In the past week I’ve completed two games that impacted me on an emotional level few other games have. One game represents the pinnacle of narrative in video games; the other game represents the power a stripped-down narrative can hold. One game tells a sprawling, bustling story that spans decades, contains a huge cast of nuanced characters, and involves multiple galaxies. The other takes place almost exclusively in a desert, is filled with zero NPCs, and takes only a few hours to finish. These two games are very different from each other, yet I believe together they represent the best that video games have to offer.
Those two games are Mass Effect 3 and Journey.
Let’s start with Mass Effect 3. In case you’ve been in a coma the past 5 years, or just simply don’t care, you’ve probably heard of BioWare’s massive sci-fi saga. Over the course of two games, players have created their own version of Commander Shepard, made decisions that affected every other species in the fictitious universe, and finally, in the concluding chapter to the trilogy, they’ve saved the galaxy. Because of the scope of the series and the huge ideas it plays with, Mass Effect has been considered by many to be gaming’s first epic.
But the reason so many gamers have flocked to the series, including myself, is the sense of ownership we feel when playing as Commander Shepard. Everyone has carved their own path in Mass Effect based on their decisions. Thus, everyone’s story is slightly different—some vital characters have died while others have flourished, some planets have been destroyed while others were pulled from the edge of destruction, and some entire species have been obliterated while others are freed from genocidal plagues that have been in effect for centuries.
But no matter how different their stories are, each story shares one thing: they’re all true. The masterful writers at BioWare have put together such a fine story that, no matter the difference in choices players make, their story is still authentic. And that authenticity breeds connection to a universe in a unique way.
After I completed Mass Effect 3 I was sad. Not because of the ending (which I liked, so there), but rather because I knew my time in this universe was done. Barring any additional playthroughs in the future, I knew I would never see my old pals Garrus, Wrex, Ashley, Tali, Mordin, or Liara again. That’s not to say the Mass Effect franchise is done—EA and BioWare both would be foolish to let this universe go to waste. But the time I spent with my squadmates, the excitement of exploring a new planet, the thrill of resolving a heated cultural debate between wildly different alien species; all of that was over.
And that sadness was only possible because I felt like I was a part of that universe.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Journey. Journey—a curious PSN exclusive from thatgamecompany, developers of Flow and Flower—is almost the polar opposite of Mass Effect 3. Where Mass Effect 3 has you traveling through the stars to distant planets, Journey drops you off in a barren desert with nothing but a mountain in the distance. Mass Effect 3 has you exploring alien planets for components to help defeat the Reapers. Journey has you exploring the harsh desert for cloth to increase your flight ability (it makes sense when you play it, I promise). Mass Effect 3 bombards you with realistic characters that you grow to love. Journey makes you feel like you’ve never been so alone.
That is, until you hear the familiar chirp of another player.
There is no dialogue in Journey, and what little story exists is told through elaborate cave paintings. The only other people you’ll encounter are actually other gamers (provided you’re connected to the Internet), and the only form of communication you share with them is a musical chirp. But that simple chirp says as much as any complex conversation wheel in Mass Effect 3.
In Journey, you’ll rely on that other person to help you along the way. You’ll solve puzzles together. You’ll help each other fly to a ledge that’s just out of reach. You’ll explore the world together, or you’ll charge straight to the end. And most importantly, you’ll build a relationship with them.
When a character died in Mass Effect 3, I was crushed. When my companion in Journey was harmed, I was crushed. Both games may have relied on different means to connect me to their respective universes, but what matters is that I was connected. I felt like a worthwhile part of those universes.
Together, Mass Effect 3 and Journey are shining achievements. They are examples of the kind of experiences that only video games can deliver. Whether it’s through rich narratives and cinematic conversations or an elegant, artful tale that emphasizes aesthetics over complex drama, the interactivity of video games allows for connection to a world and its inhabitants in a way that no other medium can.
And that’s just another reason why I’m a gamer.
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