(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.
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.