Friday, August 4, 2017

Mass Effect Changed My Life. How Can It Again?

I wrote this back in March, just before ME: Andromeda came out, partially to work through my feelings on a new addition to a series than meant so much and partially as an attempt to pitch something. Needless to say, it never got published anywhere, but I've been reminiscing a bit and figure why not put it out. So, without further ado, here's the piece. -----

Mass Effect is the first game I ever fell in love with. I’d played games before, of course, but Mass was always something different.

Let’s start at the beginning. When I was around 14, in 2008, I discovered Mass Effect on some top 10 list somewhere - what a prosaic start to something so special! I already knew BioWare from their previous work on Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect looked like exactly my sort of game.

It was. Mass Effect grabbed me instantly. The slow prologue on the Normandy, the hints at something grander on Eden Prime, and the absolutely magnificent introduction to the Citadel were compelling in a way like nothing I had played before. I met Garrus, Wrex, Tali, Liara - characters who in some ways feel more real than people I’ve known. I saved the colonists of Zhu’s Hope from the insidious plant-like Thorian, I freed the insectoid Rachni queen from a life in a cage. I encountered Saren, and Vigil, and Sovereign. I saved the galaxy from total annihilation. Every moment is etched into memory.

There’s something different about experiencing a story at that age, I think. Early in life, a lot of media consumption is largely dictated by what’s readily available; my defining experience as a kid was reading from my mother’s bookshelf. I grew up on Tolkien, Asimov, and Harry Potter, and I still cherish that, but Mass Effect was something I really chose for myself. At a time when I was starting to discover what it meant to be me, it became integral to how I saw myself and the world. Grand, wondrous, aspirational, and somehow still willing and able to care about the little guy and the nitty gritty, Mass Effect was a vision of the world as I wanted it to be, as I wished it could be.

Since that start, I’ve played Mass Effect half a dozen times, the rest of the trilogy nearly as often (it’s a yearly ritual when I can find the time), and spilled thousands of words of digital ink exploring the series from every angle I could conceive of. It drew me into the wider world of video games and video game criticism. I’ve met more people who are better friends, better collaborators, and people who push me further in my work and my life than any classmate ever did through spaces I traveled because of Mass Effect. In some ways it feels like it opened my eyes to the world.

My relationship to the rest of the series all follows from that first. Mass Effect 2 was the first game I followed before release and played on launch. I spent hours on forums and blogs and social media debating the relative merits of Mass Effect 3, including the infamous ending - an experience I now realize helped prepare me for a lot of the current realities of this subculture I’ve found myself totally immersed in, and maybe even its controversial relationship to the larger societal climate. I can follow many of my interests and proclivities directly from this one moment, this one turning point, this one game. Mass Effect, both as a single game and a series, changed my life.

And now we come to the question that has dredged all this up and forced me to confront it: How do you follow that up? How do you possibly expect someone else to? How do I even bring myself to dare to hope something could even come close to matching that experience, five years after it seemed finished forever?

I know it’s unfair to compare Andromeda to something that is obviously so much more to me than just a game, but I don’t think I can avoid it, especially when it has made such a compelling case for its own existence. The main idea, the promise, of Mass Effect: Andromeda, is one of new frontiers, new worlds, new beginnings. But I don’t know if I can give it that chance.

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