How Mass Effect 3 Kicked My Emotional Ass

Originally published June 18, 2012 @ by Sophie Prell


LiaraWhen was the last time a videogame made you think about relationships? Truly reflect on them, I mean? BioWare has a knack for making them just about mandatory in each of their games, but they’re hardly the only ones that have made romantic relationships a fleshed-out feature of contemporary gaming. We’ve seen a relationship develop between Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher over the course of three games, and Heavy Rain focused heavily on the fallout of a broken family. We could sit here all day and list similar titles.

But there is one thing I’ve never seen a videogame do, try as they might: treat relationships holistically and realistically. It seems like such an easy thing to do, but apparently storytellers just aren’t ready to go there.

Nathan and Elena have obviously had troubles and tension, as can be seen when they reunite in Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3. But we never see what life was like between titles, only the happy moments or snippy barbs of humor. They’re the videogame equivalent of a romance novel relationship. The Ross and Rachel of videogames.

Heavy Rain shows what Ethan’s life is like post-divorce, as well as his pursuit of and involvement in a new relationship. But we never get a glimpse of what the divorce proceedings were like. We don’t see the fallout of a family breaking apart. It’s not like the game could’ve been made any more depressing, so why weren’t we taken on the journey with Ethan as his wife blames him for the death of a child and forces him out?

On a happier note, I’ve always remembered the scene from The Darkness where Jenny rests on your chest as you watch To Kill A Mockingbird together, because relationships aren’t always turned up to 11. Sometimes you are as much one another’s friend as you are lover. Why don’t we just “hang out” with our romance options sometimes?Heavy Rain

And then of course there’s Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. Which summarizes the complexity of human interaction as “Buy me things and I’ll wear sexy swimsuits for you!” Which, by the way, happens to be one of my favorite aspects of a relationship.

Seriously though, the only games that have come even close to showing the true complexity of a relationship for me — though I’d love to hear if you have your own examples — are the Mass Effect games. If you romance any of the original crew from the first game, they don’t welcome you with open arms in Mass Effect 2. They have conflicting emotions and motives with you and your new alliance with Cerberus, and if you want to get back together, you need to deal with that issue. That’s more realistic and a step in the right direction, but it’s still too easy to persuade your crew that you are the impeccable pinnacle of perfection. Plus, as seen above, there are so many aspects to a real relationship that we just can’t seem to get in one place.

But let me tell you why it’s important that videogames get to that point. Let me tell you a story. Two, actually.

I’ve been plugging away at a second playthrough of Mass Effect 3 lately. After all, I gotta get ‘dem ‘cheevs! Only this time, a conversation on the Citadel gave me pause where I had previously skipped along on my merry Reaper-slaughtering way. This isn’t an important conversation, mind you. It doesn’t even lead to a side quest. It didn’t mean anything to me before. But now, I can’t stop thinking about it.

See, people do funny things when they’re scared. Sometimes they become bitter, selfish assholes who wouldn’t just shove women and children out of the way, but gladly offer them up as a sacrifice if it would mean sparing themselves a less pleasant fate. Sometimes they conquer fear and assert themselves as the righteous redeemed, a shining beacon of all that the spirit and soul can be. And sometimes, it’s not always clear who’s being which.

The conversation I’m referring to takes place between a human female and an asari, early in the game. You can find them chatting the first time you’re able to visit the Citadel, on the Presidium Commons level. The first thing you’ll hear is the human, denoted as “Wife” in the subtitles, say, “I think I’m ready to end it with him.”asari mistress

The “him” being referred to is a male soldier, deployed and off fighting in the war. Want to add a little story and emotion to the multiplayer component of Mass Effect 3? Maybe he’s your multiplayer avatar. The Wife laments how she feels there has been a growing distance between them, and how she no longer feels happy. The asari, “Mistress” as she is described in the subtitles, assures the Wife that she must be honest. That she must tell her husband. Thus ends part one of the conversation.

While others rang in 2012 on New Year’s Eve with toasts of wine and champage, party hats and streamers, kisses and cheers, I was nervously pacing before an audience of my friends and girlfriend. Did I have it? Was it in the bedroom, where I’d left it? Had anyone seen? Was this right to do? I thought forward, backward, up and down. My mind did not run in circles, but instead flew and buzzed about like a balloon oozing out a steady stream of dry, oppressive air.

My toes wrinkled the socks on my feet with a cold sweat. They flexed and gripped at the carpet. I looked to my girlfriend, my eyebrows piqued in concern and anxiety. I say her name. Quietly. My voice struggled to elevate itself above the cheering from the television behind me as crowds of euphoric humans reveled. “I need you to stand up.”

The next time the conversation picks up, it seems fairly innocuous. Wife is debating in her mind how to tell her husband her feelings. Text? Recording? Face-to-face video chat? The first is too impersonal. The second? No, she gets too flustered. Video chat is only available on open comm channels, and as Mistress points out, who knows when he can get to one of those? After all, he knew it would be difficult when he left her behind.

… Wait, what? Left? Left her?

It may seem like such a little thing, such a harmless way of phrasing things. After all, it’s technically true: The man has left his wife behind. But the phrasing now makes it seem as though it’s his fault. And perhaps this growing distance between he and his wife might not be so great if there wasn’t someone in the middle, summarizing their relationship to Wife as a conflict of interests where he left her. It steams me to say the least, but the conversation, for now, ends here.Relationships Mass Effect 3 Liara Shadowbroker romance-620x

My knees quaked. My knees quaked. I let one fall. “I was with you in 2011. I want to be with you through all of 2012. And 2013. And every year after. I want to spend every year of my life with you.” I pulled out a box containing the ring I had been hiding in our bedroom. My fingers struggled to grip the edges and pry it open. It felt like wrenching Arthur’s sword from the stone. Finally I felt it give, and the diamond revealed itself. The sparkles lit up as reflections in her eyes. “Will you marry me?”

The force with which she hugged and tackled me almost knocked the wind from my lungs. It had happened. I was engaged. It was the happiest moment of my life, lying on the floor with a beautiful woman I trusted and loved more than myself. She was warm, and I was whole.

The first time I played through Mass Effect 3, I’m sure I left this conversation alone by now. Hell, I probably didn’t even stick around long enough to hear beyond “I think I’m ready to end it with him.” There are bigger things to worry about, better ways to be spending my time. The Reapers are coming, the Reapers are coming! But now… I’m finding myself transfixed. This conversation makes me all at once mournful, infuriated, and pitying.

I eavesdrop once again. Now Wife contemplates aloud how, “I guess it doesn’t matter how I do it. I just need to tell him about us.”

Mistress responds, “Wait. Us?” I imagine a look, a mix of surprise and dread, washing over the asari. I imagine the blue draining from her face, and a sudden tightening in her stomach. I hope she’s uncomfortable. She struggles to redirect Wife into staying tactful, to just tell her husband that they’ve grown apart. To mention another woman would be “rubbing it in.”

I hope the asari has a partner. I hope they find out. I want to rub it in.Relationships Mass Effect 3 Ashley-620x

I had a fiancee now. I had to plan for the future. I had to provide for her. We talked and decided to move into a new apartment, closer to our places of work. With adventure and joy in our hearts, we set out to search for our new home. When we found it, we both immediately knew. It was a beautiful apartment, and affordable. The carpet was soft and warm. The living room breathed with open air and large windows. There is a patio off of the bedroom, with trees and a small creek just behind the building. With bittersweet goodbyes, we said farewell to our friends in town, pack our boxes, and ship off.

The day we moved in however, I received a call. My fiancee had just lost her job. I could hear her voice cracking as she told me. I panicked. What were we going to do? There was already a new subleaser at the old apartment, and we wouldn’t be able to afford this place now. I found myself getting angry. Furious. I told her once, I told her a thousand times, you need to be at work on time, or they’ll replace you, I thought. I didn’t come home from work that night. Not right away. I was too angry. There was a poison of resent pounding against the back of my brain.

When I did enter the new apartment, she said she was sorry. I told her to talk to me about it, to open up. Because I was the one who should be sorry. But she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t talk to me.

Now the Mistress and Wife are arguing. Mistress insists she isn’t the reason for the breakup. It’s the war. It’s the distance. That’s what made everything clear. Wife agrees… to an extent.

“Meeting you is what made me realize how bad it had gotten,” she pointedly insists.

Mistress deflects. “I’m not the one who broke up your relationship.”

No, of course not. It was the husband’s fault before, now it’s the Wife’s. It could never be your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. I want to strangle this asari. Shepard stands awkwardly close to the two of them. It’s really not her business to mind, and yet she doesn’t leave. I won’t move the controller to let her.

Wife shoots back, “Was it someone else who pinned me to the wall with her mouth?” I find myself wondering, a bit too much, what the dynamic is between these two. Is it a sex thing? Is it purely physical? Is there something more that they don’t dare pursue? Or are they flirting with disaster, the rush and thrill of danger giving them a constant mental high? Has either one said “I love you?” Has either one secretly messaged the other while in the arms of their partner, “You know, if we were together…”

I feel like I know the answer. I look down to my hands gripping the controller and notice the small indent on my finger: a groove where something once rested, snug and tight.Relationships Mass Effect 3 Joker EDI-620x

My boss and I were good friends. We teased each other about videogames often. We talked about which ones we thought were good, and which were crap. A fierce Halo v. CoD debate was practically mandatory. I rolled my eyes and laughed every time she transformed into a giggling schoolgirl obsessed with her boyfriend, but appreciated her enthusiasm for life. I also realized that, with no job and no one to hang out with other than me, my fiancee could’ve used a friend in the area. I introduced the two, and was happy they found so much fun in one another’s company.

My fiancee soon landed another job. Hard labor, early shifts. She would come home exhausted, mentally and physically drained. I asked how her day went, and she would often reply, “Tired.” Nothing more. Just tired. I would press and ask if she wanted to talk about it. I could see there was much more than just fatigue behind her eyes. “Just tired,” she would tell me. It would occur to me that these times were a test of our mettle. That maybe this work was going to show who we were. Maybe it would be something that would make our feelings clear.

Dropping the subject, I would pick up my controller and play as she sat next to me on the couch. My gameplay days were punctuated by gunfire, the roaring of dragons, the humming of Electoons, and the clicking her thumbs made as they pressed down rapidly on the keys of her cell phone.

I contemplate not listening in this time. I don’t have to eavesdrop on the Wife and the Mistress anymore. I don’t have to. I could just run right past them. The game won’t penalize me.

“Where is this going?” Wife asks. “Because if this isn’t serious, we need to talk.”

“Sophie, we need to talk.”

The Mistress responds, a tone of resentment and submission mixing in her voice. “These are two different things. You’re important to me…”

“You’re important to me, but I don’t feel the same for you as I used to.”

The Wife is confused. Dejected. Her voice sinks. She laments how she’ll lose her partner benefits, including an apartment.

Mistress suggests that, for her own safety, Wife should figure out an exit strategy.

“I thought I had,” Wife says, her voice pinned under the pressure of loss.

I felt I knew. I suspected. I grabbed my fiancee’s phone and looked through the messages. So many from her. My boss. My eyes flipped through page after page, each message lighting a tiny fire in my heart, each one a punch to the stomach. Explicit sexts, doe-eyed longing for one another; each one ran me through like a blade, though none of these messages was so shattering as reading:

“I love you.”

I couldn’t tell if it was the revelation, the lies, or my own weakness that threw me to the floor. I collapsed, my lungs struggling to pull in air as the carpet began to swell and choke with tears. How long? When? Why? The questions came all at once, thrashing against me like bullets and hammers.

Mistress assures the Wife, “I cherish the time we’ve had together. But…”

Days passed, and as I packed my things, I asked the woman I thought I had known, “How are you and…?”

“I don’t know. She says she loves me but all she does is talk about her boyfriend. I don’t think we’ll ever really be together, as much as I would want it.”

“Yeah,” the Wife closes.

“Yeah,” I said as the door closed behind me.

People do funny things when they’re scared. Sometimes they cower, sometimes they stand. Sometimes they work themselves single-mindedly into tunnel vision, focused only on the future and not what the present needs. Sometimes they run and flee the cause of anxiety, into the safety (however temporary) of another person. Who can say which is worse?Relationships closer-620x

I love videogames, and I take them very seriously. Maybe a bit too seriously, I’m sure some of you would say. But this small, insignificant part of Mass Effect 3 produced a reaction in me unlike anything else in games ever has before. It made me think. It made me reflect on the human condition.

That’s what I want more videogames to do, because that’s what art does.

I want them to be seen as art. I want more videogames to show us and make us think about what it means to be human. I want to cry because I’m so upset by what I’ve seen. I want to smile and laugh, too. I want realistic, not-always-pretty, not-always-overwrought portrayals of life, love, and everything in between. It may seem like a pipe dream, but it’s not.

I know videogames are capable of capturing the human spirit. They can make us ask ourselves questions we may not have the answers to, but needed to ask ourselves nonetheless. They can impact us. There was friends and family ready to support me in almost any way I could hope for after my breakup, but it wasn’t until I heard a seemingly insignificant conversation in a videogame that I could truly allow myself to feel everything I needed to feel. By observing a similar situation from a distance in which I had no stakes, I was able to deal with my own thoughts and emotions in a more comprehensive way.

It was a mature vision of a relationship, and one infinitely more true than anything I’d come across before. And that truth was exactly why I needed to see it, hear it, and experience it. That truth is something videogames would do well to incorporate more in the future.

We don’t need every game to do this, of course. I’m looking forward to mindlessly carving my way through zombies in Lollipop Chainsaw, and while many of my favorite games tell great stories, they’re hardly going to make me stop and think about how I’m living my life. But sometimes… sometimes we need our medium to show that it can do that when it wants to; that it can reach those levels of maturity, and that it can make us believe in the power of art.

If nothing else, a real-life failed relationship and an asari Mistress have shown me that much.

Although I did not make the same choices this author made for “my” personal experience of the Mass Effect trilogy, I am impressed and awed by the depth of thought put into writing a post such as this. I will be writing a similar post in the future based on my own Mass Effect choices and how those choices kicked MY emotional ass. Until then…writing such an emotion-driven post will likely prove to be “problematic.”


Rebirth and Renewal

Sun HeartI thought I should make mention of the reasoning behind my blog site title. It took quite a while to arrive at it even though it seems so simple. My life has been made up of many life changing events, choices and decisions and after each one I was presented with the challenge of re-inventing myself and re-defining myself into someone I could recognize.

Many people are faced with change on a daily basis. Some make simple changes like working for a new employer in their chosen field, updating their wardrobe, changing their diet or simply getting a new haircut or style. I don’t believe that there are a large percentage of the population that experience numerous radical changes to their personal or professional life over a short period of time. Of course I could always be wrong on that count, but something tells me that the likelihood of that is quite slim.

My reasoning behind this conclusion goes back to the first time I ever considered getting life insurance and had a representative come to my home to discuss the various options regarding death, disposal and the types of service options available to me. While speaking with her about my options, she was struck by my answers and made the comment that she had never before  met with a client as young as myself who knew the difference between a memorial service vs. a funeral, as well as all the other considerations involved in planning for my own death. From her perspective, she explained that she had not yet met with a client my age who had even thought about making plans for after my demise.

I remember telling her about all the funerals I had already attended, who these deceased people were and at what age I was when I attended my first service. It was one of my aunts and I was 18,  although I did have an uncle that had passed away the year before whose service I was unable to attend. After that, it was as though they all wanted to go at the same time and there 3 more in the next year. After my grandma passed when I was just 20 I think I began to forget or take note of who, what and when. All I know for certain is that there are a lot of relatives I had when I was still 17, who 20 years later are now gone, including my dad in 2009 and his mom in 2011.

Aside from losing relatives to death, I’ve started and stopped numerous jobs, moved several times, attended 3 separate colleges, had a baby, got divorced, filed bankruptcy and been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue. How’s that for the first two decades of adult life? So in my opinion I feel that the story of the Phoenix who dies in a burst of flames, only to be reborn again from the ashes is the perfect name for a blog by me.

Random Moments of Sadness

I can be going about my daily business, tasks or what have you when all of a sudden it will hit me that OMG my dad’s gone and I’m never going to see him at work in his garage ever again. I am at a total loss at what to do when this happens.

I’ve given in to those feelings many times and been unable to bring myself out of those deep wells of grief-filled emotion. I am a spiritual person by choice and am aware that he is only gone in the physical sense, but at these times I don’t care about that. It bothers and upsets me more that I can’t pick up the phone and call him, or go out to his house and visit and listen to all his wild, adventurous stories ever again.

It doesn’t matter that I can, if I want, to speak aloud to him in my mind or aloud or in my dream and I can then imagine what he might say. But I don’t KNOW what he might say now that he’s somewhere I can’t see him and it isn’t a comfort at all. It just feels empty and doesn’t help in any way.

There are times when I feel very angry that he’s gone. Not that he chose to go because I know he was not all that happy here – but that he wasn’t able to tell anyone how or what he felt and didn’t feel he deserved any help. It makes me very angry that I can’t turn back time and tell him what I’m certain he didn’t know before he made his choice to leave us all behind and go on an unknowable adventure on his own and that no matter what he thought he deserved, he was always loved, admired and respected by many people – some of whom he likely never thought felt that way.

A Rather Unpleasant Walk Down Memory Lane

It’s been a few days now since I wrote my last blog here. There are so many topics I could choose to write about which is why I have never written a blog before. I am passionate about many things – many of which, on the surface have nothing to do with each other – but that’s just the surface.

Had a call from someone earlier this week whom I had hoped to never hear from again. Serious wishful thinking on my part, but, there ya go. My ex, whom I wish to never speak to ever again had left a message on my machine and since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘bad’ relationships. I’ve met a lot of well-meaning people and supportive agencies as a result of my involvement with this individual, but they all have the same thing in common. Not one of them have the slightest clue what the reality of living with someone like that really feels like. Or how no matter how much they promote awareness and air commercials aimed at those who ‘know’ but do nothing, doesn’t change the fact that the average person, when confronted with a situation such as mine was, DO NOT GET INVOLVED.

It’s not an exaggeration, nor is it an angry statement. It is simply that all of these well-meaning people, who have never experienced this kind of relationship first hand, really have no idea what they are talking about. I guess this is my blog about frustration. You can mean well and have the greatest intentions all you want and believe whole-heartedly that if you became aware of an abusive situation you would ‘do the right thing.’ But, speaking from experience, those people are very rare – no one gets involved because no one wants to believe that something like that happens ‘next door.’ It is so much easier to pretend that you misunderstood or mis-interpreted something you heard or saw, than it is to accept that what you see portrayed on tv is real, not fantasy, living next door, not somewhere in a different town, city or province.

Aside from all that, I had the opportunity to visit a local shelter and it was not comforting to know it was there for me in any way. Many think that people stay in situations like mine because they have lost their self-worth or they believe they ‘deserve it,’ or that if they didn’t like it they would ‘do something about it.’ I can’t speak for everyone – since I don’t know anyone’s situation other than my own. But from my experience, the fact that there were so many limits and expectations placed on the individual who desperately needed  a shelter was so degrading and overwhelming that after my initial visit to one I never gave it another thought. And I never once believed I deserved it, there was nothing wrong with my sense of self-worth and I was doing something about it – up until I saw the shelter – at which point I changed my plans to something that would work for me.

Never mind the stress and strain of leaving behind everything familiar and up until this point in your life, what you consider “safe” – you are only allowed to stay in one of these places for a maximum of 28 days. There is mandatory counseling  and mandatory job placement and resume writing. Regardless of what your situation may be, you are required to become employed as soon as possible – there are no considerations for children with special needs and the shelter I saw separated the children from the parents. Not what I considered conducive to healing yourself or your child(ren), in any way. As a result of that experience, I found a better way to change my situation, one that empowered me and did not put me in yet another situation where someone else again had power over the direction my life would take.

If someone were to ask you to give up your home, leave everything behind but the clothes in your suitcase and move in with a bunch of strangers who are just as, or more stressed out than you are, change your life and turn it upside down in hopes that ‘maybe’ things will get better, would you do it?


Feeling rather lost these days. My dad passed suddenly in late November of last year and was not something expected or anticipated by anyone.
I currently have a free website out in cyber-space but have no interest at present to revive it. I am not inspired to do much of anything since my dad’s passing and am at a loss as to what to do with myself or if I even need to “do” anything. I don’t like feeling like this at all. I know I am depressed, who wouldn’t be? But I also know that it is not the kind that would be considered ‘clinical.’ (Whatever that means.)
I find it very hard to understand or tolerate those who do not understand grief. There is a very strong, prevalent, seemingly unspoken agreement in place ’somewhere’ in society that says you should work through your grief quickly so that you can “get on with things.”
I’d like to ask them “what things??” What could be more important than working through your grief and loss and memories so that you can become somewhat whole once again? You will never be the same person again after the loss of a parent, especially when they have yet to reach the age of retirement. I am rather resentfully discovering it is rather like being born again, but completely lacking the joy of new life & anticipation, or the discovery of learning about the world around you and the relationship with the two most important people who brought you into the world.
I don’t like it at all. But most of all I resent the random bouts of unexpected grief that seem to pop up out of nowhere, ambushing me when I least expect it. Like when I’m cleaning my house, watching tv and a song commercial comes on or I get off the phone from having a good chat with someone and suddenly am overwhelmed with such pain and sadness that it feels as though my heart has been ripped from me – and I never even saw it coming.
I’ve been mulling over telling my dad’s story in my mind for about a week now, but I don’t think I’m ready for that. And just today I thought who cares? Nobody is going to care and I can hear the falsity of my own words, but I don’t want to listen. And I think “Why does it even matter?”
I know it is my turbulent emotional state that is dragging me through the ringer, but there are many moments on an almost daily basis where I just don’t give a damn about anything.
Signing off now. Maybe my mood will be better tomorrow.

I went away for a bit, but wanted to add that I am not naturally inclined to share melancholic, sad, wandering thoughts. But at the same time, I have spent many years studying writing, and practicing and refining my writing skills so that now, I am very aware that some of the greatest writing ever published was from those courageous or in some cases, ‘lost’ souls who bared their hearts for the page.