How BioWare Writes A Mass Effect Game

You may think, with all the fighting and decision-making of two games, that you're the one who ultimately controls the fate of Mass Effect's player-created hero Commander Shepard.

You do not.

The person actually in control of your Shepard's destiny is BioWare lead writer Mac Walters, who heads up the team of writers who've been working on Mass Effect 3. Walters' command of the Mass Effect fiction extends beyond the games, too, as he also writes the various comics spin-offs published by Dark Horse. I had a chance to talk to Walters about Mass Effect 3 and what it's like to work inside BioWare's sci-fi universe.

Aside from introducing new characters, the comics collaborations with Dark Horse have let Walters expand on the portrayals of the established players from the Mass Effect universe. It's the players who write the personalities of their individual Shepards, but Walters has opened up the backstories of the Illusive Man and Aria T'Loak in two previous Mass Effect comics series. "Both of those characters are morally grey and we like that," the writer says. "With Aria, who's in charge of this ruthless space station filled with chaos and lawlessness, the comics lets us show how she maintains order in the midst of that."

Mass Effect games are among the most text and dialogue-heavy games out there and Walters' role as lead designer has him managing a team of nine writers to make all of the drama and intrigue for Mass Effect 3 come to life.

Fan reaction to new Mass Effect character James Vega -- voiced by Freddie Prinze, Jr. -- has been passionate. Some dismiss the character as a Jersey Shore-style meathead while others wondered if he'd be the same-sex romance option for male Commander Shepards. Walters understands all the heat, though. "Everyone's seeing James out of context," he says. "We kind of did it a bit with the Illusive Man in Mass Effect 2, but we really don't tout or promote a character before the game came out."

"Essentially what happens is I'll work with Casey Hudson, the lead designer, to develop a high-level story arc," he says. "I like to call it the emotional backbone of the story, which has all the key bits in it."

From there we have to figure out, 'What are all the individual missions going to be? And who are the important characters in this?' Then we'll divvy that up to the different people on the team," Walters continues. It's like, 'Writer X, you're going to have these five missions, and you're responsible for this major character.' But it is very much continually a collaborative process. Because even though you may have a bunch of missions that are self-contained, they still have to fit into the story as a whole.

The E3 previews of Mass Effect 3 -- where a child gets placed in danger -- came under some criticism for being emotionally manipulative. Walters says that the idea with that sequence is to show the stakes of the Reaper invasion. "I don't think that's necessarily wrong to try to get people to feel something. Yes, it's entertainment and it's supposed to be fun. But I think it's also good to get players emotionally engaged and draw people in," he offers. "It's what makes people care. And if it's what makes Shepard care about the war, it would be great if that also can transfer into what makes a player care about Shepard."

Walters couldn't tell us what to expect in terms of ME3's plot points, but he did say what won't be happening. "You can't go and find one Reaper who actually turns out to be a good guy... things like, "Oh, yeah, these Reapers are OK." People playing the game will hopefull say, 'Nope. They're as bad as everyone said they are.' You really don't want to be doing anything but killing them."


Comments

    I thought it was simple matter of:
    Find elements from other moderately succesful stories, then steal the hell out of them! I'm still expecting Dragon Age 3: The Wheel of Time.

    I thought they'd get walruses to make the storyline

    Please oh please make it more complicated than "intro: here's the bad guy/ where he lives. middle: side and filler quests. end: fight bad guy" like every goddamned bioware game i've played in recent years.

    Stupid article for a stupid game from a stupid writer.

    I thought this new character was added in because the male on male stuff from DA2 was so popular with girl gamers.

    Mass Effect > Star Wars. Fact.

    :D http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTKKHhPplJs

    Mass Effect > ALL

    And all you whiners can jump on an omni blade because you are clearly trolling and actually love the game, or you have no idea what it is so you hate on it because you are afraid of change. Bottom line - whining is not appreciated from people above the age of 2, so STFU or GTFO!

    dude the bioware games i played are good but mass effect is not one of them. too much flying around doing nothing... fetch this fetch that oh my god this is so boring snore.

      There were hardly any fetch quests?

        I think he means the optional stuff like the part where you give the silurian his familys information. stuff like that i guess.

    "write gay sex scenes and throw something together so they make sense"
    -J Hepler

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