Months ago, in a discussion about Mass Effect characters the likes of which I typically try to avoid (the conversations, I mean: I invest far too much in these characters to converse rationally about them, especially with others with convictions as deep as my own), Thane came up. “Bleh, why would you romance him?” my friend snarked. “He’s dying. He’s pure emotional manipulation.” I typed half a response, reconsidered, and let it slide. To each his own, I thought, or tried to; and anyway there’s little chance of me winning converts to my cause in a discussion like that.
But now another friend is playing through the Mass Effect series, the second-to-last of my friends to do so, and while I carefully preserved her from spoilers, we talked about how the people we chose to romance in-game bore little to no resemblance to the relationships we’d pursue in real life. Drama is a red flag to both of us, yet both of us gravitated toward lyrium addicts, lying gods, and folks with drama-laden histories tomes long in our DA:I playthroughs. Yes, you could cop out and attribute it to simply wanting something different than the happily married lives we each lead, but if it were that simple then wouldn’t we have drawn no lines — wouldn’t all opposites attract? Yet I still can’t stand Fenris, the gloomy asshole (albeit with a voice like wet satin), or Vivienne, so convinced she knows the way the world works that she won’t consider an alternative for two seconds. Partnered in real life to a generally not-gloomy, open-minded individual, if the explanation for these in-game romances was simply “you want what you don’t have,” I ought to gravitate toward both of these characters. But I don’t.
Obviously all of this came up because Mass Effect: Andromeda is right around the corner, and I’m coveting my assiduously-preserved day off work in advance. I got to see some of the demo at PAX via Twitch, including the introduction of a certain character, and just…bah, I can’t wait. I see no point in pretending it’s for the combat or mechanics that I’m waiting, either: I am, obviously and without apology, here for the character interaction. Romantic and otherwise.
Is, though, a lurking, known death so much more manipulative than a sudden one without warning? The person making the argument to me at the time had lost his mother recently, so it didn’t seem wise to pursue that line of questioning. But really, I don’t know that a controlled loss built into a game is any more manipulative than a sudden explosion, or a last-minute heroic decision to take one for the team. In neither case am I going to protest what happens based on the measure of loss it incurs: as long as it makes sense, and doesn’t feel half-assed or forced, sure, bring it on, with all the accompanying feels. Perhaps that was a large part of why I loved Trespasser so much. Or even, to branch out a bit from BioWare here, Rogue One. You know what is going to happen. You know it’s going to hurt. You invite it in anyway.
There’s an argument for building such loss into games, I think. It lets you approach emotions within the controlled environment of fiction which, encountered suddenly out in the real world, can completely catch you off your guard. Not that romancing someone who dies in a video game in any way makes the loss of a loved one any less wretched! That’s not what I’m trying to say. But there is a recognition, a familiarity in the swelling of your nose as you cry; in the shuddering way you shut your eyes to old messages discovered buried in voicemail inboxes — as you click “replay” anyway. It doesn’t hurt any less. But, at the very least, your heart has had to hurt before, in whatever infinitesimal-by-comparison way. Especially when you are young, and when many of your peers haven’t yet had to feel this, and don’t know what to say: controlled loss experienced in fiction provides a blueprint for your body, if nothing else. You know you can essentialize, in moments of distress, down to immediate, palpable, solvable concerns: I need kleenexes, I have to wet some of them with cold water and press them to my eyes; it will take x minutes before the redness starts to go down and I can see people again. Having experienced it before, you can be that tiniest bit more convinced that it won’t physically tear you apart. When no one else can give you that assurance, you can provide it, in this small way, to yourself.
And if that’s emotional manipulation? Fuck. Sign me up.