Hey! There are unmarked spoilers for the Mass Effect Trilogy below! Doesn't really make sense to hide them since they're kinda major parts of this.
Video games tend to make me really emotional. Most of the games that hover around being in my "top ten" have at the very least made me tear up if not outright breakdown sobbing. They've ranged from great epics like Kingdom Hearts, to small experiences like To the Moon. Even things like Super Mario Odyssey and Assassin's Creed Odyssey pulled at my heartstrings in certain ways. When I finished Yakuza 6: The Song of Life earlier this year, I played the last stretch in one sitting that took about six or seven hours, and most of that had tears streaming down my face as I participated in Kazuma Kiryu's final battle. This has been how I respond to media since I was a kid, and if my reaction to Mass Effect is any indication, it's going to continue as I get older.
I beat Mass Effect 1 in I think December 2011, or 2012, I'm not sure. I bought 1 & 2 on sale for $5 each on the Steam sale, because of course I did. I played as the default John Shepard, had a decent time, and then bounced off 2 almost immediately for a few reasons. It took Alex and Vinny playing through the first game to inspire me to finally give the trilogy a second chance. I expected to have a decent time, seeing more of Garrus, Wrex and Liara, but now...now I'm just thinking about Shepard. The custom protagonist who became someone I cared about immensely, just about as much as I ever have for a fictional character.
Let's back up for a second.
Mass Effects 1 & 2 feel more about their parties than their shared protagonist. 1 involves copious amounts of exposition, and it's all really good, but Shepard feels like the vessel that you as the player is using to understand this world. This is evident in how much her dialogue revolves around questioning the nature of various races of Citadel space and the functionality of everything from governments to religion. In contrast, 2 is more more about the personalities you encounter, each having a loyalty mission meant to flesh out their place in the galaxy (1 actually does have loyalty missions in some fashion, but they're fairly short sequences, and aren't required to increase a character's chances of surviving the final mission). Shepard emerges more in 2, but like 1 is more a conduit for the player to experience things. Then 3 comes along, and things change. Commander Shepard feels like she's dealing with the consequences of war, and that the losses she's had are coming back to haunt her. The spark of change makes sense; the sense of danger is greatly enhanced in 3 due to the Reaper invasion, and this has the effect of making Shepard the focal point of the resistance, of the galaxy's efforts to survive genocide.
But at the same time that everyone finally knows to rely on Shepard (and thus acknowledge that the fate of everyone rests on her shoulders), she is also really dealing with the ramifications of war. Mass Effect 1 and 2 largely amounted to kinda covert missions. They were events that the public could see but weren't always looking at (see: Feros). 3 is plain war. You run through cities that civilians perished in, and constantly hear about the growing numbers of casualties on many fronts. During the Menae mission, Garrus points towards a large orange spot on Palaven and mentions that it's where he was born. A lot of Mass Effect 3 is gut punches as you run around and try to prepare for the final fight; every moment thousands, if not millions, are dying, and while you can go save some people, that isn't your overt focus.
You spend a lot of time in Mass Effect 3 on the Citadel running around doing busywork. For a lot of people that's going to be this weird anomaly, but for me it did feel purposeful. It fits into both actively building up your military strength and also makes the characters more human. With the struggles of war so apparent, they need that time off the battlefield more than ever to stop themselves from succumbing to its effects. The Normandy's crew (and the friends you pick up along the way) are pushing themselves to the limit and branching out to do everything and anything to prepare for battle. That means Shepard is stretching herself thin enough to start having nightmares about the war. I feel like I've seen a lot of skepticism around her focusing on the boy who dies on Earth (i.e. why she suddenly has nightmares about loss now considering Virmire, the suicide mission), but to me it felt like that event was a major event for her because of his innocence and youth. In my playthrough, it felt like she was finally there firsthand to see the Reapers' work on normal people, and that got to her. It represented her not having any real rest anymore, as even her dreams aren't safe; that goes back to her needing to withdraw from battle at times and simply be diplomatic, to take the edge off.
Even though she is having some downtime (arguably more than the first two games) Shepard feels like she is pouring her entire being into the war effort. She throws herself at challenges, confronts any adversary and meets any ally she can to make any difference possible. I felt like I really saw this in how combat worked in this game; in Mass Effect 1, Shepard is damn near silent during most gameplay (even when performing things like biotic attacks), which was fine at the time, but when 3 rolls around she is yelling in anger when she unleashes a Nova; she calls for allies to get to cover. It feels like her personal stakes have been elevated, and it just hounded in her sacrifices even more.
I chose to spend time with Liara and Garrus for most of the series. Wrex's absence as a party member in 3 helped with this, and while I like Kaidan, EDI, and Tali decently enough (James SUCKS though), they aren't Shepard's lover nor her best friend, respectively. The moments between Shepard and her asari girlfriend grew some awkward flirting to real love, to something that made me feel like Shepard absolutely had to survive just to get back to Liara. Garrus had had my back almost since the beginning, always feeling like I could trust him with anything. Running with them across No Man's Land and in the final push to the Citadel beam was heart-wrenching. Having to send them back to the Normandy after Harbinger's attack was painful but absolutely necessary; they couldn't follow Shepard, even if she was ultimately going to live. This was her fight to finish.
From when the Alliance and all the assembled forces began the counterattack above Earth to Shepard crawling across the joined Crucible/Citadel towards the final choice, I was a mess. I was unconscionable. Despite everything, she, one small person, was going to defy reality. Her will was strong enough to do that, and that broke me even more. Everything was coming to a close because she gave her everything. I spent about five hours going from the beginning of the Citadel DLC to the end of the game, and it had me crying from laughter, happiness, and despair at varying instances. Days later I am still feeling the effects of it all, breaking out into sobs many times thinking about Shepard and her journey.
I love my shepard so much— rhode @ mass effect withdrawal (@RhodeZeroX) December 3, 2018
tired as fuck
mad as fuck at the reapers
but also very gay pic.twitter.com/eEo5F6s0JS
Then comes the choice. I'd known about the choice and the repercussions of the choice for years, since I was a teen who decided that they weren't likely going to get around to 3 and wanted to know why everyone was in a tizzy at the time. There's Control, which has Shepard's consciousness get uploaded to be the new Reaper overseer, or something, and could be argued is the best ending since nobody dies (except her) and the Reapers help rebuild the galaxy. Merge is a similar ending except every being becomes synthetic, which is...weird and kinda invasive in a lot of ways? That one feels wrong to me (at the very least, in the context of my Shepard). And then comes Destroy, which sacrifices synthetic life and is the only ending where one critical thing happens; it is the only one where Commander Shepard can live. If your EMS is high enough, there's a shot at the end that shows her taking a breath, and gives a canon possibility of her surviving the war. That little sliver gave me all the hope I needed.
I knew what I would choose years ago. I knew when I finally committed to playing the trilogy in its entirety a couple weeks ago that things could only go one way.
I couldn't choose anything other than Destroy. There was no way I was going to let Commander Riley Shepard fade away in service of the galaxy. She deserves to live with those she loves, those she fought with and for. I cried for hours not only because she had to give up nearly everything, but because there was the small chance that she would survive, that everything she had done for the galaxy would lead to her possibly living a happy life with Liara. I couldn't condemn her to fully sacrificing everything at the end of the day. I wanted a fluffy happy ending (OK, yea, it's not all sunshine and rainbows, but that's beside the point. Also I'm allowing myself some headcanons) where Shepard saves the damn galaxy, and trillions of lives to come in the future from Reaper threats. She did it with help, but she's the catalyst for everything.. She put on a brave face and held the galaxy on her shoulders. She is the one who fought for others, who gathered allies, made amends, and fought like hell. And she deserves to properly rest.