A Shepard prepares
I have always been a great player of pretend. I love telling stories. As I child, I was often accused of having an overactive imagination. When I’d play outside with the neighborhood kids, I’d go beyond the typical “cops and robbers” and do “mob boss versus grizzled detective who’s getting too old for this stuff,” and add a subplot about a wandering preacher whose charisma dupes them both.
I’d perform soliloquies for Stitch, my teddy bear. My G.I. Joes took part in an ever-evolving saga of espionage. My Barbie dolls were the members of a huge and convoluted family tree, and participated in all the drama that comes with it. My mom’s Barbie was the mom. She still wore her makeup and hair exactly the way she did when she was a teenager herself.
Can’t you see it just dates you, Babs? You don’t look any younger!
I was also a voracious reader and movie watcher. I especially dug sci-fi. I saw Alien for the first time when I was eight, and apart from gifting me with the image that still pops up in my nightmares (the baby xenomorph birthing itself from John Hurt’s chest, obviously), it also introduced me to Our Ripley of Nostromo, the first female film character I found entirely relatable. I mean, Leia was close, but at the end of the day? I wanted to be Han Solo. Soon enough, I was calling my cat “Jonesy” and pretending she and I were going into cryostasis when we’d go to bed.
She always wanted to sleep directly on my head though, the little facehugger.
But wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to up the ante? To actually feel like I was on a spaceship? To wear the right clothes, say the right words, and be surrounded by a bunch of people doing the same? To feel really immersed in these worlds? Heck yes, it would. So I decided to become an actor.
And I did, and it was great. I made people laugh and cry (mostly laugh). I met the people who make up my core group of friends. I met my husband. I made contacts that got me my first paying gigs in New York. I told a lot of stories.
However, as with most things that are awesome, there was a catch. While little Sara assumed it was the actors who were at the center of the make-believe, actor Sara discovered it was really the audience (as of course it should be).
It may look like she’s on the deck of spaceship, but she’s actually standing in front of several panels of green spandex. Her costume is held together in the back by safety pins. Half the time, she’s not even talking with the person who appears in the scene with her. Theatre offers her more immersion, but then it’s a constant exchange of energy with the audience, because they’re actually there in the room. That energy exchange is important and wonderful and absolutely thrilling, and I miss it dearly, but there came a time when I realized I was the one who wanted to be fooled.
Enter Commander Shepard, stage right.
I was already well acquainted with the immersive qualities of video games, but Mass Effect took dead aim at my childhood fantasies and struck true. An epic space fantasy spanning three games, where decisions from the first affect outcomes in the second and third, it offered me the chance to be the badass space explorer I always wanted to be.
I stalked the decks of the Normandy. I donned space armors and wielded high tech weapons. I befriended my crew. Flirted with them, too. Some of them died, and I mourned them. I helped some people, and hurt some others. I saved the galaxy. For the most part, I was the good gal, but I followed my own code — sometimes you just have to use the Renegade interrupt option and blow up that gas tank your opponent is too busy monologuing to notice.
“Boring conversation anyway,” you’ll say out loud from your couch.
A video game tells a story for an audience of one. A great video game lets that audience help tell it. I may never get a chance to play Ripley in the Alien reboot (though I am totally available, Hollywood), but my Shepard ain’t a half bad substitute. Especially because she’s mine.
There are lots of ways to tell stories, and I’ve got no plans to stop.
Sara Clemens is an ad copywriter for a book publisher, so every single day she pretends she’s in an episode of Mad Men. You can follow her on twitter at @TheSaraClemens, and find all the things she’s ever written for the internet at saraclemens.com.