The Lost Words of Mass Effect 3
“You have messages at your private terminal.”
In Mass Effect 3, this single quote is repeated more than any other sentence to the player. Just approaching the the galaxy map will prompt Specialist Traynor to dutifully tell Shepard when new messages have arrived. Before the next battle can be started or additional exploration initiated, the player must first be told that extra exposition has been delivered to the in-game inbox.
Even with advanced technology like quantum entanglement holographic devices, peer-to-peer voice communication via omni-tools, and the intercom systems on the Normandy, the written word takes precedence. Across all the alien races, to thank someone for saving you, congratulate them on a promotion, or even pass along sensitive data, sending a message is the preferred way to express your thoughts or wishes. When you are unable to speak to someone directly, you send an email before moving on to other, more advanced channels.
It’s terrifying in its dominance. For as much as Mass Effect 3 might be about trying to fight off the Reapers’ indoctrination, trying to understand the ancient Prothean empire, or establishing an alliance of forces for war under a single banner of hope, this singular medium transcends race, culture, and is the center of all communication. Even with very different evolutionary paths, everyone defaults to writing as the best way to deliver information despite having the technology to use other methodologies.
Between the Spectre and Shadow Broker terminals in the game, Shepard can spy on other galactic communications and see that the spread of an epistolary standard has made its way onto every world. Even those races that are less verbose in person, like the Hanar and Krogan, take time to write to one another. None of their own rituals, naming schemes, or separate cultural practices override the way to construct messages. There is a header, greeting, and then the content itself. None deviate from this universal formula.
Beyond the mass relays themselves as a basis for technology and travel across the galaxy, the next greatest influence on how communication works is this vast epistolary hegemony. Shaping everything from conversation styles to mating practices, the methodology of writing a message first before continuing to the next step of having a private dialogue reaches across racial and cultural boundaries. Before Shepard can even have a private meeting, she must first be informed that the person in question has sent a message to her: writing comes before conversation.
Shepard does not reply to messages. While it might be excused in the process of constantly fighting to save the galaxy from one threat or another, Shepard does not take the time to ever send a response back to someone who writes to her. Across three different games and hundreds of missives, Shepard does not respond. She is an anomaly in the middle of a written galaxy. While she might command her crew, converse with friends, or chat with her loved ones, she does not send her thoughts in written form; instead, Shepard speaks.
When something demands a response, she shows up in person to deliver it. Where others would dismiss a situation with a few words of text, Shepard is there to speak her mind or, if necessary, use her gun to make a point. If she has travelled across the galaxy to discuss something, the task is of the utmost importance. Even the most trivial mission demands that Shepard is there to handle it herself.
And yet, text surrounds her. Screens, terminals, and displays litter the visual landscape with information and data of every type. Descriptions and updates lurk in corners and on walls. The influence of the written word is felt on every world. To write is to exist in this universe; permanence of thought means recording it for later reading. Yet, Shepard exists outside this concept of time; for her, nothing matters outside her present situation. She does not create works, but merely crafts her moments one after another as they come.
Shepard remains in living memory. She has no journal, diary, or even trail of personal messages. Unlike all others, she listens, reads, and then talks to others when needed. Her gun speaks on the battlefield and she has conversations in person. While others record, she reacts. Nothing remains of her thoughts after a decision but her words, each tailored to the context. Shepard collects the responses of other races and peoples, but leaves none of her own behind her as she passes through their lives. She is untouched by the dominance of the written word.
The legend of the Shepard becomes epic. While the words of others are left behind as evidence of their thinking, nothing exists of Shepard but what she said and did. She becomes more than a history of written exchanges; her journey is one long perfected chain of achievements. Any missteps have been “lost” in the retelling. Her life starts in success and leads to ultimate victory; she is now a story told to others.
No messages from Shepard exist because she is now one herself. Anything she might have written no longer matters; the truth of Shepard has become that she was always present to make the right decision. Everything that did happen in her tale was caused because Shepard was there to see it through to completion. Her real words are lost because the narrator speaks through her story; each time, it changes as needed and its shape comes in the retelling.