Last night, 15,000 civilians tried to save the world from an alien invasion.

We failed.

If you’ve been following gaming news at all, you may be aware that Mass Effect 3 came out out in the US today. Here’s a trailer to bring you up to speed on the background for the game.

So a couple of weeks ago, this Twitter feed starts up.

Delayed Collider Now Online #AllianceNewsHeadline

— AllianceNewsNetwork (@AllianceNewsNet) February 21, 2012

It’s not obvious what it’s there for at first, but as time goes on, tweets like the following start to appear.

Buoys at batarian homeworld still down. Governor of Camala colony: “We know the Alliance has stealth vessels. This is obviously an attack.”

— AllianceNewsNetwork (@AllianceNewsNet) March 1, 2012

And then yesterday:

Thank you for bearing with us. Earth is currently experiencing a comm buoy outage.#solcomms

— AllianceNewsNetwork (@AllianceNewsNet) March 5, 2012

Emily Wong, a reporter and minor character from the first two games, is filing copy via a Quantum Entanglement Communicator. All of Earth’s comm buoys have gone down, you see, so she’s reduced to a text-only feed of only a hundred and forty characters.

Over the next few hours, in realtime, Emily livetweets the invasion of Earth. And she’s using the hashtag #solcomms.

A twitter hashtag is formed by adding a # followed by a word in your tweet. It’s then easy to pull any tweets out which have that hashtag in them, and display them all together.

Which means that anyone else on Twitter who wanted to tell their stories about the invasion could too.

I started following Emily’s story – the aliens had landed in Los Angeles and were destroying everything in their path. Then other people started joining in. Cities across the world, all under attack not because the writers at BioWare had demanded it be so, but because it was interesting and fun.

People started uploading photographs of the alien attacks. I even took a photo of one myself.

(You’ll notice the huge Mass Effect field from the alien starship as it fires its deadly main gun causing a flare that makes it look like a quick photoshop job. Look, I was there, all right? I know what I saw!)

We created our own stories last night. We took pieces of other people’s stories and made them our own. I exchanged tweets with people talking about the best places to try and escape from London. Someone tweeted that the last bridge across the Thames had been destroyed, and I built that into my own world.

I asked my (real-life) housemates if they wanted to try to run with me. Nick told me where he’d like to spend his last hour of life.

Housemates wouldn’t evac. Nick’s in the garden with gin and tonic, flames reflecting in his eyes. I don’t think he’ll even run. #solcomms

— Piers Beckley (@piersb) March 5, 2012

I tweeted about my run across the deserted streets to Brixton, and then built someone into my story – a biotic (someone with psychic powers) who saved my life, but then slipped in and out of consciousness. And I didn’t know how to treat her.

Except I-the-writer did. But I-the-character didn’t know the lore about biotics (when they use their powers, they exhaust their stores of energy, and need lots of energy intake quickly to avoid collapsing.)

Three of those… things… came at us. I’d managed to get her half-way out the rubble, and they just crawled from the ground. #solcomms.

— Piers Beckley (@piersb) March 5, 2012

I think they were human. Once. And she just picked them up and threw them against the wall with her mind. And they broke. #solcomms

— Piers Beckley (@piersb) March 5, 2012

She’s slipping in and out of consciousness. Whatever it was she did, it took it out of her. Anyone know anything about biotics? #solcomms

— Piers Beckley (@piersb) March 5, 2012

I’ve got a biotic who’s just saved my life three times over. And she needs something but I don’t know the fuck what it is. #solcomms.

— Piers Beckley (@piersb) March 5, 2012

And there’s no medi-gel and if I can’t figure out what she needs we’re both going to die here. And I don’t. Want. To. Die. #solcomms

— Piers Beckley (@piersb) March 5, 2012

And I-the-writer decided that unless someone was able to respond to my cries for help within 15 minutes, the monsters would come back and we’d both die there.

And I sat back, nervously, and waited.

And five minutes later, Heidi T Ewing (swiftly followed by several more people) saved my life.

@piersb Can you get her any food/IV nourishment? Hear biotics mess your system up. #solcomms

— Heidi T Ewing (@htewing) March 5, 2012

It was a visceral experience.

And it wasn’t just me. Thousands of people were telling their stories of the invasion, in real time, across the world. An improvisational drama with no guiding force other than the fact that we all knew the world in which we were playing, and the fact that many millions of people were going to die that day.

I saw stories of heroism, and of fear last night. All created in the moments they were told.

Emily Wong’s story came to an end too. To the best of my knowledge the only “official” character of the 15,000 or so playing, she used the only weapon she had left – the skyvan she was flying – to take down one of the invaders.

You want to see how a human dies? At ramming speed. #solcomms

— AllianceNewsNetwork (@AllianceNewsNet) March 6, 2012

Millions of people died last night.

We all killed them.

We sent aliens into their houses to kidnap them and impale them while they were still alive.

And this week, most of those responsible will fire up our new games, and take revenge for the destruction that we wrought.

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