Category Archives: Fundamental Questions

On the Alterations to the storyline : influences and themes

(Edit: This was added to an expanded on 10-12-14)


 

There isn’t much point in deciding to writing an Alternative Universe if you don’t actually alter the Universe in a fundamental, not interpretive, way.


 

When I set out to work on my AU, I had no idea how AU it was to be.

It ended up having:

  • Shepard who is violent and cruel, without the super-talky ability of canonShep.
  • Saren and Benezia in a romantic relationship, with a more complex interaction and Benezia being the ultimate Big Bad, not Saren
  • Cerberus being responsible for Saren knowing about things he couldn’t have otherwise even knew existed, like the Thorian or the Beacon.
  • The Systems Alliance and other aliens species being twisted, darker versions of themselves, complete with alien analogues of Cerberus and a more hateful and violent FCW.
  • A Council made of skilled and intelligent political operators with the ear of their races, not talking heads.
  • A human ambassador who is less of a mindless bureaucrat with a hard-on for being a jerk and one who uses his asshole status to actually work for humanity
  • Anderson who is less Magical Advice Negro and more father figure
  • Quarians who aren’t whiny bitches. Asari who actually dominate the galaxy like the Codex says. Turians who are not mindless goddamned order-following zombies.
  • Reasons for the shit side missions, like Major Kyle and going after Cerberus,  that actually made sense.
  • A more active and realistic Shadow Broker who has terrifying agents to speak for him instead of fat mouthy volus.
  • Combat beyond a rehash of cover-shooters, including platoon combat, large-scale battles, space battles both small and large scale, and the intelligent use of tactics beyond yolocharging.
  • Galactic players like Aria, Blue Suns and Eclipse actually being terrifying enough to prevent the Council from wanting to piss them off.
  • An Illusive Man who isn’t a goddamned moron.
  • Rationales for stupid in game things like having to buy weapons, or why the SA issues it’s troops armor so shitty that Ash was willing to buy her own just so she would die when sneezed at.
  • Reapers who are actually fucking terrifying instead of merely annoying.

And so on. Why did I do this? Because I had to.

Let me preface and explain this rather bald statement by making a few points.

First, at the time I started, Mass Effect 3 had just come out. I was pumped about the game and (frankly) glad that I had something to distract myself, as April 13th is the anniversary of my wife’s death.  When I made up my mind to write an AU it was mostly about changes I wished to make to Shepard.

Second, when I decided to make it an AU beyond just Shepard, it was originally just to fill simple plot holes with simple answers and adjust things to make Shepard ‘fit’.

Third, when it finally went completely off the rails, at Feros, I had no idea how far I’d end up warping the setting.

When I started writing OSABC, I didn’t have a lot of anger at the ending of the games yet, and was pretty satisfied with the way things were going. The plot holes in ME1 and ME2 bothered me, but they were still a blast to play.

I figured that I’d have to make some minor changes to the world, but not many. My first few chapters were mostly close to canon, even drawing on verbatim words from the game.

But as I began to write, I realized two things. First of all, the SA was always presented in this goody-two-shoes light. Torfan notwithstanding, the SA was unlike to tolerate someone as brutal as my Shepard. So the SA had to be … darker. And once I started thinking along those lines, a second epiphany hit me — that we’d already had hints of a darker SA — whatever drove Kyle crazy, the experimental ‘VI’ on Luna, the complete lack of surprise or even comment on finding the Thorian, the callous manner in which Shepard was dispatched to kill off ‘problems’ by Admiral Hackett.

These all hinted at an SA that may not have been as clean as it appeared, and I immediately was struck by the concept of actually making not just Shepard but the entire universe much darker.

I had just read Renegade Reinterpretations,  and a lot of what was written struck me as less ‘renegade’ and more ‘desperation’.  Is it evil to act in a certain manner when there are no other choices beyond slavery and death? To distrust aliens when all they’ve done is enslave you or ignore your suffering?

No, right then and there I decided to change things massively.

Once I had a basic outline of what I wanted my Shepard to be, I had to justify the type of existence she’d gone through. I always found the portrayal of the SA to be far too squeaky-clean, too Roddenberry, and much too trope laden, and I intended to deconstruct every aspect of the too-perfect glittery white goodness we were shown.

First, I knew I wanted to incorporate certain dark themes into my verse.

The Warhammer 40k universe was one influence. Humans under siege is a big part of that setting, as well as human dislike of aliens and a larger-than-life military where civilians seem a mix of afterthought and collateral damage.

Charlie Stross and his book Accelerando were another, especially in terms of how I viewed the Reapers, along with a healthy helping of the Cthulhu Mythos. We are told we can’t understand them, that they are beyond us. They can make devices that make a mockery not just of physics, but of everything we know about the laws of thermodynamics.  They see all living things as insects not even worthy of their direct attention except in the gestalt. They have existed for millions or even billions of years, and they have technology we can’t even learn about without going insane. That sounds EXACTLY like H.P. Lovecraft.

Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game, and Armor were also influences both on Shepard and the SA, mostly in how marine combat should be constructed. It always struck me as particularly retarded that Shepard would be expected to fight superior numbers with, and I am blunt here:

  • a disgraced human NCO probably suffering PTSD from losing her entire unit
  • a flawed human biotic with no prior combat experience
  • a civilian teenager who only got involved in this mess because she was trying not to be killed by geth and found an audio message
  • another civilian teenager (basically) who has no combat experience and no military skills except some okay biotics
  • a cop who has a tendency to ignore orders and go all Dirty Harry
  • a murderous krogan mercenary with clear ties to an illegal shadow figure of dubious legality

That’s it. No marines. No intel assets. No support figures to help you track anything. Just six fuckups, at least four of whom have ZERO PLACE in any real world military or any form of combat against the most dangerous special agent alive and his horrifically powerful biotic billionaire sidekick.

Wut?

Shadowrun and Conspiracy X RPG games snuck in at some point, mostly because I am a big fan of conspiracy, cyberpunk, and the themes within. We’re told of cybernetics, in Kai Leng and Garrus and others, but don’t get to see them.

Finally, at least some nihilistic dead-end haterage from the Punisher was included, along with the concept that moving on is not something that happens without both a good reason and a lever to make it happen.

Second, I knew WHY I wanted to change these things. I realized it was a lot more fun to write things in a way that made sense than in a way that fit the game. Flux was the first example of why the hell I didn’t like Mass Effect for so long when I started playing, and I was determined to make things better, while using the influences listed.

There is no purpose in enslaving yourself to canon if it doesn’t make sense and flies in the face of what you’re trying to achieve.  ME Canon was about determination and hope. ME2 was more about sacrifice and the gray nature of morality vs. necessity. ME3 , I suppose, was about the call of unity and standing together against the darkness.

Except it didn’t end that way. These themes were powerful and important, and never used. It wasn’t the story of a hero, it was literally the story of a man who never made hard choices, who avoided them and refused to make them, and then was given no choices at the end and acted shocked.

I wanted my Shepard to have to choose hard things. And for those things to have more impact than an EMS change or War Asset.

Finally, I knew that the setting would alter the contents of the MEVerse, and I wanted to watch it interact. There is very little ‘bright’ in any of these settings. They all speak of dehumanization and violence, in a culture blind to the effects of such. A setting they all had influences in would not care much about it’s poorest citizens, or the fate of the average person in the light of the needs of the many.

From these concepts I extended the likely goals of the SA and other alien races. It was brutal, throat-slitting survivalism. They were distrustful. Every one of them was wounded in some fashion, and they plotted and planned and did horrible things because they were sure if they didn’t, someone else WAS.

They tell themselves they have no choices, but they do. The asari tell themselves they are right to dominate the galaxy, the salarians tell themselves they’re right to pursue science regardless of cost, the turians have brainwashed themselves into sacrifice without common sense and duty without brains.

We aren’t given any real insight into the motivations of cultures in the game except for laughable infodumps about the quarians and statements that blatantly conflict each other. Turians are all about unity and discipline, but revolt and kill each other constantly? Asari have a history and culture organized around unity but bicker between city states and argue over breeding choices?

No, if I was going to remake things, they had to be consistent.

It was about this time that the Extended Cut endings hit, and I’m afraid my fury was rekindled. I decided then and there that the story I was in the process of writing would be a complete, total AU, to completely destroy every and all frameworks of the original ME that were stupid, and to instead go after things that not only made sense now, but would resonate with the ending.

Most stories try to hit the high points, either changing things about the big scenes or focusing on the moments between them. I was having none of that — I was going to rewrite the entire goddamned series myself and do so correctly, without any ass-pulling bullshit about synthesis, Starkids, or above all else, the fate of the universe being decided by whether or not my Shepard can beat some guy with a sword.

It is my firm belief that there is nothing wrong with the canon endings.  The problem is that the endings are diametrically opposed to everything the game stands for, but that is not, as some have suggested, bad writing. What it strike me as is more of a lack of understanding on how to move from high sci-fi space opera with a backdrop of Cthulhu to some form of philosophical statement about the direction life should go after the singularity. The endings would have made sense if they’d addressed this at ANY POINT during the game.

They didn’t. They had an idea that they wanted to roll with, and it was flawed but hey, it’s their endings. But the problem is the story leading up to those endings.

 

Overview of Creation : Sara Shepard, Part One

In a way, every Shepard a fanfic writer comes up with is an OC. Sara was no different.

As with most of my OCs, Sara is based on real people. She is a composite of several broken figures I knew. One was a rape victim, another was a gang-banger I helped get out of that lifestyle. One was a buddy who had PTSD and ended up killing himself.

They are all dead, the people Sara is based on. Unlike her, they never found their strength, nor could they bring themselves to rely on others to provide that strength.

Who they were no longer matters. I had a long conversation with Progman (who, along with Michael1110, have shaped more of OSABC than they could possibly know) discussing Shepard. He told me the greatest headshot to canon I could make was making Shepard weak.

Shepard? Weak?

Indeed. Shepard (and case in point, the entire Premiseverse) are deconstructions of something that I found ultimately revolting, the Boring Invincible Hero syndrome that led to so much shock and cries of foul at the end of ME3.

Bluntly, Shepard always wins. Shepard is strong enough to overcome anything. The first time we see any REAL doubts that last longer than a few seconds is deep into ME3 , where most people would have cracked under the pressure.

Shepard is not a God.

When I started, I knew I wanted a Shepard who was physically powerful, sexy, and striking. A Shepard with an agile, strong mind, and the ability to master everything she put her mind to. I built her deliberately to be as Mary Sue-ish as possible.

Then I broke what I had built until it was a festering mass of hate and loss. I crafted a story that stripped away every support and source of human kindness except a very few. I gave her pathologies she couldn’t accept, and a background that she couldn’t get over.

Progman and Owelpost both pointed out Shepard never got over her past and losses and wounds. She never grew up, in a way. It’s hard to see but there is still a tiny frightened girl somewhere in her psyche, eyes shut and tears streaking down her face, waiting to be hurt again, betrayed again, abandoned again.
In canon, no matter what, Shepard overcomes. Akuze? Mindoir? You can make the most sad-sack bastard in galactic history and he/she is still possessed of indomitable will, vast political savvy, endless battlefield competence, blah blah blah.

Given how Shepard is built up in game I remain astounded ME3 didn’t end with Shepard killing Harbinger with his dick.

I rejected that. I wanted a broken image. I wanted that shattered figure who had not risen above their losses because they didn’t have a reason to do so. In a way, I wanted to rewrite the fate of my buddy, with PTDS, who should have been able to (with all the support he had around him, begging to help) get back on his feet and on with his life. I wanted to rewrite the life of that gang-banger, who after pulling himself out of hell fell right back in out of arrogant stupidity.

I wanted  a Shepard who needed people around her to become the best, and when they weren’t there, became the worst. A monster.

Shepard is not and has never been a ‘reactive’ figure ,  instead always following others.  Even in canon, Shepard was not proactive. Shepard made no hard, defining choices that changed his/her OWN life. Yes , they had to pick between Kai and Ash, or to save the council or destroy it. Choose Anderson or Udina. Decide the fate of worlds in ME2, in ME3.

Yet, consider those choices. Much like the catalyst, you were just given choices on a plate. You never were able to point at why you made the call and say “this and this and this” … it was just a menu wheel choice. And while said choices affected the story, it was never fundamental!

You never got to choose whether to side with the Council or the Alliance. You never got to choose whether to abandon Cerberus and work for Liara when she became the SB.

And Shepard avoided the truly ugly choices. She let Anderson take the lead on springing the Normandy. She accepted, all too quickly, Cerberus’ invitation to work for them, even in the face of clear clues that not all was right with the state of events and that Cerberus had not changed it’s stripes in the past or present. She followed the orders of Hackett, a man who had cut her loose in many ways after ME1, and ended up standing trial for events beyond her control.

Shepard, no matter which way you cut it, disgusted me in canon because the hard choices and decisions were never, ever made, until the very last minutes of the game.

I get it. Some of that is just the nature of gameplay.

But to me, the Boring Invincible Hero with no personal weakness, endless strength and willpower, and all the flaws of , say, the Hope Diamond, is just that. Boring. You never wondered if your Shepard would just crack one day. You never had your Shepard’s very ability to understand the world around them compromised on a fundamental level. Your choices were ultimately made meaningless by the simple fact that EVERY choice made Shepard a winner.

Sara Shepard is not a winner. Lethal? Yeah. Powerful? Oh yeah. Smart? Yes. Sexy? Sure.

But she’ll never be Branson. She’ll never have the charm and grace to stop the geth and quarians from fighting.

 

Notes: Chapter One, Of Sheep and Battle Chicken

When I started OSABC, it was from a toss off line I wrote into a shortfic about Liara talking to her mother, the full conversation instead of the snippets you hear in the game.

Garrus and Shep were talking in the battery, with Shepard hugging Garrus after hearing about his family. He addresses her as ‘sheep’ and she calls him ‘battle chicken’. Old nicknames, heavy with subtle meaning and nonsensical applique.

They rang something in me, and before I knew it I decided to try my hand at writing a longer fic. Mind you, my skills were (and still are) rusty. I haven’t written professionally in over fifteen years at the point I started this mess, so the first chamber was shambolic and symbolic.

I wanted to frame my AU in the same way the game started. And I knew I wanted to write an AU.

People nitpick the ending of ME3 and let slide the mountain of other shit that Bioware messed up on. Things had bothered me for  a while and I decided to act.

When I say my stories are an AU, I don’t mean something along the lines of Renegade Reinterpretations. RR is wonderful and grandiose, a merging of events that I doubt I could ever pull off, but it still adheres to the basic concepts of everything wrong with Mass Effect.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the game. But the whole reason there are so many fix-fics is that Bioware drops the ball in lots of places. Romances that feel too much like random banter then schmex. Plotlines that weave, bob and then vanish into thin air. Characters who come out flat and without real human depth to them.

Worst of all, the awful and frankly inexcusable failure of Bioware to characterize the bad guys. I’m not saying I’m a better writer than Bioware. It’s pretty easy to take all the tools they did from scratch and recombine them and polish them. Mass Effect is amazing. But the holes in it, the cliched way they slavishly stick to the Space Opera format, leaves much to be desired.

ME1 gave us Saren, a clearly defined bad dude, without any real explanation for his actions. He is a cipher. We get a single, short cut-scene (of some nice tits, mostly) without context, then some random bits on Virmire, and a rant on the Citadel.

From this, this hero who has let himself be dominated , sacrificed his honor, turned his back on his species, and shot a close friend – from this we’re supposed to believe a random person from a race he despises is going to undo heavy indoctrination with a few pithy lines?

No, no, and no. Saren isn’t the Master of Fallout, and Shepard isn’t the Vault Dweller. But even a cockeyed as that gets, as least there are clear villains – Saren, and Sovereign.

ME2 gives us a concept as a villain – trust Cerberus or no, fight the Mysterious Bug People who are snatching colonies in the middle of nowhere and be a Frankenstein monster. But it never really clarifies why these things happen, or why everyone has daddy issues all of a sudden.

And ME3 sets up a major confrontation that turns into a giant colored dialogue wheel. It’s not that the story is bad, or the endings are bad, it’s that it makes no sense.

I also wanted to present an image of the “other Shepards”, warped ones. By the end of that first chapter, I knew something was seriously wrong with my SA, and possibly my entire universe.

A lot of the changes and alterations (or mutations) made along the way have altered the specifics, but there are still three main points my fic should hit:

  • It explores the nature of heroism. Is it dying bravely, or living past the pain? Is it in what others call heroism, or dying as yourself?
  • It explores the nature of corruption, of a darker, more evil universe where ‘right choices’ don’t exist.
  • It explores the nature of alternative realities, and what happens post-singularity when technology starts acting like magic.