A Veteran's Reflection: Mass Effect, the Military, and Mental Health
By: L. Sahara McGirt (DarthSagaSwag)
Mass Effect Legendary Edition is out now on consoles and PC. This release coincides with Military Appreciation and Mental Health Awareness Month and Stack Up’s Call to Arms fundraising events. As such, I decided to write this article reflecting on my experience of Mass Effect during and after the Navy and how it has long been a video game franchise I could fall back on. One whose characters and a story I often look to when I’m struggling or find inspiration in when I’m looking for a boost to keep moving forward.
I picked up Mass Effect 2 at the Navy Exchange ten years ago this summer. Fresh out of Bootcamp, I was looking for a new video game. I went months without a controller in my hands. Driven one day by frustration from how the command was handling the sexual assault of a young woman living in my barracks, I went out and bought a new Xbox 360 console. With it, a handful of games. At first glance, I didn’t think of Mass Effect as appealing. The male Commander Shepard on the cover in his suit of space armor looked like some of the military guys around the Great Lakes Training base. However, I heard some buzz around the ‘epic’ space opera game, and I badly needed something new to distract me from everything happening.
With no idea what I was in for or how Mass Effect would come to affect me, I sat down in the common area of our barracks and hooked my console up to one of the TVs available for sailors to use. The opening scene of Miranda and the mysterious Cerberus leader, the Illusive Man, immediately drew me into the game, followed up with Commander Shepard saving their crew and the Normandy’s pilot, Joker, and I was hooked. After that, I would bring my Xbox down to play every chance of free time I had until I got a flatscreen for my room. By which time, I went out and found the first Mass Effect to go back and get context on everything I was missing.
Mass Effect got me through that first summer of the Navy. After the sexual assault of my fellow shipmate, the barracks staff responded by giving us 8-12 hour watches in each stairwell on each of the 4 floors until cameras were installed. Some sailors responded by giving the victim a hard time, blaming her for her assault. Command mishandled everything, and in response, enlisted personnel handled things even worse, which would become a pattern I would often notice over the years during my time in the Navy.
Getting to play Commander Shepard, a strong character who took control of situations, was just what I needed. Shepard within Mass Effect 2 is the only person who could possibly save the galaxy from the Reapers. Shepard and the team they put together complete missions, and how those missions turn out depends on the decisions I make in each playthrough. With the right choices, I could even turn people who would otherwise be my opponent towards joining Shepard and their cause.
At a time when I often felt as if I had no power over my own life, I would go back and play Mass Effect and save the galaxy over and over again. Whether it was taking down Saren, the Shadow Broker, or going into the Collector Base knowing all of the Normandy’s crew might die if I made the wrong decisions; I could depend on Mass Effect to make me feel as if I had the power to make the best decisions and come out alive on the other side of it. A feeling I often needed when I was questioning myself on the decision to join the Navy. After all, Shepard came back from the dead, and I wasn’t dying. Not yet anyway.
As Mass Effect 3 came out, I was struggling with my weight. Despite being able to meet fitness requirements and exceeding run times, and a strenuous boxing workout routine, I was off and on the Fitness Enhancement Program for being unable to meet body fat requirements. This often took a toll on my self-confidence until I remember that Shepard would not give up, so why would I? But then I began looking at the Krogan as my fitness kings, and frankly, they're a much better motivator for someone who has a stocky build as I did. I doubt the Krogan base their fitness on weight and more on whether or not a clan member can knock another Krogran out.
Commander Shepard was a character I looked towards after that because I experienced their story during that first year of the Navy. But Shepard was not the only reason why the Mass Effect games were so appealing to me. It was also Shepard’s crew that kept me going. Through each installment, Shepard would gain crew members, lose them, and then find them again. Not unlike how the military is, with people coming in and out of your life as people change commands. Some of those people will be there through the same worst days as you are. Some of them will also be with you through the same great days. The friends you keep even at a long distance are not unlike the Normandy's crew members who eventually make their way back to Shepard. The camaraderie amongst the Normandy crew reflected the camaraderie that can be found on a Navy ship.
Over the course of the Mass Effect series, the characters grow with each installment of the game. Shepard, interestingly, seems to be the character whose growth remains stable throughout. Shepard controls the galaxy's fate through their actions, changing peoples’ lives, but ultimately, Shepard remains strong, determined, and willing to fight or die to save everyone. It’s the characters around Shepard that grow and become better humans and better aliens in their efforts to aid Shepard. I often wonder if this stability of Shepard’s is one in which Shepard reflects the core of the human spirit. Even as the world changes and we change, whether we continue to live or not depends on our determination, our strength, and our willingness to fight or die to keep going. Even as Shepard faces the fact that they might die, they keep going.
Over the last decade, I have lived through quite a lot, both good and bad. I medically separated from the military. My health went downhill for a while. I found motivation in different characters and different parts of the Mass Effect trilogy. Joker became a character I looked towards at one point because, as a disabled character, he ends up piloting the Normandy and helping Shepard save the galaxy. Shepard in Mass Effect 3 resonated with me because they suffer from what they’ve seen and the stresses of trying to save everyone. Post-Navy, when my anxiety was near-constant for various reasons, seeing strong characters like Shepard struggle similarly was something I needed.
Through college, I would often tell myself, Shepard didn’t save the galaxy until they were 32 years old. What is the rush to be great before I’m 30? I even found inspiration in Legion, who goes against the tide of the other Geth. Legion showed me that sometimes recognizing another's humanity, so to speak, can be all the difference in the world. Liara grows from a wide-eyed and inquisitive character into someone who can be hard and dangerous when she needs to be and yet, maintains that vulnerable softness. She’s a good reminder that while the world sometimes requires harsh responses, it’s still possible to be soft. Which is the area of growth I’ve been in these past few years.
With Mass Effect Legendary Edition’s release, I’ve been playing the game and thinking about how I’ve grown over the years, including how I perceive the game at 30 versus 20. I still love it, and I can still find inspiration in the characters, but I am a little more critical of some plots and characters than I was at 20. Looking back on it now, I recognize the characters' growth even more than I did back then. Speaking to Garrus has especially made me think about his growth. While he wanted to fight crime at his pace, he could often be impatient and want a solution that could put people in danger because he didn’t often think about the consequences of his version of justice. Ashley is less and less tolerable because while a younger me wanted to believe someone like Ashley could change for the better, ten years down the line, older me has experienced enough people to realize that might not be the case.
As the years go by, I wonder which Mass Effect character I will think of as relatable next. Will I continue to find inspiration in characters of the trilogy, or will I find new characters to like? Or will I stop finding the series as interesting? Bioware is planning further releases within the Mass Effect universe. However, playing Mass Effect Legendary Edition has made me feel as if I might be reaching a close on a period of my life. I'm still a fan, but I'm not as invested as I was ten years ago. Maybe that's a good sign of my growth. Whatever it is, I look forward to the next installments of the series.