PC Gamer recently did a fun little face off about whether in-game romances hurt storytelling, but I think they missed a very crucial point—one that goes far beyond "romance options" and explains why the end of Mass Effect really wasn't all that bad.
I originally published this post on my personal Kinja blog over a year ago, but it's pretty hard to find it there. And, seeing as it's relevant to Games On Delay, I've republished it here! Spoilers ahead, but if you haven't played the Mass Effect trilogy yet, what the heck are you waiting for? (Fun fact: At least two of Games On Delay's writers still have not played Mass Effect).
The authors of the PC Gamer article go back and forth, arguing about whether romance options are an interesting gameplay device or a stupid trope meant to suck in sex-obsessed nerds. I think it's much bigger than that: It's something that immerses you in the game more than either of them really admit. They touch on the point briefly, just without the weight I think it deserves:
...Romancing Tali created one of the most emotionally striking moments in Mass Effect 3, and it had nothing to do with sex. I wanted to help her rebuild her home. I wanted to settle down there with her, and give her the life her people had dreamed of for so long.
Would I have wanted that even if she hadn’t been my character’s romantic partner? Maybe. But the impact would have been far, far less… impactful.
This is the heart of what makes Mass Effect so great. You don't just see the consequences of your choices play out on screen, you feel them reverberate through the universe—even when you don't see them play out on screen.
I've never run a "bad boy" character in a game. That is, whenever I play a game that gives you choice, I always play the "paragon" path: I never steal, never kill anyone needlessly, always playing the 100% goody-two-shoes paladin. Mass Effect was the first game that changed that. After the first Mass Effect game (in which I romanced Ashley), Shepherd—or rather, I—woke up from a coma to find that the universe was still in peril, I was stuck working for an evil corporation, the council had no interest in helping me save the universe, and no one knew where my girlfriend was. Needless to say, I was pissed.
For the first time, I was ready to kick some ass, and I don't care who got in my way or how innocent they were—I had the hangover of a lifetime, and if you fucked with me, you were getting a bullet to the brain, or at least the butt of my gun in your gut. I may not have gone full renegade, but for the first time I felt only frustration. I no longer felt like I was flipping little switches in a system programmed by BioWare engineers. I was commander Shepherd of the goddamn Normandy, and I had to save the universe.
This is what Mass Effect was all about. Choosing to romance Ashley or save an alien race or turn over some deadly weapons to Cerberus, none of that was an "in-game option" anymore. It was a gut-wrenching decision you felt actually meant something. And even though Ashley barely appeared in game 2 at all, her absence actually motivated me to make different choices than I otherwise would have in a game. That wouldn't have happened if romance was just part of the linear story, if BioWare had forced my Shepherd to romance someone like Miranda instead (who I still don't trust, by the way...I'm convinced she's still loyal to Cerberus).
And that's why I don't understand why people were so angry about the original ending of Mass Effect 3. Sure, it has its problems—it tried to go too epic (like every trilogy does), that kid was like a pre-testicles version of the Matrix Reloaded's Architect, and the iOS game I was forced to play in order to get a not-shitty ending was just plain horrible. But the actual ending to the story wasn't bad. I made my decision (synthesis) based on actual feelings about the world and the characters—how could I destroy all machines, for example, after Legion had taught me so much about what it is to be human?
But more importantly: Even though I saw very similar cut scenes no matter what ending I chose, I still felt the specific effects of that choice on the rest of the world. I knew that it meant Joker and EDI could actually be together. It meant Legion could truly coexist with the rest of us. I didn't need a cheesy voice over of how everyone was building a new world together (as shown in the extended cut), I already knew what all that meant—and that was only really possible in a game that draws you in so deeply.
That's what makes Mass Effect great. Even something small like romancing a fellow crew member is part of a bigger whole that immerses you so deeply into the game that you actually feel the effects of your decision beyond what you see. So no, it doesn't "hurt" storytelling—in fact, it's part of a new kind of storytelling you can't get on TV, in movies, or even in books (okay, maybe a Choose Your Own Adventure book). It's something only video games can do, and that is worth pushing the envelope for—even if you have to sit through a kind of awkward alien sex scene or two.
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