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An illustration of a television screen with the video game Mass Effect 2 playing on it. Dana Rodriguez for Vox

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The best $4.99 I ever spent: Mass Effect 2

A video game from 2010 helped me keep it together throughout the worst of 2020.

“Dean passed away from Covid, Alex,” a friend told me over the phone last March. “I’m so sorry.”

In that moment, I wanted to climb into a hole and pull the hole inside with me. I wanted nothing more than to disappear.

Dean had been a friend in my writing group, a hilarious, caring writer, singer, and actor who was unafraid to speak his mind. A handsome man in his 60s, with close-cropped hair and a frame more chiseled than that of many 20-somethings, he brought character to every event lucky enough to have him. There was no final embrace, no last laugh, no goodbye.

Then, the week after Dean died, I caught the virus myself.

When I first started having chest pains and shortness of breath, I called 911.

“How old are you?” asked the person on the other end.

“I’m 33,” I wheezed. “I live at 2070—”

“We can’t come get you, sir. I’m sorry. Goodbye.” I was too young to get a bed. There was a shortage.

Days passed without me. My fits produced dry-coughing so hard that it turned into dry-heaving. When I didn’t feel like I was drowning, I began to hallucinate. I saw someone without a face floating outside my window. The person would beckon me to join. I believed that my world was an illusion, that the real world lay nine stories below, and I had to drop to the pavement in order to have my blinders uncovered. Maybe the pavement was where I’d get peace, rest. I really missed Dean, and I wondered if he’d experienced this exhaustion, my exhaustion, right before he crossed over. Boy, was I tired.

But I put it off.

I dusted off a copy of a game I hadn’t seen in a while, though I barely had any energy to play it: Mass Effect 2.

I didn’t think Mass Effect 2 would do much for me when I first bought it, back in 2013. The game was cheap; with my GameStop PowerUp Rewards discount, it came to $4.99. I’d read somewhere that the game was one of the best for the seventh generation of gaming consoles (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii), and I thought it’d be an interesting buy.

At first glance, novices to the Mass Effect franchise might think it’s gamer porn for Star Trek geeks. (“Oh, you can have sex with a squid woman on your video box? Nerd!”) It does get kinda geeky. Biotics and warp drives are a huge part of the trilogy. And various races, some of which look like squids and lizards, populate every galaxy.

Now, in 2020, the gloom and loneliness made the walls close in. I tuned back in to ME2 as I alternated between hot and cold, sweaty and refrigerated. It got to the point I didn’t feel safe not playing the game. It existed in reality, even when I didn’t. Nightmares led to restless days — filled only by feeding my cat, drinking water, and playing. I lost 30 pounds in two weeks.

The first time I’d played the game, I hadn’t spent time searching for every secret, building up the stats of the player-character, or paying attention to the volumes of lore written in notes. But now, all I had was time on my hands and the demons of my consciousness to keep me company.

You play as Commander Shepard, a customizable character who can be male or female. The game starts with your death. After saving most of your crew, you go down with the ship and burn to a crisp upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Then the plot thickens and you find yourself brought back to life by a mysterious organization, placed in charge of a ship with a ragtag bunch of human and alien misfits and outcasts, and sent on life-threatening and life-saving missions, all for the sake of humanity. (And sometimes for the sake of aliens, if you have the time.) Maybe next time you play, you’ll make different decisions.

Because unlike real life, Mass Effect 2 has replayability.

Gamers will go on and on about how great a game is if you can come back to it more than once. It’s in our nature to keep completing games we really enjoy. By the time I got over Covid, I’d love ME2 enough to replay it over 12 times.

Through Mass Effect 2, I had to make decisions that impacted not only the crew of the Normandy but entire civilizations. Themes of religion, racism, immigration, reform, starvation, epidemics, and war are played out on a scale grander than those on our tiny blue marble. One of the most heartbreaking stories for me is about a population of child beggars. As a kid who grew up in Chicago’s projects, this side story really caught me off guard, and I found myself sobbing. It was about homeless children called duct rats who often don’t live to see adulthood. I’ve never met another person who lived to make it out of the projects I come from.

“I left some food outside your door, Alex,” said my neighbor Robert, over the phone, near the end of my fourth week with Covid. “Security told me you might have the virus. I guess they didn’t wanna come up here to find out.”

Robert’s kindness reminded me of kindness in the real world.

As I started to feel better, I started to speak with friends again, which helped me ease off of ME2. You get attached to the well-drawn characters in the game. When the death of a character happens, the absence is palpable. That’s why I couldn’t give up, because I couldn’t get a redo for those I loved in reality. I’d missed the people I loved. I missed relationships. Hugging. I needed to live to experience those things again.

I thought about something funny Dean and I had done. We watched a movie called Santa Claus Conquers the Martians; it’s even more ridiculous than the title sounds. We Mystery Science Theater 3000’d our way through the whole film, eating popcorn and interrupting the movie to poke fun. We mocked the outfits, the kind of dialogue that’d make Michael Bay cringe, and the kind of camp you’d see on an episode of Adam West’s iteration of Batman.

I laughed at the memory. Laughing had been something I’d forgotten how to do.

Through technology, we’re tapping into a world where games can one day heal people burdened with psychological damage. I’m not saying Mass Effect 2 will do this for you, but it might be worth keeping an eye out for something that could, or for something that at least helps ease the weight.

All I know is that death was on the horizon, so close I was certain I’d be shaking hands with it. Mass Effect 2 felt like the only thing I could take charge of while dealing with a disease and a depression too strong for me. Dean once said to me, “You’re one of the best people I know.” If only he’d known he was the best person I knew. I know he’d be happy I survived.

Alex Miller is a veteran and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, and the anthologies The Byline Bible and The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook.


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