Today is N7 Day. For those not in the know, it’s a commemoration date for Bioware’s Mass Effect games. On the superficial level, I’ll just say Mass Effect is one of my favorite games ever. I still do a full replay of the entire trilogy* every now and then.
The thing is, though, if you really pin me down and force me to admit it, ME is more than just a game. I feel silly admitting how important this game was (and continues to be) to me. But it is. Let me see if I can explain.
The Mass Effect trilogy is set in the future, where alien technology has been discovered and used to enable faster than light space travel. New worlds and races have been discovered. Conflicts and politics ensue. There’s a Big Evil Threat that must be confronted and defeated, often at great personal sacrifice. Pretty standard sci-fi tropes, some great layered story-telling and exploration of themes, and awesomely-rendered characters who draw you in and make you feel All The Things. Gameplay-wise, it’s a third person shooter, with varying difficulty settings that allow me to play at a level that challenges me without frustrating me. So yes—a great game.
The game’s protagonist, the character you play as, is Commander Shepard. You can choose to play as male Shep or fem-Shep.
At this point, let’s back up a sec. I don’t love flinging around personal information, but it’s important to this, so here goes: I was born in the late 60s. I grew up in the 70s and entered young adulthood in the 80s. All of the above happened in the rural Midwest. I don’t recall receiving any particularly horrible treatment because I was a girl, but there were definite standards for how ladies were expected to behave, what they were supposed to be interested in, and what they should grow up to be. Certainly, girls did not like science fiction or punk rock or, when they eventually became a thing, video games.
Eventually, I rebelled against those standards. (Thank the internet for providing the outlet I needed. But that’s a different story.) But even once I did, I was afraid to really give voice to my rebellion. I was the good daughter, the good wife, the good mother, the perfectly normal if a little bit of a loner lady whose kids know your kids, the quiet girl you went to school with. I didn’t tell people I was a writer. I didn’t tell them I write speculative fiction. I sure as hell didn’t tell them I played video games or that I had real friends I only knew online via those games and/or my writing. What kind of a weirdo was I, anyhow?
I’d played video games before Mass Effect. Given a choice, I generally played a female character simply because I can relate better. There was nothing new about ME’s male or female character option, so I rolled up my fem-Shep and embarked on an adventure.
I can’t put my finger on it, but something about playing Commander Shepard was different from any other character I’d ever played. I noticed how none of the other characters in the game treated her like a woman. She was Commander Fucking Shepard. And everyone’s reactions to her were due to her actions, not her lady parts.
But it was more than that. Commander Shepard got inside my head and showed me how life could be when you busted your ass, poured all your passion into doing the job that meant the most to you, and lived your goddamn life the way you chose to live it. And fuck anyone who tried to convince you to do anything less.
I didn’t just play a game. I lived a life.
There are people who don’t believe a video game can tell a story on a level with a book or a movie. I’m not one of those people. Honestly, I believe a video game has the potential to affect you even more deeply than other story-telling modes, because if you are inside the character’s head (or they’re in yours) and making the choices that determine how the story goes, then what you have is more than fiction. It is an experience.
The experience of becoming Commander Shepard taught me things about myself. Putting yourself inside a character can help you see things through their eyes. Through their hearts. It gives you new vision and helps you to understand not just the world, but yourself. It can be as formative an experience as anything “real.”
I learned things from Commander Shepard. I doubt I’ll be saving the galaxy anytime soon. But I’m a lot less timid about being whoever the hell I am and pouring all my passion into doing the things that mean the most to me. And not worrying what anyone else thinks of that.
Maybe admitting all of this does make me a weirdo. But I’m more inclined to believe that I am not the only person who feels this way, if not about ME then about some game. About some story.
Which is why stories–books, movies, games–are so important. They help us to see. They plunk us down into the middle of a life we don’t actually have time to live and allow us to live it anyhow. We gain the experience and wisdom of that life, without having to deal with the birth and death portions of the equation.
So happy anniversary, Mass Effect and Commander Shepard.
And thank you.
*Yes, I know there’s a 4th ME game, but I tend to consider it a separate entity, even though it’s loosely linked to the original trilogy. I’m not dissing Andromeda here, it’s just not part of this particular discussion.