The Writing Secrets Hidden Within Mass Effect

One of my favourite science fiction stories of all time is not a book or a movie or a TV show. It’s a video game trilogy by the name of Mass Effect. This is a series that’s incredibly fun to play not just because of the game mechanics, but because the characters feel like real people and the universe feels rich and dynamic. As a writer, playing (and replaying) this game holds even more appeal: as I navigated the Normandy amongst the stars, I was unlocking valuable lessons about fiction writing.

Readers Will Surprise You

Garrus Vakarian is one of only two characters throughout the trilogy that isn’t just on the Normandy with you but a squadmate you can bring out on missions. If you choose to have him as a friend, he’ll become your best friend. If you choose to romance him, you’ll be treated to some of the dorkiest, sweetest interactions in the series. His character arc throughout the series is fascinating, especially if you encourage him to reform his vigilante ways, and the conversations you can have with him about the global conflict within the Mass Effect universe are thought provoking.

He also happens to be a turian, a humanoid alien with avian features.

Because he looked so different from your average heartthrob, the game developers didn’t bother making him romanceable in the first game. This changed in Mass Effect 2 and 3, after they realized that Garrus was a fan favourite. Many players (myself included) find it difficult to romance anyone but Garrus, even on a repeat playthrough.

Lesson Learned: No matter how you think your characters will come across, there will always be a reader (or a legion of readers) who think differently. Do your best to write your characters as consistently and genuinely as possible, and your readers will take it from there.

Give Readers Something or Someone to Root For

The overarching plot of the Mass Effect trilogy is a universe-wide crisis that could result in the destruction of all life. Turning back this galaxy-crushing tide is definitely something to root for.

Shepard is also a compelling hero you can’t resist cheering on (though their actions can prompt a discussion about when and how the ends justify the means, especially as Shepard operates outside the law and has very little accountability as a result of being part of the Spectres).

That’s not all there is to it, though. The sense of impending doom gets its hooks into you because you meet people like Charr, a krogan (one of the most trigger-happy, warmongering races) reciting sappy poems to woo his love interest. You can discourage this - boo! - or nudge her in his direction - yay!

Then there’s Erinya, an asari widow who blames aliens for the death of her entire family: her partner was on a different world studying quarian music, and her daughters were both working for aliens on the Citadel, a massive space station that suffered a devastating attack. Erinya slowly comes around when she remembers her departed family’s love for other cultures, and her partner’s belief that quarians possess old souls, something that comes across in their art and music.

It’s largely because of these people, their lives and stories and hopes, that you feel compelled to see things through, to save the day, not just so you can say you beat the game but so these people have a chance to realize their dreams.

Lesson Learned: Writing about a universally understood theme is only half the battle. Don’t just write another war story or post-apocalypse story or meeting a perfect match story. Find the little moments and nuances that make it matter.

Avoid Easy, Cut-and-Dried Scenarios

The Mass Effect series has no shortage of examples for this, but let’s highlight one in particular. In Mass Effect 2, you run into a friend from the first game, someone who, until recently, thought you were dead. This run-in not only confirms the rumours that you’re alive (and didn’t tell them) but that you’re working for Cerberus, a group that seems like little more than a terrorist organization in the first game.

The approach you take to this conversation, and to Cerberus throughout the game, is intriguing, to say the least. There are no easy answers. Even though Shepard’s reasons are understandable (it’s a “for the greater good” kind of thing), they’re still questionable, and sometimes that’s a good thing. There are a lot of people working for Cerberus who are themselves well-intentioned, which blurs the lines even more. I much prefer this to an across the board “they’re actually the misunderstood good guys!” approach.

Lesson Learned: If everything a character or organization ever says or does is 100 percent defensible, with no room for debate, they’re not going to seem real. Some scenarios have no easy answers, and memorable scenes result from your finding a way to write about them regardless.

Don’t Write Skippable Fluff

There’s a difference between scenes and dialogue exchanges and moments that make the story world feel real or endear the characters to you, and ones that are all fluff and absolutely no substance. If every single one of your beta readers is telling you that they took a nap during a particular section, you need to think long and hard about whether it’s worth keeping. The aim is to write a story where readers, generally speaking, don’t want to “skip to the good bits,” at least not the first time they read your book.

When playing Mass Effect, you have the option to skip through cutscenes and most conversations if you want to. Even when I’m replaying the trilogy, however, I will still let the vast majority of the game play out rather than just speedreading the subtitles because the conversations and characterization and world are so nuanced and interesting. I can’t resist experiencing it all again, even if I’m making all the same choices in the dialogue wheel, because it’s that good (and because I inevitably pick up on something I missed the first time around).

Lesson Learned: Whether you’re writing description, dialogue, or narration, focus on what subconsciously and consciously matters to your characters. Does a scene feel too woolly? Read it line by line and ask yourself, “Why does this matter?”

Poor Endings Poison the Whole Experience

Talk to anyone who’s played the Mass Effect trilogy and you’ll find someone with a strong opinion about the ending. It was originally so unsatisfying that, for many players, it overshadowed what had up to that point been an incredible experience. People felt cheated after having invested so much time and emotion into the trilogy. Bioware released a patch after the game’s release that added some content and made the ending somewhat more palatable--I, for one, was appeased by it--but it wasn’t enough for some.

Conversely, the endings to various subplot missions throughout the trilogy were handled so well that I’m still thinking about them. They weren’t cut off and never mentioned again once they’d finished. For example, after doing Tali’s loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2, you’re prompted to go back to your ship. However, if you ignore that prompt and stick around, you can strike up conversations and get a sense of how your choices throughout the mission have impacted different characters. Some of these conversations influence the third game, as well. This ripple effect is what makes a story feel grounded, relatable, and memorable (in a good way, this time)!

Lesson Learned: A poor ending will linger in a reader’s memory and overshadow even the best of experiences. It’s not enough to say your heroes won; you need to show they won.

I’m not the only one who thinks Mass Effect has some amazing writing lessons to teach us! Let’s have a look at what E.M. Welsh, a fellow writer and Mass Effect aficionado, has to say …

Side Characters Are as Crucial as Main Characters

"Mass Effect, like nearly all Bioware games, has taught me first and foremost how to craft unique and authentic characters. Despite having a party of up to twelve people in Mass Effect 2, I can still to this day envision each character and how they stood out. That’s something that is incredibly hard to do in something like a movie or book, so I was really fortunate in that I was able to learn about how to explore character’s backstories via video games.

"The fact that as a player, you get to have in-depth conversations with Garrus and Liara, Miranda, and Jack, Thane, and Legion, and learn their backstories not only through conversation but through a direct engagement with their own side stories, made me realize just how exciting side characters and their own personal backstories could be.

"I used to think that people only cared about the main character’s backstory in movies or books, but Mass Effect quickly made me understand that if the character is complex, with a worldview different from your main character’s, they can supplement the story and the world in a way that no protagonist can.

"This, in turn, led me to understand another facet of writing that I believe Mass Effect explores so well – possibility with said side characters. Take, for instance, when you wander through the Citadel, the main hub in the game. Depending on who you bring to the Citadel in your party, you’ll get different reactions and different comments from people in the city. Additionally, certain people in the party will have conversations – or maybe arguments – as you walk around, and this really led me to think about how different characters interact with one another and how the world receives them, not just your main character.

"Of course, I could go on and on about the world building and the lore that Mass Effect introduces, intriguing you from the get go and providing just enough information to keep you satisfied, yet still inquisitive. But if there was one stand out feature Mass Effect has taught me about, it was how to write fascinating and unique side characters who stand out as strongly as your protagonist."

While video games have often been disparaged in the past in terms of their storytelling quality, games like the Mass Effect series (and its fantasy counterpart, Dragon Age) go a long way to showing how wonderful their stories can be, complete with ideas and inspiration for writers of all mediums, including novels.

So, creative soul, what are you waiting for? Go forth and write (and play) to your heart's content!