Sci-Fi Month: A Tribute to Mass Effect + Guest Post from John Sutherland

Posted 27 November, 2013 by Rinn in Guest Post, Sci-Fi Month / 12 Comments

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Mass Effect is my absolute favourite game series, and today I want to pay tribute to it and also share with you a guest post written by John Sutherland, the Story Doctor of the games, where he discusses story development within the series. So whether you’re already a fan, or are interested in playing it, I hope you enjoy my little tribute. Don’t forget to check out the schedule for the rest of today’s posts. You can also Tweet about the event using the hashtag #RRSciFiMonth.
 
In the year 2148, explorers on Mars discovered the remains of an ancient spacefaring civilization. In the decades that followed, these mysterious artifacts revealed startling new technologies, enabling travel to the furthest stars. The basis for this incredible technology was a force that controlled the very fabric of space and time. They called it the greatest discovery in human history. The civilizations of the galaxy call it… MASS EFFECT.
 

Firstly, I apologise in advance for the length of this post – when I love something, I tend to waffle. A lot. And I love playing video games – although I don’t spend all my time playing them, I generally spend several hours a week flitting between various games. I have this really bad habit of playing everything at once, and as a result it’s quite rare for me to actually complete a game. I had Portal 2 saved about thirty seconds before end-game for months and months, because I was playing other things.

Mass Effect, however, is a totally different story.

I remember being aware of the series for years before playing it. One of my exes had the game for Xbox, and then a later ex-boyfriend said he thought I might enjoy the game. So I downloaded the demo on Steam and that was it – I was completely and utterly enthralled. Instead of my usual habit of letting a game last forever, I had to keep playing, I had to know what was going to happen – and I’ve finished all three games several times. I pre-ordered Mass Effect 3 as soon as I could, it was released during exam period, and I actually could not wait to play it – so I abandoned revision for it. But I did just fine, so it’s okay 😉

So what’s so great about Mass Effect? Oh, so so many things…

 
 

Although the plot is quite complicated in places, the basic outline is that the player assumes the role of Commander Shepard, the first human ‘Spectre’ (a sort of intergalactic special forces agent), and must investigate a Prothean artifact – Protheans being an ancient alien race, who have long died out. However, Shepard discovers the existence of the Reapers, another ancient alien race who seem hellbent on exterminating all life. And now it is up to Shepard to stop them.

Default Male and Female Shepard
 

Whilst that may sound pretty typical – evil aliens, only one hero who can get in their way, etc – there are so many extra points, so many twists and turns and absolutely wonderful moments that just make the game what it is. You can make your own Shepard at the start of the game, so you can be male or female, and the best part – you make all of the decisions. Faced with a problem, you choose the solution. You can go down the path of righteousness (Paragon), be a bad-ass rebel (Renegade) or take a more neutral stance.

The way you act towards others, the choices you make and the actions you take – they all matter. Each decision has an effect on future events. For example, one choice might result in the death of a friend – or you could save their life. And to make it even better, your choices are carried over from one game to the next. It means that you’re completely invested in every choice and instead of just flicking through the cutscenes you really listen.

 
 

The main reason I am so invested in my choices? Because I want the amazing cast of characters to live. 

First of all, Shepard is a brilliant character, whatever path you take. The voice acting is outstanding, and Paragon Shepard = a total role model, Renegade Shepard = sassy and hilarious. This video kind of says it all (plus it has some great clips):

Here are the squadmates from all three games, plus a few other major characters:

From left to right, top to bottom: Ashley Williams, Garrus Vakarian, Kaidan Alenko, Liara T’Soni, Tali’Zorah vas Normandy, Urdnot Wrex, Jeff ‘Joker’ Moreau, Urdnot Grunt, Jack, Jacob Taylor, Kasumi Goto, Legion, Miranda Lawson, Mordin Solus, Morinth, Samara, Thane Krios, Zaeed Massani, [I’m leaving this name out because it’s a potential spoiler!], James Vega, Javik, Captain David Anderson, The Illusive Man and Kai Leng. My favourite character? Garrus Vakarian, hands down. He is my love interest in both the second and third games (he’s not a choice in the first, boo hoo). He was a security officer for the Citadel (the main deep space station in the game), but after a certain event becomes a figurehead for justice and completely proves himself. His relationship with Shepard, should you choose the romance path, is so sweet. In fact I’m sure all the relationships in the game are really well-built, but I only ever pick Garrus! 

Shepard and Garrus share a moment.

The game also has a stellar cast – many of you will probably recognise Joker’s voice, as he is played by Seth Green.

Well I already spoke a little about relationships, but let me tell you – this series really pulls at the heartstrings. The characters are so wonderfully built that, as with awesome book series, you become so attached and can’t bear anything bad happening to them. And if you’re not careful, it will. In the third game, I didn’t move quick enough, and it resulted in the death of a character. Another time, I made the wrong decision and effectively destroyed the homeworld of one of my favourite characters – who then killed themself. Which made me SCREAM at my computer, and I redid the level completely so I could save them.

And then there’s moments like this, interaction between various characters:

 

A moment between Garrus and Shepard, showing their relationship. There are moments between the two towards the end of the third and final game that actually made me sob like a baby.
 

As Mass Effect is set on many different planets, the player can experience so many different types of locations. And Bioware do not disappoint: there are so many beautiful landscapes to be seen, so much wonderful architecture.

Some examples:
 

All three games have fantastic music, but it’s the soundtrack to the second and third games that really stirs up my emotions. Because I love playlists, here’s a  list of my favourite tracks from the games!

 
 
I’m really excited to be able to share with you today a guest post by Mass Effect Story Doctor, John Sutherland! Thank you so much to John for taking the time to write up something for my blog. 

Thoughts on the Story Development in Mass Effect

by John Sutherland

For a story to be effective in a video game, everything has to go right. Games are the most collaborative story form I can think of — moreso than film, even. The writer has to stay involved with all parts of production, and everyone has to both understand how story works, and be an ally of story through the whole process, or all is lost.

Witness the example of Mass Effect, on which I was the Story Doctor from the Microsoft end, and which is the result of a lot of important things happening together. It was not created in a vacuum by the writers. The original ideas for the story came out of meetings at Bioware with Lead Writer Drew Karpyshyn, Lead Designer Preston Watamaniuk, and Producer Casey Hudson.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a producer who understands story. Casey was a big fan of the TV series Lost, which was in its early seasons at the time, and which Casey described as “a storytelling clinic.” (Is it public knowledge that that’s why the player character is named Commander Shepard, after Jack Shepard in the show? Anyway, it’s true.)

My official title was Lead Writer on the project at Microsoft, which really meant I was in charge of making sure the story structure and pacing worked, and that this team of four writers from Bioware all sounded like one narrative voice.

Bioware’s ambitions were high. Very high.

Microsoft had signed the game in the hope of publishing a different game, and based on the strength of the team, which had just produced Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic (everyone in the industry just calls it KOTOR), to great critical acclaim and pretty good sales.

But Bioware declared that they were going to make “the ultimate science fiction story game,” and most people at Microsoft, frankly, were skeptical at this boldness. Bioware had just worked on one of the most iconic science fiction franchises in the world, and now they thought they were going to do what? When I came onto the project, someone on the Microsoft leads team gave me the story summary and said they just didn’t understand it. It looked like a mess to them, like Bioware didn’t know what they were doing.

But it wasn’t true. Story structure in games was my specialty, and I could see that their story had all the right bones. It turned in all the right places, had great reversals, drove interest forward, and paid off all its promises. I think one of my best accomplishments on this game was just advocating for Bioware’s work within Microsoft.

The conflicts were very solid, and helped the game resonate at a lot of levels. The big conflict, organic life versus machines, would expand through all three games. I heard people say, this has been done before. Look at Halo. Look at The Matrix. Yes, but big themes, big fears, are worth revisiting in new ways.

There was also a lot of topical resonance in the conflict between humans and other races. In Mass Effect, humans had just discovered faster than light travel, and this had led to a rapid, often clumsy expansion through parts of the universe that were new to them, but really quite old and established. Keep in mind, this was in 2006, when the relatively young upstart Americans were stumbling into ancient Baghdad, and not everything was going the way their ideologue leaders had promised. The half of the country that didn’t already know it was a bad idea started to wake up to the disaster. Interesting commentary from our Canadian friends. It may not have registered on a conscious level for many players, but it was there, and it made the story richer to have the hero sometimes resented by other characters, and sometimes for good reasons. Heroes in games are often so righteous and uncomplicated that there’s no interest at all.

So my big concern as we went through production was not the story’s structure or themes, but the pacing. KOTOR was a very good game, but it was slow. The process of making each story decision involved reading through three paragraphs.

Bioware’s invention of the conversation wheel helped enormously, but the longer dialog that played after the players made their story choices needed to be much more efficient if this was going to play like cinema.

But once it did that, it had all of the elements of a well-told story, and in the final product was pleasing that people related to it just as we hoped they would. Despite the early misunderstandings, the working relationship between Microsoft and Bioware was excellent, a real model for how respectful, creative publisher-developer cooperation should work. I wish more games turned out that way.


John Sutherland has been a Story Doctor and game writer for over fourteen years. He was the Story Doctor of Mass Effect, as well as the contributing writer of the Alan Wake video game series. Forthcoming works include Murdered: Soul Suspect. You can find out more about John and his services at VidGameStory.com.
Thank you so much to John for contributing to Sci-Fi Month (and for being a part of the awesome story of Mass Effect, of course)!

Just a collection of Mass Effect related links and videos:

Have you played the games, or have I sparked your interest? Did you enjoy reading John’s guest post? Let me know in the comments!

 

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12 responses to “Sci-Fi Month: A Tribute to Mass Effect + Guest Post from John Sutherland

  1. Great post! I wrote my own gushing post about Mass Effect earlier this year, and who could help doing so, it is such a wonderful, immersive series of games. And the reason being is the characters. I feel, even after months of not playing, very emotionally tied to these characters and the adventures I have been on with them. I love it when a game does that. It is rare, to be sure, but when it happens it is a beautiful thing. I give all the creators of Mass Effect huge props for what they’ve managed to do and hope for more gaming like this in the future.

    http://www.stainlesssteeldroppings.com/the-mass-effect

    • Thanks! I’ll go and check your post out =) It really is just so immersive, and I love how you can build up relationships with everyone, plus how things like dialogue can change depending on who you take with you on missions.

      I love what they did with Dragon Age too.

  2. Funny you mention Dragon Age because I was thinking of that game too this morning while reading and responding to your post. I did gushing posts for both of those games when I finished them. I can remember very clearly how sad I felt when the first one finally ended. I remember just listening to the credit music (This is War by Thirty Seconds to Mars) and knowing that I was really going to miss these characters.

    • It’s a shame that DAII didn’t have the same sort of depth of relationships and ways of developing them. It was really rubbish that you couldn’t just talk to your companions whenever you felt like it =/

    • Yes, and all the open world exploration looks fantastic! That would’ve been an excellent addition to Mass Effect – a little more freedom to explore the planets =)

    • Just imagine what kind of game Mass Effect could have been if it had more of the open exploration like the Fallout or Elder Scrolls games, with worlds on multiple planets to explore. Wow! One can dream.

    • I think that would be my absolute perfect game. Only thing I can think to add to Mass Effect really =)

      Talking of open world games, I just bought Saints Row 3 in the Steam sale. Good fun!

    • Fun! I’ve not played any of those. My son-in-law got me Borderlands as he wants to play these with me but of late I’ve restarted Fallout: New Vegas and am playing through that a second time.

    • Borderlands is brilliant – especially with others. I’ve been playing co-op with some friends, it’s a good laugh. It’s similar to Fallout in a way, but more of a shooter focus although it is open world

  3. I’ve half played various games – Skyrim, Oblivion, Fable, KOTOR…. among others. And though I’ve heard of Mass Effect, I never bothered looking into what it was about. It looks awesome, and it was really interesting to hear from someone who had something to do with the game.

    Great stuff Rinn, I reckon I’ll be checking it out….

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