Taking The Shepard’s Path

In the Orthodox Christian Church, there is no other time that’s more spiritually valuable than Great Lent. For an Orthodox Christian and core gamer champing at the bit to play Mass Effect 3, there’s also no other time that’s more conceivably challenging. Such was the case this past March, as the final installment of BioWare’s sci-fi epic released in Lent’s early weeks.

Mass Effect 3 made a perfect companion to Lent because it replicated the Lenten journey on a galaxy-wide scale.

In simple terms, Lent is the great spiritual gauntlet that leads to Holy Pascha (aka Easter), or, for the secular sort, a feast that would make Brian Jacques himself shudder in awe. The goal is to distance oneself from the impermanent pleasures of earthly life, focusing instead on the health of the soul, repenting and preparing to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection. Orthodox Christians pursue this objective by fasting from meat and dairy foods, attending church as often as possible, and endeavoring to shield themselves from entertainment that is not considered spiritually nutritive.

Unfortunately, most (but certainly not all) games exist outside of that circle, and though it’s not required, abstaining from games is often seen as the best way to stay focused on Lenten goals. However, there was absolutely no way that my excitement for Mass Effect 3 would be tempered. After four-and-a-half years of playing and preparation, I knew that Commander Shepard’s last ride was going to dominate my time until I finished, and the consequences to my religious commitments could go hang.

So imagine my surprise when I set my controller down, blinked away the eye dampness brought on by Captain Anderson’s last words, and realized that in spite of my early apprehensions, the whole sequence of ME3 serves as a powerful analog for the course of spiritual betterment that Christians take upon themselves in the weeks preceding the Resurrection. Put simply, ME3 made a perfect companion to Lent because it replicated the Lenten journey on a galaxy-wide scale.

Consider first that one of the primary gameplay mechanics of the Mass Effect series is the player’s own will. Using the Renegade and Paragon system as a metric, I’ve always played Shepard by directing him towards the consequences that I wanted to see. This renders the first two games an exercise in controlling two things: characters and attitudes. In ME1 & 2, I chose what I did because I wanted certain characters to be in my story, and I wanted them to see Shepard in a certain way. It’s a very selfish play dynamic; I built Shepard the way I wanted him to be, and surrounded him only with the people I wanted along for the ride.

Mass Effect 3 made a key change to this feedback loop by putting me in charge of the entire galaxy’s well-being. Suddenly, things weren’t about making sure Shepard settled his scores with those rad facial scars, Garrus’ loyalty, and Miranda’s affection. It was about how prepared the universe was for war, and which races would survive the carnage. The primary interaction of the series had been inverted: I was no longer searching for targets like Saren and the Collectors. Instead, I was going after galaxy leaders, doing my best to solve their problems, and thereby gathering as many resources as I could.

While this might sound confusing, given that a large portion of the second game was about courting allies and gearing up for a final confrontation, I found those sequences to be less important to the overall plot than contact with the villains. Gathering party members in Mass Effect 2 felt very procedural, and more importantly, very much a matter of choice. Depending on who and what I wanted, I could be satisfied with that story’s arc and outcome. However, in Mass Effect 3, I suddenly felt like Shepard’s personal satisfaction existed outside of what was just good for him, which is where the parallels with Lent start to be drawn.

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It’s no secret that Lent is difficult, even for the oldest and most committed Christians. Complaining and brow-beating about the austerity of Lenten life in lieu of worldly comforts is commonplace. When you meet new characters in Mass Effect 3, there’s always a similar sense of whiny incredulity. No one beyond Shepard’s personal cadre can really believe that the Reapers exist, much less exist grazing on their orbital pastures. Suddenly, Shepard’s most important goal is to bring entire cultures to the cause, against the threats of their own pride. Shepard’s worth then becomes a measure of the safety and power he can guarantee the living galaxy. The universe is his temple, and his name takes on new meaning.

If we compare the struggle against the Reapers with the struggle of Lenten perseverance, then we see how Lent runs a similar course.

This created a rift between Shepard and myself, because I was focused on perfecting him in the traditional RPG sense – leveling up, reaching full Renegade, etc. – as well as making sure that my favorite characters survived. But ME3 constantly puts the goals of players at odds with their achieved outcomes. I didn’t realize this until I waited for the last minute to tell Mordin about the sabotage of the Shroud. I wanted him alive, but I also wanted to earn the support of the Krogans, and to do so with Renegade flair. It didn’t take long for these interests to fall in conflict, and before I knew it, Mordin fell dead under my trigger. I was devastated, and not for the first time.

All told, no less than four of my favorite characters died. Two, Tali and Samara, committed suicide. I also lost the entire Quarian fleet, in an effort to show gratitude and mercy to the Geth. And the Illusive Man, whom I had tried to uphold as father figure in Mass Effect 2, fell off his nut and into my crosshairs. The more I tried to commit to Shepard’s “role-played” integrity, the more I let down the people who needed his help most. When I reached the end, my Shepard was no longer an easily identified character, but rather a conflicted and emotionally overtaxed warrior whose only remaining loyalty was to the concept of Reaper defeat.

If we compare the struggle against the Reapers with the struggle of Lenten perseverance, then we see how Lent runs a similar course. Both efforts require sacrifice; for myself, the comfort of my day-to-day earthly living, and for Shepard, the ability to control every character and attitude he comes across on the path to victory. Although not occupying the same dramatic scales, both Lent and Mass Effect 3‘s plot leave their participants in similar states of emotional stress, yet both lead to immensely satisfying conclusions. These are, respectively, the 40-day Paschal feast, and the Catalyst’s final choice, which is Shepard’s opportunity to resolve Reaper conflict in a way that shapes the future of the universe.

In that moment, facing the bridges of control, synthesis, and destruction, I truly felt like I stood next to Shepard. Ultimately, I had to discern what I wanted, what Shepard wanted, and what the galaxy wanted. It was a maddening separation of player-character consciousness, the dilemma of which asked for a way to satisfy all three elements. In exasperated haste, I chose to destroy the Reapers.

It wasn’t until after the credits had rolled, as the young boy pleaded for more stories about “the Shepard,” that I realized why: If I could, I would want to destroy temptation altogether. I would want to see the ultimate destruction of my inability to live a perfectly godly life. Of course, this is why I stay faithful, because such a thing is not possible for me to achieve without God, which dovetails with the ending I chose. For, as astute observers of the Catalyst’s words will notice, destroying the Reapers doesn’t guarantee that war between synthetics and organics will end, only that it will need more time to rebuild itself. Thus, the end of Mass Effect 3 felt like an entrance into the peace of the Paschal season, not a true matriculation into Heaven, or somesuch similar teleological conclusion.

I felt truly satisfied by that, because it meant that Shepard stayed firmly in the realm of human ability, and wasn’t too far cast into the role of a Christ-figure. That’s important, because it felt like an honest reflection of my desire to stay committed to Lent’s demands. Just as Shepard is ultimately granted the opportunity to defeat the Reapers as he sees fit, I and my Christian brothers and sisters are still admitted into the Paschal feast, no matter our weaknesses.

This is the true lesson of Lent. The way I felt at the end of Mass Effect 3 was much as I do at the end of every Paschal Liturgy: grateful. It’s not important that I held to the letter of Lent perfectly, or that Shepard saved everyone and defeated every evil he faced, but that victory, no matter the warrant, was always inevitable.

By day, Adam Condra is but a humble schoolteacher living in the Deep South, and by night, he wears the tweed cape of a freelance game critic. Find him on darkstation.com, his personal blog, escort-mission.com, and his Twitter @Condrarian.

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