essay, playing

The Struggle for Identity: “I Remember Me”

I’m trying to go up the hill and the game is stopping me. Inch by steady inch I climb as, just when I think I am at the peak, the vehicle loses its grip and I start to slid. Down and down and down I go. All the time I took in trying to get one spot is erased as the game takes a moment to remind me that I am, in fact, playing according to its rules and I have, it seems, been following wrong path. At the bottom of the mountain, I consider what to do next.

I’ve been playing Mass Effect again. It’s my way of fulfilling my want of playing Mass Effect 3 and not being able to at the moment. I decided, as I was watching other people start over in their campaigns in the hopes of having a continuous experience across all the games, that I might do that as well. I restarted a character and I have, over the last couple of weeks, been fighting, driving and romancing my way through the first game again.

In my time away from it though I forgot one major aspect that has been a major pain of late: driving the Mako.

I’ve played through Mass Effect 2 a couple of times now. I’ve, on two separate occasions and across two game systems, scanned all the available planets in the universe for minerals and secrets. I got used to, in playing the second game more recently, walking around and worrying about fuel while exploring the vast expanses looking for hidden treasures. Coming back to Mass Effect, it was a lesson in frustration as I tried to make my way through a landscape that was foreign and that tried, at times, to resist my efforts. It reminded me, as I was reflecting on it today, how similar it is to how I expressed my character too.

Early this morning, as I was trying to squeeze some time before I needed to leave for a meeting, I came across the Assignment “Citadel: I Remember Me” and it changed how I was thinking about about the game and my character. For the only time I could remember, Mass Effect was taking strides to provide more backstory for Shepard outside of the player controlling and creating it. Instead of allowing the player to write Shepard’s history, it was adding some constraints.

If Shepard has the Colonist back story, the Commander was born into a farming family on Mindoir and was sixteen when the raid came. Shepard’s friends and relatives were all killed, but Shepard survived and was rescued by an Alliance patrol. Shepard can also meet another survivor of Mindoir, a girl named Talitha [seen in “I Remember Me”] suffering from Stockholm Syndrome after marines killed her batarian ‘masters’.

When I first got the Assignment, one of the dialogue options was “Where my parents died?” in response to a soldier asking me to look into the matter. This, as you might imagine, freaked me out a little bit. My Shepard didn’t have that background. That is, she did, as I picked the Colonist choice at the very beginning, but I had forgotten it completely. Her distant, and often overlooked, past meant very little to her present. She was Commander Shepard and she could do whatever she wanted, other species and especially the Council be damned.

My family was out of the picture, sure, but I had forgotten that the game assumed that they were killed by slavers and it was that event, the game leaves open, that pushed Shepard into the Alliance. After all, they saved her and, as a player imagine, she might want to see what the life of an Alliance soldier was like. Yet, in my mind, it was almost as if she had no parents — that they were dead to her. As a pure Renegade playthrough, I was brutally efficient. That I might suddenly be reminded, through the rules of the game, that I might be acting like them, the slavers that killed my parents, was a terrifying look into the psyche of the character.

Talitha fought back against the Alliance when they came to rescue her. She was convinced that her past, as she now remembered it, was all that mattered. All her choices were based in that identity, that she was unworthy and a slave to another’s whim. In encountering her, I was forced to look at my own choices. Had I been building my character on the wrong decisions? Was my path, as I had chosen it, somehow the wrong one and I was being forced back down to consider it?

It’s when you get back to the bottom where you have a choice. Do you try that path again and move ever so slightly different or do you begin something else? The rules, for either space, are not as clear as they could be. The game expected you to take one path and you didn’t. Instead of allowing you to continue, it lets you fall back down and let you make the choice again. But, of course, if the outcome of a choice is only coming back to that same choice, it’s a loop and not branching code. It’s really no choice at all.

As much as I tried to go up the way I wanted, the game was trying to tell me I was wrong. In the moment of coming across Talitha, I began to slip up in how I was acting. Was the game allowing me to change, to reflect or just showing me that, as I already knew, it is a struggle to maintain the identity, the path I want, in the face of changing landscapes? Am I remembering the “right” me?