One of the Best Romances Ever Written is From an Action RPG
This is about Mass Effect, and I'm not sorry.
Because of my job and the genre of game I write in, I consume an absolute unnecessary amount of romance. Sometimes willingly, sometimes as an adjunct to a larger story. And I often find that the placement of the romance in the latter condition creates a genuinely more effective emotional investment than one in which the romance is the central theme. Oh, Ashe, so you’ve got something poignant and insightful to say about the human condition and how the footprint of an inter-social narrative conveys the ways in which we, as people, desire to connect and experience the world?
No, I simply finished Mass Effect: Legendary Edition (the first time playing the trilogy stem to stern since Mass Effect 3 came out), and it left me with too many emotions to process on my own. So YOU get to do it with me.
I’m not sorry.
Okay a little sorry.
Because this is about Garrus Vakarian and Commander Shepard.
A Strong Core of Platonic Affection
The key to the ShepKarian romance is a deep and unwavering friendship built on mutual respect. Shepard doesn’t even move with romantic intention until halfway through the second game. At this point, as a pair, they’ve survived waves upon waves of AI soldiers, a galaxy altering event, a particle beam right through their ship, Shepard’s literal death and resurrection, a reunification in a mercenary combat hot zone, and about a hundred existential quandaries. Just prior to flirting with him properly the first time, Shepard prevents him from killing a man in revenge by refusing to leave the scope of his sniper rifle. These two are equals. She’s technically his commanding officer, but they are on the same footing in every way that matters. More importantly, they’re friends. They’re comrades. And those are the building blocks of a good romantic relationship.
And when it is time to start moving into romance? There’s no frustrating will-they-won’t-they (that we all know becomes a “they will” at the press of a button). No tiptoeing around with awkwardly built up sexual tension.
“Hey, Garrus, we should bang.”
“Okay. Sounds good, Shep. Let me go Google how we do that.”
“That’s not romantic!” you scream.
I don’t know? Maybe it’s not? But you know what it is? Perfectly sensible for these absolute idiots. They live bullet to bullet, catastrophe to catastrophe. There’s no time for “tee hee I like you, let’s smooch, maybe.”
These are adults who have had adult relationships in the past and are facing down the possibility of their own death at every corner. They’re literally preparing for a suicide mission where one of them could actually die, in-game, if you don’t set things up the right way. They know what the hell is up, and they act on it without reservation or hesitation. They know what they want, and they’re going for it. Done. Deal.
You also can’t ignore the integral part the interactivity of video games play in the narrative development of their relationship. Shepard and Garrus don’t exist as passive characters that interact with each other in a set way. You, as the player, are Shepard, and from a meta-game perspective, you have to build a balanced team. Garrus, it so happens, is a mechanically well-rounded character, so there’s a high likelihood you’ll be bringing him on to your team for a large number of missions. He also appears early in the story in all three games (a slight advantage over Tali’Zorah, who despite appearing in all three games, as well, tends to be recruitable later). These things combined mean there’s a lot of time available for you, as a player and, therefore, Shepard as a character, to spend with the turian C-Sec agent/mercenary/military adviser.
Garrus becomes an active participant in the ever forward development of Shepard’s own personal arc. It’s not just scene to scene, passive elements in a romance on rails. They’re dodging gunfire together. Riding elevators together. Providing pithy, sarcastic commentary together. Their romance isn’t just about being together. It’s about saving the galaxy together.
The Pallor of Doom
And, okay, yeah, if you know what happens at the end, it’s like…okay then if it’s doomed from the start, what’s the point? And even if you don’t know what happens at the end, all three games go out of their way to make sure you’re aware how fragile the bonds holding up that sword of Damocles are at all times. But that looming specter of death is diagetic. It’s not just the audience lamenting with pre-broken heart that this romance has a dramatic expiry date. Garrus and Shepard know. They can wish for it. Hope for a future that expands out into the unknown infinity. But they know the odds, the real chances, that one of them won’t be coming out the other side. From the first proper I love you at the top of the Citadel to the last one at the base of the Reaper teleport beam, they always knew that they were living, and loving, on borrowed time.
But it didn’t matter.
Because a finite number of days being in that love was worth it when the alternative was never having it at all.
I think I need to go lie down, again.
Originally published at pixelsandpins.com