Crispy Gamer

Guiding Shepard in Mass Effect 2

BioWare has long been known for its attention to narrative. It's one of the few game makers that regularly pushes its writers into the spotlight to talk about the art of crafting great role-play. And we love talking to them about it. At PAX this year, Mass Effect 2 lead writer Mac Walters met with Crispy Gamer to discuss about the ups and downs of shaping the narrative for BioWare?s science-fiction trilogy.

Crispy Gamer: Tell me about your duties as chief writer on Mass Effect 2.

Mac Walters: My main task as lead writer is to ensure consistency. We work with a team of five. Everyone's got their own way of doing things, which is great -- we love that, but you also have to be sure that everything still maintains Mass Effect tone and flavor. The big thing, of course, is Shepard. Everybody's writing Shepard because he's in every conversation, so we have to make sure that Shepard always sounds like Shepard should.

Crispy Gamer: And the type of Commander Shepard the player is playing.

Mac Walters

Walters: Exactly. We want Shepard to have choices, but he has to have believable choices. So we had to define parameters for him. He always does the right thing. Sometimes he does the right thing the wrong way, and that's our Renegade. Sometimes he does the right thing the right way. In the end he's always going to do what we consider the best thing for humanity. But we had to define parameters so he wasn't Gandhi on one side and Hitler on the other, because that's not a believable character. His range of choices is defined and set.

Crispy Gamer: Commander Shepard and the other Spectres in Mass Effect are a lot like the Greywardens in Dragon Age. They're people tasked with a job. They're allowed to be above the law. What's the appeal of that kind of character?

Walters: It sets you aside. You can make the choices you want, and deal with the situation however you want. There aren't restrictions on you. But there are consequences. It puts you in a position of power and lets you make these vast, sweeping decisions; but at the same time we reinforce that there might be consequences. I think that's what everybody wants. They want to be the great warrior. They want to be the Jedi. They want to be the Spectre. They want to be the person who is free to do things their own way and choose how to do it. But I think the thing that people really thrive on, with our games anyway, is that there really are consequences. We don't just let you do anything.

Crispy Gamer: Mass Effect took a really interesting approach to conversations. Players made choices in real time, but they didn't always know exactly what their character was going to say. Sometimes the words that came out of Shepard's mouth were surprising.

Mac Walters
There are ways to move story that don't involve standing around and talking.

Walters: We call it a "paraphrase." But we have to make sure that he says something that might surprise you, but deep down doesn't shock you. "I didn't mean to call him an asshole! That's not what I wanted!"

Crispy Gamer: Even so, it really livens up the storytelling process.

Walters: In our past games, like Jade Empire for example, you see all these responses exactly as they're going to be read. And you have to read them all unless you're being really quick. So you know what it's all going to be. In Mass Effect I took Paragon last time. I don't know what the Renegade response is going to be. It's kind of nice that it does offer a kind of surprise on a second playthrough.

Crispy Gamer: By the time I play Mass Effect 2, I'll probably have three saves. Will I see a profound difference across the different games as I dive into Mass Effect 2?

Walters: You'll probably see things very early on. And they'll be referenced continually throughout. It's something we're very careful of -- to make sure it wasn't all front-loaded. A great example I use is Rex. What happened to Rex? Is he alive? Is he dead? What happened to Ashley and Kaidan? Are they alive? Are they going to come back? Will you see them? They're not going to be there at the beginning of the game, standing there and waving at you.

Crispy Gamer: How much of these plot threads and narrative hooks between games did you have worked out in advance?

Walters: When we were working on Mass Effect we had an arc for the entire trilogy. Casey was very specific where he wanted it to go. We always knew that the decisions you made in Mass Effect would affect Mass Effect 2. We knew that from the get-go. But we also had fans and critics, even, who decide, to some degree, what we come back to. Every once in while there's a character where you say, "Wow, I never would have guessed that that character is going to be so popular. Now what do we do?" In some cases it doesn't matter. We can just bring him back. But in other cases it's "Oh crap, we let you kill him. What do we do now?" And then it's a decision -- do we account for whether they're alive or dead?

Mac Walters
"I ever tell you the story about the time I gave a wedgie to a space zombie?"

Walters: From a technical standpoint is it even possible to keep track if they've lived or died?

Walters: Actually, we have a system called Story Manager that stores every decision and every choice you make in a binary state. We track all of that. If we tracked it all and brought it all back we'd just be making Mass Effect Plus -- there'd be no room for Mass Effect 2 story.

Crispy Gamer: A lot of your more idiosyncratic characters are alien characters. The Hanar (those detached vendors that resembled tall jellyfish) and Elcor (the hunched, stocky creatures that speak in monotone) seem particularly difficult to write.

Walters: One of the things we had to do early on in Mass Effect was planning how do the Hanar speak, how do the Elcor speak. There was definitely a phase where everyone had their own take. And we had to go back to define it. Iteration is one of the big things that we do when we're writing. And we do peer review, so all the writers are looking at each others' work. That is where we get a lot of the bugs out of the system. On Mass Effect 2 it was a little bit easier because all this stuff is established. It's easier for us to actually point to an example -- finished in-game -- and say, that's our typical Hanar. That's what you want to aim for.

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Crispy Gamer: Is there a bible for each of these races?

Walters: Oh yeah. We have documentation galore on all of them.

Crispy Gamer: So how does it work when you're assigning writers to different tasks? Does one person handle one race, or do they cover specific areas?

Walters: In Mass Effect it was basically all of Noveria handled by a single writer. We broke it down into smaller chunks for Mass Effect 2 -- just because we found out that it was a little unwieldy.

Crispy Gamer: Seems like a lot of responsibility for one person. How did you encourage them to better split up the work load?

Walters: We put writers more intentionally with other team members, like cinematics and level artists. One of big things that I was hoping for in Mass Effect 2 was to find ways to tell story that don't necessarily involve character and dialogue.

Mac Walters
The Krogans may not take kindly to the way you treated Wrex in the first game.

Crispy Gamer: Using the environment as a storytelling device?

Walters: We've seen great examples like the opening of BioShock. You're going in and you've seen all these things and you realize, without anybody ever telling you, that this all happened in the middle of a New Year's party. Nobody told you. You didn't have to talk to anyone. Are there ways you guys can work together as a team so that we can get that same sort of experience, so we don't always have to have some guy standing there telling you something?

Crispy Gamer: Had there previously been a sort of church-and-state division between BioWare level designers and writers?

Walters: In the past it would have been writers developing a bunch of ideas and thoughts on a level, and it was up to art and level design. There was communication back and forth, but it was already kind of set. And that system didn't always work out that well. So, right from the get-go, they sit down as a team. They come with a short, one-page summary for the level that gets reviewed by myself and [Producer] Casey Hudson. Once that is approved, they go and create a very basic level -- where we set up dialogue and combat. Then it's an iteration process. They work as a team. It's not just one person dictating; it's everyone giving their input.

Crispy Gamer: Is this a situation where writers are becoming level designers and level designers are becoming writers -- or at least learning to think like a writer?

Walters: Exactly. Everyone is trying to work together to create a more cohesive package. So instead of, "Here's all my writing; do something with it," it's "Here's the story we're telling on this level." And we all work together to make that happen.

Crispy Gamer: There was a lot of narrative groundwork laid in the first game -- birds that came home to roost when it was time to make Mass Effect 2. Surely problems must have come up when it came time to deal with each thread. Did that make you think twice about the kind of plot points that would lead in to Mass Effect 3?

Mac Walters
These two robots had a phone book of backstory. But you had to go and kill them.

Walters: I'm smiling because we've already promoted the fact that Shepard can die. We introduce things that, you'd think knowing the problems that can occur, we would have avoided. But in the end we really wanted to tell the best story we could, and provide the best game experience. We're just going to have to account for it.

Crispy Gamer: The death of Shepard -- the possibility that people will be playing the final game with a completely different protagonist -- will make Mass Effect 3 quite unique.

Walters: It's going to be hair-pullingly hard for writers and people tracking all of this stuff. We know we have it coming, and we do have things in place to be ready for it. But it is going to be a very exciting experience for all of us.

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