The following is an entry in “Growth of a Gamer,” a series of articles exploring the profound ways that video games can touch people’s lives. For more information and more great content, you can check out the series’ hub page! Until then, please enjoy the story of how Mass Effect influenced Justin’s life.

As a child, I had a lot of different ideas about what I wanted to be when I grew up. “I want to be President, I want to be an astronaut, I want to be a veterinarian,” and so forth. But once I reached adolescence, I decided I wanted to be a game designer. My logic was impeccable: I thought it would be awesome to get paid to play with games all day long. When I got my first computer as a pre-teen, I immediately began to build small platformers and shooters. They were nothing particularly special—just a few primitive builds that would amount to little more than demos today, but it was work that I enjoyed nonetheless. Social pressure and the fear of joblessness, however, eventually convinced me to abandon my “naïve” childhood dream in favor of pursuing goals that seemed more practical, like law school… That is, until one game convinced me that creating games was how I wanted to spend my life and that doing so would be well with the risk. That game was Mass Effect.

It was early December when my brother Andrew came home to visit me for the winter break. As Christmas began to draw near, it came time for me to choose an appropriate gift for him, something that would help him blow off steam after what had been a long and stressful semester. I quickly decided that his present should be a game, an experience we could share and let him blow off steam. I was searching for something that fit these criteria when I stumbled upon an article praising
Mass Effect‘s soundtrack. It didn’t say much about the actual game, merely that it was science fiction, that it was an RPG, and that the scoring was positively sublime. But apart from raving about Mass Effect‘s electro-rhythms, it also mentioned that the game had a unique narrative freedom. At the time, I thought that meant it was a sandbox game, like The Elder Scrolls, which was an addiction Andrew and I were coincidentally both recovering from. Though I knew it could mean falling into relapse, I began playing the game over the weekend in hopes that I had found the gift I was looking for.

Mass Effect put me in control of Commander Shepard, an up-and-coming officer in the Alliance, the international governing body for humans throughout the galaxy. As Shepard, I was assigned to a newly designed space-warship, the Normandy, and then dispatched on a covert mission on behalf of the Citadel Council, the multi-species galactic government for spacefaring races. At first the task seemed simple: I was supposed to retrieve a lost artifact that only I could be bothered to pick up. But things quickly became more complicated. The mission turned bad, my favorite character was betrayed and shot in the back of the head, and after a few more twists and turns I was off to save humanity from a threat to all life in the galaxy.

Mass Effect was nominally a third-person shooter based around taking cover behind doorways, chest-high walls, and similar obstacles. Unfortunately, the system for taking cover was completely broken; I can’t even begin to count the number of times I found myself mashing the ‘E’ key only to watch Shepard stubbornly continue to stand out in the open and soak up fire. Later on this was offset by some RPG elements, which made the gameplay significantly more palatable. They gave you some choice in deciding what special abilities you wanted to advance and what new mods and upgrades you wanted to get for your guns and armor. When it came to missions, you were always working with squad-mates, and you could direct them on orders for strategic movement across the battlefield. Personally, I opted to take the “Operation Human Shield” approach most of the time, and just sent them charging in front of me after I realized how hopelessly broken the cover system was.

What made Mass Effect the most fun, despite all this, was what went on outside of combat—by which I mean the story and my ability to affect it. You see, in Mass Effect you have to make choices which dramatically impact the plot, which for me was something refreshingly new. Some of my favorite choices were, “Do you destroy the insect, alien-queen whose children have been attacking you on sight for the last few hours, or do you instead let her go to try and start new, gentler family?” and “Do you release this female alien prisoner who was mind-controlled by the villain to try and kill you, or do give her a Dirty Harry-style shot to the back of the head?” Others were less ridiculous, but nonetheless engaging. For example, fairly early on I got roguish ex-cop as a companion. Over the course of his story arc, I had the choice of either persuading him that it’s better to stick to protocol because, hey, rules exist for a reason, or alternatively encouraging him to get results at any cost, even if it means shooting prisoners in the back of the head. I chose the latter, because, hey, it was fun. But all these decisions led to benefits and consequences that usually ended up taking the story in completely unexpected directions. This dynamic narrative drew me in so deeply that I kept replaying it throughout the entire Christmas vacation, each time making slightly different choices as I tried to complete every branching storyline.

Ultimately, Mass Effect captured my interest far better than any other game I’d ever experienced. Though I had previously played and loved other games with copious levels of freedom and exploration, Mass Effect’s unique ability to let me shape the narrative of the game pulled me into its world in a way that I had never before expected, nor thought possible—which was precisely what my brother and I needed. In the prior semester, Andrew had tried and failed to commit suicide, a sad reaction to losing his girlfriend of several years. He only seemed to get worse when he came home, acting thoroughly depressed. For nearly a week I was quite frankly terrified that he’d succumb entirely and I’d lose my brother forever. But Mass Effect gave him a way to escape from these tragedies, forget his worries, and instead experience the wonder of the game. By the time he went back to school, he’d recovered from his depression and was ready to move on with his life.

It’s thanks to this escapism that I am able to appreciate the importance of games, a realization that prompted me to return to my childhood dream of designing games—as I personally feel I can use such interactive narratives in order to enrich people’s lives. But I no longer pursue the dream for childish reasons. Playing games all day long is fun, but affecting a positive change in people’s lives… what could be more worthwhile?

About the Growth of a Gamer Series

Growth of a Gamer” is a series of articles exploring the profound way games and gaming can impact our lives, as told by students of the Interactive Media program at the University of Southern California. Each one tells a personal story of how a particular game or franchise molded us into the people we are today, and through our experiences we hope to shed light on the ways that these games have affected all of you as well. We invite you all to share your own stories in the comments below, or by writing your very own series entries through Gamnesia’s Journals feature. We love coming together to share in the joys that make gaming so memorable for us all, and we hope that you’ll join us!

You can find more information about these stories and their authors at the hub page for the Growth of a Gamer series, or find a particular game from the list below to jump right in!

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