By Lesley | March 26, 2012
I get a lot of comments about my writing making people cry. It used to happen here periodically, and it now happens on xoJane with an impressive regularity.
I’m never sure how to respond. Though I can honestly say that I never set out with that purpose in mind, I take this as the highest possible compliment to my work. I take it as such because it means I have made someone feel something, and is there anything so immediately resonant of the importance of human connection than being made to feel something — to the extent of being moved to tears — by another person? That is communication working. That is my invisible hand reaching out through the ether and touching yours. That is all of us feeling less alone.
I am not a frequent crier myself. It takes something enormous to make me cry, although once it happens the effect will often last for a day or two. The last thing I cried about with such untempered sorrow was the loss of Oberon, my excellent kitty soulmate of almost 14 years, and I cried over that for almost a week, with breaks for getting work done and leaving the house. The most recent thing, as of this weekend? A video game.
Some of you are aware of my deep deep love for the Mass Effect series of video games. My obsession began when I watched my husband play the first installment in 2007, and has not flagged since. It comprises an epic (both the noun and the adjective) hero’s journey, a monomyth set in the distant future where humans have extended themselves across the galaxy and found that even a universe filled with curious aliens is still damn familiar, riddled with conflict and war, some brand new, some thousands of years old.
It is a story told in millions of colors and shades of grey, but where nothing is black and white. No answers are right or wrong, and nothing is objectively good nor bad; there is only emotion, and circumstance, and experience, and legacy, and it is the player who finds their way through it all, bringing their own personality and perspective to the story like one might bring a torch to a cave. Those tunnels may be limited by the way the rock has formed, but every explorer will see them from a different angle, and no two will ever tread the same path.
This weekend, after years of participation in my own Mass Effect story, I came to the end of it. The very end.
The ending has not been without controversy. I may unpack the details of the mechanism that brought about this ending at another time, but for now, my response to it has not shifted one iota from the moment of its in-game revelation.
There were three choices. One choice involved enslaving the enemy Reapers to stop them from destroying all organic life, managing this possibly only temporarily, with no balance applied, no way to know what the long-term consequences would be, and making our hero Shepard no better than any of the enemies she’d been fighting.
One choice involved destroying the Reapers and with them all artificial life, including life that I had, over the course of the game, come to be convinced had a right both to survival and to self-determination. Had you asked me, or my surrogate Shepard, at the beginning of this third installment what I would do if given the option to destroy all synthetic life in the galaxy, I would have taken it without a second thought. But by now, I wasn’t so sure.
That is an impressive, and subtle, narrative feat.
When the third option was revealed — synthesis, in which all life in the galaxy is fused into equal parts organic and artificial, albeit at the cost of Shepard’s life — I didn’t hesitate, but sent her, injured and bleeding from her final battle, hobbling down the middle path.
As she drew near the end, she stopped, and turned around. There’s nothing wrong with looking back, I thought, I’m just looking back, just once, to where the catalyst stood, and I thought — She could just destroy them, you know, she could just destroy artificial life and live out the rest of her days, knowing that the inevitable cycle would not repeat itself for tens of thousands of years, and at that point would be someone else’s problem.
Of course, she’d be totally isolated from everyone she cared about by the necessary destruction of the mass relays, the system by which interstellar travel was possible. And she’d have to live with the knowledge that leaving a final solution to someone else could create room for error. She’d have to live knowing that it had to be her; someone else might get it wrong.
And Shepard would never do that, would never leave a job undone just so she could live a little bit longer. After all, technically she’s already dead.
I looked around, in that moment, and in the windows overhead, just outside the Citadel, I watched a Reaper taking down an Alliance ship; I wondered if this small scene was placed there on purpose, to fortify my decision — it had to be. I thought, What kind of ending leaves room for this to continue?
I must have stopped Shepard a centimeter from where the story took control of her away from me again, because when I swung the camera back around, both distraught and certain, the final cutscene began to play, with Shepard throwing herself, confident as ever, into the beam and being slowly disintegrated, in her final moments remembering her friends.
The result, naturally, is that Shepard dies, but she also lives, as her sacrifice puts a piece of her in every living thing in the galaxy. Watching Shepard die is devastating, because while Shepard is a character in a story, for some, Shepard is also us, a better version of ourselves, the hero we all want to believe we’d be if we found ourselves in similar circumstances.
But she was always going to die; in the third installment alone, we spend thirty or forty hours (or, in my case, sixty) intermittently talking about the ruthless calculus of war, the simple fact that not everyone can be saved, that some will die so that others can live. That sacrifices will have to be made. The story tells us that absolute freedom is an illusion, or at least it was — and although Shepard may have cheated the Reapers of another harvesting cycle, there is one reaper no one escapes.
There’s been a lot of deep thinking and desperate analysis from people who needed a happy ending, who needed an option in which Shepard and her love interest FTL-jump into the sunset, needed it with the same single-minded passion that we all need connection and closure and for the things we do to have some meaning and purpose — they needed answers. Some are very, very angry about it. Some have concocted an alternate explanation and I don’t begrudge anyone that. Some are actively lobbying Bioware for a new ending “fix” and I don’t begrudge them that either.
This entitlement is rooted in the fact that we don’t want games to be realistic, many of us. We want games to give us control; we want games to tell us the stories we want to hear, not the ones we are forced to live every day, and we want games to give us clear ideologies and straight answers, not pepper us with more questions that terrify us with their unanswerability.
But no matter how invested we are, no matter how much we want things to go a certain way, we are no more the author of Shepard’s fate than we are our own; at some point life will present us with difficult choices, and inevitably, we will someday die, and if we are very lucky, we will lie back in that moment and know that our life meant something.
Who wants to be reminded of this simple truth — that we all end — in a game? I do. I wept — an embarrassing sort of crying, not a quiet welling-up, but an overwhelming convulsion of sorrow and relief, replete with shuddering sobs and maybe even a subdued wail or two — throughout the ending, because Shepard knew she was not going to walk away from this, and I knew it too.
As benign and pleasant as a happy-ending option might have been, I like that this game made me cry; I like that this series forced me to invest so deeply in a story and in characters that their loss is something I feel almost as keenly as I would that of a living friend.
I like that my response was to feel a tidal wave of emotional need, a longing to grab all of my family and friends and even strangers in wild enthuiastic hugs, to tell them all how much I love them, and that our time is too short to do anything but fight to be the best people we can be, and to fight to make our world the most just and sacred and beautiful place we can imagine. To take risks. To treasure every moment, to remember that when tragedy strikes — as it inevitably will — there will be no time to spare on regrets, things we should have said, promises we should have kept.
I was sharing this video around all last week; it illustrates the oft-quoted idea that we are all made of stardust, which is a literal truth: the atoms that comprise our very bodies came from the exploded stars of long ago. In it, Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “We are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us.”
As a result of Shepard’s sacrifice, a piece of her lives on in every single life form in the galaxy. This is not an idea unique to Shepard, nor to the fictional world of Mass Effect where she resides; we are all connected in ways both meaningful and mundane, we all share this world together, and the best of all of us is in us already — we just have to find it and hold it up for others to see.
That is why I cried. I cried for the ending of a story that was made all the more meaningful by its definitive conclusion; I cried for all the time I waste not being loving and kind to everyone I meet, and I cried because I sometimes forget how marvelous and incredible life really is, even when it’s drowning in sorrow and loss.
We only mourn the loss of what is meaningful and dear to us, and for all the sadness the void brings, I would never trade the joy that makes the pain inevitable. My Mass Effect story is over, and lucky me, I got the ending I needed: the one that reminded me how precious our time here truly is.