Repost: When Mass Effect 3 and Doctor Who Collide

This is reposted with some minor adjustments from my gaming-related blog over at Destructoid, but I thought it was worth sharing here.

The original article talks about how the interactivity offered by videogames made me feel in ways that books, TV, or movies couldn’t. There’s definitely something powerful at hand when you can take ideas from one type of media and apply them in another. Mass Effect 3 wouldn’t have affected me emotionally if they hadn’t used good characterization and storytelling techniques perfected in places like books.

When Mass Effect 3 and Doctor Who Collide

Originally posted on Destructoid 3/19/2012

I want to talk about Mass Effect 3, but don’t worry, I’m not here to talk about the ending; I haven’t gotten that far yet. Instead I want to talk about how it made me experience one of the most awesome moments in gaming ever. Better yet, it combined my love of the Mass Effect series with my love for Doctor Who. There will be spoilers for those playing through Mass Effect 3.

Mass Effect is one of my favorite series of all time. I played the original back in 2011, years after it was released. I’d heard the name of the game before that, but nothing about more about it. I picked up a deeply discounted used copy and decided to give it a go. I’m so glad I did. Despite certain flaws, the game grabbed hold of me. I loved the space opera story, the meticulousness of the in-game universe and backstory, and the music. (The soundtrack deserves an article all its own).

As soon as I finished the game, I bought a copy of Mass Effect 2 and proceeded to play it through twice back to back. I enjoyed its many improvements and loved its character-oriented story. My companions became my friends, especially ones carried over from the first game: Tali and Wrex.

At first I felt like the character interactions in Mass Effect 3 were lacking compared to Mass Effect 2, and I missed seeing my old squadmates. Then I got to the Tuchanka mission and everything changed.

You go to Tuchanka to earn the krogan’s support by curing the genophage (basically a sterility plague) that’s affected their species for years now. But there’s a twist. Another species–the salarians–implores you to sabotage the genophage cure because they’re afraid that once the Reapers are defeated, the krogan will go on another bloody rampage across the galaxy like they’ve done in the past.

Since I’m playing as a Renegade, I decided to do the “evil” thing and agree to sabotage the cure. Several times during the mission I had to lie to my companions, including Wrex, about my intentions. I know it’s just a game, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.

In order to rationalize my decision, I ended up turning to Doctor Who. In that show, one of the running themes is that everything has its time; everything dies at some point. That’s what I told myself as I progressed through the mission, inching closer to the point when I’d stab Wrex and his entire species in the back.

I thought: The krogan had their time before. They devastated their world with nuclear war. They got a second chance when the salarians uplifted them. Then they blew it again with the Krogan Rebellions. It’s just their time to go now. Everything has a time.

I told myself that over and over until I reached the mission’s climax. I was in a crumbling facility with the salarian Mordin (also one of my favorite characters) seconds away from deploying the genophage cure. Mordin decided he had to make sure it deployed properly. The game presented me with a terrible choice: let Mordin go cure the genophage and potentially unleash the krogan on the galaxy again or murder him and basically doom the krogan to a slow extinction.

My resolve crumbled. Then in my mind’s eye I saw Matt Smith (the current Doctor) standing there in his coat and suspenders. His head is lowered and he’s saying, “Everything has to end sometime…” Dramatic pause. You think he’s going to go through with it, condemning an entire species to death. Then this song kicks in. The Doctor looks up with a maniac’s grin on his face, he points right at the camera and shouts, “…but not today!” Then he saves the day.

As soon as I saw that in my head, I leapt to my feet, pointed at the TV and shouted, “But not today!” My girlfriend in the next room probably thought I was crazy. It didn’t matter that I was ruining my pledge to play as a Renegade; I couldn’t bring myself to betray a friend, murder another one, and condemn a species to death on a mere possibility of a future disaster. I let Mordin go cure the genophage. And then the game ripped him away from me.

That mission affected me deeply on multiple levels. I felt so much for these fictional characters that I couldn’t betray one of them. Then I was devastated when another one was taken from me. But multiple types of media are able to make you care for fictional characters, so it couldn’t just be the fact that I cared.

No, Mass Effect 3 really brought home how the interactive nature of videogames allows the player to experience feelings that TV, movies, or books can only show them. I’ve watched all six seasons of the current Doctor Who, but I’ve never had a moment where I felt like I was in the Doctor’s shoes. This Tuchanka mission did that to me. I felt like I had the weight of galaxies and entire species on my shoulders.

I feel like that kind of experience has to be unique to videogames. Movies and books have played with my emotions before, but nothing quite on this level. Rather than absorbing things passively, I had agency (within the confines of the game’s mechanics and narrative of course) and the ability to change things on a galactic scale. Mass Effect 3 was the perfect game to make me experience something like this because of how well the characters were written and presented since the first game. I doubt I would’ve felt the same way if this type of decision had been presented to me in a different game.