In a Mass Effect game, I can rewrite dramatic choices; I can slip away from consequences.
This post contains spoilers for some of the possible outcomes in Mass Effect 3. Some might argue that I have already spoiled part of the game with the title of this essay. However, I could just as easily be discussing Mass Effect 2 or Mass Effect 3. Frankly, anyone with an interest in reading discussions of any Mass Effect should realize, though, that the death of squadmate in these games is something that may or may not happen anyway. I'm just warning you about the fact that I'm getting into the details of a possibility. That such possibilities exist should come as no real surprise. Oh, I also spoil a major plot point from a game that is 15 years old.
When Tali died, I so wanted to go back to my last save point.
That little reversal of time, the chance to play out “what ifs,” that is the magic that the medium of video games offers to storytelling. I can't save the crew of the Pequod. I can't bring Hamlet back. But in a game like Mass Effect 3, I can rewrite dramatic choices; I can slip away from consequences.
The Mass Effect series often dwells in possibilities, not some kind of authorial certitude. Thus, I can shape or reshape some aspects of the story. But in this case, I didn't. Though, again, I so wanted to.
After a decision to enable the machines called the Geth to gain some free will, some legitmate semblance of sentience, I found that I had inadvertently eradicated the Quarians as a species. I really didn't realize where this decision was going. I knew some Quarians would die as a result of a choice that I had made, but I thought it would be some, not all. I may have misunderstood, though, so it may simply be my fault for not paying close enough attention to the dialogue leading up to that choice. Regardless, Tali, my longtime squadmate and friend, could not cope with the loss of her people. She removed her mask and threw herself off a cliff.
I missed the opportunity to trigger a “Paragon event” that might have possibly saved her, as my controller was sitting on the floor while I viewed this cutscene (something I am always irritated about when it happens, these Paragon/Renegade triggers popping up suddenly in the midst of an otherwise passively presented scene, since I don't hold my controller very often during extended dialogues in game). If my avatar, Commander Shepard had somehow managed to grab a hold of the plummeting woman and dragged her up to the cliffside from which she had jumped, though, I think that it would have lessened the impact of the scene (and frankly, my mad scramble to get at the controller to trigger an “event” strangely mimicked Shepard's own struggle “to do something” about this sudden tragic turn of events).
The scene kind of hit me in the gut. Tali is one of the few characters that I really like a lot in the Mass Effect series and losing her after I had just regained her company following her extended absence from the first half or more of the game was rather ugly. I had planned on saving the universe alongside her. We had, after all, saved the universe together twice before.
I was ready to hit reset, ready to get her back with that bit of magic that I mentioned before, load that save. However, the weight of the scene hit me. I understood what Tali had done and why. And I couldn't bear the idea of just erasing a moment that made sense, that told me so clearly who this character was and what she cared about -- even if it was my fault. And even if (more importantly I think), it allowed me to erase my own complicity in the situation.
This moment got me thinking, though, back to 1997 and the death of a character that had grown very important to a lot of gamers, Aeris of Final Fantasy VII (or Aerith, if you prefer). This moment, which I have often seen make “Top Moments in Gaming” lists, the death of a party member that the player had developed and fought beside for a good chunk of the game made gamers weep and gnash their teeth. The sword of Sephiroth had cut Aeris down so quickly, so seemingly arbitrarily, and more importantly, so inevitably (as there was nothing that the player could do to stop this scripted cutscene from happening).
Many players felt that this moment was so very unfair.
In a medium full of choices, in a medium that empowers the player themselves to defy death and aid others in doing so too, Square had just executed a character that people had really liked at this point, that some people had really loved at this point.
At the time, I had played other Final Fantasy games. While the death surprised me within the context of the story, I also knew that Final Fantasy was a series unafraid of killing major characters. I thought the scene was appropriately dramatic, appropriately tragic, and I accepted its “unfairness.” It made for a great moment that mattered in the game.
Indeed, the death of my Quarian will probably never make such a list for a number of reasons. One obvious one is that some players of Mass Effect will never have seen it, making different choices, managing to hit that trigger in time, or whatever. They won't know that the scene is rather heart-breakingly beautiful. They won't even know that Tali is dead -- because theirs isn't.
This is the risk of the magic that I just mentioned that interactive media has in telling its stories. It has the advantage of adding player agency, maybe even granting the player some degree of authorial role in constructing a story, but it risks obfuscating drama and tragedy, both with its forking paths and its ability to scrub away “mistakes” via the magic of the save point.
I imagine that if Final Fantasy VII would have been released with a plot as manipulable as a game like Mass Effect that a whole lot of Aerises would have never died. I also imagine that that scene would be one far less a part of the collective memory of the best moments in gaming. To be able to scrub away at the “worst moments” in a game is also the ability to erase some of what are potentially the best. Sometimes the author needs to be handed back his authority, handed back his control, trusted to tell the story in a hard way but in a way that makes you feel -- that is a part of the magic of his craft.
My Tali isn't coming back, which I kind of hate. But I kind of can't live without this moment. Thus, it remains.