As a nerdy girl surrounded by fellow nerds, one constant of my childhood and adolescence was this: Watching boys play video games. From my little brother shouting at “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” on NES, to the guys on the high school newspaper staff fragging each other in “Goldeneye,” to epic late-night “Mario Kart” parties in college, I was constantly surrounded by video game culture, and enjoyed it — but rarely, if ever, put my hands on a controller.
The excuse I gave at the time was an embarrassing lack of coordination; my ability to handle the vast number of buttons and joysticks that make up the current-gen game controller is still pretty shaky. But the thing was, I didn’t mind watching. For over two decades, I was never bored playing the spectator to the action on screen — I enjoyed seeing the gameplay in action, and felt personally invested in every victory and defeat.
I could see that there was potential for interesting storytelling within this medium; I wanted to engage with it. But after a few early frustrations, I gave up on personally driving it.
However, my brother Eric, now living the gamer’s dream and working in the industry, didn’t give up on me. Ever since I bought myself a PS3 in 2009 (entirely for the Netflix and Blu-ray capabilities), he’s used birthdays and Christmases as an opportunity to try and get me excited about modern video game culture. Every game I own, save “Portal 2,” was given to me by him — and each game I attempted, but eventually lost interest in. Except, that is, for “Mass Effect 2.”
It’s taken me a while to figure out why.
The easy answer is that I am a gal raised on “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” and other space operas; in theory, a narrative that involves travelling to distant planets, meeting alien races and trying to save the galaxy isn’t a hard sell for me.
But what the easy answer ignores is the fact that conceptually, I don’t enjoy shooter games. I don’t like having people shoot guns at me, I don’t enjoy the ever-present threat of oblivion — it’s generally the exact opposite of entertainment for me. With most games, if I died more than once trying to complete an obstacle, I’d give up and watch TV.
So, the opening scenes of “Mass Effect 2,” in which you are forced to fight your way to freedom through an army of robots, was hella frustrating. I walked into walls, ran out of bullets, died multiple times because of stupid mistakes — the fact I made it past that level is, truly, an achievement for the ages.
But once I did, I was customizing the exact appearance of Commander Shepard, giving her a name (“Badass Lady”) and an eyeshadow color (grey-ish)… And then she wasn’t Commander Shepard anymore. She was “My Shepard.” And that’s when I began to get hooked.
I’ve been watching movies and TV my entire life — I have managed to make the act of consuming media into a genuine job skill. But for the first time, I experienced the core joy of gaming: The knowledge that the adventure unfolding was MINE.
The fact that I could make decisions for better or worse, and have it add up to a larger story — and an INTERESTING story, a tale of feuds and friendship and aliens and space battles and conspiracies — became incredibly gratifying. I’d talk with friends at work about what I’d done the night before, how my choices differed from theirs, and I’d take pride in commanding my Shepard’s fate, in her serving as my avatar in this exciting new world.
And as I connected with the story, I also connected with the physical charm of the gameplay. I am the reason for Easy mode — I am why you are asked to set difficulty levels when you start playing a game. Because I have no natural talent, less experience, but I want to get in on the action — and the more I practiced, the better I got.
With “Mass Effect,” I was engaged enough by the story to keep pressing forward, and thus I became very good at cowering behind barriers and shooting fireballs and attack drones at duders — my preferred battle strategy. I died less, took more satisfaction in pushing past battle after battle towards some necessary goal. Eventually, the basic act of manipulating the controller became so synonymous with space adventure — became synonymous with fun — that I’d be using my PS3 controller to navigate through a Blu-ray disc’s menu screen, and regret that I was watching something, and not playing it.
The deeper I got into “Mass Effect 2,” the less I’d dread the shift in music cues, always signifying the imminent arrival of some swarm of zombies or robots or mercenaries. Because I had my fireballs, and my combat drones, and my very large laser gun. I had all the tools I needed, to win.
Win I did one evening, with my brother watching in approval, complimenting my use of combos, my skill in getting past obstacles — even while he mocked the decisions that lead to half of my crew dying tragically in the final battle.
I was sad about those deaths, but even then I couldn’t help but be a little proud of the fact that they were my fault. While the game’s writers were the true narrative force behind the game, I still felt accomplished. It was like marathoning six seasons of a TV show in a day — a TV show that you had a hand in writing.
And now, I don’t enjoy watching boys play video games anymore — at least, not as much as I used to. Instead, I want to hold the controller myself. Thanks to “Mass Effect,” I’m no longer nervous about loading up a new adventure. I don’t worry about my skills being up to the challenge — I just look forward to playing. Because “Mass Effect” taught me to like trouble.
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- blueandbluer said: Oooh, that sounds good. I’ve been thinking about getting a new game…
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- ladimcbeth said: Change “Mass Effect” to “Dragon Age” and my story becomes very similar to yours :)
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