BioWare writer Patrick Weekes, who was one of the writers on Mass Effect 2, has explained how one of the most unsubtle lines in the series’ history came to be. I’d even go as far as to say it’s the most unsubtle line in the entire franchise. It’s so lacking in subtlety that it’s good — though Weekes knows it usually doesn’t come across that well among players.
The particular line is one exclusive to someone playing lady Commander Shepard, and it’s the line required to begin a romance with Thane Krios, one of the new party members of Mass Effect 2. That line also occurs in only the second private conversation you have with him, and during particularly questionable timing.
During his second conversation with you, Thane talks about his wife, Irikah, who was killed when his enemies came after her and their son, Kolyat. As a professional assassin, making enemies is something that came with Thane’s line of work — and it sadly cost him one of the two people most important to him.
“Irikah woke me up,” Thane regretfully says. “When she passed, I returned to my battle sleep. My body hunted her killers. Murdered them. I was taught to grant death quickly, cleanly. To minimize suffering. Them — I let them linger … They’re the only lives I’ve ever taken out of my own choice. The only deaths on my own conscience.” It’s all quite sad, especially since Thane is evidently a hired killer but not one at heart. He’s a deeply spiritual man who prays for forgiveness after his kills, which he tries to execute as painlessly and mercilessly as possible.
“I haven’t spoken about my wife in — I don’t think I ever have. I didn’t have anyone left to tell it to,” he says, emphasizing the significance behind him confiding in Shepard with this information. And, like any conversation like this would logically progress, of course, your two options in response to this are: “Just focus on your son,” and, “I want you, Thane.”
I remember playing Mass Effect 2 and guffawing when this option came up. But, as Weekes explains in a long Twitter thread, it’s not a decision that was made lightly — or without awareness about how funny it looked. Here’s the full context of the thread:
Late 2009. I’m on Mass Effect 2. Given that we’re only a few months from ship, Mass Effect 2 is also on me. I’m one of a few writers left on the project, tackling bugs. A bug comes in saying that there’s a lack of clarity around the opt-in to Thane’s romance — you only get one chance to choose to romance him, and they’re missing it, and therefore missing a bunch of content. And some folks are opting in by accident, too.
Thane’s writer has left the team, so I look at the conversation. It’s a great conversation! But I can also see how you could look at the dialogue options and not realize that one of them is you saying, “Let’s start a relationship.” So, yes, needs to be fixed.
2020 Brain: Wouldn’t the big heart icon make that clear?
Aha, but this is 2009. ME2 (and even ME3) didn’t use icons to indicate that you were entering a relationship. No hover text on big choices, either! (See also, “How people accidentally ended up showering with [Samantha] Traynor.”)
2020 Brain: Okay, so let’s rewrite the end of the scene, touching the original writer’s lines as lightly as possible, to add a clean chance to opt into a romance with Thane. Aha, but this is LATE 2009. This scene is LOCKED. No dialogue changes possible. Game DONE, yo.
Thane is talking about how his wife died. He’s never told anyone. A Shepard who wants to romance Thane tells him she’s there for Thane to lean on, whatever he needs. Original paraphase was something like, “I’m here for you.” The writer (Chris L’Etoile) did an amazing job.
But players who wanted to romance Thane didn’t understand that this dialogue choice was their one and only chance to get onto a romance path with him. And players who DIDN’T want to romance Thane didn’t like stumbling onto it by accident.
So, in the end, the dilemma led to this final ultimatum for Weekes.
2009 Me: So I have no heart icon, I can’t change the dialogue at all. Literally I can do is change the paraphrase, and I have to change it so nobody has any doubt about what this line indicates.
2009 Me: Nailed it. pic.twitter.com/BUu41oD6wy
— Patrick Weekes (@PatrickWeekes) May 22, 2020
Weekes goes on to elaborate that they knew this was Not a good paraphrase. But, as per the incredibly complex and demanding process that is game development, this was the best last-minute solution they could come up with at the time. It might’ve been wildly unsubtle, but it did accomplish offering clarity to the player about what they were about to get into.
Did 2009 Me think this was a good paraphrase? WOW NO! Was it the best 2009 Me could come up with to be 100% clear, with no other changes available and paraphrases limited to 30 characters? APPARENTLY YES!
Every time I see this play on Twitch, the player makes fun of the paraphrase. “Subtle, Shepard!” And they are totally right! I wish we’d caught this earlier, so I could’ve changed the lines or done SOMETHING less clunky than this.
But this is what last-minute fixes look like.
Again, no great moral here, except that I’m glad we have better tools now — icons to indicate you’re flirting, hover text to make it clear that you’re entering a relationship, that kind of thing.
And also that changing context by only changing paraphrases is real clunky.
In a follow-up tweet added to the thread an hour later, Weekes says that, using only 2009 tech, 2020 Weekes would’ve instead incorporated the line, “You matter to me, Thane.” This is because it was less than 30 characters and, “about as clear, and much cleaner as a topic transition. (To be fair, 2009 me erred on clarity because it was filed as a bug.)”
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It’s easy to see why Weekes preferred to have no subtlety than too much subtlety. Being able to have engaging romances with some complicated and multi-dimensional characters is one of the features BioWare games are most known for. Many people who romance characters in their games, like me, take romance pretty seriously. It’s a connection that offers even more depth to an already compelling character — as BioWare characters tend to be — and adds to the individual feel of one’s playthrough.
Therefore, accidentally getting into a romance with a character has been an issue for players before. The first Mass Effect is notorious for this problem; look up accidental romances and you’ll find several articles and Reddit posts written by players who stumbled into a romance with party member Liara T’Soni because they were a little too nice. It also happened with Ashley Williams and Kaidan Alenko, the other two romance options in the first game, for other players, so it’s likely the team made sure to address this in future entries. And address it, they did — to an accidentally hilarious point, as evident through Weekes’ story. While it’s clear the line could’ve been better, it’s one of those things that can come across as charming to fans in retrospect. That we finally have a more than understandable explanation for how it came to be only adds to its charm.
Understandably, though, new players today tend to react to the line in ways the team certainly didn’t intend. While it’s unclear as to what could be changed in the rumored Mass Effect trilogy remaster, perhaps it’s a problem that can be rectified.