Earlier this year, Xbox 360 owners were treated to Mass Effect 2, BioWare's critically vaunted sequel. Of course I picked it up immediately upon release and proceeded to delve deeper into the game world than I did with the original. The characters were fleshed out and vibrant, the story was compelling, the gameplay was improved and polished significantly over the original. I spent about 30 hours loving and completing Mass Effect 2, and during that time, the game provided me with a feeling that games rarely (if ever) convey.
Months before the game's release, BioWare disclosed that the story revolved around your character, Commander Shepard, assembling an elite team of specialists to partake in an against-overwhelming-odds suicide mission. It was revealed that the decisions the player made throughout the game and during the mission itself, would dictate who survived, and who perished, including the main character, Shepard.
Holy cow, BioWare! Spoilers, anyone? And from the game's developer, no less?
Now, the first Mass Effect presented some tough decisions during its spacefaring adventure. Some characters lived, and others died based on the actions of the player. This information was to be carried over to Mass Effect 2 to directly affect the plot. Subsequent actions in ME 2 would then carry over into the upcoming Mass Effect 3, as the series was announced as a trilogy, compounding your decisions from the first two games into the player's own defined story.
I played through ME 1 completely unaware of the decisions I was going to have to make. I had to choose one of two main characters to leave behind on a planet-consuming explosion, and other hard sells. The situations were presented organically in the story, and they hit with all the emotional resonance intended. But they were plot elements weaved into the tale, strategically placed by skilled writers. Always the same decisions resulting in a very few, yet interesting, story divergences.
However, ME 2 told me up front that people were going to die, and the question of who would be all up to me. Of my 11 characters (12 including my character, Shepard), some or even all of them might not make it to see the end credits. Conversely, it was also possible to complete the suicide mission with the whole team intact, but the odds were decisively against that.
Mass Effect is nothing if not a very character driven series. The first game brought us to new heights of interactive character design, and the sequel takes the baton and runs very far, very fast. As crew members of your ship, you interact with these characters frequently and get pulled into their stories, their lives, fighting alongside them and helping them tie up the loose ends in their lives before undertaking the risky suicide mission. Even romance is possible with certain characters if you play your cards right.
So as I got to know these characters and their motivations throughout the game as I assembled my team, it really started to dawn on me that I could lose these people. I was committed to playing the game my way and accepting the consequences to import into the inevitable Mass Effect 3. I had resolved that I would not re-load a previous save if something happened that I didn't like. It made it feel very real. I experienced a tugging on my heartstrings, a sharp pang of sadness when I thought that I might be taking these characters to their death. Their fate lay not in the pens of the game's writing team, but with me and the decisions that I had made and would make. When it came time to begin our final mission late in the game, I was nervous, apprehensive. A part of me wished that there was a button I could press that took my ship to the outer reaches of the galaxy, where my crew and I could leave the troubles of the game world behind and live happily ever after. I liked everyone, I had built up distinct relationships with them. Knowing that I had their fate in my hands brought a very human feeling to my experience with the game, aside from a moving story and character development.
So what I thought at first to be spoilers spilled out by the developers themselves, turned out to be integral to the experience. It lent the perspective of consequences, cause and effect, a concept games don't venture into that much, aside from a well-scripted story. Every ME 2 player heads into their own suicide mission, and every player must make their choices and live with the results.
My suicide mission was an overall success, only losing one of my 11 crew members. But even losing that one member was hard for me. I had a good relationship with them, they were one of my favorite characters in the game, and now they are gone. They will not be joining me in ME 3, making me laugh, cry, or otherwise because that's how the chips fell. I made my decisions and did the best I could, and alas I could not save everyone.
And this loss was especially difficult, because it wasn't a one-or-the-other scenario. It was not a written plot twist.
It happened because of me and the decisions I made.
Now THAT'S heavy, Doc.