Prose & Pixels

Prose & Pixels #4: Beginner’s Guide to Video Games & Novelisations, Part 1

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Prose & Pixels is a feature that combines two of my loves: books and video games. Here I’ll discuss all sorts of things to do with the two, whether it’s recommendations, influences or just a good old chat.

Today I want to introduce some video game series, and their novelisations.

This post is mostly aimed at people who are new to video games, or those who are interested in playing but don’t know where to start. I’m listing some well-known series, as well as their novelisations, in case you want to try the books out too!

The Assassin’s Creed series

Assassin's Creed

[icon name=”fa-question-circle”] What is it?

The series follows a man named Desmond Miles, who using a machine called the Animus, delves into the memories of his ancestors to learn more about the rivalry between the Assassins and the Knights Templar. The games cover several time periods: the Third Crusade (Assassin’s Creed), the Renaissance (Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood and Assassin’s Creed Revelations), the Colonial era (Assassin’s Creed III, Assassin’s Creed Liberation and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag), as well as the French Revolution (the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Unity). Playing as his ancestors (the most famous of which is probably Ezio Auditore), you must uncover the secrets to becoming a master assassin, as well as the Templars’ plans.

[icon name=”fa-thumbs-up”] Why should I play it?

Because you get to be an assassin? Also, meeting various historical figures like Leonardo Da Vinci, the Borgias and the Sforzas (Caterina Sforza even quotes her infamous line) and Niccolo Machiavelli is amazing. The digital versions of locations like 15th century Venice and 16th century Rome are also gorgeous. And did I mention you get to be a super stealthy assassin?

[icon name=”fa-book”] Novelisations

All of the following are by Oliver Bowden: Renaissance, Brotherhood, The Secret Crusade, Revelations, Forsaken and Black Flag.

The Bioshock series

Bioshock Infinite

[icon name=”fa-question-circle”] What is it?

A series of games that explores the idea of a dystopia/utopia. In Bioshock and Bioshock 2 (which I have previously discussed), the player ends up in an underwater utopia known as Rapture. Unfortunately, the city isn’t quite what it once was, and is now filled with drug-addled mutants, psychopaths and terrifying hulking creatures known as Big Daddies. In Bioshock Infinite, the third game in the series but the first chronologically, the player finds themselves in a seemingly utopian city floating in the sky. Booker, the player character, has been instructed to rescue a young girl who is imprisoned there in order to pay off his debts. However, how it always is with these sorts of places, things are not quite what they seem…

[icon name=”fa-thumbs-up”] Why should I play it?

In regards to the first two games: because they’re scary and so, so immersive, you may be terrified but you’ll keep ploughing on! As for Bioshock Infinite, it is an absolutely BEAUTIFUL game with a mesmerising (and heartbreaking) story.

[icon name=”fa-book”] Novelisations

Rapture by John Shirley and Ken Levine, and Bioshock Infinite: Mind in Revolt by Joe Fielder and Ken Levine.

The Mass Effect series

Mass Effect

[icon name=”fa-question-circle”] What is it?

A trilogy set in the future, where the human race have discovered faster than light travel – and many, many alien races. The player assumes the role of Commander Shepard, a completely customisable character who can be either male or female. During the first game, Shepard must stop a rogue by the name of Saren from taking over the galaxy with an army of sentient mechanised beings, called the Geth. However, Shepard soon discovers that there is a much bigger threat on the horizon – an alien race known as the Reapers, who purge all life in the galaxy every 50,000 years, and their deadline is fast approaching. Through his or her journey, Shepard builds up a loveable squad to join them aboard the SSV Normandy, not all of whom may survive the mission…

[icon name=”fa-thumbs-up”] Why should I play it?

Mass Effect is my favourite game series for so many reasons. But the main reason is that you are in control of every choice Shepard makes – and whatever you choose may have a permanent effect on the world, the galaxy, the universe – forever. Let that planet die and it’s gone, its people wiped out, no more resources, nothing. Betray that squad mate and that’s it – they’ve left you, never to return. Every choice you make has a consequence, whether it be bad or good. Not to mention that every single character is fantastically created, and you feel a genuine connection with each and every one. This video game makes me cry, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

[icon name=”fa-book”] Novelisations

There are both novelisations and graphic novels for Mass Effect: Revelation, Ascension and Retribution by Drew Karpyshyn, Deception by William C. Dietz, Redemption, Evolution, Invasion, Homeworlds and Foundation by Mac Walters (graphic novels).

I’ll be doing a couple of posts of this type, look out for Dragon Age, Deus Ex and Halo in the next post!

Are you new to video games, or have you played any of these? Have you read any of the novelisations?

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Thoughts

Thoughts #11: Why I Love Video Games

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To me, video games come second only to books. But there are some cases where I actually prefer them over reading (gasp!), and today I just want to chat a bit about why I love them, and why I spend quite a lot of my time playing them. No matter whether you play video games regularly or not, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

They are incredibly immersive.

My favourite sorts of games are the ones that pull you right into the story: Dragon Age and Mass Effect are great examples. I think I actually get more attached to video game characters than book characters, because I feel more personally involved in their story through my character. For example, in Mass Effect I spent ages talking to my squadmates, helping them out, forming relationships with them and learning their back stories. So naturally I grew quite attached to these beautifully crafted characters – and if you know Bioware games or the Mass Effect series, you know one of the main features of the games. The decisions and choices you make can have huge effects on the lives of other characters, and when I lost a couple of them throughout the three games it actually hurt. And I’m not going to lie – the last scene between Commander Shepard and whichever love interest you pick (for me, it’s always Garrus) makes me cry. I actually care about the welfare of these fictional characters – a lot.

Commander Shepard

Plus there are games that are immersive for totally different reasons – games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which to me didn’t have an amazing story, but is completely and utterly stunning. It is the only game I ever play with headphones on – there is so much detail to the sound and the landscape, combine that with first person mode and I can get totally lost in Skyrim for hours on end, just wondering around, not even doing quests.

 

They are beautiful.

Video games are forms of art. As I mentioned above, Skyrim draws me in with its amazing design and landscape. Bioshock Infinite, a game which I completed only recently, is one of the most gorgeous games I’ve played. The beautiful city (at least in appearance…) of Columbia, floating in the sky, is the main setting of the game and is one of the most stunning game settings I’ve ever seen. So much work goes into designing a gameLeanne @ Literary Excursion has a feature where she discusses concept art – imagine doing that sort of thing for every character and setting in a game.

Bioshock Infinite

There are so many different art styles to video games too. Realism, like Skyrim, cell-shaded like Borderlands or Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, a gorgeous hand-painted look like Bastion, or an alternate take on a typical 2D side-scroller like Fez.

 

They tell their own stories.

The story-telling and writing in some video games can be just as good as one of your favourite novels. In fact, sometimes it’s like you’re part of this amazing novel and you get to take a much more active role. One of the most recent games I’ve played with a wonderful story is Gone Home, which is rather like a visual novel. You play a young girl, home from travelling after a year – but when she gets home, no-one is there. You have to wonder around the house (in the middle of the night, during a thunderstorm), putting the pieces together to work out where everyone is. The house was really creepy at first, but as I discovered more of the story, it became a lot less frightening – and very sad. The finale made me cry.

Gone Home

With other games, like Skyrim, you can create your own stories. The player has total freedom to do what they want, which means they can create a detailed back story for their character and act it out, making decisions that their character would make, if that’s what they want to do. And then there’s games like L.A. Noire – a brilliant crime noir story that has the player identifying clues, investigating crime scenes and solving mysteries. All these small stories weave together to make up the main plot.

 

It’s fun being able to reinvent yourself.

One of my favourite things about video games? The character create screen! I can spend hours and hours making a character (even though they tend to all look pretty similar, but I have to get things just right). Detailed character creation gives me very mixed feelings – I’m happy because it means I can make a character just as I want, but also it means I have to make the character just as I want, which takes forever, or I’m not happy. Yeah. Here’s a selection of my characters from various games:

Video games allow you to redesign yourself, add things that might not be possible in this world! Want elf ears? No problem. Want to be a hobbit? Of course! Whether you play as a super stealthy assassin, a peace loving merchant, a diplomat or something completely different, it’s up to you. For example, when I play Mass Effect I often pick the choices that I myself would never make, which generally results in hilarious consequences and a badass Commander Shepard. In Skyrim I love being able to play a sneaky assassin, dispatching enemies before they even catch sight of me. In Dragon Age II my Hawke is a rogue, teleporting across the battlefield and using tactics to deal damage and then disappear. And in Saints Row III & IV – although I can’t make many choices for my character, I like to imagine her reactions to things. She dresses in a practical way (practical for things like robbing banks, massacring aliens, taking out rival gangs… you know, the usual) yet with a feminine touch, I like to imagine that she’s a woman in control of a gang who completely respect her and are perhaps a little afraid of her. Apart from her closest buds like Pierce or Shaundi. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that it’s really fun to be able to invent all these characters, with their different back stories and personalities.

Oh, and you know what else? Video game romances! Forget book boyfriends, video game boyfriends are where it’s at. You may have seen me and Paola fangirling over someone called Alistair, and occasionally Anders. No, these are not real men – they’re superhotandcoolandawesome characters from the Dragon Age series. I also absolutely love Garrus from Mass Effect

 

They are humorous.

This isn’t applicable to every game of course, but some are just crazy, wacky and totally over the top. The Saints Row series has some of the most hilarious games I’ve ever played – just take a look at these screenshots (NSFW!) –

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Top left, was part of the Christmas DLC. You could go the easy way, or spend ages licking through the candy cane door and unlock an achievement. So of course I went for the candy cane door! Top right, you better get that reference. Bottom left, I don’t even know… and bottom right, there are twenty photo opportunities around the city of Steelport – I just happened to be streaking when I found this one, and the photographer didn’t seem to mind. The Dragon Age series also has some pretty brilliant quotes, and if you’re looking for a humorous game you can’t really go wrong with any of the Lego games out there!

 

You can socialise.

MMOs have, or more aptly were, a big part of my life for several years. I really can’t write a post about why I love video games and not include them, because they got me through a really rough patch of my life. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen I suffered from depression, and my only happy moments were spending time with my guild on an MMO called Dream Of Mirror Online, which sadly shut down in 2009. I made some fantastic friends through the game, and although we’ve not managed to find an MMO we all like since, we’re still in contact in various ways. I even regularly play co-op games like Borderlands, Sanctum 2 (shown below) and Orcs Must Die! 2 with them on Steam. I’m super excited for the end of this year, when I’ll be FINALLY meeting up with a couple of them after seven years of friendship.

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And finally, the crazy statement… sometimes I just don’t feel like reading! Are you a lover of video games? Why do you think they’re so awesome?

Review

Review: Mass Effect Foundation (Volume 1)

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4 out of 5 stars | Goodreads

I received a copy of this book for free from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

If you know me, you know the Mass Effect series of video games is one of my favourite things. You may also know that I’ve been slowly working my way through all related books and graphic novels, and so far have been sadly disappointed. So it is with great delight that I proclaim this particular volume my favourite Mass Effect related book so far!

This is, in a similar way to Mass Effect: Homeworlds, an origin story. Whereas Homeworlds focused on Tali, Garrus and James Vega, Foundation takes a look at the original companions of Commander Shepard: Ashley Williams and Kaidan Alenko, as well as featuring other well known figures such as Kai Leng, the Illusive Man and Wrex (Wrex, I’m so sorry…). Continuing Mass Effect‘s brilliant streak of tough, bad-ass female figures, Foundation opens with a mysterious red-head (yay!) who is not quite as she seems – but neither is her young companion. A shocking and surprising first chapter sets up the rest of the book.

One thing I really liked about Foundation was how it tied into the first Mass Effect game. Remember the very first mission on Eden Prime, where you find Ashley? On the way you encounter some of her team – well here you find out exactly how they managed to get themselves into that situation. It was really fun recognising all these minor characters and tying the plot pieces together. The artwork was generally of a great quality, although there were a couple of frames where I had to wonder whether the artist had really considered the angle – the character faces looked a bit odd. Ashley didn’t look quite like her virtual counterpart, although admittedly her image does change a little between games – but she was wearing her classic pink and white armour! The full pages at the beginning of the book were absolutely gorgeous, wonderfully dark and fitting for the series – and to me the characters even looked like they could be a variety of Commander Shepards (for all that have not played Mass Effect: you can customise Commander Shepard to look how you want. Also, for all that have not played Mass Effect: do it NOW!).

Overall, definitely a recommended read for fans of the Mass Effect series. I always love reading origin stories, and Kaidan’s even made me feel a little sorry for him – and normally he’s one of the characters I don’t really care about all that much. The artwork was generally of a very high standard, with some really standout pieces and perfect colour scheme.

Back in November, as part of Sci-Fi Month, I wrote a post about my love for the series, and also featured a guest post by Mass Effect Story Doctor John Sutherland.

Guest Post, Sci-Fi Month

Sci-Fi Month: A Tribute to Mass Effect + Guest Post from John Sutherland

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Mass Effect is my absolute favourite game series, and today I want to pay tribute to it and also share with you a guest post written by John Sutherland, the Story Doctor of the games, where he discusses story development within the series. So whether you’re already a fan, or are interested in playing it, I hope you enjoy my little tribute. Don’t forget to check out the schedule for the rest of today’s posts. You can also Tweet about the event using the hashtag #RRSciFiMonth.

 

In the year 2148, explorers on Mars discovered the remains of an ancient spacefaring civilization. In the decades that followed, these mysterious artifacts revealed startling new technologies, enabling travel to the furthest stars. The basis for this incredible technology was a force that controlled the very fabric of space and time.

They called it the greatest discovery in human history.

The civilizations of the galaxy call it… MASS EFFECT.

 

Firstly, I apologise in advance for the length of this post – when I love something, I tend to waffle. A lot. And I love playing video games – although I don’t spend all my time playing them, I generally spend several hours a week flitting between various games. I have this really bad habit of playing everything at once, and as a result it’s quite rare for me to actually complete a game. I had Portal 2 saved about thirty seconds before end-game for months and months, because I was playing other things.

Mass Effect, however, is a totally different story.

I remember being aware of the series for years before playing it. One of my exes had the game for Xbox, and then a later ex-boyfriend said he thought I might enjoy the game. So I downloaded the demo on Steam and that was it – I was completely and utterly enthralled. Instead of my usual habit of letting a game last forever, I had to keep playing, I had to know what was going to happen – and I’ve finished all three games several times. I pre-ordered Mass Effect 3 as soon as I could, it was released during exam period, and I actually could not wait to play it – so I abandoned revision for it. But I did just fine, so it’s okay 😉

So what’s so great about Mass Effect? Oh, so so many things…

 
 

Although the plot is quite complicated in places, the basic outline is that the player assumes the role of Commander Shepard, the first human ‘Spectre’ (a sort of intergalactic special forces agent), and must investigate a Prothean artifact – Protheans being an ancient alien race, who have long died out. However, Shepard discovers the existence of the Reapers, another ancient alien race who seem hellbent on exterminating all life. And now it is up to Shepard to stop them.

Default Male and Female Shepard
 

Whilst that may sound pretty typical – evil aliens, only one hero who can get in their way, etc – there are so many extra points, so many twists and turns and absolutely wonderful moments that just make the game what it is. You can make your own Shepard at the start of the game, so you can be male or female, and the best part – you make all of the decisions. Faced with a problem, you choose the solution. You can go down the path of righteousness (Paragon), be a bad-ass rebel (Renegade) or take a more neutral stance.

The way you act towards others, the choices you make and the actions you take – they all matter. Each decision has an effect on future events. For example, one choice might result in the death of a friend – or you could save their life. And to make it even better, your choices are carried over from one game to the next. It means that you’re completely invested in every choice and instead of just flicking through the cutscenes you really listen.

 
 

The main reason I am so invested in my choices? Because I want the amazing cast of characters to live. 

First of all, Shepard is a brilliant character, whatever path you take. The voice acting is outstanding, and Paragon Shepard = a total role model, Renegade Shepard = sassy and hilarious. This video kind of says it all (plus it has some great clips):

Here are the squadmates from all three games, plus a few other major characters:

From left to right, top to bottom: Ashley Williams, Garrus Vakarian, Kaidan Alenko, Liara T’Soni, Tali’Zorah vas Normandy, Urdnot Wrex, Jeff ‘Joker’ Moreau, Urdnot Grunt, Jack, Jacob Taylor, Kasumi Goto, Legion, Miranda Lawson, Mordin Solus, Morinth, Samara, Thane Krios, Zaeed Massani, [I’m leaving this name out because it’s a potential spoiler!], James Vega, Javik, Captain David Anderson, The Illusive Man and Kai Leng.

My favourite character? Garrus Vakarian, hands down. He is my love interest in both the second and third games (he’s not a choice in the first, boo hoo). He was a security officer for the Citadel (the main deep space station in the game), but after a certain event becomes a figurehead for justice and completely proves himself. His relationship with Shepard, should you choose the romance path, is so sweet. In fact I’m sure all the relationships in the game are really well-built, but I only ever pick Garrus! 

Shepard and Garrus share a moment.

The game also has a stellar cast – many of you will probably recognise Joker’s voice, as he is played by Seth Green.

Well I already spoke a little about relationships, but let me tell you – this series really pulls at the heartstrings. The characters are so wonderfully built that, as with awesome book series, you become so attached and can’t bear anything bad happening to them. And if you’re not careful, it will. In the third game, I didn’t move quick enough, and it resulted in the death of a character. Another time, I made the wrong decision and effectively destroyed the homeworld of one of my favourite characters – who then killed themself. Which made me SCREAM at my computer, and I redid the level completely so I could save them.

And then there’s moments like this, interaction between various characters:

 

A moment between Garrus and Shepard, showing their relationship. There are moments between the two towards the end of the third and final game that actually made me sob like a baby.
 

As Mass Effect is set on many different planets, the player can experience so many different types of locations. And Bioware do not disappoint: there are so many beautiful landscapes to be seen, so much wonderful architecture.

Some examples:

 

All three games have fantastic music, but it’s the soundtrack to the second and third games that really stirs up my emotions. Because I love playlists, here’s a  list of my favourite tracks from the games!

 

 

I’m really excited to be able to share with you today a guest post by Mass Effect Story Doctor, John Sutherland! Thank you so much to John for taking the time to write up something for my blog. 

Thoughts on the Story Development in Mass Effect

by John Sutherland

For a story to be effective in a video game, everything has to go right. Games are the most collaborative story form I can think of — moreso than film, even. The writer has to stay involved with all parts of production, and everyone has to both understand how story works, and be an ally of story through the whole process, or all is lost.

Witness the example of Mass Effect, on which I was the Story Doctor from the Microsoft end, and which is the result of a lot of important things happening together. It was not created in a vacuum by the writers. The original ideas for the story came out of meetings at Bioware with Lead Writer Drew Karpyshyn, Lead Designer Preston Watamaniuk, and Producer Casey Hudson.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a producer who understands story. Casey was a big fan of the TV series Lost, which was in its early seasons at the time, and which Casey described as “a storytelling clinic.” (Is it public knowledge that that’s why the player character is named Commander Shepard, after Jack Shepard in the show? Anyway, it’s true.)

My official title was Lead Writer on the project at Microsoft, which really meant I was in charge of making sure the story structure and pacing worked, and that this team of four writers from Bioware all sounded like one narrative voice.

Bioware’s ambitions were high. Very high.

Microsoft had signed the game in the hope of publishing a different game, and based on the strength of the team, which had just produced Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic (everyone in the industry just calls it KOTOR), to great critical acclaim and pretty good sales.

But Bioware declared that they were going to make “the ultimate science fiction story game,” and most people at Microsoft, frankly, were skeptical at this boldness. Bioware had just worked on one of the most iconic science fiction franchises in the world, and now they thought they were going to do what? When I came onto the project, someone on the Microsoft leads team gave me the story summary and said they just didn’t understand it. It looked like a mess to them, like Bioware didn’t know what they were doing.

But it wasn’t true. Story structure in games was my specialty, and I could see that their story had all the right bones. It turned in all the right places, had great reversals, drove interest forward, and paid off all its promises. I think one of my best accomplishments on this game was just advocating for Bioware’s work within Microsoft.

The conflicts were very solid, and helped the game resonate at a lot of levels. The big conflict, organic life versus machines, would expand through all three games. I heard people say, this has been done before. Look at Halo. Look at The Matrix. Yes, but big themes, big fears, are worth revisiting in new ways.

There was also a lot of topical resonance in the conflict between humans and other races. In Mass Effect, humans had just discovered faster than light travel, and this had led to a rapid, often clumsy expansion through parts of the universe that were new to them, but really quite old and established. Keep in mind, this was in 2006, when the relatively young upstart Americans were stumbling into ancient Baghdad, and not everything was going the way their ideologue leaders had promised. The half of the country that didn’t already know it was a bad idea started to wake up to the disaster. Interesting commentary from our Canadian friends. It may not have registered on a conscious level for many players, but it was there, and it made the story richer to have the hero sometimes resented by other characters, and sometimes for good reasons. Heroes in games are often so righteous and uncomplicated that there’s no interest at all.

So my big concern as we went through production was not the story’s structure or themes, but the pacing. KOTOR was a very good game, but it was slow. The process of making each story decision involved reading through three paragraphs.

Bioware’s invention of the conversation wheel helped enormously, but the longer dialog that played after the players made their story choices needed to be much more efficient if this was going to play like cinema.

But once it did that, it had all of the elements of a well-told story, and in the final product was pleasing that people related to it just as we hoped they would. Despite the early misunderstandings, the working relationship between Microsoft and Bioware was excellent, a real model for how respectful, creative publisher-developer cooperation should work. I wish more games turned out that way.

John Sutherland has been a Story Doctor and game writer for over fourteen years. He was the Story Doctor of Mass Effect, as well as the contributing writer of the Alan Wake video game series. Forthcoming works include Murdered: Soul Suspect. You can find out more about John and his services at VidGameStory.com.

Thank you so much to John for contributing to Sci-Fi Month (and for being a part of the awesome story of Mass Effect, of course)!

Just a collection of Mass Effect related links and videos:

Have you played the games, or have I sparked your interest? Did you enjoy reading John’s guest post? Let me know in the comments!