Warning: The following article contains major Mass Effect 2 spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.
Games tell stories in many ways. Some, like Metal Gear Solid 4, do it through cut scenes. Others, like BioShock, use environmental details and audio diaries to flesh out their tales. Mass Effect 2 uses both of these approaches here and there, but it primarily relies on lots and lots of talking to spin out its story, taking full advantage of phenomenal voice acting and superior writing. Yet one of the game’s most emotional and meaningful moments contains no dialogue or cinematics. In fact, it’s so small that you could miss it entirely. It’s a single photograph.
A bit of background first: I tend to roleplay my characters as much as a game will allow me. Mass Effect‘s nuanced dialogue choices and character development make it particularly easy for me to really get into the mindset of my Joanna Shepard, who will be kind, patient and caring until you force her hand, at which point she will splatter your brains across the carpet. I make choices not based on what’s likely to be the most fun or amusing from a gameplay perspective, but rather what my character would actually be most likely to do. I would’ve gotten quite a giggle out of pushing that mercenary out the window in Mass Effect 2, but that’s just not Joanna’s style, so indoors he stayed.
In the first Mass Effect, she ended up in a romance with the lovely blue Liara, not because I was curious to see hot-girl-on-alien action, but rather because her personality best meshed with my Joanna’s. (Not that the hot-girl-on-alien action hurt, of course. Hubba hubba.) The game ended shortly after that relationship was consummated, with Shepard saving the Citadel from an attack by Sovereign. Mass Effect 2 picks up with Shepard dying only to be revived through the miracle of science and a large budget. My first thought upon learning that Joanna been dead for two years was the fate of her original crew. Most had survived the explosion that had blown her into space, but had gone their separate ways after the ship’s destruction. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be playing with familiar characters, but from a gameplay perspective, it made sense; wiping the slate clean gave BioWare more freedom to tell a new story, as opposed to trying to shoehorn established characters into the narrative.
It seemed wrong for Shepard to not have some kind of closure with Liara, though. Two years may have passed for the rest of the galaxy, but it was only a day for Joanna, who missed her lover enough to keep a photograph of her in her quarters. When I discovered that Liara was living on Ilium, I rushed off to go talk to her, hoping that I’d be able to convince her to rejoin the crew – to rejoin Shepard. And while their reunion was tender at first, it soon became apparent that there was no time in Liara’s life for romance with Shepard. She was distant in her affection, not unkind, but clearly out of reach. I was heartbroken. There would be no happy ending here. That chapter was over.
At this point, I must admit, my gamer side took over and looked for other romance options among my new crew. If I was really roleplaying Joanna properly, she would’ve nursed her broken heart by throwing herself into the mission, not putting up a new profile on OkCupid.com. But pursuing the romantic opportunities in Mass Effect is a particularly entertaining part of the game, and besides, there’s an achievement for it. So somebody was gonna be getting some sugar … but who?
Kelly the personal assistant was cute, but offered little more than a roll in the hay. Garrus was a beloved and respected friend, but shagging him would be less about romance and more about blowing off steam before the final battle. That left Thane … terminally ill, noble, honey-voiced Thane, who was surprisingly romantic for a highly-trained assassin. He was exactly what Joanna needed: someone else who understood how precious life was, who had seen and done things he would rather have not, who was unlikely to survive what duty compelled him to do. The perfect salve for her wounded heart.
A few beautifully written exchanges of dialogue later, and Joanna was well on her way to romance with Thane. Liara was but a small pang of regret, a might’ve been that never was. Life moves on, as they say.
And then I saw that her photograph had been turned face down on the desk. Not put away. Not replaced. Just moved so that Joanna wouldn’t have to see it and be reminded of what she’d lost.
It’s an incredibly small detail, easy to miss among Mass Effect 2‘s showier events. But it touched me in a meaningful way, because it eloquently conveyed Shepard’s emotions without saying a single world. The rest of the game will show you why she’s a great leader, a deadly warrior and the galaxy’s best hope, but her treatment of that photograph shows you she’s human. In a game with thousands of lines of dialogue, this moment of quiet sadness and regret speaks volumes.
Susan Arendt was vaguely disappointed that Joker wasn’t a romantic option in Mass Effect 2.