Posted on
July 8, 2018

A few years ago, a friend who was staying with us for the weekend expressed surprise that we didn't have any video games. This was in the early 2000s, when it was still possible to rent an Xbox and games from the place where you rented DVDs, so the guys spent the rest of the weekend tethered to the TV by a pair of corded controllers.

Mr. Pink had been playing hockey IRL since he was a toddler, so the Xbox version was a logical place to start, but his experience was similar to mine when I first tried to transfer my analog drawing skills to Photoshop. The difference between muscle memory and what you're seeing onscreen can be so frustrating it outweighs the promise of unlimited "do overs." Until it doesn't. It wasn't long before we had bookshelves full of games and a growing collection of broken controllers. (Does anyone throw these things away? We just seem to accumulate more and more.)

The first game I ever really got into was the original Resident Evil way back in 1996. I'll never forget sitting on the floor of my apartment in Seattle playing it for the first time. Late at night, with all the lights off, hearing the echo of my character's army boots against the floor of the old mansion, the doors creaking open as she explored the abandoned first floor, then ascended the long, wide, red-carpeted staircase which was so spacious and well-lit that you almost forgot to be afraid. Turn right at the top of the stairs and, in the pause before the screen loaded, you thought, Oh fuck... A cut scene—and for the first time, your hand movements were useless—standing paralyzed as a shadowy figure hunched in the corner turned towards you. A hideous face with huge vacant eyes, teeth covered in gore, lurching towards poor Jill or Chris, who finally responded to your frantic hand movements by running back down the hall. Or flailing and getting caught, bitten and collapsing on the floor in a spreading pool of blood as the screen went dark, the words "You Died" a mocking epitaph as you stabbed at the restart button).

Eventually, a few do-overs later, Jill or Chris stood their ground and took him down with a couple of well-placed head shots (it always seemed to take two), your first of literally countless zombie kills (because it was 1996 and sharing your enemy body count with all your friends online was still at least a decade away).

Mr. Pink and I played later versions of Resident Evil, but it never quite recaptured the addictive quality of the first one for me. I figured, if that didn't do it, maybe I just wasn't a video game person. (Yes, I can be shockingly naive at times.) Telltale's The Walking Dead game disabused me of that notion a few years ago, but since their distribution is episodic and there are years of nothing in between "seasons," it's really more of an occasional binge than an addiction (and those aren't even on the WHO's radar).

I've played more games in the last few years, but I was always content to spend a few hours here and there, mostly on the weekends or whenever Mr. Pink was taking a break from his friends list. (He's got this whole community on Xbox Live... He was way more popular in school than I was, but it's kinda weird that the pattern carries over like that. It's actually fascinating to watch how he interacts with his virtual friends, managing a list of a couple hundred, which is a couple hundred more than I've ever had at one time, IRL or otherwise. I mean, he knows most of their real names, where they live, what they do for a living... He's talked some of them through breakups, layoffs, chronic disability and clinical depression... He's sent a few of them gifts—through the actual mail—and if we ever take a trip to West Virginia, we'll have no shortage of places to stay. But I digress.)

I always had other things to do with my free time that took precedence—drawing, making clothes, blogging (no, really—check out the archives if you don't believe me!). Then in February I started Mass Effect: Andromeda and ittook over my life completely.

Between February and April I apparently—somehow—spent 184 hours playing it. I still don't believe that number, but that's what my "Achievements" page on Xbox Live says (right above my enemy kills, LOL). That averages out to more than three hours a day. Maybe I forgot to log out a few times, so the game ran in the background all night, until Mr. Pink got up and rolled out a platoon with his Tank buddies. Or maybe the sickness is deeper than I thought. Oh, but don't get me wrong—I know the sickness is deep.

Whatever the actual total of hours spent, what's indisputable is that for two months every minute that I wasn't sleeping, working or eating (and that last one is debatable), I was either playing my game or pestering Mr. Pink to please let me play my fucking gaaaame. As soon as I was finished working, I would come out into the living room and give him this—I can only imagine—sketched-out, "I gotta have my pops" look, and he would either try to argue that he just started playing and could I give him an hour or sigh and roll his eyes, forking over the controller, which he was inevitably going to do anyway because it's hard to devote your full attention to a tank battle when your girlfriend is standing two feet away staring at you and visibly jonesing in your peripheral vision.

As I was getting close to finishing Andromeda, I started researching the Mass Effect trilogy, of which it is the fourth installment... but sort of in the same way that "Prometheus" is the fifth Alien movie. Anyway, I had started with Andromeda because it was the most recent and I figured it was like Resident Evil or CSI; you can jump in anywhere and it's all kind of the same... (Wrong.)

[Above: The planet Kadara—Afghanistan's Khyber Pass meets Vancouver's downtown east side.]

Background info: The first Mass Effect (ME1 from now on) came out in 2007, followed by ME2 in 2010 and ME3 in 2012—not a franchise, a trilogy—one continuous story with a beginning, middle and end. By 2017, the trilogy had garnered hundreds of awards and an enormous fan base, which was equal parts furious and heartbroken after Andromeda was released to almost unanimous derision and criticism on multiple fronts. Now that I've played all four games, I totally get why all those fans hated Andromeda. If I'd played the first three, then waited five years, I probably would have hated Andromeda too. As it turned out, though, I was incredibly lucky that I started with it because that's the only way I could totally enjoy it for what it is, before I knew anything about the epic, award-winning, objectively better in almost every conceivable way trilogy that came before it.

When I finished Andromeda (184 hours later), I decided I needed to at least play ME2 and ME3. When I told Mr. Pink that, he moved our Xbox 360 into the bedroom so he wouldn't have to fight me for the Xbox One anymore ("and that was the last he saw of her..."). Heh.

[Above: The Reapers descend on Vancouver in Mass Effect 3. Now it's personal...!]

I feel like I should say "here's where it gets crazy" (and by "it," I mean "I").

It took me a few weeks to finish Mass Effect 2, ahem, the first time—in retrospect, I played it horribly. I just thought, "hmm, that was kind of a depressing ending." Heh. My entire crew was dead except for two people and after the big final mission, I went down to talk to the one remaining human on my team—you know, like, "how you doin'?" and he literally said something like, "I don't like to rush into these kinds of things.." Sigh. So I knew I had done something wrong.

Sure enough, after a bit of research (I have no shame), I played through it a second time and actually managed to keep everyone alive! I had also downloaded a 15-minute "animated comic" add-on that lets you make the major decisions from ME1 and import them into ME2. Does it make a difference, you may ask? Well... yes. If you don't import from ME1, ME2 makes a few assumptions that have a big impact later on. So I started out with a much better foundation the 2nd time (not perfect, as I later discovered, but not until I'd played all the way through ME3 a second time... not because I did it wrong the first time, just because by that point, I couldn't bear to let it go).

[Above: Anderson, my surrogate space marine father. <sniff> I still can't talk about it.]

I was pretty sure I'd lost my mind the day I reached the end of ME3 and burst into tears no fewer than three times. I think I scared Mr. Pink and our friend when I came out of the bedroom to get a drink, sniffling and hiding my face. I muttered something about getting to the end of my game and that it was really good. Our friend was like, "What is she upset about?" and Mr. Pink assured me that I would find another game. Ugh. I closed the door behind me and turned to Doctor Google, where I discovered forum after forum of others just (enough) like me, confessing to a whole array of Mass Effect-induced emotional traumas. (And I'm not even going to get into the fan fiction...)

After my second play through of ME3, I realized it was foolish to think I could get away without actually playing ME1. I'd done the "animated comic," but it didn't go into detail about everything, so I made different choices when I actually played through the game which totally have an impact on the eventual fate of, well, the entire fucking galaxy.

Spoilers: (In case any of you must know: saving the Rachnii queen, saving Wrex and saving the Council (the last of which hadn't done before). I thought it would be harder to choose between Kaiden and Ashley but it turns out she's a bit of a racist asshole, so that was easy. Then there's the Kaiden vs. Liara question, but that's 100% a matter of personal taste... Although, tbh, the more time I spend with the crew, the more I think that Garrus is actually Shepard's straight-up soul mate, but—and this is where I guess I'm the racist?, the fact that he has no lips is kind of a deal breaker for me. But I'm actually really conflicted about that. LOLOL/cry)

[Above: Ah, Garrus... <sniff> I think I'll miss you most of all Scarecrow.]

So now I'm almost finished with ME1 and—I think—if I play through 2 & 3 one more time, I can get everything right. Certain things (although not all the things) I thought were just tragic and inevitable in ME3 are actually fixable if you make the right choices in 1 and 2.

Like, for example, the Quarians and the Geth... Uhhh, so it's like an Israel-Palestine metaphor (although I'm not sure which is supposed to be which). Instead of a disputed strip of waterfront property in the middle of the desert, it's an entire planet with a fleet of displaced aliens (the Quarians) vs. the race of intelligent machines they created (the Geth) and then tried to destroy when they began to attain self-awareness. The Geth rose up and took over the planet, the Quarians became a massive "migrant fleet" of refugees. You make friends with someone from one side, then the other, and things escalate through the three games until you find yourself trying to convince both sides to join you in the fight against the Reapers—the ultimate apex predator and an existential threat to all life in the galaxy—but the fucking Quarians and Geth are too busy fighting each other. Before you know it, you're being asked to choose one or the other, right here and now—and your decision literally determines which race has a right to exist and which one doesn't. Either way, only one side joins the alliance against the Reapers. I chose the Geth the first play through because, I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for someone begging for their life when you're pointing a gun at their head.

The second time, I went the other way because it seemed at the time like that was the choice the game wanted me to make—it was still the hardest decision in the entire game because it felt so wrong. (Spoiler alert: unless you've made a series of correct choices in ME2 and imported your character into ME3, your decision will cause one of your friends to do a swan dive off the edge of a cliff, while going the other way will enrage your other friend, who will lash out and try to strangle you. Then you get to decide if that justifies executing him on the spot or merely restraining him while the rest of his people get annihilated. Either way, you lose an entire allied force, which you really can't afford given the odds against beating the Reapers. You know?

I was researching something totally unrelated when I spotted a question in the sidebar on Quora that said, "How can I make peace between the Quarians and the Geth?" and I'm ashamed to admit until that moment, I hadn't even considered that possibility. But apparently it's not only possible, I'm pretty sure it's a prerequisite to getting the happiest ending possible in ME3.

So yes killing aliens and bad robots is fun, and yes saving the galaxy (maybe—hopefully, on my third play through) is good for, well, the galaxy of course, but probably also your, uh, self-esteem or something? Play along with me for a second here... For grown up girls and/or only children who hated sports and therefore never learned about "healthy competition" or whatever, maybe getting to be a spaceship commander who leads her troops into battle and makes decisions that have monumental consequences—who has to negotiate peace between her closest allies because if she can't bring everyone together to fight the real enemy, then all is lost—couldn't that be at least as valid a method of subconsciously laying the foundation for leadership qualities and consequences and healthy competition that the other girls learned in, I don't know, field hockey or whatever? You can think about that one and get back to me.

And yes, Mass Effect is also about... relationships.

Funny story. Now, whenever Mr. Pink tells me about a new game he thinks I should try, I say, "Can you have sex with aliens in it?" But no, of course it is not all about sex.

Bioware, the developers behind Mass Effect and other games, calls it "romance." But it's about friendships too... and, heh, team building. But I mean, think about that... The fact that a video game can make you so invested in the characters, that it can somehow fabricate a feeling like infatuation—doesn't that seem fucking remarkable? But you don't have to take my word for it (after all, 40 year old women are not exactly the backbone of the RPG market—or maybe they are... What do I know). Games Radar's Mass Effect 3 Guide to Romance put it best when they said, "There are Reapers in this game?"

Did I mention, this game has Martin-motherfucking-Sheen in it (also, Lance Henricksen, Keith David and Seth Green)? It's so fucking good.