Mass Effect 3: Fanning the Fiction
Fan fiction has long had a rather turgid reputation. For many people, the first images that spring to mind when...
Fan fiction has long had a rather turgid reputation. For many people, the first images that spring to mind when hearing the word ‘fanfic’ are probably sappy fantasies of Mulder and Scully moving to Miami and having babies; weird psycho-sexual encounters between Harry Potter characters; or stilted, universe-collapsing crossovers titled BattlestarWarsTrekGate* – but in truth the history of fan-made art is a far more complex and fruitful than one might at first presume. Indeed sometimes, as is arguably the case in the extraordinary Marauder Shield’s series – an alternate fiction designed to retroactively contextualise the controversial ending of Mass Effect, it can be seen as a way of rescuing the original franchise from itself.
Fan fictions have long been a way for those most enamoured with a text to try to engage directly with the work, to project their own identity into the material through the most overt possible act of homage – carving out their own imaginative space within a universe they admire. But there are many other reasons for undertaking this form of intellectual reappropriation – not all of them merely an attempt to exist within a beloved imaginative landscape – and there are many surprising works of fiction that can emerge from the pursuit.
One can see this diversity of intent by just looking at a few of the most immediate examples that spring to mind. Aspiring screenwriters looking for work have long been encouraged to develop speculative scripts for established programs that they can then go on to use as evidence for their skill when applying for work – an act that is technically a form of fanfic. Indeed, Donald Glover of Community fame has an unproduced Simpsons episode going idle that I am going to arrogantly speculate would be funnier than anything the show itself has delivered in the past ten years.** Secondly, the current publishing sensation E.L. James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey,reportedly began writing her novel as a form of Twilight fan fiction (although I cannot begin to express the wellspring of loathing I have for both franchises…) Indeed, even the book Wicked by Gregory Maguire, a subversive take on The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch, or Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean, an officially endorsed continuation of J.M. Barrie’s tale, are both technically forms of fan fiction.***
And then there are those works of unsanctioned fan fiction that can be seen to transcend the term, that capture (or even eclipse) the original work so effortlessly that they become, for many fans, the abiding canonical experience. For some fans (full disclosure: myself included), one of the only good things to have emerged from the whole debacle surrounding the conclusion to Mass Effect 3 earlier this year has been the emergence of an ‘alternate ending’, created by a fan named Koobismo, called Marauder Shields.****
For those unaware, the character of ‘Marauder Shields’ was a meme that surfaced as the disappointment over the Mass Effect ending was at its earliest and hottest stage – indeed, I had already heard of ‘Marauder Shields’ by internet osmosis well before I had any idea what to expect by the actual details of the ending.
To briefly summarise: at the original conclusion of Mass Effect 3, the designers of the game had chosen to conclude their narrative in a dialogue scene with a character called the ‘Catalyst’ – the mouthpiece of the genocidal enemy the central character, Shepard, had been trying to stop all along. This Catalyst forces Shepard (and by extension the player) to chose one of three vulgar options with which they must end their journey: they must either commit an act of genocide; genetically mutate every living being against their will; or brainwash the enemy in order to themself become the new totalitarian overlord of the galaxy. It was an alarmingly nihilistic ending, in which a war crime was the price of victory – and to many fans seemed in stark opposition to the inclusive, hopeful message that the series had until that very point, championed.
On March 14th (only a week after the game was released), a player on a message board 4chan noted that because this Catalyst conversation effectively overtook the end of the game in an elaborate depressing cut-scene, this therefore meant that the ‘final boss’ the player encountered was a lowly Marauder (a stock-standard enemy type that recurs constantly throughout the game; his last name, ‘Shields’, came from the graphic above his head that showed, literally, his shields). In fact, it was soon posited, this Marauder had tried to ‘kill’ the player to save them from seeing that awful ending. He was, in the greater scheme of things, a misunderstood hero, and if only the player had listened to him and just died, they would have been spared a greater pain…
Koobismo, creator and still guiding hand of the Marauder Shields comic, took this notion of the ‘final boss’ and used the character to make a satirical screw you to the end of the game, actually showing Marauder Shields to be a more complex, introspective and soulful figure, intent on righting the wrongs of a narrative conceit gone haywire. It was highly comedic, but in truth had nowhere to go once the mighty Marauder blew the Catalyst away, spitting out his resignation like a synthetic Dirty Harry.
Since those first few snarky strips, however, the work has grown and evolved into a full-fleshed and compelling narrative, a genuine and passionate alternate world in which the fiction of Mass Effect continues on, not derailed by the artless deus ex machina and arbitrary moral surrender of the original. In contrast, the work has rather become emboldened by the act of declaring a loud narrative and thematic ‘No’ to such nihilistic compromise.
The battle in which the characters and player were engaged at the end of Mass Effect 3 still rages on, and ironically, while the player avatar Shepard still functions as the nucleus around which the depicted characters spin, he/she is not directly visualised in the comic – only referred to as another hostage of the drama playing out for his/her sake. Some characters, who in the original text abandoned their commander, remain fighting by his/her side; others who were offered arbitrary deaths in the final moments of the game, live on to fight tenaciously; perhaps even more extraordinarily, major plot points (like: Why are the Reaper’s even focused on London?, What were the other strike teams doing?, What was the Illusive Man up to anyway?) are offered answers that were ignored, glossed over, or never intended to be justified, in the original.
But above all of this continuation of the story, what Koobismo’s rich, self-aware alternate universe truly offers is the rescue and resurrection of the primary theme that Mass Effect had, until its ending, always abided by, and which it unceremoniously sacrificed (both figuratively and literally) in its endgame. As Koobismo so perfectly articulates in a written response to the additional paid ‘Leviathan’ DLC: Marauder Shields was an attempt to recapture what had been lost in that ending, what had repugnantly twisted a universe that was so beloved into a shade of its former beauty…
Because, of course…
Of course it had to be…
That emotion that has driven every narrative that has ever meant anything to we precocious little creatures of flesh; that sensation that has ever given breath to our silly, but surprisingly resilient beliefs. That fire that has burned within us since we first stared out into the immensity of an existence that seemed to vast to comprehend all at once – a universe that we have ever since tried to compartmentalise with myth and legend and fiction…
Obviously it was always going to be hope.
As Koobismo states in that statement of poetics:
One could argue that the solutions presented by the [Catalyst] grant you some kind of hope… And one would be wrong. The very philosophical themes of the ending indicate that nothing matters, neither in the past (all choices become invalidated), nor the future (everything can be invalidated once again, by another godlike creature with an even stupider plan – these are the new rules of the narrative). Your hopes, presented to you over the course of the narrative, were false – this is why it stings so much to return to the previous games, this is why replayability gets murdered by this finale. Let me emphasize this… The crucial emotion of Mass Effect was HOPE. Believing in a positive outcome fueled by your efforts and sacrifices, which is invalidated retroactively. You can hide away the “it’s about the journey” asspull – how can you take the same journey again, how can you hope again, if you know that it’s just a lie?****
And for many players (although it is fair to say not all), Koobismo is perfectly, heartbreakingly right. The seismic shock of that final repugnant end, being forced to rob the universe of the very freedoms that allowed it to yearn and dream, to fight to live not merely survive, ultimately devastated any capacity to return to that narrative, to engage again with the fraud that lies at its core.
For many, there is, at present, no more hope in the original text of Mass Effect 3 – only a love note to moral relativity. For now, the only place that one can find that sensation again is in the realm of what began as fan-fiction, in Koobismo’s spectacular work Marauder Shields. For it is here that the characters have not yet given up the fight; here that the audience and author have not abandoned the luminescent hope that always made this narrative grand. Indeed, it is a belief so immense that it has now carved out a whole new universe, free from the contamination of the old, and the thematic betrayal that undermined the entirety of the journey.
Indeed, it explains why (and I am not ashamed to admit this), after the Extended Cut of Mass Effect 3 was released, I choked up to see the banner rallying-cry with which Koobismo had signed that week’s release:
FUELLED BY NOTHING BUT FAN LOVE
MASS EFFECT LIVES ON
Damned right it does.
And for that, I cannot personally thank Marauder Shields enough.
In the past few weeks, a mod for the ending of the game Mass Effect 3 has been released by an ingenious and artful modder named MrFob. Answering the call of many fans who were disheartened by the arbitrary sacrifice of the hero and the total moral surrender of the ending, MrFob tweaked the details of the conclusion to offer an alternate resolve. The ending plays out much the same, subtracting only to forced genocide of an innocent race of allies and the surrender of the main character to the whim of his/her intolerant enemy’s nihilistic bargain. Details of this ending, and links to video can be found here:
* I call copyright on BattlestarWarTrekGate. Look for it in theatres never.
** Something he revealed in his appearance on the Nerdist podcast.
*** The Wall Street Journal has quite a nice summary of the history Fanfic that cites many more such examples: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303734204577464411825970488.html
**** Marauder Shields (http://koobismo.deviantart.com/gallery/#)
***** ‘The Leviathan and the death of Hope’ (http://koobismo.deviantart.com/#/d5d7f66)