I occurs to me that in a number of my past articles, I’ve been using the term ‘fanfiction’ as a byword for ‘creatively bankrupt.’ Mostly I’m trading shamelessly on its popular image: Indulgence. Immature. Prurient. Of no interest to the serious-minded. As with comics, I used to write off the whole endeavour as contemptible and dirty.
And while, by gods, a lot of it is awful, then it probably isn’t a larger part than of normal fiction that’s tiresome rubbish. Joss Whedon, among others, encourages his fans to participate in this fashion, and legitimate authours like Neil Gaiman and Naomi Novik partake of the practice themselves.
So I am reconciled to the phenomenon. They have the potential to be avenues of active participation by fans in their favourite stories. And one of those stories where participation is particularly enthusiastic is in the fandom of Mass Effect.
The ending of Mass Effect 3, as I and others have documented, was a source of deep creative difference between the developers of the game and its fans, a dispute pressed particularly hard given the amount of creative freedom the player has in the game’s story, and which the Extended Cut downloadable content only superficially addressed. Vast numbers of ‘Fix Fics’ offering alternative outcomes sprang up, but only one of them has achieved fame outside of fan fiction circles, to the point of being written up by gaming journalists and, now, being reviewed by me: the web comic Marauder Shields.
Authoured by DeviantArt contributor koobismo with the aid of several like-minded chums, Marauder Shields is a play on a popular meme that sprang from the Retake Mass Effect campaign.
The last enemy you gun down in Mass Effect 3 is a middleweight monster called a Marauder, and when you aim at it, as with any enemy in the game, the name “Marauder” appears onscreen, along with a bar showing its shield strength, thusly:
The joke, as thirty seconds on YouTube will show, is that Marauder Shields was in fact the name of a hero who died trying to save you from the sloppy and incomprehensible ending of the game.
Koobismo took the premise and ran with it. The first five ‘episodes’ of Marauder Shields are a comedic parody, representing the author venting his frustration, but from episode 6 onward (up to 53 at time of writing), the comic changed into a serious attempt to reinvent the ending of the trilogy.
Each episode consists of a dozen-or-so-frame strip, and has been telling the story of the decisive battle against the Reapers on Earth, which formed the final set piece of Mass Effect 3.
Commander Shepard, our hero, has been struck down and critically wounded on the cusp of accessing the super weapon devised from ancient plans to stop the Reapers. We see Shepard’s squad, the group who we came to know and love as Mass Effect fans, struggling to save their leader, and to hold the line against the Reapers. Acts of bravery and comradeship are shown on all fronts, while in the background, sinister plots-within-plots begin to hatch, suspicions arise about the exact origin of this ancient super weapon plan, and while friends struggle to reach the place where their leader fell, a single Marauder stands guard there, its behaviour increasingly unexpected.
Now, it must be said that if you haven’t played Mass Effect at least once, this won’t make enormous amounts of sense. The characters, their species, and their technology come pre-established; the situation they’re currently facing is already underway, indeed nearing its conclusion, so if you’re innocent of the background, it will take some pretty heavy deduction or an extended visit to the Mass Effect wiki to figure out what’s going on.
If you have played it, then you are in for a treat. The artist uses a combination of his own, quite luminous paintings built around stills from the game, for accuracy and expediency. The dialogue, while a little pedantic in places, matches the manner of the characters it’s given to. The events of the story thus far have captured the friendships, loves, sacrifice and courage of all the characters in the new alliance forged to fight this battle, to much the same standard as was set by the game’s own storytelling. Koobismo even creates separate versions of each strip featuring one of the two characters you have to choose between saving in Mass Effect 1. The author and his cadre have also created ‘audio book’ versions of several chapters, and the sound effects, music and lines are mixed very well, and the performers, amateurs that they are, do remarkably good impressions of several of the characters.
The downside of all this beautiful sound and fury is that, since the story really kicked off, we’ve gotten 48 chapters in and not an awful lot has happened, plotwise. We’ve gotten caught up on our heroes, several threads have been established, lots of suspense and hints have been dropped, but while the turning point is clearly at hand, this does feel like an unnecessarily long wait, while the many subplots being hinted at are growing so numerous that I’m starting to get less engaged and more confused. Many of the strips include flavour text to provide context or bonus information, modeled after the Codex in the game itself, which I almost invariably skip. The audio book segments are very impressive from a technical point of view, but some of the performers are better at imitating the characters than they are at actually acting. Depending on your range of reading, it can be a little strange to go from the Canadian/American production of Mass Effect itself into the comic; koobismo’s DeviantArt page says he lives in Poland, but certain stylistic hallmarks in his writing would ordinarily mark him as an Englishman.
Marauder Shields, apart from being a worthy endeavour by and on behalf of Mass Effect fans, is visually impressive, emotionally charged, intriguingly intricate and quite creative. It’s a charmingly grassroots approach to role-playing games and fairly plausible in the context of Mass Effect’s mythos (more than the original ending managed, in some cases), and a valiant undertaking by a group of talented amateurs. So far it’s been a little bit slow-building, and it’s going to have to pick up speed soon to maintain interest. But it shows every sign of doing that. It’s biggest challenge is going to be trying to find middle ground between giving the series a satisfying alternate ending and remaining open to the many different choices Mass Effect players can make getting to the end of the game in the first place.