wash away a storyline death. The pen is mightier. Shepard dies at the end of Mass Effect 3, and there’s nothing BioWare’s audience, in vocal outrage or silent protest, can do about it. The Docs pulled the plug. Fin.
I’m not there yet. Haven’t reached the end. Nowhere near it, actually. One year after the release of Mass Effect 3, I’m finally entering the single-player campaign from the beginning. The hype kept me away–my own included. The Internet’s whining about the end kept me away, too–not to mention my own reluctance to see things conclude. But instead of furiously typing away in some forum, I bit my tongue. I shut up. I shelved the game before I even played it. I didn’t whine about it, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t upset, knowing what I knew about the end.
I was there since Mass Effect’s inception. Six years ago, laying crossways on my Salvation Army couch, jogging through the sterile, Star Trek-like environs of the Citadel, holding my eyelids open with tootpicks while poring over the wordy and often dry Codex, riding elevators while chuckling at Wrex’s zingers, jouncing along low-grav planetary surfaces in a six-wheeled buggy, watching the Fox News ticker tape on the actual TV screen between times with headlines like “Sex Box?” because you could play through a scenario of digitized, blue alien sex that shows some of Liara’s hip, then drifting to sleep while strip mining planets for resources in Mass Effect 2, leaning forward and leaning back in my seat with Asari dancers on my club table, and watching the camera leer over Yvonne Strahovski’s backside.
But knowing that the end is near kept me away from Mass Effect 3. I’ve artificially extended Commander Shepard’s life by not giving him any life at all. This has been, well, “immature” may be a strong word, but what I’ve done–my inaction–isn’t any better than BioWare’s vocal minority that moaned about his death. The Internet won, however, and twisted BioWare’s arm into releasing an “extended” ending. An ending that purportedly closes more loops, dovetails more storylines, and rolls credits on forgotten scenarios.
I don’t doubt the BioWare Docs’ vision, but that doesn’t mean I want to let the series go. I have been in something of a silent protest for a year, and it’s time to break that silence while respecting the decisions of the Docs to pull the plug on Shepard. This is how it ends. And, for me, the end is near.