With the exception of playing NCAA Football annuall releases I had basically stopped gaming in 2005. I moved back home after college and finished playing Resilent Evil 4, tried playing God of War but couldn’t get into it and decided I was pretty much done gaming outside of sports games. That I had outgrown it. Looking back at that time I don’t think that it was that I so much had outgrown gaming but needed more variety of games in my life. I grew up loving Final Fantasy. That was always the pinnacle of gaming for me. So during the PS1/PS2 era I thought I had to play every JRPG out there. I was a regular at Final Fantasy message boards across the internet and kept reading about all these RPGs that were being released during that era and had to play them all. Grandia 2, Skies of Arcadia, Xenogears/saga, Suikoden I,II, and III. The list goes on.
But that’s what I focused on – JRPGs. I wanted that escapism. I wanted that experience of being in a another world and believed JRPGs were the only way I could do that. So I stopped playing games more or less. My parents bought me Final Fantasy XII the year it came out (2006) but I wouldn’t finish the game until 2009. I probably put in 15 to 20 hours to the game but it didn’t draw me in to the game the way I had hoped.
Some of this was my expectations. I had this believe that a good entertaining game had to be this big melodrama. It couldn’t just be about adventure. That was partly why games like Grandia and Skies of Arcadia didn’t click as well with me. At its core Grandia and Skies of Arcadia are games about a boy going on an adventure. It escalates but it doesn’t have the self serious tone that accompanied Final Fantasy and other JRPGs. I was also at a point in my life where I expected my games, especially my RPGs to tell me a great dramatic story. I couldn’t accept games for what they were. I couldn’t accept that a gaming experience isn’t strictly about dialogue, cut scenes, melodrama and fighting someone who turns into a god.
So I tapped out of gaming. I knew that the Xbox 360 and PS3 were coming out. I didn’t know when. I knew the Wii was a thing. Kind of. But I was happy playing my sports games.
Then summer 2009 rolled around. I was working an internship during my time at graduate school and I just had a slight curiosity on what was going on in the gaming world. So I started looking at what was new in gaming and realized there were games out there on new consoles I was interested in. I hadn’t played anything aside from NCAA Football in a couple years at this point. But I was interested in a new console and ultimately decided on asking for an Xbox 360 for Christmas. There were a few games that appeared to be 360 exclusive that helped make that decision for me. One of those games was Mass Effect.
So I waited for Christmas that year and played through some of my PS2 backlog. I finally played through Final Fantasy XII. I finally played Suikoden 4 (I had started this game 3 or 4 times and never gotten outside the first hour of it). Then I enjoyed a replay of Chrono Trigger and played Dragon Quest 8. All games I ended up enjoying a lot. But nothing prepared me for what was yet to come.
Christmas came and went and with it came an Xbox 360 as I suspected. I took some cash and bought NCAA Football 2010 as I knew I’d play that. Then I thought back to some of the research I had done over the summer before deciding to get a new console and bought a handle of the games that led me to pick Xbox over PlayStation. Mass Effect was one of those games. I didn’t plug it into my 360 until some time in January 2010 but when I did I had my first taste of where gaming had gone since I was last diving regularly into those PS2 JRPGs.
It wasn’t a love at first sight situation but there was a lot early on in that game that kept me intrigued. The Codex for one. Here was this in game Wikipedia that had every piece of information about planets, aliens, wars, technology for this universe. Then there was the fact that my journal kept filling up with quests which enticed me to explore all over the universe. I loved that! Mass Effect is often criticized because it’s side quests are generic and reuse the same environments over and over. These are valid criticisms for sure. But that didn’t matter to me. I just felt like I was on an adventure and exploring the galaxy. I was immersed. Turians, krogan, salarians, the Rachni. This was a living breathing world with a deep and detailed history that I was experiencing first hand. My Commander Shepard was wondering if the mild flirtation that he kept having with Ashley Williams was for real or all in his head. My Shepard was starting to really appreciate what Kaidan Alenko brought to the crew and felt for the challenges he faced as a biotic with L2 implants. I talked to Tali every time I finished a mission because I wanted to know more about the quarians and the geth. I had several missions given to me by the council that i needed to complete and loved the freedom to tackle them at my own pace. I couldn’t believe this is what video games had become.
Then Virmire happened. My mind was blown. I knew after Virmire I was playing a special game. That was all I needed. I was a gamer again.
For those who aren’t terribly familiar with Mass Effect and Virmire let me set the stage for you. Mass Effect has an intro segment to the game that sets the stage and introduces you to some of its lore and the main plot of the game. It also serves as a conduit to introduce you to the primary villain of the games and two of your squadmates, Kaidan Alenko and Ashley Williams. You are then sent to the Citadel, which is the hub of all galactic life to explore some, get a feel for the world you are living in and set up the main plot. After this section early in the game you are free to go explore. You are given three story missions and the ability to explore any number of planets that are simply referred to in the game as “Uncharted Worlds”. After completing two of the three main story missions you are contacted by the Citadel (the hub of all galactic life) and informed of a distress call from the planet Virmire and sent to explore. At the time I did not realize that this was a central mission to the game. I thought it was maybe an extended side quest and opted to do it later. I went back to it after I had completed all of the primary missions. There are a number of things that take place on Virmire, but the parts that got me involve the characters Urdnot Wrex, Ashley Williams, and Kaidan Alenko. Wrex is a krogan squadmate that joins your team earlier in the game on the Citadel. he is essentially a mercenary. In the Mass Effect universe krogan are revered for their fighting skills as they are nearly impossible to kill and considered some of, if not the best, fighters in the galaxy. Their race is going extinct however do to the genophage, which is essentially a genetic alteration that the turians and salarians let loose on the entire krogan species after they had been uplifted from their planet to help fight off the rachni years ago. Long story short is this: The space faring races in the galaxy uplifted the krogan (non-space faring) because they needed to use their fighting skills to stop a bigger threat. After that threat was eliminated, the krogan were deemed to be the next big threat to the galaxy so the turians and salarians altered the genetic makeup of the krogan so they could not reproduce and the krogan are now dying a slow painful death as a race.
On Virmire it is revealed that Saren (the main villain in Mass Effect 1) is working on a cure for the genophage. Wrex is conflicted and wants to save the facility being used to create this cure. The rest of the team (including the salarian military you have run into) believe the base should be eliminated because of the impact it has on Saren’s operations. He is genetically creating krogan and building an army. A confrontation between Wrex and Shepard ensues and you can talk Wrex down. Or Wrex can get killed by either Shepard or Ashley Williams. Wrex gets shot if Shepard can’t talk him down. Being krogan, he’s essentially deemed to dangerous to be left alive. During my first playthrough of Mass Effect Wrex did not make it because I had not built up enough Paragon points or completed certain side missions that allowed me to talk Wrex down. I didn’t know what went into the decision making of Virmire at the time, but I was shocked to see a main character killed off like that. Considering the nature of the game I suspected this was an optional outcome. I couldn’t believe that a game would pull that trigger.
Then later in the mission it happened again. At the end of the Virmire mission you are setting up a nuclear weapon to destroy the facility. Kaidan and Ashley can be deployed to two tasks. One is setting the nuke, the other is holding off enemies on another side of the base. During my first playthrough I had Kaidan set the nuke and sent Ashley to hold off enemies. As Kaidan starts setting up the nuke you get a radio transmission from Ashley saying she is in danger and needs backup and is pinned down. You are given a choice to go save Ashley or go back and help out Kaidan as he has run into an issue with the nuke and has to essentially detonate it manually. You can save one or the other but not both. At the time, the dialogue makes it sound like getting Ashley would allow you to go back and get Kaidan. But you can’t. You can only choose one. I was torn up when I realized I could only save one. I have this habit of wanting and needing to do everything right in games all the time. This wasn’t going to be one of those situations. I hated that.
Many people are critical of Ashley and Kaidan as characters and say that the choice on Virmire isn’t that impactful. I disagree. Partly because I really like both characters, but also because for me the story arc on Virmire is about what video games can do as a story telling mechanism and the experience they offer. TV can’t do to me what Virmire did. What Mass Effect did. After Virmire I was a gamer again because I want to experience those moments again and again. Truly awesome moments like that in gaming are special and elevate the medium to something special. And I want to keep experiencing those moments. That’s why I keep playing. That’s why I’m a gamer again. Because of Virmire and because of Mass Effect.