I feel like someone has died. Technically, someone has. A virtual person, true, but someone who meant a lot to me. Someone who was surrounded by people who meant even more to me.
Paige Shepard’s ending of Mass Effect 3 has burned my heart. It’s like someone has stuck their hand into my chest and ripped out the people I love most. This all sounds very melodramatic, I’m aware of that, but I’ll say again: I feel like someone has died.
As I sit here, unable to sleep, crying as I did when I lost a real person, I’ve asked myself a lot of questions about this reaction. I have literally been rendered unable to speak because my throat is clogged with tears. The first and all encompassing question is: why?
Why do I need post-traumatic therapy (which will be fan-fiction, hugs and hopefully a little less crying, btw) to deal with this? Why am I so upset?
As my Shepard chose the option that was in-character for her – to sacrifice her body so all species could evolve – I wrote a letter in my head. As she dragged herself towards the beam of light, Shepard told Kaiden how much she loved him. How she wanted him to be happy. How she wanted him to have hope. How she wanted him and everyone around him to live life to the fullest.
But as Shepard started to run, I realised that, as much as she was doing this for the benefit of the galaxy, she was really doing this for EDI. Deep down, she wanted EDI to have the life she never could (head-canon, let’s not even). She wanted to see the world made a better place, as much as it crushed her soul to sacrifice so much, she knew EDI and all synthetics deserved the chance to be truly alive.
For myself, I realised how much I love the people around me. Why am I so upset? I’m upset because I know I could die for everyone, too, and it terrifies me. I fear death; I fear its pain, but based on one moment in my life where I knew I might have to either save myself or the seven year old next to me; I know I could make the same choice as my Shepard. But the thing is, I didn’t want her to die. I wanted her to live. The story wasn’t about me, it was about her. I needed to see her find peace after losing most of her friends. I mourned for the people she left behind and for the life she deserved but never got. There are people out there who have lost as much as Shepard.
The next question: how can a game upset you so much?
Role-playing-games are about people, and if it’s a good story with well-developed characters, it’s like being in a film that you can manipulate. This game has traumatised me so much because it recognises what matters most: people and teamwork.
It isn’t about the shooting, the shiny graphics, the explosions; it focuses on the people. It gives you everything and then snatches it away. It creates a world that feels authentic and validates your actions.
BioWare RPGs hold you hostage for responses, they deem you responsible for the outcomes of said responses, and they immerse you in an environment that can take you out of your comfort zone. Through manipulating your senses it is even easier to be affected by games than it is by films. Again, why?
To watch game characters die isn’t always very upsetting, true, but to watch characters you care about suffer – emotionally or physically – is difficult because you have taken the time to get to know everything about them. Films and books don’t give you this opportunity to reprimand a character or to boost them up when they’re down; ask if they’re truly OK or if they’re lying to you. Games bring a whole new dimension to the way we interact with stories. (Although books have the potential to deliver countless back story, doing so often drags the main plot, drains your attention, and doesn’t tend to add to the book experience – neither do novels allow you to choose how the protagonist reacts to events.) This is a topic I’ve even assessed in less emotional detail and with more critical thought: Religious Reformation in Dragon Age II and Final Fantasy X.
I’m upset because the people felt real. It doesn’t matter if they’re not. I was still responsible for their fate.
The final question today: why do we, or at least why do I, need to roleplay as a hero?
Why would anyone want to be Commander Shepard, or the Warden, or Iron Man? They have shit lives. They take the blame for almost everything that goes wrong; they lose the people they love the most to horrific circumstances; they get little to no sleep; they have to live with hundreds of deaths on their conscience; people forget that heroes need down-time; most heroes judge themselves by their loses rather than their victories.
Despite all of this: they have a purpose.
The responsibility people place on them, the hope, trust and impossible demands; these heroes have a purpose and a diverse life. They get to talk to people, they get to help people – often save other peoples’ lives. What’s more satisfying than knowing you didn’t just do good today, you made a difference to the world around you?
One of the existential crises most of us go through is ‘why am I here? What is the point of working? What is the point of trying? Will I ever affect anything?’ Heroes may question themselves and their self worth, but they have a duty and a place in society that is defined by their society. Even if heroes don’t believe in themselves, they have what most people don’t: purpose and the capacity to exceed past our everyday shackles.
I need heroic roleplaying games because I need to know what that’s like – what it feels like to have a purpose, even if in third person. More than anything, it clarifies why I am a writer.
So yes, I am heartbroken. I am grieving. I lost a part of myself during ME3’s ending today but I gained a lot, too.
It’s a damn good story.