Contains spoilers for the original Mass Effect trilogy.
When the first Mass Effect video game released, I played it six times, back-to-back. A space opera with a diverse crew of aliens, it drew me into its world like no video game ever had. I couldn’t get enough of it.
On my initial run through the game, I ensured I saw absolutely everything. I explored every duplicated prefab building, mined all the useless ore I could find, and followed every single side-mission map icon. I wanted to do everything I could to stretch out the game’s length, to stay in its universe.
As soon as I unlocked the ability to do so, I put the game on its hardest difficulty level, the awkwardly named insanity mode. By doing so, the game’s enemies put up the strongest resistance. It turned rapid firefights into lengthy duels of attrition. The fact that the action gameplay was outdated, and even a little clunky, meant nothing to me because I was completely and utterly immersed. I pounced on any opportunity to make the experience last longer.
At the time, my life wasn’t going great. I was 18 and attending a local college course. Completely unsure on what I was going to do with my life, I was killing time.
I was thankfully more comfortable with myself than when I’d left school a couple of years earlier, but I was still feeling awkward and out of place. My direction in life felt wrong, like I was living someone else’s life. I felt unable to really grasp a sense of who I was, to live up to the expectations of those around me, it was like I was sleepwalking.
At the time I was deeply in denial about my confession 4 years earlier, where I had admitted to myself that I was transgender. I treated the memory like a deadly and dangerous secret, cultivating an act to avoid leaving any hints that I was uncomfortable in how I expressed myself. My protective attitude over my long hair was the only clue left that I wasn’t happy being perceived as male, but even that I passed off as just a sign of heavy metal fandom.
I was too terrified to come out and exclaim that everything felt wrong. Instead, I tried harder to be who I thought I was supposed to be. I told myself this was what I wanted to do, and in a way it is what I wanted, to suppress that part of me until it no longer existed. I figured if I succeeded then I could be normal.
In Mass Effect I had designed a protagonist that was an idealised version of myself. My custom made Commander Shepard had a shaved head and a mature face. I imagined him in his early forties, more weathered and experienced than the young grumpy face on the box art. I finished by giving him blue eyes, like my own. I envisioned him as someone patient and kind, the opposite of the intimidating exterior. I wanted someone who looked like the tough soldier but would actually be a caring and selfless leader. Morally upright and brimming with confidence, I saw him as a kind of sci-fi role model. I had created the person I was trying to be.
In college, and at home, I did my best to make things work. Embracing the idea that I was never going to fit in, I carved out my own space in masculinity. Rock band t-shirts and fluffy teenage facial hair, I let everyone believe I was the carefree slacker, someone with no energy for rivalries, sports or drinking, all favourite pastimes on my peers. I just wanted to laze around listening to music, to get along with everybody and take it easy. It was the most bearable act I could cobble together.
Secretly I wanted to leave behind the masculine expectations that others had of me, the evolving ones I’d been seeking to shed since childhood. Due to a combination of feeling inadequately dysphoric and outright terrified, I put my effort into finding the most tolerable way to be a boy, rather than look at how I could be a girl.
Commander Shepard represented everything I wanted to be, but wasn’t. Masculine, but still kind and caring. He was confident and assured, respected but uncompromising. He radiated warmth and trust without effort, with no inner war of emotional suppression. There was nothing forced about his personality, he simply was. My Shepard wasn’t just a role-model, he was a how-to guide for finding a brand of masculinity I could stomach. It’s no wonder I spent so much time living his life instead of mine.
Mass Effect 2
With the release of the second Mass Effect game, my life hadn’t changed much. But I was now years deep into a relationship which was starting to fail. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the label and responsibility of calling myself somebody’s boyfriend. It felt like a success, evidence that I wasn’t completely failing to mature and hold down a life. I falsely believed our arguments were just a routine part of being in a relationship, that the fact I felt restricted and confined by my partner’s needs and expectations was normal.
Meanwhile, I was back in education, on a degree-level course that was so shoddily organised I was eventually offered a full refund. The knowledge that I had spent time with nothing to show for it stung. Years had gone by, but I was still in the same place, something that was increasingly starting to bother me.
Playing Mass Effect 2 was like going home.
Anticipating its release so much I even dreamt of it the night before, I awoke to its early delivery and tore into the package, damaging the special edition box in my haste to get it open.
Once loaded up and thrilled by the opening cutscene, I chose to use the save file from my very first play-through to import my familiar Commander Shepard. Seeing his face pop onto the screen, I couldn’t help but smile. He was back, with a whole new adventure to explore, another narrative to get lost in.
As with the original game, I did everything I could find to do, harvesting the game dry of content. I didn’t want it to end.
When I inevitably hit the credits, I started the game over again. I lost count of how many times I replayed it, wanting to stay there as long as possible.
Mass Effect 3
In 2012 my life was rumbling through a period of intense change. After a 6 year relationship, I had broken up with my partner. Things ended between us in a miserable mess, nobody was pleased or triumphant at being newly single. In the closing months of our relationship I had tried to express myself more, such as painting my nails and styling my hair, tiny steps towards who and what I wanted to be. The cracks were showing.
It had taken heaps of nervous courage to ignore every warning siren in my mind against expression, to step across those gendered battlelines. I saw acquaintances flirt with androgyny, freely experimenting with their gender, but doing so for me always felt like a weighty and significant excursion.
I had hoped that these flares of femininity might ease myself into a more comfortable life, but my ex had reacted with thundering disappointment. Thus prior to the relationship’s end, I had already abandoned my attempts and forced myself to settle back down. Yet I was tired of putting on an act, tired of pretending I was happy, tired of wearing the costume of a carefree and confident man when I didn’t feel like one. But I still didn’t see any other choice.
A month prior to Mass Effect 3’s release I had found a new partner, a relationship that started suddenly, taking me off-guard. I was worried that things would repeat themselves. I didn’t want to end up in the trap I had just gotten out of, a relationship where I felt compelled to fill a role. I had been the cool, confident boyfriend, the emotional rock. I didn’t know how to even vocalise my aversion to that role, but I knew I couldn’t hold together this character any longer.
When Mass Effect 3 launched, I jokingly told my new girlfriend to expect me to vanish. I explained that I had a deep attachment to the Mass Effect games and I wanted to immerse myself back into that world for a few days. She said she found my devotion to it amusing but understandable. I had been noticeably stressed out over university recently and clearing a few days to binge-play the game might do me good, she mused. I explained as soon as I finished my first run that I would be happy to see her, but I’d still be dipping into it on a daily basis for the following weeks, as I always did with each new Mass Effect instalment.
Mass Effect 3 is considered a dark game. For the third and final time I imported my save data, bringing forward a character born almost 5 years ago. It was comforting to see the familiar visage of my personal Commander Shepard, a man I had now followed for hundreds of hours.
I excitedly began the game with high hopes, ready to see the final chapter of the trilogy.
Days blurred together as I repeated my familiar formula, playing on the toughest difficulty setting and scanning for all extra activities. The main quest was an alluring siren, beckoning me closer to the end. I was determined to make it last, as I paradoxically played as much as possible.
One night, shortly after release day, I decided this was the night I would finish the game. It was already late, well after midnight, but I had ran out of other content. All that remained was the last push, the concluding chapter of the series.
In the final moments of the game, Shepard was left injured, drained and alone. When given the choice of how to end the game, I paused, considering what he would do. As always with every decision, I tried to put myself in his shoes, to find the answer that felt true to him, and thus by extension to me.
Satisfied, I slowly walked my exhausted Commander Shepard to his death.
“He’s tired” I thought to myself “He wants to stop”. I shed tears, completely engrossed in the narrative and my extraordinary attachment to this character. I knew that he had nothing left to give. With this decision he was doing what he believed was necessary, but as a consequence it would destroy who he was in the process, this would be the last thing he ever did.
The final cinematic played. I watched my role model disintegrate in an act of sacrifice.
The credits played and I sat in awe.
Surprisingly, my ex-girlfriend messaged me later that week to ask what I thought of the ending. I had introduced her to the series when we were together, eager to spread my excitement for the game. She was angry that Shepard had died. “Shepard’s death was what I liked most” I had replied. I explained that his death was the entire reason I liked the ending. “He’s been through so much. For years he’s tried so hard, done everything for other people. Shepard was exhausted and he’d finally gone as far as he could go. It was time to stop, at last.”
Shortly after that time, I told my new girlfriend about my gender, that I didn’t know who or what I was, but I wasn’t male and I was tired of hiding. I wanted to stop.
I never returned to Mass Effect 3. I made one single play-through, satisfied I had gotten exactly what I needed to from the experience.
Now I’m 28 and there’s a brand new Mass Effect game, Andromeda. It’s the beginning of a new start for the series.
Of course, I’ve been as excited as usual to play through a new Mass Effect. But this time I’m comforted knowing that I’m not crafting my own role model, because I’m finally happy with who I already am. Commander Shepard is gone.
My life is unrecognisable from where it was in 2012. In the time since the last instalment, I came out as transgender and have started my transition. I’ve told friends and family that the person I tried to be for so long was never who I really was, it was an act. An aspiration I chased out of fear. I was simply too afraid of being honest about who I truly needed to be, so I tried to be somebody else. I wanted to be someone who I thought would be liked and respected, even if it wasn’t who I really was.
I was playing a character whose story ended, to make room for a new one.