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Why I’m Writing a Mass Effect Story

Well, there’s the obvious reason that I really enjoyed this game (until the crappy end), and the characters were vivid and very real, and I came to care about them.  I liked the universe and the various cultures, and I really liked my Shepard, and the elaborate backstory I’d created for him.

Reason number two — I was really annoyed by the terrible ending, and I wanted to get the bad taste out of my mouth by giving a different conclusion.

And I realized last night as I was writing a bit on the story that there was a third reason, something that had been in the back of my head, and hadn’t come to the fore until I was musing about the fact I have a Shepard who is deeply damaged both mentally and physically by his experiences.  Why did I do that?  Why did I make him so fragile?  Give him PTSD?

 

 

****************************Here be Spoilers Be Warned**************************

 

There’s an DLC called Arrival that I downloaded and played, and it ended up giving me nightmares and keeping me awake for several nights.  A gaming buddy pointed out that it was a story on rails, and you had no real way to alter the outcome which was crappy, but I found it powerful because your Shepard is faced with a horrendous decision.  To take an action that will keep the Reapers out of the galaxy for perhaps two years, giving people time to prepare, but to accomplish that you have to allow an asteroid to destroy the Mass Effect Relay, and the resultant explosion will lead to the deaths of 400,000 Batarians.  

In Mass Effect the Batarians are sort of bad guys.  They have slaves.  They enslave a lot of humans.  A Batarian bartender tries to poison you in Mass Effect 2.  Which is probably why the game designers made this a system that was being colonized by Batarians figuring the player wouldn’t mind so much.  If it had been a human colony the decision would be all the more gut wrenching.  I still found it gut wrenching and nightmare inducing, and I said to a friend.  “Shepard is going to need a lot of couch time after this.”

In fact Admiral Hackett tells Shepard that he must come to Earth and stand trial for what he’s done.  I was really excited to play that download, but naturally they didn’t write that add on.  That would require an exploration of consequences, and you wouldn’t get to shoot anything.  People would just talk.

I’m a total geek about this game so I belong to the Bioware Social network, and I was following fellow addicts on Twitter, and I found the reactions to Arrival… disturbing.

Some shared my discomfort, some were mad about the “story on rails” (a fair knock), but some were blasé to the point of callousness.  One person even presented his Shepard’s reaction this way.  “So what did you do today, Commander”  Shepard yawns, studies his nails.  “Oh, I killed 400,000 Batarians and stopped a Reaper invasion.  You?”

I stopped following that conversation.  I found it, frankly, chilling.  By the time Mass Effect 3 has ended Shepard has had to make horrendous life and death decisions.  He/she has tried to broker peace, and bring together warring races, but friends have died, and you are given a truly hideous choice at the end of the third game.  (You can find my rants about why this was such a terrible ending elsewhere on my blog).

The point being no normal human could come through this unscathed emotionally and psychologically.  The physical is easy.  Good medicine can heal the hurts, but what’s been done to Shepard’s soul has to be faced and addressed.  So my story became about a deeply broken man who only through the love of his partner, and the support of his friends finds some peace and healing.  I don’t let him be a “Big goddam hero,” as Zaeed would say.  I make him a suffering human because I think there has to be a cost to violence. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I love a good action movie, or an exciting action sequence in one of these games.  But… It shouldn’t be pain free, and resorting to violence should never be presented as the first or even the preferred choice.

17 Responses to Why I’m Writing a Mass Effect Story

  • Melindas says:

    To be fair there is one cut scene with Joker where he points out that Shepard’s stress levels are through the roof, but there needed to be more of these moments, and Bioware missed an opportunity by not having the love interest have to deal with some of this during the game.

  • Nathan Young says:

    …I did feel quite sick and actually quit playing in disgust for a couple of days when I realised that the whole scenario was so completely contrived and we were going to be FORCED to endure the death of all those Batarians without being able to even try to avert the situation. My Shepard would not have taken something like that very well at all. And not to mention, from a metagame point of view, that it was one of the first big examples (for me anyway) of Bioware’s new writing team ignoring established canon. The Mu relay (the one we spent pretty much the whole first game tracking down to get to Ilos) was thrown from its original system by a supernova and survived…. yet gently bumping in to one, relatively speaking, with a lump of rock causes them to explode? Really? Did someone go around in between ME1 and 2 and replace all the relays with cheap plastic copies or something?

  • Melindas says:

    I had not realized about the Mu relay. It’s been awhile since I played ME1. Yeah, that is just stupid, and it started to feel like they were just cramming things on the players with that DLC. It was certainly powerful, but they needed to pay it off by giving us the trial, and the decision to imprison Shepard. Otherwise it just felt like a cheat.

    I know it’s stupid to get this upset over a game, but I had invested a lot of energy in the game and my Shepard, and since I’m a writer I had made up all these ancillary stories, making it all the more real. Then to have it reduced to a Deus Ex Machina, and a rip off of Deus X to boot was just infuriating.

  • Nathan Young says:

    From what I’ve read, the trial was originally intended to be the opening part of ME3, but with the apparent need to appeal to the broadest market possible, it was cut because it wasn’t exciting enough. I was looking forward to the trial and seeing how it would have been dealt with, but apparently causing the death of nearly half a million sentients can be just swept under the rug with a couple of lines of dialogue. Yes, I too was very disappointed.

    I don’t think it’s stupid to get upset over a game, any more than it is to get upset over any other form of entertainment you have spent time and energy investing in. I become emotionally invested in TV series, movies and especially books and that’s socially accepted as normal because virtually everyone does it to some degree. I don’t think games, especially ones that are as well written as the Mass Effect series, are really any different.
    The appeal of games as an entertainment medium is becoming more widespread and therefore more socially accepted, but it is still in its infancy and still carries some form of stigma when it comes to emotional investment. I think the Mass Effect series is a great example (and by no means the only one) of how games can be a powerful tool for storytelling that is in some ways stronger than other mediums by the very fact that it is interactive.

    ….going to stop now because this could easily turn in to an essay.

    ;D

  • Melindas says:

    You’re welcome to essay all you want here. I agree I think this is a fascinating new form of entertainment, and they haven’t quite found their footing. Bioware was going gang busters, but then we had Dragon Age 2, and the embarrassment of ME3. Is that entirely due to the sale to EA or is something else at work? Or was there resentment of the attention the very fine writers like Drew Karpyshyn were receiving?

    I don’t get emotionally envolved with single shooters. The guy in Deus X is sort of a poor man’s Clint Eastwood, and since I can’t change his looks, or give him a name, or really pick much dialog for him it’s just a shooting puzzle game. I loved Dragon Age because I got to play not only a different gender, but a different race — I love my Dalish elf from DA: Origins.

    And my Shepard was all mine. Hence the sense of let down. And it’s just not that they did the thing they said they wouldn’t — pick a color. Really? It was the bad writing. As I’ve said elsewhere you don’t introduce the [u]real[/u] villain in the final ten pages or ten minutes. It just won’t fly.

  • Melindas says:

    Oh, damn, I’m so bummed to discover they had planned to do the trial and backed away. If they were worried about it being boring they could have called me. With no false modesty I wrote a pretty good courtroom drama — little thing called The Measure of a Man for Star Trek: Next Gen. I would have loved to have written that for them.

  • Nathan Young says:

    …but I think it’s EA and their production-line approach to game development.

    While it may be the easy argument, unfortunately I think their track record since the acquisition backs it up. Although it was published by EA, Dragon Age: Origins was the last Bioware game developed before the take over and in my opinion is the last game that truly felt like a Bioware game with the trademark story-telling, attention to
    detail and characterisation.

    Since then there’s been ME2, which was a better game mechanically, but kind of lacked the epic scope and wow factor of the first game, plus a lot of the RPG elements were dropped in favour of making the game more accessible, which is most likely an EA influenced design decision to increase mass market appeal. Whether they got it right or not, is a matter of opinion. Personally I felt it lacked a little depth and I definitely missed the Mako exploration sections. Story-wise I enjoyed it, the Dirty Dozen in space type of feel and most of the characterisations were great, but it did feel a little bit rail-roaded at times. It made sense, given the type of threat presented but I did find myself noticing when I was presented with non-chocies much more than I did in ME1.

    Dragon Age 2. Ah, where to begin? Actually, I’ll start by saying I have a perverse sort of love for this game. I appreciate what I believe they were TRYING to do with the story, like Hawke being viewed in the beginning as the cause of the major events that are set in motion when in fact, according to Varric, he is simply the catalyst and was swept along in events he could only react to… the main character of the game was the world and what occurred in it, not Hawke himself. I also appreciated the more personal level of story as opposed to yet another “save the world from the big bad” kind of hero’s journey. Plus Varric as the unreliable narrator framing the whole thing does leave a lot of ambiguity, which allows for speculation while still answering questions… you’re just not sure if you can completely trust the answer. However, having said all that, it failed to deliver on this… the game hinted at what it was trying to be but the story never quite delivered. And then there was the shoddy production which was definitely a sign of a team not used to working to tight deadlines suddenly being told “You’ve got X weeks to get this done and shipped.” Again only hearsay, but it’s been said that the published version of DA2 was effectively a highly polished alpha version rather than the finished product, because EA forced them to ship on a deadline and they were no where near finished.

  • Nathan Young says:

    Then there’s the The Old Republic which doesn’t quite fit in to the “production line” model I mentioned previously given the development time, but MMOs always do take a long time to develop and by its very nature is a different beast to those mentioned above.
    Possibly the most enjoyable but frustrating game I have ever played… on one hand, they have shown that you can have an MMO with brilliant story-telling… but can still be too afraid to innovate in other areas by relying on staid and stodgy gameplay mechanics. I’ve only played a few of the class stories all the way through, but they have all been excellent thus far, and by teaming with my fianc

  • Melindas says:

    Data was far and away the most interesting character on Next Gen. Which is sort of sad when you think about it — the robot had more personality than the people. I loved writing about him, and I wish I could have gotten to do my triptych. I only got to do two of them, and they screwed up the second script — The Ensigns of Command. If you want to read my version it’s up on my website under Melinda Writing.

    They could have had the trial as a DLC for those of us who played it, and the events of the attack would have played out the same. They just could have made it clear that you needed to play this DLC before you started the main game.

    I liked ME2 because the increased the tension and the stakes nicely over the first game. I hate that they took away my inventory. I like to manage inventory. I like to outfit my people based on the upcoming mission. I hate getting crammed by the game. I also really fell in love with Zaeed and Thane in particular, and Jack to some degree. She is interesting.

    The third game — OMG. There were some deeply moving moments. When Mordin died, and when we cured the genophage. Thane’s death was heart breaking. I played the romance with Kaidan, and it was the best romance they’ve ever done. It developed like a real love story, and they took their time with it. And then the Deus Ex Machina and throwing in a new villain at the very end — what were they thinking? Harbinger had been established as your nemesis. That was who you needed to face. But you’ve probably read my rants elsewhere on this blog.

    DA: Origin is my favorite game of all time. I love my Dalish elf character, and because I’m a writer I have made up all these other stories about him. Just like I have with my Shepard. Only I’m writing the Shepard story because this very bad, terrible end just got under my skin so badly.

    It’s really fun talking with you and hearing about the Knights MMO. I haven’t ever tried one of those. I was in a great role playing group with Walter Jon Williams, and George R.R. and Roger Zelazny (before we lot him too young to cancer), Daniel Abraham and Vic Milan for decades, but that has rather died on the vine. Then I discovered the X-Box, but I miss a room full of friends and snacks and laughs and fun.

  • Nathan Young says:

    I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the conversation too šŸ™‚

    A Trial DLC would have been a interesting one… While I personally would have liked to have seen something like it, I’m not sure how a dialogue heavy, combat light DLC would have gone over with the majority of the player base. Especially as it would most likely have been a paid DLC. From a story perspective it would have been great. From a business perspective it probably would have been considered too risky.

    Not going to rehash the other points about the games, because we pretty much agree there.

    Interesting to know all those authors were/are roleplayers. Did you have particular game you played? I’ve played and ran games for years, mainly DnD (all flavours), ShadowRun (my personal favourite) and Call of Cthulhu ( a close second to ShadowRun) although I have played Vampire and Werewolf on occasion and am always interested in any new system that comes out. Games Mastering is still one of my favourite hobbies. I just love the world building and crafting a story that all the players become engrossed in.

  • Melindas says:

    My first into to role playing was in Call of Cthulu. Just loved that game, a game in which you go mad is just too wonderful. I always played the super brainy character who could read Greek and Latin so my changes of going nuts were very high. GRRM’s solution was to play a dumb character so he always failed his intelligence, and never was driven mad by a Hound or any other monster.

    I play tested Walter’s Hard Wired game. Loved it, fun cyberpunk. I played a cowboy who thought one man with a gun could make a difference. Didn’t need too many implants by god. We also played Walter’s Privateers and Gentlemen where were were British navel officers in the 18th century.

    Then we played a bunch of games that Walter made up — we played crooks in a Westlake style game. Then we played NYPD cops. We played young aristocrats during the Roman Republic 79 B.C. or so. Vic Milan ran an F.B.I campaign where we hunted down serial killers.

    I’ve only played D&D very briefly in a gonzo campaign run by another friend. We mostly played it for fun and laughs. I miss it desperately, and wish our group could get back together.

    I see you’re poing about EA being nervous, but I think they might tap into a whole new market if they gave us a “campaign” where it’s a trial and not a gun fight. I have always enjoyed both.

  • Lunatic LK47 says:

    Something just caught my eye while I was reading through the comments, so I felt compelled to respond here.

    Disclaimer: Certain bolded words are done for major emphasis, just in case I sound like I’m “yelling.”

    [i]They could have had the trial as a DLC for those of us who played it, and the events of the attack would have played out the same. They just could have made it clear that you needed to play this DLC before you started the main game.[/i]

    On one hand, I’m all for it, but on the other hand, waving the [b]ENTIRE[/b] cast of NPCs with the idiot ball already got repetitive by both ME1 and ME2. Seriously, saving the Council’s asses in ME1 didn’t make everyone else not named Anderson, Hackett, Shepard’s squadmates, or the Illusive Man any smarter. While the intro for ME3 sounded like a major cop-out, forcing everyone else to play the DLC first is not a viable solution because if for some reason no one has an X-Box 360/PS3 hooked to the internet, they’re more or less screwed over.

    [i]I liked ME2 because the increased the tension and the stakes nicely over the first game. I hate that they took away my inventory. I like to manage inventory. I like to outfit my people based on the upcoming mission. I hate getting crammed by the game. I also really fell in love with Zaeed and Thane in particular, and Jack to some degree. She is interesting.[/i]

    I [b]GENUINELY LIKE [/b] the streamlining of the inventory for one simple reason. I am not forced to buy [b] 12 COPIES OF THE SAME GUN[/b]. I had to buy Pinnacle Station, [b] THE WORST ME1 DLC EVER MADE[/b] just to buy my Spectre weapons off of E-Bay and outfit my [b]ENTIRE SQUAD[/b] with those weapons, half-expecting the weapons to transfer over to the sequel. I rarely play New Game+ so if I’m on my first playthroughs with those particular Shepards (i.e. Always starting New Game only), I’d have to be level 50 first just to remotely access the level X weapons, and have to dock at four different stations just to get four full sets for everyone. I’ll admit, I have a certain OCD about making sure everyone in the squad is outfitted with [b] THE BEST GEAR AVAILABLE[/b], just in case.

    See this Motivational poster I made here:

    http://dibol.deviantart.com/#/d59mfsl

    It is really insulting that KOTOR 1, a game that is [b] FOUR YEARS OLDER[/b] had a much better inventory than Mass Effect 1 it’s not even funny. On top of this, even outfitting your squadmates was little more than a waste of time. For example: Why would I want to equip Shepard/Garrus/Liara/etc. with obviously inferior sets of armor? I wouldn’t give my Shepard ERCS armor because the stats are utter crap. I even avoided Heavy Armor like the plague because of the cons outweighed the pros (I’m not kidding. For all of the “extra damage protection” it’s not really worth getting vulnerable to tech and biotic damage and having a shorter amount of time for sprinting.)

    For example: I like Shepard in his/her N7 armor, so I always buy Onyx Medium armor. I hated the bulkiness of heavy, and Light was an overglorified Scuba diving suit. I never liked the rest, even the Armax Predator and Colossus Armors just because I’m not a big fan of the colors.

    Weapons: Why would I ever give my assault rifle users a weapon that is only 1% accurate (i.e. I’m looking at the Lancer/Avenger designed rifles)? No sane soldier in his or her right mind would buy an assault rifle that is 1% accurate, period. If such a manufacturer ever existed, he/she would be reported to the Better Business Bureau for giving a product that is below standard.

    [i]The third game — OMG. There were some deeply moving moments. When Mordin died, and when we cured the genophage. Thane’s death was heart breaking. I played the romance with Kaidan, and it was the best romance they’ve ever done. It developed like a real love story, and they took their time with it. And then the Deus Ex Machina and throwing in a new villain at the very end — what were they thinking? Harbinger had been established as your nemesis. That was who you needed to face. But you’ve probably read my rants elsewhere on this blog.[/i]

    Here is the insult to injury: The ending was literally made in [b]NOVEMBER 2011[/b]. Casey Hudson and Mac Walters literally had to pull this out of their ass, and on top of this, Casey’s big emergency button was “I’m a fanboy of Deus Ex 1, so let’s copy it.” I vividly remember Casey Hudson putting Deus Ex on such a high pedestal when he was still active on Twitter.

  • Melindas says:

    I hear you. I had to have everyone in the best armor with the best guns too, but maybe my love of selling and melting down crap for omni-gel was part of my OCD. I enjoyed my inventory in Dragon Age as well, and hated when I couldn’t outfit my gang in Dragon Age 2.

    Pinnacle Station. I’m trying to remember if I played that. Or if it was included in my ME1 disk since I got into this late. I guess I’ll find out, though there now seem to be no downloads for ME! available any longer.

    I still think the trial could have been done for people who are interested in character interactions, etc. And of course I’m the woman who wrote The Measure of a Man, and many of my novels have legal settings so it interests me.

    I haven’t played Deus X, but friends told me how it ended, and I immediately saw the rip off in the end of ME3. It really was so sad to see such a great franchise ruined. I’ve restarted the first game, and am enjoying it tremendously. I’ll just stop before I get to the end of the third game and read my story, or make up a new one.

    Glad to hear from you though, and thanks for your input.

  • Lunatic LK47 says:

    For the first paragraph: I already maxed out everything by the time I was half-way through the story missions, but then yet again, that was due to me binging on the sidemissions beforehand. I’ve been normally looking at fan-art for Mass Effect for enjoyment and just found this humorous jab on how getting money changed between the two games:

    http://browse.deviantart.com/?qh=&section=&q=Commander+Shepard+money#/d38sbde

    Pinnacle Station was the DLC only available as a download. What you’re thinking of is the Bring Down The Sky DLC that came with the Platinum Edition of ME1. Not sure if you’ve played Bring Down The Sky, this involves stopping a Batarian terrorist attempt on crashing a mining asteroid into a human colony. Surprisingly, Pinnacle Station [b]IS[/b] still available on X-Box Live last time I checked.

    [i]I still think the trial could have been done for people who are interested in character interactions, etc. And of course I’m the woman who wrote The Measure of a Man, and many of my novels have legal settings so it interests me. [/i]

    I’d have no problem looking into it. Just wanted to give my two cents regarding the other side of the fence. It’s really sad that Freddie Prinze Jr. was rarely utilized for “weaning the newcomers into the story.” I thought the whole point of having him on-board was to reflect that instead of hitting Shepard with the amnesia ball.

    [i]I haven’t played Deus X, but friends told me how it ended, and I immediately saw the rip off in the end of ME3. It really was so sad to see such a great franchise ruined. I’ve restarted the first game, and am enjoying it tremendously. I’ll just stop before I get to the end of the third game and read my story, or make up a new one.[/i]

    I’ve recently played the Human Revolution prequel for Deus Ex and semi-enjoyed it, but what kills me is knowing that it doesn’t really change the outcomes for the other games like it was half-hinted it was going to do. The four endings for the prequel boil down to four options, (“biomechanical technology is good” “Biomechanical technology should be regulated” “Biomechanical technology is BAAAAAAD” and “Blow up the station so the world’s population can decide on their own.” On the other hand, Deus Ex 1 was made in 2000.

  • Melindas says:

    I have the Platinum edition of ME1 so I have played that. I”m a completist so I better find Pinnacle Station. When I checked for downloads when I had my ME1 disk in the X-Box I didn’t see any downloads listed. I’ll look harder.

    I didn’t mean to imply I didn’t see you’re point of view. I know I really enjoy soap opera in addition to the action, and I thought there could have been a chance to bring in Hackett more fully, create a really cool lawyer character to defend Shepard, etc. etc.

    I liked the Vega character quite a bit, and wish more had been done with him. Explain the Amnesia Ball. what, in particular, did Shepard seem to forget? Well, other than the entire concept of strength through unity that had been evident in all the earlier games.

  • Lunatic LK47 says:

    1. I can walk you through on the X-Box Live Marketplace menu and am happy to provide assistance. The constant change in the U.I. really gets frustrating at times.

    2. Ah, I never got that vibe at all, so we’re good. ;D

    3. I remember importing every one of my Commander Shepards into ME2 and Shepard seems to keep forgetting what he/she did during the side missions. For example, Shepard forgot who the Shadow Broker was, when I made all of my Shepards finish every side mission available in the first game. Running into Rana Thanopsis made me face-palm a bit when she had to re-introduce herself during Grunt’s recruitment mission, showing a very big disconnect between myself and my personal Commander Shepards (for the record: 14 Shepards, and 28 files [only difference being whether or not the Council lived or died]. 50-50 in the gender split). Apparently, all Shepard can remember vividly is Conrad Verner or Khalisa Al-Jilani when it comes to NPCs from the side-missions.

  • Melindas says:

    You’re right. That was irritating. I just put it down to the whole “being dead” thing as a way to not have it impinge on my reactions. I figured there would have to be some cognitive problems. šŸ™‚ Because I’m a writer I have made up all these back stories for my Shepard. In some ways we are a little cracked, but hopefully we’re not dangerous. šŸ™‚

    I saved the council and I probably will again because my guy is just such a decent fellow. (I’ve never been able to play baddies. The closest I ever came was a character I created for Wild Cards, and it made George R.R. so uncomfortable because Noel is such a cynical grey character. Maybe because George was used to seeing me play paladins in our RPG’s.)

    Thanks for the offer. If I can’t find this DLC I will contact you and have you help. I really appreciate it.

    And I tend to act like an Elcor on line because we don’t have the luxury of tone of voice or body language, and I’ve seen misunderstandings develop.

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