Category Archives: Mass Effect

Write what you would want to read, Part 2: Stylistic influences

A few weeks back I wrote about my goals in how to structure the ideas for Sword & Sorcery stories that have been flowing through my head for some time. And yes, I could be writing on those stories instead of writing this. But this also is work. Spelling out my thoughts always helps me getting them into order and once I have free floating ideas put into some form of pattern it becomes a lot easier to build upon them. Expanding ideas is always much easier than creating something great out of a vacuum. It’s like starting a puzzle by first sorting out the pieces that go on the edge, put them together to create a frame and then building inwards from there. Trying to find two matching pieces out of 500 is almost impossible and takes forever. (A puzzle under 300 pieces is not worth the effort.)

So here you have my incomplete list of works that captured my imagination and influenced what I would like my own works to be like. In some cases I’ve literally been thinking “I wish there was a fantasy book like this.” Since I seem to be most easily impressed by visuals, most of these are actually movies and videogames. You might also notice that there’s actually more science-fiction than fantasy on the list. But there won’t be any post-Iron Age technology in the Ancient Lands. When it comes to pulp and adventure fiction, their essence is really about personal experience and emotion, which generally can be explored just as well in fantasy as in science-fiction, or even historic settings (see Indiana Jones), and it seems that in the past decades the majority of creators seem to have chosen to go with an outer coating of sci-fi instead of fantasy. After all, in the early days of planetary romance they regularly did both at once. My plan for the Ancient Lands is to continue in this century old tradition of writers and once again going with a fantasy guise again.

  • Knights of the Old Republic: The comic, not the videogame. This part of the Expanded Universe could be seen as a spin-off of the regular Star Wars universe, being set 4,000 years before te movies. You got the Jedi and the Sith, but they are different from those of the later ages, being much more numerous and acting much more out in the open. Which leads to this era feeling even more like traditional fantasy than Star Wars already does. And I actually like them a lot more. It started with the Tales of the Jedi comics in the early 90s, which were created simultaneously to the Jedi Academy novels and served as a kind of backstory but were also standing on their own feet. Later BioWare used those comic as basis for their videogame set some 100 years or so later. And then we got a comic series that takes place just before the game and visiting many of the same planets and having some appearances from the characters of the game, but mostly they are their own story. And while I am not usually fan of American comics, it’s actually my favorite Star Wars work. (After The Empire Strikes Back, of course.) I want to reread it and write a very extensive review for it as wrll. The main hero Zayne Carrick is not so great, being posibly literally the worst Jedi ever. While he’s a complete failure as a Jedi he still manages to become quite heroic in his own way, which is something I consider very much worse exploring in Sword & Sorcery. But to me the real star of the series is Jarael, who is only one character of Zayne’s weird gang of anti-heroes but also got her own storyline that runs parallel to his. And absolutely kicks ass. It’s a bit like Avatar, where the story of Aang was quite entertaining and often interesting, but I really always came back to see the story of Zuko. What I like so much about this era is that it takes the fantasy elements of Star Wars and gives them even greater emphasis, and also makes the universe feel more ancient and mystical. The absolute core concept of the Ancient Lands is “KotOR without the space ships”.
  • Mass Effect: If there is one thing I love almost as much as Star Wars, it’s Mass Effect. The first game blew my mind just by seeing the main menu, but the second one is what I consider the greatest videogame of all time. Mass Effect was created by BioWare after Knights of the Old Republic and being clearly a successor of it, but being set in their own new universe meant that they no longer needed to be confined by the Star Wars license. There are various reasons why Mass Effect had such a huge impact on me. The first one being that it made me understand how much better any story becomes when it is about something meaningful and that this can also apply to whole universes. Mass Effect almost never gets preachy and has no sermons, but everything you run into deals with ending conflict and reaching reconciliation by admiting that you have been wrong in your actions or convictions. Blame and guilt become insignificant compared to forgiveness and only rarely can anyone claim the moral high ground. And because of it the conflicts all become so much more compelling and meaningful. There is real conflict and real doubt, not the artifical lack of ambiguity created by black and white stories where no thinking is required. This also hits very deeply to my existentialist contemplations and believes. These are the kinds of story that are really worth telling. This is the stuff that means something. The other thing about the series is that I like the way the visual style creates atmosphere. There’s something very late 70s movie about them. The way the places in the games feel, particularly the second, is what I want to capture and recreate. There is something ethereal about it which I find just fascinating.
  • Morrowind: I’ve talked about this game a lot in recent months. The world of The Elder Scrolls is not particularly interesting to me in general, but the specific region of Morrowind is amazing. It’s both exotic in its landscapes and wildlife, but it is also a mythic lands, full of philosophers, secret societies, and living gods who live alongside mortals.
  • The Witcher: I love both the books and the games. I often see comments about Sword & Sorcery that claim that it is an outdated genre from the 60s that failed to keep up as culture had been changing and being stuck in a past that has very little to offer to modern audiences. There certainly is a sense that all the good stuff has been by Howard and Leiber and that nothing really got close to them since. But The Witcher seems to me like a series that is very much a new attempt at Sword & Sorcery for the new post-cold war world. I think there was actually a massive shift taking place in entertainment in the early 90s, with one of the most striking examples being the difference between Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. (Also a good topic for a future article.) The stories of Geralt of Rivia have a very strong deconstructive element to them. Fantasy in general, but really Sword & Sorcery in particular, is mercilessly disassembled, all the pieces critically examined, and all the hypocrisies and inconsistencies exposed. But they are not just a hateful critique or even a satire, but instead continue and attempt to straighten out the faults and emphasize the qualities. Or to put it more bluntly, Sapkowskis characters travel trough fantasyland and continuously call each other out on their respective bullshit. But they also have genuine respect and appreciation for their redeeming qualities. Sapkowski takes all the different characters of fantasyland down from their high horses and cuts them down to size, and they all come out of it stronger and you can appreciate what they have to offer for storytelling in the 21st century. Sword & Sorcery is not obsolete, but it could really use some fixing up. And I think reading the books can really help to recognize in which areas Howard and Leiber could be expanded on. They are a solid foundation, but not the end of all there can be to Sword & Sorcery. The writers of the videogames also manged to capture this aspect of the stories very well.
  • Thief: I actually finished this 17 year old game for the first time only earlier this year and somehow I still have not been able to finish the review draft I’ve started for it. The main character may look like a cliche now, being a sneering and sarcastic loner with a dark hood and a master thief as professional as he is unrepentant, but I think Garrett might actually have started this whole trend. Thief is the most straight example of Noir fantasy you’ll ever come across. It’s always dark and rainy in a claustrophobic city of narrow alleys and high roofs and it feels like The Maltese Falcon set in a steampunk version of the middle ages. The first game of the three also is a pretty straight Sword & Sorcery experience, which the second game largely abandoned and went more steampunk James Bond. Though it makes sense as each game focuses on one of the three factions of The City and the first one is all about the Pagans who worship Chaos and nature, while the second is about the Mechanist who are all about Order and technology. I hope to get a propper review done soon, but I really love the first game. It has relatively little action in the conventional sense, but Garrett’s sneaking around in extremely dangerous and heavily guarded places is just as daring and outrageous, even if there are no buckets of blood or piles of corpses. It’s a very gloomy and well thought out story which in many sections dips very strongly into horror as well. What I want to take away from it the most is how ot creates tension, danger, urgency, and dread without relying on combat.
  • Riddick: Thinking of the Riddick movies as very well made B-movies would not be inacurate. And if someone calls them cheesy, cliched, and failing at trying to be artistic, I could see where this impresion would come from. While they are science fiction on the surface, they have the undiluted essence of Sword & Sorcery running through their bodies. It’s hardboiled Planetary Romance. Genres that have always had a reputation for being a bit trashy, but every Sword & Sorcery fans that under the simple and rough presentation there is a depth of meaning and emotion in them that many great artist would envy, if you just know what to look for. The third movie is of similar quality as Conan to me. They are small productions but true art. Like Italian exploitation movies from the 60s were “art”. Of a type that probably is so foreign to most people that it might be impossile to see. What I like about the movies is the sense of desolation and a huge universe that seems almost empty. Civilization being tiny while the wilderness is empty is an idea I find very fascinating but rarely seems to get explored in fantasy. And of course, there’s Riddick himself. He is super cool to the point of beinf ridiculous, but the movies treat it with full seriousness and that makes it work. And as his story progresses (though there is barely any real plot in the conventional sense) you get a character that is both a real monster but also not despicable. He’s a beast, but a magnificent one.
  • Mushishi: This was originally written as a series of short novels, if I recall correctly, but also made into an absolutely amazing anime series a while back. Mushishi is about Ginko, a man who wanders Japan and can be thought of as a kind of ghost hunter or exorcist. But the creatures he is dealing with are not great dragons or demons, but just mushi. The tiniest and most primitive of spirits that are more similar to bacteria than to people or animals. They are a fundamental part of nature, but invisible to most people, except for the mushishi. The series is very slow, has few words, and very little happening, and is very melancholic in mood. While mushi are a part of all nature, it sometimes can happen that their presence has unusual effects on people who get too close to them. And since they are invisible there’s usually no way to tell where they are and what they are doing, unless you know exactly what to look for. When strange events are happening or people seem to become cursed for no apparent reason, the mushishi are the only ones who can help. The special charm of the series is that Ginko can identify the source of the problem and show the people how they can avoid any further harm from the mushi. But he does not destroy them and he also has no ability at all to reverse the damage that has already been done. Sometimes people die from the mushi, often they are severely cripled or maimed. This is no kind of curse that can be lifted and Ginko has no magic to remove the effects. All he can do is to help the people to live with the changes and to ease the pain, and sometimes his help comes too late. In many ways, Mushishi is the total opposite of Sword & Sorcery. There is no fighting or any action scenes. It’s not fast paced and loud but extremely slow and quiet. But what I really love about it is how it deals with the aftermath of encounters with the supernatural. One way in which I think classic pulp tales are falling short is that they generally don’t bother with any consequences. You get a big fight scene and it’s done. I’m actually not much of a fan of action scenes and violence, it always is much more interesting to me how people are dealing with it. And sometimes you don’t win and everything is alright again. Mushishi is all about that.
  • Wuxia: If you’re not familiar with it, it may come as a surprise that the Chinese really love fantasy. Specifically the genre of wuxia, which really is pretty much exactly the same as Sword & Sorcery set in a Chinese inspired world. And they’ve been making a lot of often pretty good movies based on novels for quite some time. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is probably the most famous one in Europe and America (though not considered particularly remarkable in China), but there’s also Hero, and House of Flying Daggers and I also very much enjoyed Reign of Assassins and the most recent adaptation of A Chinese Horror Story. For one thing, I really quite like the setting. Most of it is based on medieval China and probably just as accurate as western fantasy is dealing with medieval Europe. There’s swordfights, witches, and monster. Evil spirits are different than Greek monsters or classic demons, and the magic system is based around chi, similar to the Force in Star Wars, which is all very appealing to me. But there’s also one big difference to western Sword & Sorcery and that is the big place that is made for romance. Romance in western fantasy usually is terrible. But most wuxia movies I’ve seen somehow make it work. Queen of the Black Coast might be somewhat similar. Or pehaps the messed up relationship between Geralt and Yennefer in The Witcher.
  • Ghost in the Shell: A great comic and the movie based on it is probably my favorite movie after The Empire Strikes Back. Ghost in the Shell is probably the defining work of the post-cyberpunk genre, (which is primarily defined by removing the punk from cyberpunk) and particularly the movie adaptations are extremely existentialistic. All the main characters are cyborgs and the main hero has so many enhancements that she has essentially turned into something superhuman, more machine than mortal. While it is as hard as hard sci-fi can possibly get, it often turns quite deeply spiritual. When the brain can be directly plugged into computers and machines, it really feels a lot like magic. It’s a world vastly greater than the human mind with possibilities that can not even be imagined. And of course, there’s also various forms of mind control and manipulation of memory and thoughts. Ghost in the Shell has a really important impact on me to how I am thinking of incorporating magic and the Spiritworld into fantasy stories.
  • STALKER and Metro: Stalker is a videogame inspired by a Russian novel and a movie, while Metro is a series of Russian novels which also got two videogames closely based on them. They are all post-apocalyptic science-fiction and can there really be any kind of sci-fi more closely related to that? I am pretty sure that the games and Metro novels are very strongly based on the experience of growing up in post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine. Things were not great under the Soviets, but in many respects things totally went to shit after that. Turning to post-apocalyptic fiction as a means of expression seems completely natural in that situation. They are not dreams about creating some new utopian societies inspired by the Old West, but instead you have some people who just somehow survive and linger in the ruins because they really have no idea what else to do. It’s not a rebirth of civilization. It’s just some remnants fading away. What inspires me about them is the strong presence of ruins. Wherever you look it’s urban and industrial decay. The Ancient Lands are a world where villages and towns disappear just as fast a new ones are build, with societies remaining at low numbers and ruins being found anywhere. And sometimes there’s still stuff left that can still be useful to the people of a later generation. I want to make exploration and treasure hunting a big theme, as that’s what lots of Sword & Sorcery bheroes do, but instead of robbing tombs I want to go with the leftovers of failed settlements. Both Stalker and Metro are giving me lots of ideas for both ruins and treasure hunters.

Setting up conflicts in worldbuilding

While I am revising my Ancient Lands setting, I’ve set down to once more give some deep thoughts to the underlying conflicts of the world. I make no secret about my oppinion that the Mass Effect series has the best worldbuilding I’ve ever seen anywhere. Not because there is a lot of lore on the locations and a long detailed history. In fact, there is barely anything in that regard, at least if you don’t read up on it in the ingame codex. Perhaps there is some, but I didn’t read any of it and I still think the worldbuilding is superb. The Mass Effect galaxy is incredible because it has lots of factions that are tightly interconnected with each other, forming a complex web of conflicts and alliances in which absolutely everyone is included in some way. And these groups are friends or enemies with each other not simply because the writers say so, but because they share a common past which can be sufficiently explained in three or four sentences but gives them good reason to feel what they feel, and in a way that perhaps doesn’t make you approve of, but at least understand their views. The same company that made the Mass Effect games also made the Dragon Age series at the same time, and while I am not as much a fan of that setting, it also excels at having lots of conflicts that affect everyone in some way and in which each side has some good points.

This made me realize that conflicts are really what makes a fictional setting tick. Cultures, landscapes, religion, and magic are all nice, but to get your audience invested in what is going on in the world and its people, underlying conflicts probably define the world more than anything else. This applies both to settings for roleplaying games, in which you usually want to give the players the option to chose the side their characters are taking, and to episodic fiction in which different parts and aspects of the world are explored in each story arc. So I’ve been looking at all the other fantasy and sci-fi worlds I think have great worldbuilding with interesting conflicts and dynamics between factions. From Star Wars to the Witcher, and from Halo to Forgotten Realms. And I made an important discovery when it comes to creating conflicts: Even if you have a conflict in which both sides have a point and you could easily get into the mind of a character of either group, the conflicts still always started because someone was a giant dick!

Back to Mass Effect, lots of nice sidestories with difficult moral descisions involve the alien Krogans and the human Cerberus group. In many cases you can sympathize with them, perhaps even support them, and actually very much like individual characters of these groups, even though many people consider them evil and villains. But the thing is that in the past their leaders made some descisions and ordered some actions that were really total dick moves. No questions about that; those things were wrong and they got what they deserved. But those past wrongs were not commited by the specific people you’re dealing with right now. These people can be really nice guys and they might not have done anything wrong. But for some reason or another, they are now part of this group that has a long and violent conflict with some other groups. The source of the conflict lies in the past, but it established some facts that still matter a lot right now. And I think that’s really the key when setting up some underlying conflicts for a setting rich with ambigous characters and descisions. Creating a conflict in which neither side is truly bad is really difficult, if not outright impossible. But that does not have to prevent the existence of conflicts in which neither side is truly bad now. If you want to set up a conflict that lasts for generations and affects whole peoples, make the conflict start with one terrible person making a really unfair descision. Doesn’t really matter if it’s too much black and white, because that person likely is long dead or may not appear in the story at all. What does matter is the people who are on opposing sides right now, and being sufficiently removed from the original source of the conflict, they can easily be as ambigous as you want. In Halo 2, some of the alien enemies quit the Covenant and start a civil war against their former masters, which put them on the same side as the humans. But that doesn’t change the fact that they had been the officers in charge of the Covenant army that had been leading a war of annihilation against humanity for the last 30 years. They hardly could be called friends by any stretch, but from that part in the story they have to work together and fight their common enemy, whether they like it or not. There still is great hostility between them and from a worldbuilding perspective you can still regard them as two opposing sides in conflict with each other. You can sympathize with characters on both sides, but also have no trouble at all understanding accepting that they won’t be nice to each other and getting into fights.

So this is my appeal and my advice: Conflicts neither have to be black and white, nor fairly balanced. You can have very good underlying conflicts built into a setting, which started out with one side being the villain, but by now has developed into a state of regular agression from both sides.

Why Mass Effect is my favorite fantasy game

Most people are under the impression that Science-Fiction and Fantasy are very easy to tell apart. One has space ships and lasers and the other has swords and magic. But when you look a bit deeper, neither genre is actually described acurately that well. There is plenty of sci-fi, like for example Ghost in the Shell or The Matrix, which have neither starships nor lasers; just as there is fantasy with barely any swords, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or with very little magic, like A Song of Ice and Fire. And then you have something like Star Wars

The difference between sci-fi and fantasy is instead one of themes and narratives. Sci-fi is a genre that deals with technological progress and how it might affect our life in the future. Fantasy on the other hand deals with worlds that always have been fundamentally different and usually explore how our past could have turned out differently if some basics facts of life had been different; most commonly the addition of magic and monsters. And if we go with this definition for sci-fi and fantasy for now, it’s easy to see why Star Wars quite firmly falls into fantasy and isn’t really sci-fi at all. In this universe, the technologies of space ships and lasers have been around for thousands of years and different species from different planets living side by side just as long. There is neither technological progress nor social change, everything stays as it always has been. The story itself is the classic fantasy plot of the Hero’s Journey, about fighting a dark lord and his evil legions with magic and courage. Technology is not used as new tools to deal with old problems.

Now the Mass Effect series would seem quite different on first glance. It’s not set long ago in a galaxy far, far away, but is about humans from Earth just a little more than a century in the future, who just discovered advanced technology and met other intelligent species for the first time within living memory. And the writers went to great length of effort to include the most recent discoveries of physics and technology as part of the explanation how stuff in this world works. That all looks a lot lik science-fiction. But once you start looking a bit deeper and look at the themes and plot elements, it really turns to be a pure fantasy story at heart for which the technological elements are really almost entirely decorative. Very much like Star Wars, which isn’t a coincidence. A few years before developing the first Mass Effect games, the developer BioWare had made a huge commercial and critical success with the Dungeons & Dragons based series Baldur’s Gate and continues their amazing rise to probably the most important roleplaying game developers in the West with the Star Wars game Knights of the Old Republic. However, at that point they stepped away from doing licensed games and created their own series with their own setting. Dragon Age as a successor to Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect for KotOR. Particularly the first game resembled KotOR greatly in style, presentation, gameplay, and controls. But, as I know want to show, it also is really a fantasy story at heart as well. Obviously total spoilers for all three Mass Effect games below:

  • The games have six character classes. Three pure and three hybrid. The Soldier, Engineer, and Adept are really the same thing as Warrior, Rogue, and Mage.
  • The main villains are the Reapers, who are immortal beings from outside the galaxy of incredible power whose sole purpose is to kill all living people in the galaxy. A classic demon invasion plot.
  • Their main soldiers are the husks, which are made from the bodies of their victims, and are basically zombies.
  • The plot of the first game revolves around a powerful madman with strong magic powers collecting ancient artifacts, which he then uses in an attempt to open a portal to the distant realm of the reapers and allow them to invade invade the galaxy. An evil sorcerer opening a gate to hell to summon an army of demons is an old fantasy classic.
  • On the search for the artifacts, you encounter an ancient immortal creature that has been living in the deepest chambers below the ruins for tens of thousands of years and is telepatically controlling the villagers of a nearby settlement and sends them to stop you.
  • Later, in a different ruin on a different planet, you encounter an old artifical intelligence, which is basically the guardian spirit of the place, which tells you how to use the artifacts to stop the evil sorcerer from summoning the demonic army.
  • Right at the start of the second game, the hero is killed, but two years later brought back to life with magic! I mean with SCIENCE!!!
  • At the end of the game, the hero and the team of companions have to travel through an ancient and mysterious portal to find the lair of their enemy. To do that, theh first have to find a special key that allows them passage through the portal without being destroyed like the hundreds who tried to pass through it before them.
  • They find that special key in the very heart of the gargantuan corpse of one of the ancient demons. Where of course it’s spirit is still present and turned the earlier explorers into zombies.
  • When they finally make it through the portal to the villains lair, it all looks as if they have travelled right into hell. And inside the lair they find a gargantuan monster that is being build from the bodies of thousands of humans.
  • In the third game, all the Free People have unite to find an ancient artifact that may be the only way to stop the demons. And of course to do so the hero has to assault the main base of the demons and confront the god that controls it all.
  • At one point, you need to get the Krogans on your side, butt they agree to help only under the condition that you cure a terrible disease that has been spread over their world as punishment for their endless invasions and conquests of other planets. Basically, they want you to life an ancient curse laid on their ancestors.
  • To do so, you have to access a science station on their planet where one of your allies will produce a cure and use the station to spread it over the entire planet. Said cure can only be made from the blood of a single Krogan woman, who also happens to coincidentally be one of the very few high priestesses of the ancient religion.
  • However, you can’t reach the station, as it is build behind an old abandoned temple, which is currently inhabited by one of the immortal demons. So what you do is to start the ancient machines that the Krogans used to summon the great titanic creature they revered as a destroyer and mother of the most terrible monsters on the planet. You really perform an ancient ritual to summon one of the old pagan gods, who arrives to destroy the demon!
  • On another planet, you discover that the most advanced species with the best technology and magic powers have actually been altered by an even more powerful but now extinct race of creatures. They also have another one of the artifical intelligences hidden inside their great cathedral, who is like a messenger from their old gods, who has been teching them all the secrets of their technology.
  • In addition to the demon army that wants to destroy the world and take everyone back to their realm, there is also another antagonist who believes he has the power to make the demons his slaves and through them become the ruler of the galaxy.

It may be a sci-fi setting, but the main story and many of the side stories really are fantasy stories through and through.