(SPOILER ALERT: If you have any desire whatsoever to play any game from the Mass Effect series, I strongly suggest you DO NOT read any further.)
Say what you want about video games, but the facts are clear: Mass Effect is bigger than many blockbuster movies from sales to fan base. Overlooking the cultural impact of a game like this is… well, dumb.
In March 2012, video game powerhouse Bioware rolled out a game called Mass Effect 3, the third part of an epic trilogy played by millions of people since 2007. For the last five years, the Mass Effect series has given game nerds everything they could have asked for and more, from exciting combat, amazingly detailed graphics, and plot twists with everything from government conspiracies to alien robots and space zombies that want to turn every form of advanced organic life into dark green goo. In the game, you are Commander Shepard, the spiritual progeny of Chuck Norris, James Bond, Han Solo, and Clint Eastwood all wrapped in one with the minor burden of saving all intelligent life from annihilation. Real grown up adult stuff here…
I loved playing these games. I loved blowing stuff up and I loved the intense storytelling. The first two games I played through with the excuse of killing time late at night while my first two newborns were crying to give my wife a reprieve. The third game I played through over a weekend on my couch pumped up on Vicodin after donating my last two wisdom teeth to science. I loved playing these games. But I had no idea how much the story of this sci-fi game would resonate with life in the real world. The games chronicle the building of a legend, with Commander Shepard becoming a hero to all humanity, and later to aliens and even a race of robot soldiers (like I said, we’re talking very mature Cannes Film Festival stuff). He becomes the very symbol of freedom and everything that is right in the world, complete with shop owners begging him to endorse their businesses to obsessed fans that would make even Justin Beiber jealous.
But in the end, at the close of game 3, Shepard is no longer the powerful champion blowing up space monsters and their minions. He is a man increasingly isolated by his burdens, filled with doubt about his choices, about his leadership, and his abilities. He is haunted by past decisions, and his failure to succeed in what were clearly impossible situations where the lives of innocent civilians and even close friends were lost (video games have come a long way since Pac-Man). In the final scene, after an epic battle filled with enough plot twists to make M. Night Shyamalan blush, Shepard is clearly dying. He has just witnessed the death of his best friend and mentor, Admiral David Anderson. He is bleeding badly, crippled, burned, and can no longer think or speak clearly. He is crawling, struggling, and pushing himself past his limit for the chance to save the lives of others.
As Commander Shepard spends the last few painful moments of his life dying as a “Jesus” figure to save the lives of all his friends and enemies alike, he does so alone. There is nobody cheering him on, nobody reassuring him of his noble duty, and he has absolutely no hope of being rescued. He pushes and pushes, knowing that he is the only chance anyone has of survival, but is himself completely beyond any hope of a happy ending. He is motivated only by the mission, which he thought was to save his allies, but ends up in the salvation of his most vile enemies as well. In the end, Shepard does what is right, regardless of the immense personal cost, and without the promise of direct or indirect personal gain.
Ever felt isolated like that?
Pulling back out of video game land and back into real world reality, there is a lot to appreciate and identify with here. As a leader, I have had to sometimes walk a lonely road without any hope for recognition or reward. I have had circumstances that offered no recognition or applause, but only the promise of hard work and investment because it is what I was meant to do. I have second guessed a lot of my choices from years long gone, and doubted my own ability to do what it is that I do. Anybody else been here? Still we push ahead, sometimes beat up and bloodied, other times scoffed at and ridiculed, because we know we are doing exactly what the God of the universe has created us to do.
And the part about him dying not just to save good people, but to save bad guys like me… that was moving stuff. I’m not saying it hasn’t been done. The “Jesus” figure is well used throughout pop culture. Bt they didn’t just use it as a device in their game’s story. They pulled it off and made you appreciate what the character was doing. Maybe it is because I’m a Christian guy.
I loved playing these games. I loved blowing stuff up and I loved the intense storytelling. But I think most of all, I loved the reassurance that the lonely road of leadership is worth it in the end, no matter what the cost, and no matter what anyone else thinks of you. There will always be scoffers, people who will doubt you, mutter under their breath, and at times even try to interfere with your mission. But in the end, I’m going to do what God created me to do, and let the haters accomplish their own mission. I’m grateful for the example of Commander Shepard, even if it is just a game. Maybe you will scoff at that, and maybe I don’t care.
Maybe I need to have more kids, so I can play these games again.