We love hearing how a video warrior stormed the enemy camp, fought his way through legions of soldier drones until their high commander appeared; raining missiles down from his ambulatory mecha-tank. We love hearing how our hero defied death, sprung fifty feet into the air, smashed his hand through the cockpit window and tore the commander’s heart from his rib cage using ancient and deadly ninja magics. We love hearing stories like these because the reality; someone watching a TV and pushing a few buttons now and then, isn’t interesting at all.
It’s the on-screen action that counts, and how it gets inside our heads when we’re playing. It’s what makes us yell in victory, mourn in defeat, and sway left and right when taking corners on a grand prix race course that doesn’t actually exist. The stories we make, the stories we hear. The challenge. The adventure. This is why we’re here.
So let me tell you my story. Let me tell you how I told two women I loved them, and how I meant it.
Now I’m a married man, and the woman I married, that’s the woman I love. There is no confusion in my mind. I’m not one of those lonely obsessives who falls in love with a girl on a video game screen and then proceeds to marry a Japanese pillow. My wife is flesh and blood, and I’m rather glad she’s not made from cheaply dyed fabric and sweatshop stitching. But sometimes the character I play in video games; the one that exists on the screen in front of me and in the realm of mad adventure somewhere in my mind… well… not being real and all, he doesn’t know about my wife. So sometimes he finds other women.
I’ve always been faithful, and I’ve always been a serial monogamist, so the concept of loving two women in a spiritual, sexual context is not one I can fully comprehend. This facet of my personality has leaked -as personality traits sometimes do – into the games I’ve played. I’ve always forced my characters to obey my own laws.
My Mass Effect Shepherd remained resolutely loyal to Liara, my KotOR Jedi to Bastilla, and my GTAIV Niko at least kept his amorous advances confined to one online date at a time. Even in Canis Canem Edit my Jimmy Hopkins didn’t hand out cooties to just any girl, oh no. Despite the fickle whimsy of youth he was true to his girl of the moment, and when he didn’t have a girl of the moment, well, that’s when that red head with the legs came into play. You know the one. Don’t pretend you don’t.
My in-game philosophy on cheating came into question with the arrival of Mass Effect 2. Soon after the game begins my Shepherd lost his crew and was forced to build a new one from personnel doled out to him by the Cerberus Coporation. One member of the new crew was bubbly redhead Yeoman Kelly Chambers, and yes, for a while Shepherd flirted with her, using his boyish charm to coerce her into keeping his pet fish fed (Please note that this is not a euphemism for something sordid). But their flirtations were soon ended by the arrival of a new crewmember: the encounter-suit wearing Tali’Zorah vas Neema.
Tali had been a crewmember on Shepherd’s first ship, but since he’d spent the game devoted to Asari Liara T’Soni she’d been mostly confined to the engine room. Over the course of Mass Effect 2, Shepherd and Tali’s relationship bloomed. The two of them fought side by side, both on the battlefield and in a court that sought to punish Tali for deeds her race had deemed crimes. The romance between Shepherd and Tali is quite a touching one, hinging on Tali’s vulnerability and the possibility of her death should she ever remove her encounter suit in order to consumate their relationship. Everything was going extremely well, and I was happy that these two lost creatures had found and embraced each other across an entire galaxy.
Then I ran into Liara.
Like i said, I’m a loyal man, and an honest man, and if I’d had the opportunity to tell her what was happening between myself and Tali, of course I would have. But until that moment not even a flicker of doubt had entered my mind. Why should it? After all, it’s only a video game, and romancing a video game character surely requires no more thought than, say, killing one. You press a button and before you know it, it’s done.
I greeted Liara with a kiss, like nothing had happened, like time hadn’t passed, like I hadn’t been obliterated by fire and rebuilt from ash and we were together. Then she started to fill me in on the details of her recent past: of her crazed quest to try to find me and the trouble she’d gotten into in the process…and it became evident that while I’d been away, she’d changed. She wasn’t the innocent do-gooder she’d once been. Like many of the recurring characters in Mass Effect 2, I’d taken a great big bite out of the universe in the first game and in the second game, the universe had bitten back.
The full impact of my transgression didn’t hit home until later in the game, perhaps even after Tali had succumbed to my charm and revealed the face hidden behind her breathing apparatus. There was a picture of Liara in Shepherd’s quarters that would greet me on the odd occasion I’d return to my bed. After sleeping with Tali, the picture had been turned face down. As if to drive home the shame of the situation a loading screen message from Bioware informed me that my romantic entanglements could have severe consequences in the third game in the series. The THIRD game?! I hadn’t thought that far ahead, and I was stupid not to.
With Mass Effect, Bioware are playing the long game. They want you to play long enough to see the consequences of your actions, both large and small. All the way through Mass Effect 2 I’d marvelled at the clever craftsmanship that inserted negligable choices I’d made in the original game into the second, and showed me what I’d done to change these people’s lives. I was Commander John Shepard, and I made a difference that stretched beyond the final cut scene of the game. I should have known this was coming.
Mass Effect fans await the third game – the conclusion of the trilogy – because they want to know what comes next in Shepard’s epic, galaxy spanning adventure. Will the Reapers be vanquished? Will humankind and its allies prevail? We want to know the fates of Wrex and the Krogan, and the Quarian fleet, and just where the Illusive Man fits into all of this. We want to know how our decisions have changed the world around us. We want to know our place in the universe we’ve created.
While I share in this excitement, I’m far more worried about the consequences of my romantic trysts. It’s the human (well, sentient lifeform) drama that interests me. I know that, whatever happens in the third game, I tried my best to be a heroic Shepard. I saved lives. I saved worlds. But while I did the human race proud, I lost a little of my own humanity. I’m not just John Shepard, hero – I’m John Shepherd, cheat. As a straight-as-an-arrow monogamist, that rankles.