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Mass Effect’s Most Honest Romances Don’t Even Involve Shepard

The galaxy is falling apart in Mass Effect 3, with billions of people trying desperately to reconnect with loved ones in the face of an unprecedented invasion. Unless Commander Shepard can perform some sort of miracle in the coming days, everything we’ve come to know is doomed – and that includes the places and people we hold so dear. As a trilogy, Mass Effect can often overlook the little people, those caught up in the conflicts caused in the face of Shepard’s conquest to save the galaxy. The protagonist’s relationships also take centre stage, with dynamics between them and their squadmates proving larger than life and awash with meaningful consequence.

I love it when virtual worlds decide to take a step back, though, taking time to analyse the impact such circumstances have on those simply trying to live their lives. While it’s easily the most monolithic and action-packed of the original trilogy, Mass Effect 3 finds time for these stories, allowing Shepard to piece together romantic connections in the eruption of war, even if they’re only sourced from scattered conversations and one-sided attempts to reunite with partners who have been strewn across the galaxy. It’s still not enough to make the game’s world feel truly lived in, but it’s a start, showcasing a sense of reality that helps one of the medium’s most outlandish franchises feel genuinely grounded.

Many of these interactions can be found amidst the Citadel, a location that has established itself as a symbol of galactic prowess. Now, it’s a chaotic den for injured soldiers and stranded refugees fleeing from war, trying to carve out some form of belonging in the wake of their planet’s demise. It’s a harrowing atmosphere, twisting the once pristine nature of the Citadel into an environment defined by devastation. The Council and its pretentious flaunting of galactic politics have failed these people, the sheer weight of bureaucracy caving in on itself as administrative systems struggle to deal with the scale of such loss.

Putting the wider political picture aside, the tragic beauty of Mass Effect 3 can be found in the small conversations in the embassies, hospitals, and storefronts. One features a human woman who tries to desperately get in contact with her asari partner, who is seemingly off-world tending to an important assignment. There’s also a child involved, with the woman begging the receptionist to establish some form of contact with her family, to let her know that everything will be okay, if only for a moment until things once again descend into unparalleled destruction. It could be the last time she hears her partner’s voice before they’re taken away forever, so I couldn’t help but linger in the hallway to hear everything this exchange has to offer. I don’t know what happens after this plea for help, forced to walk away and hope that these three individuals are able to find peace, or to at least say goodbye as everything falls apart. Chances are they won’t, just like billions of others.

The Citadel is filled with miniature narratives like this which evolve throughout the campaign as strangers begin to comprehend the sheer scale of the Reaper’s invasion. One interaction is somewhat less honest, and also very gay. A human and asari can be found embracing one another, the conversation shifting to a male partner who is seemingly out fighting and might never return. These two are clearly in love, forming a relationship in the midst of war and wanting to move further and leave behind those holding them back. It’s a bit of a dishonest thing to do when everyone around you is dying, and you’re left to form your own conclusions as the conversation comes to a close and Shepard moves on. Once again, we’re given a single snapshot into something greater, into a personal story with so much more to it.

A few more romantic interactions can be gleaned as you explore the Citadel, one of the only areas in Mass Effect 3 that effectively conveys the meaning of the Reaper invasion and the massive impact it’s having on the galaxy. You’re otherwise free to embark on missions and mess around however you like, a glaring pacing issue that throws many of the final chapter’s attempts to be grandiose directly into the bin. Ironically, it’s the smaller stories that help provide the larger central narrative with so much weight.

Once you can relate to a tragedy, whether it be through a personal connection or an abstract anecdote, it becomes much easier to understand the weight behind it. Anyone can destroy the galaxy, what matters is making whoever is responsible feel truly unstoppable, like they’re changing the landscape in a way that can never be reversed. The Reapers are such a threat, but Mass Effect 3 doesn’t do nearly enough with them in my eyes. As a result, many of the encounters I’ve mentioned here do the heavy lifting, providing context that makes the loss that defines this wonderful game matter so much more.

It’s a shame that such conversations can be ignored so easily, requiring a willingness to listen that not everyone will have. But if you’re playing through Mass Effect 3 right now and stumble across even one of the conversations I’ve just mentioned, take some time to stop and take it all in. In a trilogy so often dominated by heteronormativity, some of its most poignant moments are found on the fringes, and it’s worth seeking them out.

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