I just finished Mass Effect 3, the end of the epic Sci-Fi trilogy series from Bioware, and it’s left me with the same sense I get when a great book comes to an end. I know there’s plenty of debate out there about video games, that they’re too violent, too addictive. I’d say that any compelling form of escape, including reading, can cause controversy. My own mother called Ultima “sorcery” when I played it on the Nintendo Entertainment System. She might have been onto something. Video games, RPGs at least, have always had a certain magic for me.
While tabletop role playing games are a collective storytelling experience, a situation where we each bring something to the table (usually beer and sarcasm at my table), I prefer a solitary video game experience. I turn on the screen, look into that other world, where I create a separate identity and see where that character goes.
Mass Effect follows Bioware’s extremely high standards (mirrored in Dragon Age, their fantasy trilogy) of forcing the lead character into tight corners where you make difficult choices that impact the series again and again. Every choice, imported as I’ve moved through the games, came back to bite me. Forget the incredible graphics and top voice talent—it’s that narrative, that raising of the stakes until the character has no way out but one of two equally terrible options, that drives my love of the series.
In elder days, I’d have a similar experience with Ultima. The classic series of computer RPGs were one of the biggest reasons I wanted a PC after experiencing them on the NES. Ultima was the first game to really draw me in, encourage me to create a character and set them loose in a fantastic world. In many ways the lower quality, vaguer, graphics enhanced my experience as my imagination could fill in so much about the relationships among the party and their motivations. I’ve learned about narrative by reading, but video games have long been a lab where I’ve grown characters.
Reaching the end of Mass Effect (and I’m proud I was able to avoid spoilers two years after the game released), was like getting to the end of a great book. My head spins a little. I already miss some of the characters. I’m tempted to start the whole cycle over again and make different choices, but I’m more inspired to go write something, to look at how I can set up those kinds of no win scenarios and see my own characters beat the odds.