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World Building With Tweets for 'Mass Effect 3'

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Friday, Mar 23, 2012
On March 5th the fictional Alliance News Network Twitter account stopped being a promotional news feed and became a personal story.

In Mass Effect 2, the Cerberus Daily News Network was an in-game news feed located on the title screen. It would update daily, offering players a glimpse of what was going on in the galaxy while Shepard was off doing his thing. Since Shepard’s mission was secretive by nature, taking him to places that existed far outside the scrutiny of the general galactic media, his view of the galaxy was too narrow to incorporate these other aspects of world building. For example, Shepard didn’t care about financial corruption on the Citadel or the latest box office blockbuster, but I did. As a player invested in this universe, I wanted to know more about it than what Shepard could see, and the Cerberus Daily News Network was a smart way to please fans like me while not filling the game with needless expository world building.
  
The CDNN was a very transient tool of world building. Once a daily message disappeared, it was gone for good. There was no archive accessible from within Mass Effect 2 (thankfully, some people saw fit to record each for blogs and wikis). This transience was frustrating, but that’s also what made it so effective. Players could follow fictional news in real time. The feed would follow a single big news story for an entire week, then drop it, then revisit it a week later when there was something new to report. If you read the feed every day, you were rewarded with a fascinating series of intersecting stories. It was a method of world building that rewarded investment.


In Mass Effect 3, the galaxy is in a very different situation. Every solar system is threatened by the Reapers, and communication between most systems is cut off. Shepard is only able to travel because of the Normandy’s stealth systems; that’s why he’s the lone arbiter of interspecies alliances. Throughout the game, we travel across the galaxy to many different planets, and we see how the Reaper invasion is affecting each major culture. We get that grand scale view of galactic goings-on that we didn’t get in Mass Effect 2.


But news organizations still exist. This time we get the Alliance News Network, and instead of focusing on galactic news, we get a focus on the war on earth. And it doesn’t use an in-game messaging service that can theoretically spread across the galaxy; it uses a messaging service more directly connected to earth: Twitter.


The feed mainly focuses on the events of March 5th, the day of the Reaper invasion. There are tweets before and after that date, but the major bulk of the messages were sent on that day. The ANN therefore offers a very narrow look at a very grand scale invasion. In essence, the ANN and Shepard have effectively switched roles in how each relates to the greater fiction around them.


What’s interesting about using Twitter is that the social site is transient by nature. Messages appear and then get buried over time. It’s not a permanent archive. This satisfies the role of a news feed, and the early posts were exactly what you’d expect: random headlines about a stolen New Year’s Eve ball and a newly opened supercollider, the kind of forgettable news you see from a daily news feed. But then the feed starts to foreshadow the invasion with stories about communications buoy failure and a sudden influx of batarian traffic with a link to the full story.


These early posts serve the same function as the CDNN, giving us a view of the galaxy beyond Shepard’s own. But then on March 5th, the Twitter account stopped being a typical news feed and became a personal story as “Emily Wong of FCC News” tries to keep the news coming through a text-only feed. This turns the Twitter account into more of a standalone story than a mere tool for world building. Over the course of the day, we read as Emily and other survivors slowly come to understand the nature of the invasion, that this isn’t a war as much as it is a harvest, and it makes for a surprisingly absorbing story. The last message on that day is “SIGNAL LOSS” and then two days later it resumed as a headline feed.


Since all the tweets are all dated and time stamped, they give us a real-time look at invasion. This adds an unsettling sense of voyeurism to the feed. By removing this bit of world building from the game itself and by co-opting an actual social network for this fictional account, the messages have more dramatic weight because they feel more real. The medium of delivery supplements this war story.


It’s disturbing in the best way possible, a way that adds weight, drama, and tension to the story. It’s disturbing in a way that it makes it reflect reality. The users may be tweeting about an alien invasion, but change a few messages here and there (take out the flying cars) and it can become an actual account of war.


It seems to have becomes a typical promotional Twitter account now, but for a couple of days, it served as a new kind of world building.

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