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?