I still remember the day I first picked up Mass Effect.
I’d already played Dragon Age: Origins and loved it, so diving into BioWare’s science fiction universe felt like the next step. I was still pretty new to video games, so every new adventure felt especially exciting as I got used to just how immersive this medium can be. Compared to the books and movies I spent more time enjoying back then, playing a game felt very visceral.
I was a freelance writer at the time, so — being able to make my own schedule and all — I drove to a GameStop one afternoon to pick up a copy of the first Mass Effect game. I remember bringing it home, doing a little writing work first, and then popping it in my Xbox 360 to play it — but it didn’t start.
Back then I bought all of my games at physical retailers. I don’t even remember when digital downloads became a thing, because I was really late to that party. And since I was pretty broke at that time, I often bought used copies of games and then brought them home to find them too scratched up to play.
In this case, it was evening and GameStop would be closing soon, which was depressing. I had waited all day to play Mass Effect, and I couldn’t go another night without creating my character! I was so excited about it, I drove all the way back to GameStop to swap it out for a copy that actually worked. I was just in time before they closed, and it was so worth the drive.
Over the next months — or years, really — I played through the Mass Effect trilogy and fell in love with everything about it. My Commander Shepard was a hardass, with glowing red scars (which I cleaned up at some point) and a tendency to punch reporters. She flirted with Kaiden Alenko right off the bat, but her personality fell more in line with Garrus’s later on. Romancing that turian is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in a video game. Dancing with him in the Citadel DLC is still one of my favorite moments from the series. It was bittersweet to have to come back to Kaiden later and end things, but it was also so realistic.
When it came to the job, my Shepard kept a cooler head. Sure, she acted tough to get what she wanted — and she wasn’t above threatening people — but she was also open-minded. With the spacer background, I imagined she had grown up around aliens and gotten used to a life being alone. That made her both thick-skinned and surprisingly compassionate to different kinds of people. So when it came to saving the galaxy, she made sure that included everyone — even the once-hostile Rachni and the warrior Krogans.
My favorite thing about it all is that in creating my Shepard — from her gender and hairstyle to each dialogue choice that shaped her future — I was able to craft a completely complex being. BioWare games have really triumphed that, and I don’t think they’ve ever done a better job with it than with the Mass Effect trilogy. Playing a character who was private, sarcastic, intimidating, (mostly) fearless, sensitive, compassionate, and loyal was an intense experience. It made me so invested in everything she did, whether it was falling in love with Garrus or just buying some new armor. I don’t know that I’ll ever play a character again I feel quite as connected with as I did with Shepard during that first playthrough of Mass Effect.