Updates, Interviews and More - J.C. Hutchins

J.C. Hutchins


Transmedia storyteller & novelist J.C. Hutchins chats with creatives, and provides updates about his own creative work, in this podcast.


Blood On My Hands: My Failure & Redemption in "Mass Effect"

February 4th, 2013

Episode 70 of 111 episodes

Warning: This post is packed with plot spoilers for the Mass Effect trilogy.I completed the Mass Effect video game trilogy more than a week ago, and yet a hearty chunk of my mind stubbornly remains back there, on those many worlds, considering the many choices I made. The mistakes I made.Looking back now, I realize when I became smitten by the series. It was a scene in the first game. It took less than two minutes to unfold, and ended with a thunderclap. Though I wouldn't realize it until much later, this moment made a profound impact on how I played the rest of the game, and its two sequels. Get your head around that: Dozens of hours of play, all affected by 90 seconds.Sometimes, that's all it takes. Kinda like real life.A LEGACY OF PAINI've already shared a bit about how I played my Commander Shepard during the series. The Greatest Hits recap: My Shepard was a surly soldier who didn't truck with bullshit. She was an orphan born on Earth, a former criminal who did absolutely everything it took to achieve her mission objectives. She didn't like aliens much, mostly because they didn't like her. She trusted no one. She was merciless. As the scope of Mass Effect's story widened, my Shepard dropped the attitude about aliens. This was mostly brought on by her collaborations with several aliens during the story, all of whom were brilliantly realized characters, and righteous badasses.There was another influencing factor, however. Ashley Williams, a member of Shepard's crew, was xenophobic. Her deep mistrust hailed from family history and military experience. Ashley's reasons may have been legit, but I soon realized it didn't matter. See, you start to wonder about your own biases when bigots evangelize their closed-minded hate. Ashley's behavior soon changed Shepard's, and for the better.My favorite alien crew member was Wrex, the only character in Mass Effect 1 whose surly sass could keep pace with my Shepard's. The krogan bounty hunter loved to fight, but he wasn't a stupid brute. He was heartbroken about how his species remained on the brink of extinction due to the "genophage," a biological weapon deployed 1,000 years ago by two colluding alien species. Their goal had been to control the krogan population, and it had worked. The krogan didn't have a say in the matter. Wrex and Shepard Truthfully, the krogan hadn't fully controlled their fate for some time. The species was technologically "uplifted" by other aliens 1,000 years before the genophage to be used as a willing army against the aggressive rachni, a conquering insect-like race.This technological empowerment created big problems. After the Rachni Wars, the krogan aggressively expanded their borders. Left unchecked, they — and the war they inevitably brought with them —might have dominated the galaxy. The genophage "solution" was released, and everything changed.Wrex was right to be heartbroken about the genophage. For 1,000 years, only one in every 1,000 krogan survived birth. Fatalistic thinking had plagued the species ever since; its males marched off to war against opposing krogan clans, or they worked as mercs. Most came home in body bags, filled with bullets. The species was dying.Wrex wanted more for his people. He hoped the krogan might one day be cured. I did too. I reckoned a thousand years of pain, and god knew how many billions of dead babies, was penance enough. I didn't believe anyone had the right to make such a devastating and species-changing decision as the genophage.A FRIEND LOSTWhich brings us to the planet Virmire, where 90 seconds of dialogue changed how I played the Mass Effect trilogy.Folks who've played Mass Effect 1 probably recall that Saren, a rogue Spectre brainwashed by the villainous Reapers, was up to no good at Virmire. There, he'd built a facility that was successfully breeding a krogan army. Saren had concocted a cure for the genophage. In order to thwart Saren's galaxy-threatening plan, it became clear that the base —and in the process, the genophage cure — would be destroyed.For 90 seconds, my Shepard and Wrex argued about this. Wrex demanded the squad retrieve the cure. I tried to explain that Shepard was sympathetic, but it couldn't be done. Wrex countered that the salvation for his people was within reach. The cure would not be destroyed.As a player, this was a very long 90 seconds. I pined for another game option to agree with Wrex and hunt down the cure, but none existed. Wrex became furious. He pointed a gun at my Shepard's face. I gazed at the conversation options, helpless and horrified as I spotted several choices that were "grayed out," inaccessible —I hadn't acquired enough in-game experience to intimidate or persuade Wrex. All I could do was try to talk him down.And that's when crew member Ashley Williams shot Wrex in the back. She then plugged him three more times as he gasped in the sand. Wrex was dead. I was aghast. I'd been powerless to stop any of it.And in that moment —a miraculous moment that I intellectually understand is a complex illusion; a fabrication of polygons, textures and dialogue written by someone like me; make-believe, man —I hated Ashley. I experienced genuine hatred. I seethed at her disregard for Shepard's authority, at the betrayal, and at the bigotry that probably helped her pull the trigger. Ashley Williams Not long later, when I had to order a crew member to his/her death during a final all-or-nothing assault on Saren's Virmire base, I chose Ashley. I did this without hesitation. I chose her because of what she'd done, and the pain she'd brought me. My heart had gone cold, and cruel, and I didn't care.And that's when I realized I was smitten by the series. I'd made a decision based not on some elaborate meta-game analysis of risks and rewards, but one based solely on emotion. More remarkably, I felt no remorse when she died.That was the end of that.But it wasn't. I didn't know it, but I was still haunted by Wrex's death. I'd be haunted well into Mass Effect 3.A FAMILY FORGEDIn meta-game woulda-shoulda-coulda conversations that so many gamers have with themselves, Wrex's death represents a spectacular failure, my punishment for rushing through the game, ignoring experience-boosting side quests. Thankfully, my brain doesn't work this way. I don't enjoy fussing at myself, or trying to outsmart the game. I play games the way I want, and roll with whatever bruises they give me. Losing Wrex was a helluva shiner, but by the end of Mass Effect 1, my Shepard had put the bloody matter behind her, rose to the challengeand righteously kicked some Reaper ass.Mass Effect 2's prologue is the best video game beginning I've ever played. Not only does the destruction of Shepard's beloved spaceship Normandy serve as an iconic, disruptive, the-rules-just-changed-you're-in-the-shit-now moment —the subsequent death and resurrection of Shepard effortlessly reboots the character, her abilities and her in-game experience, creating a perfect starting point for both veteran and new players. A clean slate for all, completely justified by story. So damned clever.But the slate wasn't completely clean. Mass Effect 2 is about the ruin and reassembly of family. In it, Shepard is tasked with saying farewell to the Alliance —the institution that forged her (or him) into a warrior-leader —and must work with the dangerous shadow organization Cerberus. Here, Shepard must reforge relationships with allies two years gone, and make many new ones. The objective: To build a Dirty Dozen-inspired "suicide squad" tasked with taking down the Collectors, an alien race working for the Reapers.Nearly all of the crew members Shepard recruits are outsiders — untethered humans and aliens who are either family-less, or have deep familial issues they wish to repair. To ensure the loyalty of her crew, Shepard must help these misfits. Genetically-engineered human Miranda Lawson wishes to protect her kid sister (who is in fact a clone of Miranda herself) from her tyrannical father. Masked quarian Tali'Zorah and human Jacob Taylor discover dark secrets about their fathers, servicemen who were highly regarded. Asari knight-errant Samara must confront and murder her daughter, who has become a serial killer. Jack In contrast, Jack, a remorseless criminal and killer, had no family. She had been abducted as a child by Cerberus (the very organization with whom Shepard is now in league), and was confined at a research facility that tested her remarkable telekinetic powers for years. She eventually escaped, murdered anyone in her way, and lived a thug's life until she was arrested and tossed into a cryogenic prison. Shepard springs her from jail in Mass Effect 2, and helps her destroy the research facility that broke her mind and spirit all those years ago.Jack was damaged goods, bruised to the bone. She resented authority, seemed pathologically selfish, was unreservedly surly ... and was hella great in a fight. She and Shepard got on just fine. I reckoned Jack would ditch her bad attitude after I helped her say goodbye to her painful past. But she didn't. Because saying goodbye is never that easy.Indeed, it was the appearance of another krogan in Mass Effect 2 that reminded me of the blood on my own hands, andhow I'd failed Wrex and the krogan species in the first game. The creature named Grunt was a young krogan, grown in a vat, genetically engineered to be "pure" —a super soldier, a relentless killing machine. Grunt He was sleeping in a stasis chamber when my Shepard found him. Shepard had a clear choice in how to proceed: Leave the chamber closed (and keep the sleeping apex predator inside), or open the chamber and risk the safety of, well, frickin' everybody.This next bit is important to understand. I didn't choose to open the tank because I wanted a new squadmate, or a better game ending, or other perks meta-gamers savvily strategize about. I chose to open the tank because I wanted to make things right. I knew Grunt couldn't replace Wrex...

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