Interview: Mac Walters, lead writer for Mass Effect 2

At PAX, we had a chance to catch up with Mac Walters, the lead writer for Mass Effect 2 at BioWare. We discussed everything from the difficulties of penning a story for a game tons of choices to where BioWare currently stands on the portrayal of sweet, alien love-making.

Joystiq: All right. So. Biggest question. We sent around email to everyone saying, "What should we ask BioWare?"

Mac Walters: Right.

The big question we had is, "How do you write a story where all the characters from the first game, or a lot of them, could be dead when you start out the second game?"

You mean other than pulling out my hair and weeping at night, sort of, "Oh my god, how am I going to do this?" It takes a lot of planning, obviously, but essentially what we did is we looked at it and said, "Yeah we know that some of these guys are going to be dead. How do we account for that?" And the big thing was -- let's take Wrex for example -- we had to limit to some degree the roles that those characters are going to play because we have to say, "OK well they're coming back or they're not." And then we had to say, "Well what are their alternates?" So a lot of times there's characters that will fill their spot. But they don't just come in and go, you know, "I'm Wrex alternate," or something like that. It's a new character who has his own back story, who has his own role in the game and whatnot.
That's where the hair-pulling-out comes out, because now I've got to, I've basically got to account for two characters in one situation. And that second character is, for the cinematic designers who have to create the conversation you need, who are saying, "You mean I've got to have a scene with two possible different characters in it?" And then the VO [Voice Over] people have to come in and they've got, "You mean I've got to VO this scene twice, in different ways?" So yeah.
Did it ever feel like it was wasted effort having to write dialogue and scenarios for characters that some players may never see?

Oh it's definitely not, I mean that's what, you know playing a game, you want to -- even if it was just the first game -- you want to feel like your choices matter within that game. And to then just say, "Well we're going to ignore all that for Mass Effect 2," we wouldn't do that. So I don't think it's wasted effort. I think what you're saying is you're looking at Mass Effect 2 as part of a greater experience sort of thing. So we knew going in to account for that. Yeah, it's going to be more work and it's a trilogy. Three is even going to be more, you know, like we're looking back at two games at that point and saying, "Wow. Okay, so what do we do now?"

We had people that were just in small quests and we realized, "Wow, the fans just latched onto that character. They love them. Why don't we bring them back?"

Well speaking of that, you know the second game and third game are being written together, whereas the first game was sort of written off by itself. Do you ...

Ah, not quite. That's not really true with the way we handle that sort of thing. Like, I mean we had, essentially, with the first one we said, "Here's the art for the three games." Now obviously what's in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 wasn't really fleshed out. We said, "We know basically where we want to go with it." But we wrote Mass Effect 1 with that in mind. You know, we said, "Here's where we want it to go." If you ask Casey Hudson, the producer, he knew where he wanted Mass Effect 3 to eventually end up. Obviously we had [Mass Effect 1] behind us. We still don't know where [Mass Effect 3's] going to go, and maybe it's shifting and changing a little bit based on where you want to be flexible too. But we still wrote it within that framework.

Were you tempted to, or did you have to, retcon some of the characters into the second game?

No not necessarily. I think actually one of the things that we said was -- for some of the big ones, you know the people are going to expect to see them back -- but who are some of the smaller characters? We had people that were just in small quests and we realized, "Wow, the fans just latched onto that character. They love them. Why don't we bring them back?" So let's bring some of those guys back and then the only tricky ones were if it was a character that people loved and they could be dead.

Right. So there's no experience like Alien 5, like someone just gets magically resurrected or cloned or something like that?

Yeah. Yeah. If they're dead in your game, then they're dead.

Obviously can import your saved game from the first game. Import your character. What happens if you don't do that? Does the beginning , does it change at all?

We figured it out, we're not commenting on how that happens but we do have a plan for it. If you don't have a saved game, we had to account for it. Some people might just pick up Mass Effect 2 and play it as their first experience. So we do have a plan for that and how that'll all play out. I think people will be happy with it.

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And if you do import your character, you said that he's going to get sort of get zapped back down to level 1.

Again that's another thing that we're not really commenting on. Also there is a plan for it.

Is Shepard going to come into the second game and get "Samused?" Is he going to have all these badass abilities and then get zapped by some energy field and then loses all his powers?

I don't think we would ever do anything exactly like that but, again, we do have a plan for it.

You've written a lot of dialogue. Do you have like a ballpark figure? Like how much dialogue you've done? Like hours, pages?

I can tell you line count. So Mass Effect 1 was about 26,000 lines but that includes things like sound sets, that includes all the lines of dialogue that we have, everything that's VO'd. We're close to about 30,000 on Mass Effect 2. Yeah. So we've actually gone up. It wasn't our intention, but what we've talked about already was the choices, right? We had to account for multiple variations of things. And the game is a bit wider. There is a bit more options. So I think that's partly why it bloated a little bit. It's funny though because we actually, I think the take back is one of the things we tried to do was reduce the overall words per line; trying to make it a quicker dialogue experience. So I think the word count is similar but the actual line count is higher.

Now talking about the different choices you could make, there was a little bit of a controversy in the first game when the whole sex scene came out. And some people blew that out of proportion, but did that affect how you approached Mass Effect 2 at all?

I mean we always take critical feedback and player feedback into account. We know that some people are always going to take certain things out of proportion. I mean if you go to certain regions, they're going to be opposed to the violence. If you go to other regions they're going to be opposed to the sexual content. So it is a fine line, but I mean we also want to make the gaming experience that people are used to and go that way.

Mass Effect 1 was about 26,000 lines ... that includes all the lines of dialogue that we have, everything that's VO'd. We're close to about 30,000 on Mass Effect 2

Along those same lines, if you made that choice in the first game, any alien babies in the second one? Something like that?

I think the level artists, or the model artists would kill us if we decided to start having babies, so unless they're a baby that comes out at six feet tall. No.

Have you found any difference in the relationship when you want to touch material like that moving to Electronic Arts?

I haven't encountered anything like that as far as writing. The process that we go through it feels very similar to me; just because it's the same concerns. It's like I said, certain regions are going to be leery about things that are extremely violent, other ones are going to be ... so I mean I think overall the tone is going to feel very similar to Mass Effect 1.

Now you've joined up with Mythic. Is there any potential for crossover there? Are you going to start writing things for them?

[The PR representative informs me that BioWare won't be answering this question.]

Well outside of, obviously, sci-fi, what are some of the inspirations that you look to when you're writing for a game like Mass Effect?

Anything in experience that, you know, it doesn't have to be Sci Fi. If I saw a really interesting scene in any movie anywhere, I think we can draw that into our universe. I think one of the things is that we have a setting, which is sci-fi, and obviously there are certain restrictions to that, but I think people are looking for making choices and looking for these interactions with people. And that's common through all the themes. 2,000, 5,000, as long as there's been people around, there's always been these interesting interactions with people. I think that's where the real medium comes from, in getting these emotional scenes. It's just the interaction between characters. And I think yes, they may be wearing a space suit when they say it, or something like that, they may have a blue alien head, but it's still the same emotional contact that we're trying to make.

Well what is the actual process when you set about writing a game like this. Do you just sit down in your room at a typewriter and bang out the overall story for Mass Effect? You have a lot of planning meetings? How does it work?

So, generally what happens is that early in the projects -- so early Mass Effect 1 or early Mass Effect 2 -- myself, Lead Designer, Preston Watamaniuk and then Casey Hudson, the producer, we'll sit down and we'll work on the big picture stuff. What's the art? Where do we want Shepard to start? Where do we want him to go? What are the obstacles that he's going to face? And we'll bash that around for a bit and then I'll take that back to the writing team and get feedback, and they get to contribute to it as well. But once that gets hammered down, then we start looking at "What are the different levels? What are the smaller areas?" And a lot of times that's when each individual writer starts. You've got control over that level, make it work. And then overall I'm just making sure that it all fits a theme.


And what we're trying to do.

That's got to be a lot of work to make sure that all the individual sections fit together properly.

It is. It is one of the biggest challenges really just to make sure that, you want every writer to feel like they are putting their influence into it, but at the same time it also has to fit the same tone.


Same themes.

Well, Mass Effect kind of made a name for itself with the dialogue system and then the way that the story branches.


What, what are some examples in the industry that you've seen that you think are just really good examples of writing in a video game?

You know, I actually, I actually really enjoyed, I'll say BioShock, you know, was one that, that I enjoyed. But you asked me specifically about writing. I guess I always look for something that's engaging in the story, and one of the things I actually try to press home is that we are writers, but sometimes we can tell a story in ways that don't necessarily involve writing. So that's actually something I'm more interested in. It's like, "How do we tell a story?"


And there's been some great games out there that have.

So would you say that's an example of something that the industry could be doing a little bit better than they're doing right now?

Yeah, yeah and I think we're trying to do better, you know. Obviously, if you harken back, way back, story was, or dialogue was the way to tell a story because it was easy. It was words. It was cheap. There wasn't any sort of attachment to it. You could write a character in a day and, if you had to rewrite him, whatever. It's just another day from the writer's time. But now, you know, I have cinematic designers. I've got VO people. I've got actors coming in to do all the work. Even changing one line is a significant change.


So, it's easier if we can find other ways to carry the story, and so one of the things we did on Mass Effect 2, which was a big change for us, was we said writers work specifically into teams with level designers and also the cinematic team. And we always worked closely but we actually had small groups of teams work together so they would say, "Okay, in this level this is the story we want to tell. How can all of you [do that], not just the writer?"

Right. This is probably my last question, but if Mass Effect is the Empire Strikes Back, how pissed off are we going to be at the cliffhanger? That's what I want to know.

I don't know about pissed off, but people are going to be blown away -- and they are going to be blown away -- and it's going to leave you wanting more for sure.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.