Choose Your Own Adventure

Alright. I need to talk about Mass Effect.

A year on, and I still can’t let it go. Hi everyone. I’m Nick, and I’m a recovering Mass Effect fan.

I don’t know if we have a special name, the way there’s trekkers for Star Trek, Whovians for Doctor Who, and stalkers for Sherlock. I just know that I am one. For me it’s probably now my biggest interest holder, jumping up above where Star Wars used to be. That’s hard to quantify in text, and without being able to show just how much time I put into that particular setting. So here’s the ridiculous number of Star Wars books I have! (though the Vader one belongs to my wife)

I had a problem
Those miscellaneous reference books are the real Leia fingernail here. Also, f**k the Yuuzhan Vong.

If you haven’t played Mass Effect before, you really need to get on that. There’s three games in total, so before I get into the nitty gritty of it, I’ll give a basic rundown. The games themselves are action-RPGs with a morality system that ranges from The Doctor to Dirty Harry, set in a future where humanity has discovered the means to travel faster than light, and has joined a commonwealth of alien races. They’re the young upstarts of the galaxy, not unlike Short Round in the Temple of Doom, and they’re also remarkably adept. You play as the character Commander Shepard, who could be a man or woman, a war hero, a scarred survivor or… well, another bunch of combinations. Right on the first mission to a human colony world, things go awry and some alien dude is hell-bent on bringing back some scary alien squid monsters.

While it’s the characters that have undoubtedly sealed my love for the series, the setting itself is so flinging-flanging awesome. Lots of FTL travel, alien races, spaceships, weapons, a huge space station, a planetary all-terrain rover/tank and of course – the planets. Outside of the locations that the main story is told on, there’s no shortage of other planets (although they’re usually quite featureless beside the prerequisite quest building), but driving around on them in the Mako (the rover/tank) is pretty nice.

Driving around the moon with a view of earth invokes thoughts of the pale blue dot. At it’s core, I find the setting so appealing because while we stay human with very human problems, we (as a species/planet/civilisation) come together to reach for something greater than ourselves. Of all the elements* in Mass Effect that are fictional, it’s that which feels the most so. Even in the setting, we get our act together before the antagonist shows up.

* e.g, Element Zero. Which is an actual element in the setting, not me making some nonsensical list.

S-S-S-Saren and the Geth, as sung by Elton John
S-S-S-Saren and the Geth, as sung by Elton John

Now, why did I put this fangasm into writing, as well as the gaming category? The first game is all about stopping this guy, Saren Arturious, Rogue Spectre Agent. There’s lots of things that happen along the way, and as choice-based RPGs tend to do, the story changes as a result. I’ve sunk over 190 hours of total playing time into the first game (no real estimate for 2 or 3), and still (as recently as this week) discover new things. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. A Krogan battlemaster fall in line on the beaches of Virmire. I watched Garrus Vakarian disappointed in the dark near C-Sec Academy. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Okay, so I still haven’t seen it all. Ah, but how I’ve tried.

In short, while you need to take either Wrex or Garrus to complete the game, you don’t need to take both of them. I purposely changed things around in two different playthroughs so that I didn’t have them both in one or the other. It meant that in one, I got to Virmire with only Ash, Kaidan, Wrex and Tali. Kaidan went off with the other squad, and Ash stayed behind for the upcoming Sophie’s choice. As the game requires you to always have two characters accompany Shepard, Wrex’s protest about taking out the facility did about as much as retweeting this month’s social awareness cause would. The end result of the game is the same – you still face off with Saren, and save the galaxy from the imminent threat – but the nuances of what happened in your playthrough change. Yes, not having either Wrex or Garrus in your squad feels wrong. As anti-climactic as Virmire is with Wrex just going along with the mission without debate, it’s empty without him there at all. It’s loathsome. I still want to see what repercussions it could have in the subsequent games.

Decisions, decisi-- okay, guess I'm stuck with you two.
Decisions, decisi– okay, guess I’m stuck with you two.

Alright. I still haven’t explained the relevance to writing. A year later, and while the ending of the series as it stands in Mass Effect 3 is still a letdown (even with the Extended Cut), I can appreciate the rest of the story told a little more. There’s a lot of causality at play in the series, though it’s the notes of the song that change, and not the song itself. There’s obvious points in the overall story that feel like they have to be there (though the distinction gets murkier after the first game), and there’s parts that just don’t seem right otherwise. There are some amazing moments in the story. I don’t want to go into detail about the themes, story, twists and such in a post where I’m suggesting people go play the game, but it really is an interactive story/film where you get to shoot things.

Sometimes it’s beneficial to think of your own writing as a choose-your-own-adventure type deal. With the writing challenge for this month (which will be posted later today), I hit a point where things felt like they got a bit stuck. I tried rewriting it twice, but it really wasn’t working. Instead of giving it a third attempt, I backtracked and took things in a different direction – a page 37 instead of page 54. When a piece isn’t working and the actions don’t feel right, don’t be afraid to cut them out and write something different. The overall story can still remain intact without changing the ending (though that’s not always a bad thing, either). Thinking of your story as a choice-based game, or CYOA novel also lends to thinking about the possible complications that could occur, even if it’s not what does. Not everything always works, and naturally, the best ending ever written means nothing if you don’t hold the reader’s interest long enough for them to get there.

Whatever your ending is like, you still have the pages in between. That jibe about the series aside, those pages are great, and the choices do count. I’ll continue putting my alternate Shepards through the events of Mass Effect 2 and 3, playing the events out in different ways, but ultimately the final game will end in a way I’ve already seen. Whatever you do gets shoehorned into the same sequence of events, resulting in a choice in the last playable moment of the game that gives you your different endings. While the method of resolution is the most offensive part of the ending, that the causality of the choices you make are ultimately discarded. You can have unintended consequences to your character’s actions, but their actions should make a difference, or it’s not their story you should be telling. Mass Effect was always Shepard’s story, up until the final exposition. That’s why it doesn’t work.

2 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Adventure

  1. I love the Mass Effect series and how they built the decisions into the later games. I’m currently playing through the third installment (for the first time, and I’m avoiding spoilers, but I’d already heard dire things about the end). I already want to go back and start at the first game again, run through all the permutations and see what happens.

    I’m aiming to have my writing group discuss interactive storytelling at our next meeting, and examples like Mass Effect are definitely the kinds of things I’ll be bringing up. 🙂

  2. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing
    all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

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