The gamer's name was Dave – he was twenty three, had a brown beard and long brown hair, and usually wore a t-shirt with some pop-culture reference or another on it. He was not just "a" gamer – he was a consummate, practically professional gamer (his chief regret in life was that no one got paid to play their favourite video games, although he was pursuing the possibility of a YouTube partnership to that effect, which would have been sweet!).
One of his favourite kinds of game – the kind he would always make time for – was the RPG. He had played KOTOR 1 and 2, Oblivion, Skyrim, Jade Empire, all the Final Fantasy games (even XIII – fucking XIII) and even had a TOR account, but most importantly, in the Mass Effect series.
Dave had been playing Mass Effect for three and a half years now, always taking the opportunity to play it just a little bit differently. He had played almost every variant he could think of, made decisions differently, played the suicide mission to the very end, killed everyone, killed no one, lost people, gained people, and in short, played the game to death. However, in all this, he realised one day that he had never simply played the Mass Effect games from start to finish, making the decisions he wanted to.
So here he was, starting a new character on Mass Effect.
Her name was Katarina. She was mostly the default female but Dave had given her white eyeliner and blonde hair, as well as different eyes and less prominent cheeks. He liked the default female but she always looked too severe. The next eyes along always seemed... nicer, and making her blonde, as well as the eyeliner, made her look almost angelic.
His mother would so tell him to get a life if she could see him right now. Ha.
He picked the simple soldier class – he almost always resorted to simple "blow it up" tactics anyway, so picking the class best suited for that seemed logical. As a rule, Dave decided Katarina would be paragon, but would have little patience for much in the way of bullshit – and thus would not get along with the Council at all. He picked the spacer origin, and the sole survivor background – he felt it was the best contrast to how... almost vulnerable she looked.
At first, everything seemed pretty much as expected. Eden Prime was Eden Prime. In fact, nothing was unusual at all about this playthrough...
... until Dave got to Flux on the Citadel.
He had played this game a hundred times. Was familiar with how it worked, with the characters and with their stories. With the art direction, the outfits the people wore, the way they moved. He must have interacted with every interact-able NPC ever. And so when he saw someone who, by rights, shouldn't have been there, he was naturally curious.
The man was tall. He had long auburn hair, and wore clothes that could feasibly be called anachronistic by Mass Effect standards – a knee length leather coat, dark jip-up jacket with a red t-shirt visible underneath, and dark, rugged trousers that looked like combat pants. Dave had never seen this character model before, and so he had Katarina approach him. To his surprise, an interact symbol appeared over his head.
Jed? That wasn't someone he'd ever heard of. He made a mental note to look it up on the wiki later. He pressed the talk button on his controller. As the interactions cutscene began, he got a better look at "Jed" – the man had stubble, tired eyes, and a slightly gaunt look – he was pale and looked vaguely unhappy.
"Commander Shepard, I presume, judging by Lieutenant Alenko and Gunnery Chief Williams," the new character began. Dave frowned. How did this character know so much? Some agent of the Shadow Broker Dave had missed? Definitely something to look up.
"How do you know us?" Kaidan said from behind Katarina on the screen.
"Interesting question, Lieutenant Alenko," the man said, and a half grin came onto his face. "But you'd never believe my answer and I'm not inclined to be carted off to the space loony bin today."
Katarina had a few options how to proceed – the paragon option said "who are you?" and the renegade option said "have you been spying on me?" The middle option was empty. Interesting. David chose the paragon option.
"You seem to have the advantage of us, Mr...?" Katarina said, politely.
"Ha!" the man laughed. "I have the advantage of your last name and little more about the other two. You have the advantage of plot armour, actual armour, and weapons. I rather think your advantage outweighs mine."
Now Dave was confused. Plot armour? That was referring to her as if she were a fictional character, and that was breaking the fourth wall – this was all a little meta for a Mass Effect character interaction. Shepard had the option of asking his name again or leaving, and Dave was disturbed enough to pick the latter.
"Whatever," Katarina said. "I'm out of here."
"Jed," the man said suddenly. Katarina looked at him and frowned. "My name is Jed. If you want to know more, I suggest you come back another time. I'll return."
And with that he left, and Katarina Shepard and her crewmates were left standing around. Dave was perturbed enough to pause the game and save it, before closing down for the moment. He decided to look up "Jed".
The wiki was usually very reliable, and thankfully enough, it didn't disappoint. "Jed" had been noted already – and apparently, Dave hadn't been derelict in his gaming before. No one had ever encountered him before. Ever. It was as if a new character had just materialised in the coding of the game. On the forums, people were debating how that was even possible – some update? Nah, that wasn't possible. The weirdest thing being, no one from Bioware knew who the hell this guy was either – it went from weird to "down the fucking rabbit hole" as someone ever so eloquently put it.
According to the spoilers on the wiki, the "Jed" character was... unpredictable. Gave weird answers to questions, sometimes ended up in a different chair, almost never gave exactly the same reaction twice. As if he wasn't governed by the laws of video game characters.
That night, Dave returned to Katarina, and (after picking up Wrex, Garrus and Tali and getting his character her Spectre status) went looking for Jed, Garrus and Tali in tow. He found him at the bar in Flux.
"Commander," he said once Dave began interacting. "I figured you'd come find me."
"How do you know me?", "Who are you," or "Do you work for Saren?" were Dave's options. He went for the first.
"I know I've got a bit of a reputation, but I'm not known to the extent you seem to," Katarina said.
"I dunno," Jed replied, half smiling. It looked odd – almost too well animated for this game. "I figure the first human Spectre deserves her recognition. I assume you've actually gotten that far and I've not given the game away?"
"The game?", "Yes, I'm a Spectre," or "Stop speaking in riddles" were the options. Dave wasn't normally impatient, but this was freaking him out. Almost like there was... an invader in his game. He picked the last option.
"Talk straight, damn you," Katarina said, pointing at Jed. "I want to know who the hell you are and how you know so much!"
Instead of looking at Shepard as he replied, Jed looked at Garrus Vakarian. He smiled.
"You had reach, she had flexibility," he said simply.
"How the hell did you...?" Garrus reacted immediately, and Dave nearly dropped the controller. A direct quote from Mass Effect 2?
"And Tali'Zorah nar Rayya," the strange new character continued, "daughter of Rael'Zorah. An Admiral's daughter, no less. He wants to build you a house on your people's home world." The auburn haired man took a swig from his drink. "Poor bugger." He grimaced. "And poor me, as well. No coca cola, here, d'you know that? One would think it would have boomed. Still, needs must when the devil gate drives." He laughed. "Thank God for Suzy Quattro," he added.
"How do you know so much about me?" Tali asked. Katarina's options were all variations on "what are you", and Dave picked the renegade one, freaked out as he was.
"What the hell are you, some kind of spy?" Katarina said, brandishing her pistol.
"Renegade for life, Commander?" Jed said, a smile on his computer generated face. "Killing me won't tell you anything. Might get me out of here though, but I've got no certainty of that. Tell you what." He turned to look at Katarina properly. "If you take me with you, then I'll tell you everything I can."
"Take you with us?" Garrus said immediately. "And what skills do you have?"
"Apparently espionage," Jed shot back. "I have a few pointers. Call me your Prima Guide to the game of life, Commander."
Dave was now well past "freaked out" and into "this is insanely weird" territory. He quickly picked the "hell no" option and left Jed in the bar, drinking.
What the fuck was this shit?
The wiki's were confused.
Jed Rhodes was his name. People talked to him in the game, took him with them. He didn't have any skills – was untrained with everything but the pistol and apparently had shit health. No one knew why this character existed. He could die in Mass Effect 1, trying to save the person you didn't – if you didn't convince him not to.
It was impossible, but suddenly, every interface in the game was modified. Like reality had warped or something. He even migrated to Mass Effect 2, where he was apparently waiting on Omega for you and followed right to the end, though he was apparently so recent that nobody had taken him to the end of that game yet. He constantly referenced events that he should have no knowledge of, constantly knew more than he should.
Who was he? What was he?
Dave was determined to find out.
"Commander," the new character said. "Have you reconsidered my offer?"
He was sitting at a different table. A lazy grin, almost too detailed, on his computer generated face. He looked up at the ceiling.
Dave picked yes. He could deal with having a useless character in a game, and by now every Mass Effect gamer on the planet was dealing with the mystery that was this new character.
"If you know something about Saren, I need to know about it," Shepard said.
"Certainly, Commander," the man said, standing up. "I shall wait for you on your ship, shall I?"
And with that he walked off. No choice to join the squad, just a straight up exit. Blinking in surprise, Dave saved and headed for the Normandy.
Everything pretty much played normally from that point on, up until Dave went looking for "Jed" on the Normandy. He found him sat at the mess table, leaning forward. Initiating the conversation, Dave paid close attention, trying to discern any clues he could.
"Commander Shepard," the new character said. "What can I do for you?"
"I want to talk about you," or "investigate". Dave picked the former.
"Do you have a minute to talk?" Katarina Shepard asked.
"Alright," Jed said, leaning back. "I'll assume you want to know more about me. I can't blame you. Strange man, one you've never seen before, knows more about you than he should, more about your crewmates than he should. Got to ask yourself, who the hell is this guy? Am I right?"
"Yes." "Sort of." "No." Dave picked the first option.
"I'll admit to some curiosity," Katarina said.
"No harm there," Jed sighed. "Ok. Can you promise what I have to say will stay between us?"
"Of course". "Depends". "I'll decide that". Dave picked "depends".
"If it threatens the security of the ship, I can't keep that promise," Katarina said, heavily.
"That's fair," Jed said. He leaned forward, and for a moment, looked to be thinking about something, a computer generated frown on his brow. "You know Lord of the Rings?"
"Yes". "Vaguely". "No". Dave picked yes, since Lord of the Rings was one of his favourite movies.
"Ok," Jed said. "That makes it easy. Imagine you were in Lord of the Rings. Don't ask me how it happens. Imagine you were just transported there one day, without warning, pitched into a world you didn't know, except maybe as a fictional one. Imagine you met Frodo Baggins."
"Go on". "Is this going somewhere?" "Get to the point". Dave picked the Paragon option, sensing that this was the story that would tell him the answer to his question.
"Ok," Katarina said.
"You and I both know how much Frodo suffers in his journey," Jed said, looking up at Katarina. "So – you end up in Lord of the Rings. Do you help Frodo? More importantly, do you tell Frodo that everything he's going to suffer, everything he already has suffered, everything everyone in his world has suffered, was the creation of a guy for entertainment purposes? Could you do that?"
"Why is this relevant?" "So?" "Get to the point!" Dave again picked the Paragon option.
"Where are you going with this, Jed?" Katarina asked.
"I asked that this stay between us, Commander," Jed said, looking away from Katarina, "but I don't think I trust you enough yet to continue this train of thought. Talk to me again another time. Now, is there anything else?"
Dave left the conversation then and there. This was getting beyond freaky. Had he just insinuated...? He couldn't have just insinuated that he wasn't a game character...?
Jed wasn't just a little meta – he was ultra meta.
The wiki entries were freaked out as all hell. People who had gotten further than Dave were insisting - this was not just a game character. The more people realised that this character wasn't meant to be there, the more the idea of exactly where he had come from remained, and more importantly, the more the question got asked – was he even a game character? Or was he something more horrifying - a real person, trapped inside?
It was fantasy stuff. Insanity. The idea that a real person was in the game? That was ultra-cosmic-dimension-warping wibble-wobbley-timey-wimey-bullshit.
Some options let the player call him crazy. He'd tell you to leave him alone and not be much cop as a conversationalist after that. Some conversations however, were a lot different...
The full story, according to the walkthrough, came out with an entirely paragon approach to the second conversation you had with the "Jed" character. People had gone through a lot of trial and error with this, and sometime it came out if you picked a couple of renegade or neutral choices, but the only guarantee was to go Paragon.
Dave could almost imagine the conversation that followed from his character's perspective...
Katarina walked up to Jed, the enigmatic young man who seemed to know so much about her and her team on the Citadel. He had confused her, worried her, but somehow convinced her to take him with her after a couple of brief conversations.
"Commander," he said as she approached.
"I've been thinking about our last conversation," she said honestly.
"Ah yes," Jed said, a smile breaking out on his face. "Interesting, wasn't it? A peculiar thought – what would you do if you were in a fictional universe." He murmured something that Shepard could barely catch. "How often I asked that question."
"I was wondering where precisely you were going with it?" Shepard asked. Jed looked at her.
"You're very alive," he said. "Didn't expect that. All of you, I mean. Garrus doesn't just stand by the Mako, Tali doesn't stay cooped up in engineering. I've been here a lot longer than a day." He smirked. "In my example about Frodo, I left out the most important question."
"Which is?" Katarina asked, narrowing her eyes slightly.
"If you were Frodo, and someone told you that you were fictional, how would you react?" the young man asked. Shepard considered this for a moment.
"I... suppose, I'd be sceptical, for one thing," Shepard said. She narrowed her eyes at him. "Is that what you're saying to me, Jed?"
"I've always believed that somewhere, in some dimension, what happens in fiction happens for real," Jed said, leaning back nonchalantly. "That might be what happened to me here, although this is certainly a very weird happening if that's the case..."
"You're saying that I – that all of this – is fictional?" Shepard asked, not believing what she was hearing.
"I'm saying I come from a place where this is all fictional, which is not quite the same thing," Jed said. "I'm lucky – I always believed in parallel universes and all that crap, so I reckon being trapped here is a lot less traumatic for me than it would be for someone who wasn't into this sort of thing."
A new character – one who had never been in the game before – claiming that he was from a universe where Mass Effect was fiction?
Damn this interface – there was no option for Shepard to ask more, it seemed set on her walking away from him, considering him a loony. Picking the paragon option – Katarina excusing herself with a quick "ok... I'd better go now," and Jed replying with "of course" – was the best he could do. What the hell had happened here?
Next time he went down to the mess area with Katarina, Jed was still sat there. Entering into conversation with him was easy enough... Dave had looked up the walkthroughs, and apparently it was possible to get him to talk more about his background.
Dave supposed he could have just watched the playthroughs – God knew, lots of people, even top scientists and Bioware people – were playing the game again, to see this phenomenon of dimensional fuckery. But this Jed was the one Dave wanted to hear it from. First hand. Unmodded.
"Commander Shepard," Jed said, sat back and not looking at her. "That's interesting, that. The name Shepard. You've certainly gathered some interesting lost sheep."
"Last time we talked, you told me you came from another dimension," Katarina said bluntly.
"And you walked off, clearly thinking I was mad," Jed replied, looking at her. "I'm not. I considered that. I've been here a couple of years, and believe me, it was not easy. I'm only lucky I knew how many years after the First Contact War you were meant to be coming to the Citadel after, or I'd have missed you and my chance to make a difference."
"Why am I so important?" Katarina asked. "Is it something to do with the... the fiction you've read?"
"Not read," Jed corrected. "Played."
"You're a game," the young man said, leaning forward onto the table. "Interactive. Highly customisable. I compliment your creator, by the way."
Dave blinked. Had he just been complemented by a game character on his Shepard? Was that even possible?
"One of my favourite games too, although I think this is a little too close for comfort..." Jed continued.
"No offense, but what you're talking about is impossible," Shepard said, as gently as she could. Clearly, he was mentally disturbed in some way. She wasn't exactly certain how mentally disturbed, but the thought that the universe he was in was some fiction was a pretty massive delusion .
"I know that!" Jed snapped, standing up. Katarina's eyes flicked over to Kaidan Alenko, who looked over. She subtly shook her head. "I thought about it a lot. What if in fact all of this was some massive delusion on my part, that the game Mass Effect was in fact created by my subconscious and I've been in some messed up coma for years? What if, in fact, the man I thought I was never existed?" Jed approached her, got right up in her face. "Equally Commander, I've often thought that this place, this reality, was the delusion. I could be having the longest nightmare of my life. Or be in a coma. Or even hell."
He sat down again, his anger seemingly spent. "I have thought about every option, Commander Shepard." He put his head in his hands. "The only logical conclusion I can come up with is that somehow, be it coma, messed up dimensional stuff or magic mushroom – I am here." He lifted his head and looked at her. "You haven't shot me yet, nor have you decided to hand me in. I wonder why."
Katarina had no answer for him.
But Dave did. The options for the last couple of minutes had included the option to put a bullet in him, or to call Alenko over to restrain him, but Dave had let him speak. Dave had let him speak – and the implications of what he was saying...
Maybe he was just new code. Some character that Mass Effect's last update imported, if that were possible. But if he was in fact someone that had been sucked into the Mass Effect universe, by some unhappy, crazy, Star-Trek-Eat-Your-Fucking-Heart-Out coincidence, Dave had to try and help him.
Maybe everyone who played alongside him had those thoughts. Maybe every gamer thought, "I need to get this guy out." Maybe it was just Dave. But some part of him felt real sorrow for the plight of a man who had been thrown into a world he was impossibly out of his depth in.
He picked the next paragon option.
"I've seen a lot of things in the universe," Katarina said, not certain what was driving her to say the words. "A lot of crazy things. I'm probably gonna see more before this is over."
She held out her hand, and Jed took it.
"I promise you," she said. "I'll help you any way I can."
The young man smiled at her, and nodded.
"You have my word, Commander Shepard," he replied. "That I will do all I can to help you, as well."
And Dave silently added his vow – he would try to get this guy out of the game world too – any way he could.
And on that note, the one-shot version of this idea ends.
I approached this story with the simple thought of wanting to do a self-insert, but not a traditional self insert: I wanted to do something different. Then it occurred to me – if someone was actually put into Mass Effect, then surely that would affect the gamers playing it as well? It's something of a nightmare fuel situation – someone trapped in a game, and you know that there's someone trapped in a game because you're the one playing it. That's a freaky concept, isn't it? When the guy on the screen is suddenly talking to you?
The someone in question is me. If you're gonna do a self-insert, make it yourself, that's how I see it. I'd like to say this is how I'd react, but the truth is a lot of that part's guesswork and possible exaggeration of how sane I'd be, which is to be fair what most self-inserts are as far as I can tell.
I decided that it wouldn't just be Dave's disc that had my poor self on because, if that were the case, what would stop him just buying another disc? Making it a worldwide problem with Mass Effect – a copy of me on every disc as it were – makes it harder for the new character to be dismissed as a random coding problem or similar. Makes it harder for him to be dismissed at all, in point of fact.
I figure I know how this entire scenario plays out – I have no idea exactly how the fictional version of myself in this story got in there, but I know what – roughly – happens to him. If I get time, I might even write more of the adventures of Dave – playing Katarina – and the self-insert version of me.
Until such time as I decide to do so, I leave you with this. I hope it's not been too unenjoyable.