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Emotional Connection in Entertainment Media

April 5, 2010

This is a guest post by Jaxom of the Middle-Earth Adventurer blog. Feel free to comment with your reactions and related thoughts.

Have you ever watched a movie or tv show, read a book, or even played a video game that stuck with you long after you stopped watching, reading, or playing? I come across them from time to time. Most recent movie was Avatar. Most recent TV show was Dexter. Most recent book, one by my favorite author: L.E. Modesitt Jr. Most recent video game was Mass Effect 2. I want to use this last one – the video game, as an example, so if you’re intending to play Mass Effect 1 and/or 2 there will be heavy spoilers.

In Mass Effect 1, you have the ability to have relationships with your crew mates (you’re on a space ship, in case you don’t know). No, don’t automatically read “sex” into the word relationships. There is sex if you carry a relationship far enough, but I’m talking about friendships as well. That’s important, as I’ll point out in a moment. As you progress through the game and it’s missions, you’re given the opportunity to talk with your crew, get to know them. For me, I struck up a liking to the character of Ashley Williams, my gunnery chief. There’s hot debates on the Mass Effect official forums about what character is the most compelling for a relationship and love/hate fly everywhere. I could care less about all that, because it doesn’t matter. For me, who is the only person playing my game, Ashley stood out. She wasn’t the sexiest, didn’t even agree with my outlook on the situation we were in (doesn’t like aliens much, where I took a more accepting stance). In fact, I think it was these non-conformist traits that were so alluring. Through the conversation, I realized there was depth there. A reason for her distrust, a reason for her outlook on life. She was a challenge – a real person I had to work through real issues with. I found the glaring lack of the cliche girl in a video game refreshing.

One of the last missions before you hit the final build up and showdown, you’re forced to make a tough choice, a life and death choice. I didn’t just converse with Ashley, I also talked to the rest of my crew. I grew to appreciate, and perhaps love them all. They were in this situation with me, willing to help, to fight for the same things I believed in. And yes, I’m purposely transposing myself in place of my character to illustrate the point. The choice I faced was to run to the rescue of either Kaiden Alenko, one of my mates, or Ashley Williams, the aforementioned love interest.

I actually had to pause, to think about it. In the game, the context called for an immediate decision. Both were in imminent danger. My pause was not long: I chose to save Ashley. Why? The knee-jerk reaction would be “Dude, you could have sex with this chick. Duh you choose her.” Going meta for a second, computer animated boobs are not that alluring. What did shape my decision, however, was my relationships with both these characters. Yes, I said both. I had talked to Kaiden, I had helped him out of a jam or two, I had helped give him some closure to his past. He was a good friend. And he was also a soldier. He knew the risks going into the mission. We all did. He accepted my decision. I’d like to think he even accepted it knowing my relationship with Ashley, though that wasn’t explicitly stated in the narrative. The one who did protest was Ashley. She was just as devoted to this cause as Kaiden, just as willing to sacrifice herself for the survival of humanity. But I had to choose.

As much as I justified my decision, and I truly believe I made the logical choice, it came down to the fact that I loved Ashley. In that moment of crisis, I chose doubly. I chose who to save and to love. The emotional strength of that decision surprised me. Here I was playing a game – a fictional character, and yet I felt so tied to my character and the decisions he made, and the people he surrounded himself with I felt the loss of a friend, and the connection to another, just as I would if I myself stood in that place.

And yes, my character and Ashley did connect physically, but that wasn’t where I felt the strongest emotional connection – it was back on that mission, where I made my choice.

The cool thing about the Mass Effect games is that they allow you to carry your character, and all his or her decisions, over to the next game in the series. And so I did with Mass Effect 2. And ME2 further affirmed how emotionally invested I was with my character and, in particular, Ashley. Again, heavy spoilers ahead.

The second game opens with a bang. Literally, figuratively, and any other way you can think of. I died. And then I was rebirthed through some heavy duty medical regeneration. But that took two years. For two years I had not seen my crew since I went down with my ship (as any good commander/captain should). I wake up in a strange place, in a hectic situation. I’m forced to act despite the questions swirling in my head. Only after some time do I learn what happened to me, exactly, and the rest of my crew. I do not need to go into the details, but most of them have moved on – including Ashley. She’s on another assignment, and I cannot immediately contact her.

So when I am met with a mission that puts me on the same planet as she, I get a bit queasy with anticipation of how it will play out. Her entrance at the end of the mission is wonderfully played. She seems pleased to see me. We embrace. And a feeling I cannot adequately describe washes over me. Relief, comfort, nausea from genuine adrenaline of the moment. And then she stood back. And then she was angry. I had not contacted her. I couldn’t. It didn’t matter. She heard rumors of my being alive. Hard evidence in fact, as I had managed to visit a mutual friend of ours. He had told her about me, surely. She was hurt and let me know it. My presence in the company of a group with questionable methods, methods I would have immediately condemned in the previous game, only reinforced her anger. She had shared my views and now I had abandoned them? Like I abandoned her. I tried to plea with her, I even made a half-assed attempt at asking her to join me. She shut me down. Then she left. And in the midst of it all she even dropped the ‘L’ word. She said she had loved me. Loved. Past tense.

I returned to my ship. I was intercepted by my yeoman on the way to my quarters. I put on the game face, I was positive. I couldn’t do any less. Maybe my yeoman believed me. I didn’t. I stared at the picture of her on my desk. And then I cried. Not my character. Me. Like real, salty tears running down my face. I wasn’t bawling, mind you. No heaving sobs. Quiet tears. And then I shoved it all away, to the back of my mind and went on with the game.

A couple missions later I got a message from her, where she essentially apologized for her harshness, but she still spoke the truth on that planet. She couldn’t accept me as I stood, she wouldn’t compromise her values even for me. I had to accept that. I knew her values before any of this had started. But my hands were tied, there was no other way. The question became, were my values compromised? I went over my conversations with the Illusive Man – the leader of the paramilitary group I was currently involved with. I decided I had not. I let everyone know where I stood and why. I told myself I didn’t care if Ashley and I ever saw each other again. I didn’t want what I felt to mean nothing. So I did everything from that point on with a mind to respecting her values – ones we shared together two years ago.
I greatly look forward to Mass Effect 3. In my time in 2, I was given three opportunities to carry on a new romance with a member of my new crew. I declined all three. I missed that content of the game – and even within context, many would argue I would completely justified in taking on a new relationship – moving past my past. But I couldn’t stomach the thought. There were too many choices that spoke to the very nature of my character – that informed me so deeply of who I was. Should I have put someone else in Ashley’s place, I would have been ripping my own soul apart. Perhaps that’s a bit melodramatic, but the feeling, if not that strong, is the same. I don’t know what will happen in ME3. I don’t know if my relationship with Ashley will be mended or if I will forever be apart from her. It doesn’t matter. I stand by my decisions.

What is my point in all this? Are you surprised that I actually cried? Am I just a sap, an emotionally unstable person who cannot separate his fact from fiction? I’ll answer those in reverse. I honestly believe I can separate me from my character. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t feel anything as I play the game, read the book, watch the movie. The media I consume would be lifeless and unnecessary if it didn’t connect with me somehow. I just found something that connected very, very strongly. Enough to produce a physiological reaction: tears. So, don’t be surprised I cried. It should be a testament to the quality of the storytelling that I did. And I related the events of the game as if they happened to me personally to illustrate the intensity of the connection I found in this game. There were genuine emotions felt throughout, particularly surrounding the romance with Ashley.

I remember what I felt clearly. The days, even week or so after I finished the game, I still felt the anguish over Ashley’s reaction to me. I felt the loss, and it made me think about how I approached the relationships in my real life. It spoke to me on a deeper level than just a game or just entertainment. It informed me of my own condition as a emotional human being. The fact that I dwelt on it so long afterward is good evidence of that. The fact that I can write this post with such passion is good evidence of that. The fact that I want to share the experience is good evidence of that.
Good entertainment, moreso, good art, strikes to the heart of the core of the person experiencing it. It informs him of his own life and the lives around him. It speaks to nature, life, love, loss, pain – all the things that make us human. It is a testament that we can find such in video games. Once a domain of the outcast and recluse, the lonely and the anti-social, they are now a part of our culture. The idea of transcendence in entertainment media, particular video games has become cliché. Or perhaps overused hyperbole. Neither can exist without some element of truth. Video games can transcend their immediate creed of fun – if the connect with use beyond our immediate pleasure. When my relationships in Mass Effect 1 and 2 haunted me well past my time in game, I knew I found a game that has done just this.

A little about Jaxom:  I’ve played video games since I was ten and have been playing LOTRO since August of 2006 during beta. LOTRO is my first and only MMO though I try to be familiar with others for reference. I love video games and the adventures and stories contained within. Being able to talk about a video game centered around one of the greatest stories ever told is why I live as a gamer.

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