There’s a popular theory that — for videogames to evolve — they should become more cinematic and/or novelistic, with emotionally realistic characters undertaking a classical hero’s journey in the context of shooting aliens or stealing cars. That describes a wide mass of games: Red Dead Redemption, Portal 2, Gears of War, Arkham City. But there’s another theory — a counterargument, really — that videogame storytelling should embrace the medium’s unique offer of exploration, and create a whole new kind of narrative. Players should invent their own characters from the ground up; the “story” should be a series of personal decisions. That’s the experience of playing Skyrim, or Fallout, or Star Wars: The Old Republic.
The eccentric genius of the Mass Effect series is how seamlessly those two apparently divergent strands of narrative DNA are woven together. To a neophyte, Mass Effect sounds like a fairly typical sci-fi adventure game. You play as Commander Shepard, a starship captain with the Kirkian tendency to tag along on away missions and an assortment of Skywalker-esque space-magic. You’re fighting a galaxy-conquering menace. You pal around with colorful aliens with traumatizing backstories. Everyone speaks English, thanks to some never-explained universal translators.
But the actual experience of playing Mass Effect is unique. That’s because the lead character, Commander Shepard, is entirely created by you — and that creation process lasts for the entire game. It’s not just that you choose Shepard’s gender and design Shepard’s face. Throughout Mass Effect 1 and 2, the player is also forced to make decisions that radically alter Shepard’s personal journey. Some of these decisions are heavy — at one point in Mass Effect 1, you have the option to commit genocide against a race of possibly-misunderstood homicidal spider-aliens. Some seem minor, but have game-altering ramifications.
Most intriguingly, none of these decisions are necessarily wrong. Most games built off branching decision-storylines have a clear good/bad split. (A favorite example, from Fable III: Will you send the adorable children to school, or will you force them to work in a miserable death-factory?) In the Mass Effect series, decisions are generally split into “Paragon” and “Renegade” choices — the former generally meaning patiently diplomatic, the latter generally meaning hawkish badassity. Think Jimmy Stewart vs. John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Next week, Mass Effect 3 will bring the story of Commander Shepard to a conclusion. We caught up with lead writer Mac Walters to talk about crafting several different possible endings, his favorite character in the series, and how the writers set out to add some humanity to Shepard.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s the process of putting a game like this together from a writing standpoint, with all the branching paths?
MAC WALTERS: There was a lot of very unsexy document-planning at the beginning, where we literally just sat down and said: “What are the choices people could have made in Mass Effect 1 and 2? What are all the consequences?” The key is, we’re gonna have to tell a fantastic story. Really, what we didn’t want to do was have it feel like, “I didn’t get this choice, or I didn’t get that.” We wanted it to always feel like this was the best Mass Effect 3 experience you could have.
I saved the Rachni in the first game, and there was a little tease about them in Mass Effect 2. How big of a repercussion do choices like that have in this game? Will get to play a mission that someone who killed the Rachni wouldn’t get?
The thing I will say about Mass Effect 3 is that the choices you’ve made previously, and the differences that those choices represent, are much bigger than they’ve been in the past. There are certain missions that are simply not available at all because of something you’ve done in the past. Those are usually on a smaller scale. Is Conrad Verner alive or dead? [The presence of the Rachni] has huge consequences in Mass Effect 3. Even just in the final battle with the Reapers.
I’ve seen you say elsewhere there were 26,000 lines of dialogue in ME1, and 30,000 lines in ME2.
33! I don’t have final numbers yet [for ME3], but we’ve definitely exceeded Mass Effect 2. We really wanted to bring back squad banter. When we had 12 henchmen in Mass Effect 2, it was really complicated and somewhat costly to have potentially 12 people behind you who could chat back and forth. You can do the math in your head and see how expensive that gets. You’ll hear your squad talking behind you a lot. It adds to the flavor of the characters
Was there anything else you wanted to reincorporate from the first game?
I think Mass Effect 3 is going to feel like a combination of the first two games. Mass Effect 2 is very much about characters. We focused on the deadly dozen. It was very character-focused. The difference in 3 is that a lot of the characters are returning characters. We don’t have to give you the same backstory. It’s more about where they’ve been.
You know, with Mass Effect 1, everything that we did was brand new. In Mass Effect 2, there was a little bit of new stuff. In Mass Effect 3, while there is new content, we also had to realize that we’re wrapping things up.
Do you, as a writer or a player, feel close to any of the characters?
Having written Garrus in the first game, that’s a character I’ve always followed. I wrote him as well in the second game, but then handed him off in Mass Effect 3. It’s been fun to play through it as not the writer, and see where Garrus’ story went. Sometimes I have to pull the lead writer role and say, “That would never happen.”
It’s good to be the king.
Aria and the Illusive Man are two of my other favorite characters. I love them because of their moral ambiguity. Both of them have very clear goals, but you never know quite how to take them. They’re not obviously good or obviously bad.
When you play through the games, do you lean more Paragon or Renegade?
I actually tend to be more Renegade. It’s interesting, we’ve looked at the telemetry of what people play, and most people play Paragon. I attribute that to the fact that a lot of people want to be the hero, and we often give you very tough Renegade decisions.
We never wanted the conversation system to feel like “right” or “wrong.” It’s just about your flavor, and how you’re playing it. There could be outcomes of that, but we didn’t want you to feel like if you chose this, you did it wrong. But a lot of people struggle and agonize over those decisions. It’d be interesting to see where we can go in the future if we can allay that, so people can feel more naturally like, “Okay, it’s not about right or wrong, it’s really about how I’m going to do this.”
NEXT PAGE: The end of Shepard…but not of Mass Effect?
You’ve established that this is the end of Shepard’s story. How difficult is it crafting an ending to a big saga like this?
The trick is, because it’s a BioWare game, there will be more than one ending. Which means there’s more than one ending to Shepard’s story. It’s not a matter of saying, “Here’s an optimal ending.” There’s gonna be different options, different endings.
One of the key things I wanted to do is add a sense of humanity to Shepard. The option is there — if people want it — to let Shepard explore how they feel about all the crap that they’ve been through. How would Shepard — the generic Shepard, right down the middle – respond to being relieved of duty? They’ve been trying to alert the entire galactic community to the fact that there’s Reapers out there. They’ve literally died and been brought back. There’s a sense that Shepard is getting a bit tired of it all. Without it becoming complaining or whining, I wanted to get a sense of that tired soldier who’s been there and done it.
I’m hoping that Shepard really comes across as a little bit more three-dimensional than [the character] has in the past. Not just, “Tell me about this. I should go.” I can actually express how I’m feeling about the war back on Earth. Again, there’s the option to engage in that, and an option to say how you feel about it. It’s your Shepard.
Alternatively, you can play your Shepard right down the middle. “I’m fine! Stiff upper lip. Rub some dirt on it. One more!”
When I played ME1, my female Shepard hooked up with Kaiden. In the second one, me and Garrus had a little thing. How do those multiple relationships manifest in the third one?
Good luck to you! All that will play a factor in Mass Effect 3, for sure! There are cases where it could make things difficult for you.
Does BioWare put more emphasis on writing than other videogame companies?
For sure. You’d be hard-pressed to find another company or another game that’s had eight writers on it, let alone eight in-house writers, plus a lead writer. [When I talk] to other people in the industry, they feel like they’re struggling constantly to get story into those games. They say, “I’m the only writer on this project. How do I get story into this game?” A lot of times writers are brought in after everything else is decided, and has to find a way to get the story in there. “Sprinkle that in, if you can!”
One of the key things we’ve been able to do on Mass Effect 3, more than ever before, is truly integrate a narrative in all aspects of the game. Level design. Art. Characterizations. Even audio. It doesn’t feel like “Oh, now I’m in the Story bit of it. Now I’m in the Gameplay bit of it.”
Do you see the Mass Effect franchise continuing onwards from here?
Right now, there’s no plan. It would never be directly from 3. This is the end of an arc and the end of a story. Everything around Shepard is so inherent to that story. But it’s a rich, vast universe, and I’m sure there are many untold stories in it.
Can you talk about the decision to let players pursue same-sex relationships in the new game?
I think we always want to be inclusive in what we’re doing. The relationships fit. They’re natural. I think one of the things I’m most proud about with all the relationships in Mass Effect 3 is that, to me, they feel real and genuine. When we said we were gonna do homosexual relationships, it wasn’t about putting up a flag and saying, “This is a homosexual relationship.” It’s just a relationship. The beauty of that is — in an ideal world, 150 years in the future — it should just be a relationship.
In between working these videogames, have you been playing anything else that you’ve found interesting?
At the beginning of Mass Effect 3, I held up Uncharted 2 as something that was doing a lot of things right that we really needed to focus on. But in the last 6-9 months, I haven’t played anything other than Mass Effect 3. I’ve got a huge list of games that I’ve got to get through.
What’s up first?
I was very interested in Skyrim. I still haven’t played Uncharted 3.
Did you play any L.A. Noire?
I watched my 14-year-old son in the house playing through it. It was cool to see. Obviously, it’s a different game. We’ve talked about whether can we do motion capture [like L.A. Noire] for facial expressions. I think in the current way we make games, it would take ten years and more money than we can imagine to make a game that way. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something cool that we could learn from that.
How was your 14-year-old doing with the facial reading?
He didn’t quite get it. He was moving onto the I just want to go shoot something! [Laughs]
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