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10 Apr 2012

[Spoiler alert:* This article is all about the ending of Mass Effect 3, and includes some other series spoilers as well.]*

In the end, all I could think about was Ashley.

I met her at the beginning of Mass Effect, on Eden Prime. She was the sole survivor of her squad. I could relate: I'd lost a squad of my own, back on Akuze.

On Virmire, when the shit hit the fan, I saved her without hesitation.

I remember she liked poetry. Especially Tennyson.

Then the Normandy SR-1 went down. I died, and woke up in a Cerberus base, rebuilt from the ground up. Early on, Mass Effect 2 showed no signs of bringing back any of the old crew, Ashley included. I remember being disappointed. Miranda was no substitute.

Then we landed on Horizon, and Ashley was there. She thought I was dead, but the joy lasted only so long as it took her to realize I was working alongside Cerberus. Suddenly she was suspicious, cold. I wasn't the Shepard she remembered. And just like that, it was over.

Miranda became a little more attractive after that, but I still remember the twinge of guilt when she came to my cabin the night before our suicide run through the Omega IV relay. It should've been Ashley in that cabin… but it wasn't to be.

We jumped through the relay and destroyed the Collector base. We survived, and I cut ties with Cerberus for good.

Then the Reapers hit Earth, and while preparing for a mission to Mars to recover the blueprints for what would eventually become the Prothean Crucible, I ran into Ashley again. She'd made Lieutenant Commander, come a long way from the Gunnery Chief I met back on Eden Prime. She was wary, unsure I'd really cut ties with Cerberus, but I convinced her to join me on the mission. I'd prove I was the Shepard she really remembered.

On Mars, Ashley was nearly killed by a rogue AI. We barely managed to get her to the hospital on the Citadel. I remember going to visit for the first time. There was a gift shop there. Flowers, chocolates… and a Tennyson anthology. I looked forward to seeing her reaction when I gave it to her. It's the little things that matter most.

She was still comatose. She looked like hell. We couldn't talk. I said a few unheard words and reluctantly went back to saving the galaxy.

I remember she sent an email a while later. I was light years away. She'd been offered a SPECTRE position by Councillor Udina. The second human SPECTRE — a hell of an accomplishment. She'd earned it. I was proud.

It led to me pointing a gun at her, and she at me. Udina had betrayed humanity, and she was protecting him. She hadn't realized his treachery. That situation almost got real, real ugly. I think the only thing that held it together was that she and I, we knew each other better than that.

I remember we united the galaxy, together, to take the fight to the Reapers.

I remember saying our goodbyes in the ruins of London. I remember her saying, "I don't want you to go." But I had to. We had to. This was it.

I remember making a run for the Citadel beam, dodging laser blasts from the Reaper that had intercepted us. Ashley was right behind me. We were almost there.

And then I was down. I remember the hopelessness, the desperation in the radio calls. "They're all down." "Nobody left alive."

I staggered to my feet, badly wounded. Bodies lay strewn about. I saw a woman in blue armor lying face down just ahead. Ashley wore blue armor. Please, no.

I took a bullet from a Marauder that came out of nowhere, and by the time I put it down and looked back, the woman in blue armor was gone. Maybe I'd been disoriented in the fight? Where was Ashley?

And then I was in the Citadel beam, being pulled up, and I found myself in a room full of corpses. Ashley, Ashley, are you in here? God, I hope not. Where are you?

I stumbled through this unfamiliar part of the Citadel and found the controls to open the docking arms, which would allow the Crucible to connect: our last, best hope to destroy the Reapers. Admiral Anderson was there, and the Illusive Man too, clearly indoctrinated. Shortly, he was dead.

I remember slumping down next to Anderson. We were both mortally wounded, two career soldiers who knew their times had come. I felt for Anderson, my loyal friend from the beginning, but really I just kept hoping for Ashley to burst into the room, alive and bringing hope. She didn't. For all I knew, she'd been incinerated by the Reaper.

At least we'd gotten to say goodbye.

Things got pretty surreal after that, but in the end I was faced with a monumental choice: take control of the Reapers, as the Illusive Man would have; fire the Crucible and destroy the Reapers, as we originally intended; or assimilate myself into the Crucible and synthesize all organic and synthetic life in the galaxy into a single form, ending the need for the Reapers' cycle altogether. In every case, my own life was forfeit.

It was supposed to be a philosophical dilemma, that much was clear. Deciding the fate of the galaxy, and all that.

But all I could think about was Ashley.

Take control of the Reapers? Then I'd become what the Illusive Man had been. It might've saved Ashley, but she'd be devastated by that choice: it'd be easier for her if I died, than for me to become… that.

Synthesize all life in the galaxy? It would end the war, but the Ashley I know and love would cease to exist. Not much salvation, there.

So I fired the Crucible, destroyed the Reapers, and died hoping that Ashley would be safe. My last thought: I've made her lose me twice.

At no point in making this decision did I give the slightest shit about the rest of humanity, about the Turians or the Asari, the Quarians, the Krogan, or any of the other races. I had united the entire galaxy behind me, and in the end, all that mattered was a Gunnery Chief I met on Eden Prime.


To be clear: I'm not actually in love with a video game character. But Mass Effect is a role-playing game, and I'm the sort of gamer who takes the "role-playing" seriously. Throughout this trilogy I lived the saga of Commander Shepard, and Ashley Williams was a powerful part of that saga.

I wrote this narrative to illustrate a point: Mass Effect made me care about a character so much that I made the most important, most final decision of the entire trilogy based on what I thought would make her happy. The choices on the Crucible are all brutal, to be sure. There was no clear "right" answer, if you were thinking in terms of saving the galaxy. But thinking in terms of saving Ashley? That choice couldn't have been clearer.

I have never in my history of gaming experienced so profound a realization as this: Mass Effect, for me at least, created empathy. Real, true empathy. I can't think of a single other video game that's done that.

There are people who say that games and stories are fundamentally opposed. Ashley only meant anything to me because of the choices I made: this kind of empathy could not have been done in a non-interactive medium. I finished the Mass Effect trilogy my way, and I'm still thinking about Ashley, and it's not just because of the story: it's also because of the game, because I had the opportunity to choose to make a selfless decision for the good of someone I cared about.

And I say that's proof-positive that games and stories can be a match made in heaven.

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