In which a throwaway character's fate has the greater effect on the player.
Every once in a while there is a moment in a game which becomes the defining experience for the player. That moment which, if it is good, makes the player forget they are playing a game, and if it is bad, it breaks immersion or proves such a frustrating experience that the rest of the game becomes tainted by association. Mass Effect is a game that is arguably made with these sorts of moments in mind, but a lot of those moments seemed telegraphed -- your crew's disappearance, for example, was clearly supposed to be a Big Deal which would stick in the player's mind. I knew better, of course, which is why I acknowledged that my crew was missing, yes, but no big deal. I would rescue my crew after I finished all the missions still waiting around for me. The crew could wait. This would prove to be a mistake that would haunt me for the rest of the game, although I didn't know it.
I had, of course, made friends with all of the crew. That was going to happen one way or the other, especially given my own admitted obsession with completing every mission presented to me at the slightest provocation. I wanted to spend as much time in Mass Effect 2 as possible, because this was a Bioware RPG, which is more or less my terminal weakness. Most games, even games that I really enjoy, I can put off buying and playing for ages. A Bioware RPG, however, is generally as close to a Day One purchase as I can make it, and I will then proceed to play it for the next month or however long it takes to complete to a point where I am satisfied. If there's a sidequest I get stuck on, I might abandon it; however, if there is even the slightest chance that I can complete it, I will not abandon it at all -- and I knew for sure that I could complete those missions, so my crew could wait. They'd be fine, I reasoned, because games are full of false time limits and Mass Effect 2, I reasoned, would be no exception.
If you have played Mass Effect 2, you might be shaking your head in sympathy. See, I had gone through all of the crew member missions before they vanished, and the most interesting one had been the one for Yeoman Kelly Chambers, in that there wasn't an actual quest -- I think she's probably the only character with whom your interaction is completely conversation-based. At no time do you do her any favors, you merely chat about her background and at one point you can ask her to feed your fish so they don't die all the time. You can also have dinner with her at one point, which I did (of course), but then there's nothing else that you can do. Unlike some of the other crew members, you can't find a gift for her, there's nothing she wants from you, she just wants to talk. It's odd, because my initial read of her was that Chambers was a fairly flat character, but really she turns out to be this bright, cheerful, slightly naive young lady who really thinks that you are going to be great at this whole saving-the-universe thing. It is the trust that she seems to have for you that makes her endearing, that sort of bright-eyed optimism that seems so out of place in the world of Mass Effect, which is basically about choosing either the side that wants to dominate the galaxy or choosing the side that doesn't trust you because it thinks you want to dominate the galaxy.
So after I finished my loyalty missions and dropped off some smuggled goods, I headed through the relay to rescue my crew. Imagine my horror, then, when I arrived to rescue my crew and found Chambers in a glass pod, dazed and frightened, and confused as to what was going on. I remember that I was talking to my brother over XBox Live and as I exclaimed my surprise that she seemed to really be in trouble. There was a sickening moment where she screamed in horror, and then, as I related to my compatriot, 'they just turned Chambers into fucking chum.' There was a note of outrage in my voice, and my fingers had tightened white-knuckled against the controller. Chambers, the optimist, the one who was big on the whole 'everyone is great' thing, the one who trusted me to save the galaxy, her included, was a red smear on the inside of a glass porthole.
I couldn't reload -- I don't give myself that option in games like this, because I like making my decisions carry weight -- but this was almost too much for me. Other members of my crew were dead too (even some of the crew who I'd assisted), and members of my squad died during the final assault, but by that point I was so disgusted with myself for not riding off to save my crew immediately that I didn't care. I'd already failed, so a few more deaths didn't mean much. Even Mordin, who I absolutely adored as a character, was at least ready to die. Chambers never gave the impression that she was ready to face death, and in fact is so heartbreakingly terrified in her final moments that the instant of her demise remains one of the most uncomfortable things I've witnessed in a lifetime of playing games. All this for a character whose purpose in the game was to be nothing more than a way to get the player to check their messages.
The imminent arrival of Mass Effect 3 means that I will soon finish taking a new character through the first two games, and when I do, I can guarantee that I will be catapulting through the relay as soon as my crew disappears. My first Shepard may have failed Chambers, but it will not happen again. It is not a moment I think I could stomach being responsible for more than once.