Giftfish and Game Canon

I take a “community approach” to mod development. By that I mean that I talk a lot of my ideas and their implementation through with the ThaneMOD forum community. They provide feedback and alternate ideas that then affect the course of development. BackOff, ThaneMOD, Better Dreams, and to a lesser extent, ME3Recalibrated have all been developed in this manner.

During development for each mod, questions inevitably arise about my priorities and how they align with the concept of game canon. What do I consider canon? How do I handle conflicts between games? Do I make use of BioWare’s “expanded universe”content? (This is the term I use for all Mass Effect related content BioWare releases outside of the trilogy itself). Since I seem to keep making mods, I thought it would be valuable at this point to summarize my perspective into a single article for reference. It should help users gain some insights at to my development decisions, priorities and more.

Let’s talk canon.

The Short Answer

I take a strict view of canon. If it happened in game, it is canon. If it happened outside the game, it is not. When ME1/2 canon conflicts with ME3 canon, the former is always favored over the latter.

The Long Answer

My views on canon stem directly from my development priorities. Since I create story-based mods, those priorities are always to create the most immersive mod possible. This means:

  • Resolving lore conflicts
  • Creating consistency across games
  • Avoiding or fixing broken lore
  • Appealing to the broadest user base possible

1 | Conflicting Lore

Lore conflicts drive me crazy. Let me say that off the bat. RPGs are built on lore. Having accurate and consist lore across games within a series is imperative. Otherwise, every lore break creates an immersion break that pulls the player out of the game and detracts from it as a whole. The most frustrating thing for me, personally, is that lore conflicts are entirely avoidable with the proper care and planning.

The first two games in the series set up the core lore of the trilogy. ME1 even more so than ME2. During the course of ME2, the Mass Effect franchise underwent a dramatic shift in leadership. Along with that change in leadership, only 3 of 8 members of ME2’s core writing team returned for ME3 (Chris Helper, Patrick Weekes, and Jay Watamaniuk, as per the games’ TLK files). Together, this had a profound affect on ME3’s content and is much of the reason why there are so many plot issues between it and the rest of the trilogy — and sometimes, even within ME3 itself.

This is why I will always prioritize content in ME1 and ME2 over ME3. In my view, the first two games reflects the truest Mass Effect experience. It’s also, to a certain extent, a practical decision. The alternative is to work backwards, and change the lore in ME1 and ME2 to reflect ME3. We don’t have the proper modding tools to execute that strategy. Even if we did, however, I would choose to stay faithful to lore as set out in ME1 and ME2.

2 | Intergame Consistency

Plot and character consistency is central to a lore-friendly, immersive gaming experience. At least for RPGs. There’s little more annoying to players as when a developer tries to retcon past events by implementing new, inconsistent lore in later releases.

Let’s take the situation with the C-Sec executor across games:

  • In ME1, Pallin is executor.
  • In ME2, a Citadel news broadcast from Emily Wong tells us Chellick is executor. Unused content within the ME2 files (that I plan on restoring) clarifies this further by revealing that Pallin died in the Battle of the Citadel and Chellick took Pallin’s place.
  • In ME3, Bailey has conflicting dialogue to Shepard. He initially says that he has no idea why Udina promoted him. In a later conversation he describes how Udina promoted him as a direct result of killing Pallin prior to ME3.

BioWare has now utterly confused the playerbase on a couple levels. If Chellick is executor in ME2, how is Pallin back in ME3? Why does Bailey have amnesia at first, and then suddenly “remember” why he was promoted?

This is very poor storytelling.

My solution to issues like this is to implement the strategy I outlined in #1 above: prioritize ME1/ME2 over ME3. Omit the conflicting content in ME3 about Pallin as executor (which will be done in a future release of ME3Recalibrated). By doing this, the canon content in ME2 is allowed to stand and there is consistency across games (not to mention, within ME3).

Folks familiar with EU content will be quick to point out that there’s yet another complication: Bailey kills Pallin in some EU content between ME2 and ME3, and one version of Bailey’s ME3 dialogue reiterates this version of the plot. This brings me to my next point.

3 | Avoiding Broken Lore

It’s bad enough when the trilogy itself breaks lore. EU content is a much worse offender.

EU content breaks lore consistently and constantly. From the situation above, to drell females who don’t lactate but for some reason have “breasts”, to Thane’s personal lore, to Deception, and many, many other examples. Whether you personally enjoy EU content or not, the fact is that often it breaks established game lore.

I find this reprehensible on BioWare’s part. It undermines all the work the game teams have done to create an immersive world and shows a lack of respect for their own product.

Part of the problem is that EU content, such as novels and comics, are not created and developed by the game teams. They are the creative work, most frequently, of a single writer. This means the creator has significantly more latitude to tinker with how they want to tell a specific story. It’s a completely different creative process than developing the games proper. And, when that story is specifically written by the director or lead writer for the series, there is little, if any oversight. The writer’s own personal agenda has the freedom to be pushed in a way that it simply cannot during development of a game.

For this reason, prioritizing EU lore over game lore—as often done on the Mass Effect wiki—is, in my opinion, a big mistake. Doing so is a disservice to the games and to players. Established game lore should always be given priority, as it’s the only way to ensure an immersive experience for players who don’t choose to venture into EU territory. If you are going to replace existing game lore with with EU lore, then that change needs to be done within the confines of the game to avoid confusing the player base. And it needs to be done in a way that makes sense and doesn’t feel contrived (good luck with that).

This is one of the many reasons that I don’t use EU content in my mods. Instead, I develop assuming that none of this content exists at all. Which brings me to my next point: broad appeal.

4 | Broadest Appeal

When making a mod intended for public release, my goal is to appeal to the largest amount of players possible (within the scope of the mod). If I’m going to spend months creating something to share, that seems like the most logical way to go about it. This perspective shaped much of how ThaneMOD was originally created. Modding  limitations in 2013 meant that only so much control over that mod could be implemented in game, so the mod was released in multiple versions to allow more control out of game (via installation).

Appealing to the largest player base possible means two things in particular: avoiding content that is overly specific and too prone to be perceived as “headcanon” (common in fan fiction) and avoiding content that is only known to a certain subset of players (such as those who have read Deception).

To deal with the first issue, the only true solution is to ensure as much of the mod is grounded into existing lore as possible. This means taking game content literally, not making assumptions, and adhering to established conventions. When new content is added, it should have a clear basis in the current story. If something is a departure, it needs to be explained to the player in a lore-friendly way, or should be very intuitive. New content for a character should always stay true to the original writer’s voice and should stick to established storylines.

For example, Thane is given personal codex entry for ME3 via ThaneMOD. While this feature is new, it sticks to the established conventions of other squadmates by summarizing past events related to that character and making a single comment about their current location. And it does this using language and tone that’s consistent with the other codex entries.

To deal with the second issue, the simple fact is that not all players experience EU content. This is content that must be actively pursued by the player. Everyone does not read BioWare’s blog or monitor their Twitter feed. Everyone does not read their novels and comics. Everyone does not even see the Cerberus Daily News (CDN), when loading up ME2 (it’s only shown when connected to BioWare’s servers).

The one, single thing that unites all players are the games themselves. By restricting myself to this content, only, it prevents me from alienating players who have not experienced EU content. It prevents immersion-breaks and ensures that as they play, there is no confusion about where certain content is coming from. Players with knowledge of EU content won’t be confused by game lore that doesn’t reference EU content — it will simply be missing. On the other hand, players who aren’t privy to EU content will be confused by game story that refers to or assumes knowledge of those events.

I’ve encountered people who had no idea—5 years later—that Emily Wong was “killed” via Twitter. After about a decade of social media saturation, some are starting to reject it outright, and others never used it in the first place. These people have no concept of BW’s Facebook campaigns, blog material, Instagram, or whatever it may be. People who play ME2 from disk and offline (due to bandwidth limits or desire for privacy) are completely ignorant of CDN.

These are not fringe cases. There is truly enormous variety. Consider that DLC for a game released in 2011-12 was experienced by less than 50% of players. A player is far more likely to purchase a DLC for a game, then navigate to Amazon to buy a related book or comic. Consider the Star Wars universe, which is far older and more popular than the ME franchise. How many people do you know who have seen any of the Star Wars movies? Now, how many people do you know who have read any of the Star Wars novels? Unless you are an ubernerd with a whole lot of ubernerd friends, your likely answer to the second question is zero. (I speak with authority on this, as I’m married to one of those ubernerds.)

Final Remarks

One thing that’s become very clear to me since Mass Effect 3‘s release is that there is huge variation among players. What they like and dislike, their expectations, their personal headcanons, how much experience they have with EU content, and more.

My priority when making a mod is to create an experience that everyone who has played the games will, hopefully, enjoy. I’ve outlined above what I feel is the best way to do that. Not everyone will agree and that’s okay. The point of this article is simply to explain my perspective a bit so mod users will understand some of the motivations behind certain development decisions.

I also understand that some users will disagree with my stance on EU content, in particular. This is also okay. Some people truly enjoy the ME EU (meew, lol?) content. There’s nothing wrong with that. It further immerses them in the world of Mass Effect, which is a world they deeply love. I do get that—I’ve poured literally thousands of hours of my time into modding these games. I can understand that it probably feels like a special treat to see those EU events acknowledged and brought to life in game.

My stance, however, is that that EU content only exists because of the games. That, when the “child” disagrees with the “parent”, that the latter gets priority. That players who choose not to dip their toes into this pool of external and optional content never experience lesser gameplay because of its existence. That their immersion isn’t disrupted by the poorly peppering in of unexplained EU content, or, even worse, by inserting EU plot that directly contradicts established game lore.

In short, let the games be about the games. Let the EU tell its own stories.

Note: A version of this page was first published on the ThaneMOD official forum.