The Magic of the Mass Effect Trilogy: Love and Loss [Opinion]

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The Mass Effect: Andromeda team recently announced that there are no further development plans for the single-player campaign. Mass Effect universe fans have voiced their disappointment with this decision all over the internet. A former Bioware developer indicated that multiplayer games are easier to monetize, and with the Andromeda’s poor sales, the developers will focus attention on activities that will yield the best returns on their investment.

Why does this even matter? When it comes to BioWare games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, the stories, characters, and romances transform them from generic, single-player role-playing games into deeply meaningful experiences with the potential to evoke strong emotions from the player. I experienced this firsthand when I played through the entire Mass Effect trilogy as John Shepard (male Shep) and fell in love with the Alliance military soldier, Kaidan Alenko.

The purpose of this article is not to bash Electronic Arts (EA) for their decisions regarding Mass Effect: Andromeda. To be fair, I haven’t even played the game yet. Instead, I wanted to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Mass Effect series by providing my perspective on the gay romance between John Shepard and Kaidan Alenko.

A few notes before we begin: I played through the trilogy much later after their original release dates. Kaidan was not originally romanceable by male Shep until Mass Effect 3. Thanks to the magic of the internet, it was discovered that same-sex romance options were written and fully voice acted but never implemented. However, it was possible to load a savegame file and “unlock” gay dialogue from the very beginning. I did take advantage of this save file so that I could experience the romance throughout the trilogy.

Even though this is an opinion article, I do review background information to provide context for those who have never played through the games. Additionally, my personal thoughts and reflections are indicated by italicized text during the narrative.

SPOILERS AHEAD. CONTINUE READING AT YOUR OWN RISK!

Mass Effect 1: Innocence

You meet Kaidan on your first mission to Eden Prime in Mass Effect 1. At the end of the mission, you are injured by a Prothean beacon and end up unconscious for several hours. Kaidan waited in the infirmary for you to wake up, which I found endearing very early in the game. I’ve always been attracted to guys with protective personalities, and I reassured him that the injury wasn’t his fault.

As you play through the game and interact with Kaidan, you learn a lot about his past and personality. Before he was born, he was exposed to element zero in utero and gained biotic potential. As a child, he was taken away from his home, received an implant to enhance his biotic potential, and attended Biotic Acclimation and Temperance Training (BAaT) aka “Brain Camp.”

You discover that Kaidan’s guarded demeanor and strict adherence to rules and regulations are shaped by tough times in his formative years. During Brain Camp training, Kaidan developed feelings for a girl named Rahna and admitted that he wanted to protect her as much as he could. There was an incident where the instructor broke Rahna’s arm to punish her because she reached for a glass of water instead of moving it biotically. In retaliation, Kaidan lost control of his biotic powers and killed the instructor. At that point, BAaT was shut down, Rahna was scared of Kaidan, and they parted ways. After seeing how his actions affected Rahna, Kaidan became more self-controlled, reserved, and cautious.

For me, getting to know Kaidan felt like high school dating. At that time in my life, being “gay” or liking boys wasn’t socially acceptable. You often times had to dance around the subject, providing hints that you were interested and seeing if he gave you subtle clues indicating the same.

I could see that Kaidan wanted more, but he stumbled with words, talked around the subject, and often retreated to his “duty to the war” as an excuse to avoid blurring the professional and personal line. 

There is a pivotal mission in Mass Effect 1 on the planet Virmire. In order to complete the mission successfully, you have to make a choice between two of your squad mates: Kaidan and Ashley. You’re only allowed to save one of them.

Since I was romantically interested in Kaidan, I chose to save him. During the mission debrief, Kaidan takes the decision pretty harshly and even blames Ashley’s death “on us.” This was the first time he acknowledged that we could be a couple. In my opinion, it was also a turning point for him because he began to let his guard down and be more open with you in future conversations.

Before the final mission of the game, Kaidan decides that our feelings for each other are more important than rules or the Reapers (the bad guys). It really did bring me back to the days of innocent confessions of mutual attraction in high school (you know, back when you spoke to someone instead of swiping left or right on your phone). By the end of Mass Effect 1, neither of us say “I love you” to the other. Regardless, the relationship was still developing and we both knew we cared for each other, so that was enough for me at this point in the trilogy.

Mass Effect 2: Chaos

Mass Effect 2 begins about a month after the end of the first game. Your ship, the Normandy, is attacked by an unknown vessel, and you order Kaidan to help evacuate the crew. After you save your last crew member, you end up getting blasted into space and die.

Two years pass before you are fully reconstructed and enlisted by Cerberus to help investigate why human colonies across the galaxy are disappearing. Kaidan heard rumors that you were alive and involved with Cerberus. He was dispatched by the Alliance to investigate, and you encounter him at the human colony, Horizon.

Upon meeting, you embrace each other, but the warm and fuzzy feeling is short-lived. Even though he was initially pleased to see you, he distrusts your involvement with Cerberus. The calm and collected Kaidan from Mass Effect 1 was now angry. He demanded to know why you didn’t try to contact him and forced him to go through the pain of thinking you were dead. If you try to recruit him to join your cause, he claims that doing so would be a betrayal to the Alliance and leaves you to report back. Ouch.

I really did empathize with Kaidan here. Anyone who has experienced loss or rejection can understand how difficult it can be to recover. Technically, I was dead for two years, but during that time the universe kept moving. After seeing him again, I spent a lot of time wondering what happened to Kaidan as I played through the rest of the game. Was he dating someone now? Did he still care about me? Is this it for us?

I received a glimmer of hope after the Horizon mission when I received an email from Kaidan:

*** *** ***

Shepard,

I’m sorry for what I said back on Horizon. I spent two years pulling myself back together after you went down with the Normandy. It took me a long time to get over my guilt for surviving and move on. I’d finally let my friends talk me into going out for drinks with a doctor on the Citadel. Nothing serious, but trying to let myself have a life again, you know?

Then I saw you, and everything pulled hard to port. You were standing in front of me, but you were with Cerberus. I guess I really don’t know who either of us is anymore. Do you even remember that night before Ilos? That night meant everything to me… maybe it meant as much to you. But a lot has changed in the last two years and I can’t just put that aside.

But please be careful. I’ve watched too many people close to me die — on Eden Prime, on Virmire, on Horizon, on the Normandy. I couldn’t bear it if I lost you again. If you’re still the [man] I remember I know you’ll find a way to stop these Collector attacks. But Cerberus is too dangerous to be trusted. Watch yourself.

When things settle down a little… maybe… I don’t know. Just take care.

–Kaidan

*** *** ***

I couldn’t help but think back to our romance in the first game… so flirty, so innocent, so comfortable. Two years is a long time, and the universe was even more chaotic than when I left it at the end of Mass Effect 1. It made me think back to the times in my life when I ran into an ex. The awkwardness. The things that were both said and unsaid. The mixed emotions. The what ifs.

Even though the interaction with Kaidan is brief, you learn that he rose in the ranks of the Alliance. He’s different now. Less reserved. More assertive. Passionate about his feelings and steadfast in his morals. I really wish there were more chances to see him, but this one scene and email is all we get in Mass Effect 2. By the time I finished the second game, I realized that the innocence was gone. Both of our lives were completely different now and I was uncertain about the future.

Mass Effect 3: Zenith

You encounter Kaidan very early in Mass Effect 3. He had been promoted to the rank of Major and headed a Spec Ops Biotic Company. Compared to the first game, he is much more developed as a leader. He conveys a confidence in conversations that seemed to be lacking in his dialogue from the first game. I found it very attractive.

Kaidan accompanies you on a mission to Mars. He admits that he doesn’t trust you because of your involvement with Cerberus. He even infers that you could be controlled by Cerberus since they rebuilt you from death. To make matters worse, things take a bad turn on this mission and Kaidan is severely injured.

You have the opportunity to visit him many times while he is in the hospital. Even though it is heart-breaking to see Kaidan in this condition, you do get to have many tender moments with him during his recovery. He starts to let his guard down a little bit as you reminisce about the old times and all of the experiences you shared in the first game. He displays a little bit of vulnerability during this part of the story. Compared to the first game, conversations with Kaidan are much more meaningful and I found myself starting to fall for him.

During his recovery, Kaidan is offered a promotion to Spectre status, which he accepts. For those of you unaware, this is a big deal for humans in the Mass Effect universe. Your character was the first human Spectre in Mass Effect 1.

Later in the game, Cerberus invades the Citadel and Kaidan has to protect the Councilors. Unfortunately, he is unaware that one of the councilors he was protecting, Udina, was collaborating with Cerberus to take control of the Council. This is further complicated by the fact that Udina is the Councilor that promoted Kaidan to Spectre. We are now in direct conflict with Kaidan and must convince him of the truth.

This is another pivotal moment for the Kaidan romance. With guns pointed at one another, he has to trust you and turn on the traitorous Councilor. You are able to talk him down, and afterwards he joins you on the Normandy. Talk about an intense lovers’ quarrel!

Mass Effect 3 does a fantastic job of providing you with meaningful interactions with Kaidan. As you talk to him on the ship, Kaidan contemplates about the millions of people who are affected by the war and is frustrated because he can’t save them all. He tells you about his mother in Canada who has been separated from his father due to the war and is all alone in the crisis. You’re given the opportunity to console him through this and offer words of encouragement.

One of the things I love about new relationships is the discovery. You learn about what makes them tick. What makes them happy. What makes them sad. Their family and friends. Their hopes and dreams. As you continue to play through the romance, you really start to feel close to Kaidan.

My favorite moment with Kaidan is our date on the Citadel. On the date, he tells you that his life flashed before his eyes on Mars right before he was severely injured. He realized that he didn’t have enough moments with people he cared about. There’s something super endearing about a guy that stumbles to find the right words, and during this scene Kaidan reminds me of the innocent Mass Effect 1 Kaidan that was torn between his duty to the war and his feelings for you. But this Kaidan has grown since we first met, and he does gather the resolve to finally make our relationship “official.” Again, he displays a vulnerability here that I found myself falling for.

Another sweet moment occurs when Kaidan visits you in your apartment and cooks you dinner. You learn that Kaidan learned how to cook during Brain Camp training. Kaidan is visibly distracted while cooking and ends up burning the garlic. It is such a cute scene.

Before the final battle, Kaidan visits you in your room for a “quick drink.” You are obviously stressed, and he offers encouraging words and stays with you one last night. During the final mission, Kaidan is injured and you evacuate him to the Normandy. You exchange emotional “I love you’s” before you send your ship away and die to save the universe.

Reflection

By the end of the trilogy, I found myself completely heartbroken. Your death marks the end of the romance that spanned across three games. Kaidan was with you from the very first mission on Eden Prime and is the last person you see before your death. I also have to feel for Kaidan, because at this point he has lost you TWICE. The tragedy of it all!

I have to commend BioWare for both the amazing trilogy story, and more specifically, the Kaidan romance. This studio is known for rich storytelling that explores relationships and invokes strong emotions. There were moments with Kaidan that drew out memories and feelings from my own personal past. Even though Kaidan was technically just a graphical rendering of a human being on my computer screen that was written to act a certain way, his emotional effect on me was profound. He was thoughtful. Guarded. Respectful. Loyal. Passionate. And he cared about me. A lot. By the end of Mass Effect 3, I cared about him too. Hell, I even fell in love with him.

Out of all the video games I have played (and trust me, I have played a ton), this was one of the most well-developed romances I have experienced. No, it wasn’t perfect like a romantic comedy. The romance with Kaidan was not an easy one. It was a love story about two people who found one another amidst the chaos of a galactic war. It was a story about how duty and responsibility clashes with the romantic feelings soldiers can have for each other. It was a story with disappointment, betrayal, and loss. But even against all of the odds and the threat of destruction, you fall in love. And although it ends tragically, there is poetry in the experience.

I know that the future of the Mass Effect franchise is uncertain right now, but I want to thank everyone at BioWare that had a part in crafting this love story. The trilogy was a wonderful single-player campaign and I am thankful for its existence.

Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the hatred we see all around us. I’ve never been someone who was willing to accept the world as it appears, and I am grateful that a video game empowered me to see the universe for what it could be: full of love.

Credit to featured image: neehs at https://neehs.deviantart.com
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Jamie has been playing video games since his parents bought him a Nintendo to shoot electronic duckies. As a gay gamer, he strives to promote awareness and inclusiveness in the gaming community. When Jamie isn’t slaying bosses in World of Warcraft, you will find him fueling his coffee addiction and leveling up his cooking skill.

2 Comments

  1. I am so glad someone feels the same as me about the Kaidan romance arch. This was exactly what i needed to read. I never for a second thought about trying another character for romance and every time i play mass effect i still go for him. Too bad EA ruined Bioware and Mass Effect. Such a talent for storytelling wasted.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! In my mind, the maleShep and Kaidan romance is canon. A guy can dream 🙂

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