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Taking The Shepard's Path

Adam Condra | 20 Jun 2012 10:00
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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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