Mass Effect – going old-skool

Mass Effect – going old-skool

Revisiting Mass Effect

I had a sudden spurt of nostalgia (might have been the late-winter blues kicking in) a few months back, and found myself in my Steam account staring at my row of Mass Effect games. (The originals, not the Andro-bomination.)

And I suddenly realised I really felt like replaying ME.

Part of that urge may have been the fact that my other option was reformatting the print copy of Fighting Shadows, and I didn’t have the stamina (or the alcohol).

But anyway, I fired up Mass Effect 1, had the obligatory fight with Steam + mods + ‘you want the game files stored where‘, and an hour or so later was thoroughly in the mood for blowing away hordes of Geth on my way through Eden.

It’s all about the story

I don’t play games to go online and socialise with adolescents (mental or actual), so if I end up playing and replaying a computer game, it’s because the game environment, the characters I can customise, and the story complexity all add up to something I’m willing to spend my time on even once the surprises have all worn off.

ME1 launched in 2007, so by any lights, it’s an old game by this point, and since I’m now playing on a 2560×1440 screen, you can see that (in fact, the Steam variant maxed out at something like 1920×1080 resolution).

On the other hand, if you can ignore a certain amount of graphic clunkiness, the game is still a lot of fun. The player character comes in six basic flavours ranging from tech through biotic to your basic chest-beating tank, and someone with a brain set up the character types, because they’re all playable, and they all have (by comparison with many games) fairly balanced advantages and disadvantages.

You also get a good range of appearance options, without ending up on the crazy end of the scale (I love the Elder Scrolls games, but you can waste a full day setting up your character appearance if you choose to tweak all  the variables).

Playing the game

ME1 is the only one where you don’t start the game neck deep in shit and sinking fast; in fact, you get notified you’re being considered for an elite squad of special operatives and get booted out of Normandy’s loading bay – your only major handicap is shitty intel on what’s actually supposed to be happening on the ground. By comparison with the problems you face five minutes into ME2 and ME3, that’s kiddy stuff.

ME1 is the first in the series, and you can see that as you play through: the character types aren’t quite as defined as they are by the time you hit ME2, the main NPCs aren’t quite as well-rounded as they are in the next two games, and at least until you put some numbers into your fight stats, even a Husk can do more than ruffle your hair (which is a bit of nuisance as you meet a lot of them during your first mission…)

On the other hand, a lot of the elements I like about all three games are there in ME1 – the main NPCs, including Garrus, who starts out very watered down in ME1 before coming into his own as a talented shit-disturber in ME2 and ME3; the paragon / renegade options, which make your interactions with the game much more nuanced than simply choosing the dialogue option closest to what you actually want to say, and of course the setting of the game itself.

Oh, and there’s a story beyond the “go there, shoot that”. The overarching story through the ME games, and the character interactions, are really why I keep going back to games that are over a decade old. To my mind they’re good in ME1, excellent in ME2, and still pretty entertaining in ME3.

The Mass Effect universe

Like a lot of people, until I hit high school and got throughly put off science and mathematics by a series of teachers who might have been much more interesting without the constraints of the school curriculum, I wanted to be an astronaut and explore strange new worlds (and climbed my parents’ bookshelves to get at the books clearly considered less-than-improving for an 8-year-old, like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern series).

There’s a nice range of planets and ships, and the opposition you end up fighting fits with the storyline. There’s also several allied species, which, while the majority are surprisingly bipedal and share a very human frame of reference, are at least a decent try.

The mass effect relays get neatly around the whole problem of light-speed (good old ‘alien tech’, can’t beat it for sci-fi), and someone who knew their audience set up the galaxy map you navigate by and the backdrops to the systems you can explore. (That said, there are entire weeks when I want just one minute alone in a scream-proofed room to make my point to the individual who programmed the Mako, which steers like a pig on hot ice in zero-gee no matter the terrain, the alleged environment, or the actual steering commands you give.)

ME1 relies heavily on omnigel, which does everything from fixing the Mako (which gets its ass blown away with tedious regularity when fighting anything with bigger guns than the local equivalent of mosquitoes) to letting you into lockers and rooms that you otherwise blow your chance to get into.

ME2 has a much more interesting system for breaking into things, which relies on solving basic pattern-puzzles on a time limit to bypass locks on rooms and safes. It also has by far the best vehicle for surface exploration, which is more of a skimmer / hover-craft…although it does share certain tell-tale steering similarities with the ME1 Mako, at least the fact that the thing is airborne makes those idiosyncracies slightly more logical.

ME3, unfortunately, decided to retire the bypass options for rooms and lockers (your omni-tool takes care of that), and any planetary exploration is done on foot – although the lack of aggravation from the steering is more than made up for by the local-area navigation system, which will ping your compass with the direction of the next goal and nothing more in most situations (much less help than you might imagine when there’s several different floors to choose from, although the good ol’ ‘take the path of most resistance’ is usually reliable).

The characters

I won’t spend a lot of time on the romance options, because there’s multiple articles on which NPCs your character can romance in each of the games (in fact, it’s a fine line in ME1 between ‘being friendly enough to get the character missions’ and ‘leading them on’), but suffice it to say you can date crew in all three games by talking to them and picking the right dialogue options. It doesn’t have a huge amount of effect on the main story other than a few cutscenes in strategic places. 

However, while Ashley has forever made herself my designated DB in ME1 by an unappealing mix of racism (specieism?) and fundamentalism, talking with the rest of the crew nets you missions and entertainment. It’s not bad in ME1, but the conversations in ME2 are fantastic, as are some of the interactions on loyalty missions between crew and NPCs (one of my favourites shows up on Miranda’s loyalty mission, where the Eclipse unit leader comes out with “Oh, I was just waiting for you to finish getting dressed – does Cerberus really let you whore around in that outfit?” right before Miranda blows her away).

The ME2 loyalty missions are one of the highlights that don’t really show up in either ME1 or ME3, much to my regret. Each of your core crew in ME2 shows up and joins the crew with basic skills and one outfit. After they’ve spent varying time aboard, each of them will open up to Shepard a bit and confess there’s something eating away at them (psychopathic daughter, secret twin, accusation of treason, you name it) which Shepard can help them sort out. Once you do, the character develops an extra skill, which ranges from the ‘why did you bother’ to ‘seriously kick-ass’, as well as an extra outift option (that last becomes a bit less interesting if you’ve invested in some of the mods, which can provide alternatives).

Whether or not you complete loyalty missions also has knock-on effects in ME3  (another fun part of this series is that someone had the foresight to plan ahead enough to let some of the decisions made in each game impact the next ones). 

Mass Effect Legendary edition

Happily, there’s an updated version of the trilogy coming out in May 2021, which I did splurge on. As it’s coming from Bioware, it’ll undoubtedly be buggy as hell until enough people complain, but I’m promised an update to the graphics I was whining about, and some of the mods the designeers consider key. We may not agree on that selection, but hopefully sooner or later some enterprising person will set up the actual key mods, including the fix for the disastrous ME3 ending, to function with the new version. 

I’m living in hopes that this is the warm-up to another ME game that’s not the same level of fuck-up as Andromeda, but even if not, I’ll cheerfully take an updated and shiny version of the original trilogy, since I don’t seem to be bored of playing them yet.

A Midsummer stroll

A Midsummer stroll

Taking a Midsummer stroll

…to my local grocery store, and then looping back long the highway.

Stream at MidsummerHaving visions of grime, graffiti, and optional gore? Yeah, not so much. This is one of the many reasons I landed in Canada fifteen years back and I’m still here. Spring in BC is when everything with roots makes like a triffid and grows like mad, and today, at the official transition from spring into summer, it’s warm, slightly rainy, and the paths are surrounded in every shade of green. That, and all the little streams have plenty of water.

My path followed this stream for quite a long way, punctuated by occasional happy dogs, and my turn beside the  highway included a patch of purple flowers. One of my other favourite trails in the area is lined in buttercups, which are one of the few flowers I actually know the name of.

One of the other nice things about this area is that mid-morning on a showery Sunday it is quite possible to walk for an hour and encounter only about five other people. This is just as well, as it seems that everyone has decided that physical distancing is far too difficult, and no one has a clue how long two metres is anyway. Much easier just to wear a mask under your chin and do what you want.

Between family and work drama, it’s been an interesting few weeks, and having crawled out from under my cats, I found myself in need of some perspective (sounds better than ‘I got up cranky AF’). Because of that, and because lockdown hasn’t been good for my non-existent exercise routine, I headed out for a walk. I’d say ‘I headed out for a walk in the forest’ but that’s the main option in this area (did I mention the phrase ‘things growing like hell’?), and hopefully the photos add any missing context.

Holiday plans

Despite the fact that I’ve been working from home since mid-March (which has been fantastic, and I wish I thought this meant my office was actually going to update their remote work policy once the crisis is over), I’m looking forwards to a few days off at the end of next week, even though what I’m actually going to do, as non-essential travel is still discouraged (in a very polite and Canadian manner) in the province, is sit on my ass in my apartment and read a bunch of new books I’ve laid in for said time off.

Honestly, three months into lockdown, and having not actually been outside Vancouver since autumn 2018, I do hope that at some point in the foreseeable future I will be able to at least take a trip to the Island for a change of scene without endangering myself or anyone else. However, despite the number of ‘ooh, look, VACAY AT LAST!!’ photos growing on social media, I’m not yet at the stage of cabin fever where ‘fuckitol’ looks like a good prescription, so books, cats, and tea stash it is. With some luck I’ll even get some more editing done.

Creek and flowersAlso, if we’re being honest, there’s a lot of worse spots to be stuck for the long term than Vancouver. Even the scabbiest parts of the city that I’ve come across are still pretty liveable, and where I’ve wound up is very far from a scabby bit. I really can walk to the store via a trail that could be the wilds of planet XZ472 in StarGate (and may have been, since most of StarGate was filmed in BC…), and there are a lot of other, even nicer, trails around.

Plus, my cats very much approve of this lockdown thing, and people working from home. It means their human is around pretty much full time in case of boredom, hunger, or a need for belly-rubs.

If you want to see (a lot of) photos of cats and how we spend our time in lockdown, my ‘author’ Instagram is a must-have resource, and you can follow me here: https://www.instagram.com/j_c_steel/

Writing to escape

Writing to escape

Meeting the voices in my head

I’d started telling myself stories as as a way of escaping whatever actual events I didn’t want to be part of by the age of five. 

Don’t get the idea from this that I had a bad childhood – on the contrary, I lived on a yacht that was variously in the Caribbean and southern Europe, I was home-schooled, I had my own dinghy, there was a cat and dog on the boat who respectively made sure I behaved and led me into trouble. However, as my parents were from the WWII generation, they saw absolutely no reason why, for example, I shouldn’t be perfectly capable of using a knife and fork and eating with my mouth closed by age three. They also thought, as an aspiring human, I should be able to sit quietly and at least not snore out loud when they had adult guests over. Quite reasonable, and I’d fucking love it if more parents today applied at least the same behavioural standards to their offspring in public as they do to their dogs. My eardrums would be a lot happier, not to mention enjoyment of restaurant meals uninterrupted by views of semi-masticated globs being spat back onto tables.

However, as there are few things more boring than to listen to a conversation that you can’t join, because, well, either the topic bores the pants off you or because most adults have issues talking to five year olds in anything other than “Is that your teddy, dear? How wonderful!”, I learnt the joys of escapism early. It probably helped that due to that homeschooling, I could read crap (“Peter and Jane saw a BUTTERFLY!!!!”) by the time I hit my third birthday, and actual books of some interest by the time I was five.

By the time I was five, I had an imaginary friend. My imaginary friend would discuss shit that interested us, like exactly what that thing on the bottom of the harbour might actually be, and just how much light refraction might be throwing off our guesses at how deep it was. My imaginary friend had other friends, most of whom I never really got to know very well. Not to mention a horse. A really big horse that would kick the crap out of people it didn’t like. (Yeah, I know, I lived on a boat. I didn’t get within thirty metres of a horse until I was ten or eleven. Don’t ask why a horse.)

Nowhere to go

Sadly, no good thing lasts forever, and by age thirteen, the boat had been sold, and I was in the middle of nowhere, France, about three months from being shipped off to boarding school. (The Famous Five has a lot to answer for.) I didn’t have any particular objections to learning to gravel patios and put up screening walls, and I already knew how to paint. There certainly wasn’t much else to do – no water, no dinghies, no beaches, no deserted islands that I was allowed to just row to and wander all over until Dad leant on the foghorn and scared all the pelicans out of the trees to call me back.

That autumn led to boarding school, in northern England, amid three hundred or so teenagers. This was in the mid-90s, and I’d never heard of Oasis. I didn’t care if my jeans were Levi, not that I got to wear jeans very often: ‘home clothes’ were treats reserved for weekends, after Saturday morning school and afternoon activities. Going into town (after school and activities), was permitted at age thirteen and up, provided you could scrape together two other people to go with (oh, ha).

Writing to escape

Luckily, my imaginary friend had been fleshed out a lot in the years between five and thirteen. She lived on a different planet. She was in training for some kind of special ops unit (did I mention that this school was a Quaker school? I was a great culture fit.) She could fly spaceships. About the only point of commonality was that we both lived in highly-regulated environments and held a very low opinion of those controlling our lives.

My imaginary friend was the mainstay that mostly kept me from resorting to some of the more popular coping mechanisms at the school, such as petty shop-lifting, alcohol, self harm, bulimia and/or anorexia, etc. Writing to escape started happening after about my first year, when someone pretty much told me to write it down already so they could read the stories.

I started in a tiny notebook I’d picked up somewhere, smaller than my hand. By the middle of the next year, I was writing on the pages in my school binders, and not at all coincidentally, doing better in class (my brain switches off fast when I’m bored, and listening to the same thing repeated ten different ways for the folks in the back reading much-fingered copies of ‘J17’ magazine was, well, boring). I wrote five novels in class in a little under three years (and, yes, smart-arse, I did pass my exams, with good grades, even) before I finally escaped to the wilds of Wales and university, and by that point, the habit of writing to escape was pretty firmly fixed.

Some twenty years later, and under substantially less pressure, I actually find that I need to consciously make time and space for writing. It is a pressure valve, and when there’s no pressure, well, less writing happens. Because I do enjoy having a ticket off-world almost whenever I can muster the concentration, it does still happen, but I’m unlikely to ever transform into one of those writers who churns out a book every couple of months – even if I could afford to not work 40 hours a week, 49 weeks a year. Nothing sucks the joy out of it quite so much as writing because  I have to write, rather than because I feel like writing (Nanowrimo 2014 taught me that while I can do it, it isn’t fun, and I end up with a hurrah’s nest of unedited crap I still haven’t dared open up to see if several years of editing could turn the “write first! Never edit as you write!” approach into a readable novel).

To sum up a very long and rambly post, most people read if they feel like escapism, which I also do. It’s just that, as the voices in my head never shut up anyway, I also write to escape. Also, because the voices in my head are of such very long standing, I actually have an incredible bonus as an author. I don’t need pages and pages of notes on planetary culture and character backstories. It’s all right there for the asking.

The litter box inspires me

The litter box inspires me

…and when I say the litter box inspires me, I mean it inspires me to do almost anything else.

This weekend it’s been inspiring me to go way outside my comfort (and competency) zone, and make some promo graphics for the Cortii series, as well as Death is for the Living. Overall, and especially compared with the first batch, which I mostly knocked together in PowerPoint, I’m fairly happy with these, although you will see why I mostly stick with the writing and leave the graphic design to them as didn’t fail art classes on several continents.

Currently I’m using the free version of Canva, which, while irritating in that most options are paid, and if you pay for a pro graphic, you get exactly one use of it, is still better and more flexible than what I was using.

So, without further ado, here are some of the graphics you may see popping up in my social media! (Cat-box inspired…)

Through the HostageWhile at some point I do plan to save up for a do-over on the cover of Through the Hostage, particularly the figure and the title font, I do love the backdrop the cover designer found, and it is actually a different section of that backdrop that I’m using as the setting for this Twitter image.

Lesley-Ann Brandt as Mazikeen, Lucifer

 

The elevator line, for those who’ve read Through the Hostage, can be squarely blamed on Senja Ventiva, Cortiora of As’ra’tan. While I haven’t, and probably won’t, scour image sites for models of how I think the Cortiian characters look, because I prefer to leave readers their own impressions, someone did challenge me once to one of those “who would play your characters if Hollywood made the movie” games, and Lesley-Ann Brandt in the first few episodes of ‘Lucifer‘ was the best match for Senja as I see her that I’ve ever come across.

Fighting ShadowsFighting Shadows is also up at some point for a cover re-do. This one I’m actually very fond of the initial title font, but the background image doesn’t really have anything to do with the story, even though I do love the dramatics and the camera flare. To date, it’s also one of the only storylines where you see the whole of Wildcat Cortia acting in one of the ‘bread-and-butter’ roles for Cortiian units – advance infiltration and shock troops, both areas in which the Federated Planets alliance troops are shockingly (aha) bad.

Lucy Liu in Elementary

 

I’ve never found that perfect actress to play Khyria. As several book reviewers have pointed out in varying degrees of shock, she’s female, and she doesn’t feature in one of the approved female positions in a plot, by which I mean mostly between the hero and a mattress. Because of that predominant lack of women in similar roles, I’m still looking. I wouldn’t turn down Lucy Liu, in the unlikely event that the Cortii series ever got picked up as a major event by the film-making industry, but it’s far from an exact match.

Elemental Affinity promoAside from the title font, which looks more thriller than sci-fi to me, I really do like the cover for Elemental Affinity. The cover designer took my few lines of ‘these are some of the settings, this is basically what the book’s about’ and came up with something that matches the White Mountains fort very closely.

Liam Neeson

 

I have no idea who might be suitable to play Cahan, Lord Warleader of the Golden Valleys, but I do have a potential suspect for the captain of his guard, Warron. Warron shows up as a secondary character in Elemental Affinity, Elemental Conflict, and in the Unaltered novella, and is basically responsible for making sure his lord remains mostly unperforated, a role he shares in Elemental Affinity with Khyria.

Elemental Conflict promoAnd I really do love the cover for Elemental Conflict. I don’t like the title font for a sci-fi series, but the cover image is perfect and I will fight to keep it. It was also the one where I probably cam closest to driving my long-suffering cover designer nuts, but then again, he does say ‘unlimited revisions’ in the website…

Kyle Schmid in CSI Miami

 

I have been looking for that perfect actor to play Anst an Nabat, who comes into the forefront of the series in Elemental Conflict. I haven’t seen a perfect match yet in terms of ‘if Hollywood picked up the series and money was no object’ but Kyle Schmid might be closer than some.

 

Unaltered promoAnd finally, Unaltered, the Cortii series novella I had no intention of writing until I found myself unable to concentrate on the shit I was supposed to be doing for two months straight, and on which I then wrote at least one 6,000 word day… This cover is from Covers by Robin, and it’s one of my favourites.

Irin Seviki

 

Also, since before coming across Covers by Robin I was getting desperate enough to consider trying to learn to use Gimp sufficiently well to pull my own cover together (don’t do this, really, it’s a job for an expert), I did actually spend some irritating hours scouring sites for an image I could accept for Irin Seviki, and this was the best I found.

And of course the boxset, which is also designed by Covers by Robin, which I grabbed for my post header. One day I hope print on demand will get to the point where I can actually bring out a serious boxset that looks like that, but for the time being the boxset is e-book only and due to the strain on my very limited supply of patience posed by interior formatting for multiple different platforms, it’s currently also my only Kindle Unlimited offering.

Etymology Excavation: quarantine

Etymology Excavation: quarantine

Etymology excavation: Quarantine

Quarantine as we know it today comes from the C15th Venetian word ‘quarantena’, and meant ‘forty’. Forty days was the required isolation period for ships before they were allowed to off-load in Venice or ports controlled by Venice during the outbreak of the Black Plague.

Essentially, if no one showed any signs of any infectious diseases after that 40-day period, Venetian officials would give them their certificate and let them disembark. If infection broke out, it would run its course shipboard, and any survivors who made it 40 days from the end of the outbreak with no further signs were then considered clear.

Even today, ships waiting for Customs clearance in a new harbour will fly a solid yellow flag (the ‘Q’ flag), which is basically a self-declaration that they have no infectious diseases aboard and are safe for Customs agents to board and clear. A ‘Yellow Jack’ flag, with alternating black and yellow quarters, means the opposite – the ship has an infection aboard and is under quarantine.

Venice was not the first example of an established quarantine system. There are documented examples of it going back as far as the 7th or 8th centuries in India and the Middle East. A lot of these earlier quarantine systems were fairly ruthless in their application, and more or less consisted of running the sick or those suspected of being sick out of town to live or die well away from other people.

The root of the word ‘quarantena’ goes back even further, to Proto-Indo-European ‘kwetwer’, or ‘four’, with offshoots in languages from French to Gaelic to Persian to Latin.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

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