Mac Walters is a busy man. Though he prides himself as being an avid gamer, the Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada native has a stack of more than fourteen of last year’s biggest titles including Uncharted 3, Batman: Arkham City, all sitting on his desk, unopened. Oh don’t worry; Walters has a good reason — he’s been hard at work as the lead writer of one of this year’s most anticipated titles, Bioware’s epic sci-fi trilogy bookend, Mass effect 3.
Releasing this Tuesday, March 6, Mass Effect 3 tales the tale of the grand finale of Commander Sheppard’s battle to save Earth from the Reapers — but this is no ordinary game. Almost everything in the Mass Effect series plays out as the result of player choices — think of it as an interactive choose your own adventure book…with robots. Choice plays a role in plenty of games, but the Mass Effect series is defined by it. In Mass Effect, missions can be failed, resources can be lost and even major characters can die, as in for good. What’s more, players can take their saved files from the first two Mass Effect games and use them as a starting point for the third game. With all of the possible options this creates, Walters tells Blast of the massive amounts of prep work that needed to be done.
“For Mass Effect 3, there was a lot of choice that we were dealing with from Mass Effect 1 and 2. Different options that people could play, plus they could come in as a new player — we had to look how that was going to work out,” said Walters. “As a writing team, we spent close to six months just working out the logistics of how this game was going to work — what kind of paths we could take, what kind of story we wanted. I had worked out what I like to call sort of a backbone with series producer Casey Hudson so we had something to go on, and then of course you have to flesh out the details, which is really just pages and pages about the emotional beats of the game. Then we start getting into the nitty gritty of it. You know, how does this choice impact this or how does that choice impact that one? It’s a lot of planning but it’s also willingness to be flexible; I can tell you that even after those six months, when we thought we had a plan, it continued to change throughout the project. We ran into a situations where we found that things don’t work like we thought or we’d come up with a better way to tie two events together or something like that.”
Walters points to a single mission in Mass Effect 2, as an example of how those player choices can make writing a continuation all the more difficult, but again gives the credit to his team and their planning as to how they got past it.
“All of the choices add complications to the process for sure. I often kind of laugh because I think we knew what it was going to do, but we sort of put blinders on with Mass effect 2 and the concept of a suicide mission with twelve of your favorite characters. It was one of those moments where we were really like ‘Oh, this is going to cost us,” Walters told Blast. “It all goes back to that planning and decision making. For Mass Effect 3 we said ‘Well, how are we going to handle this? Are we going to try to bring those people back and then we realized that these are major characters, in fact they’re now beloved characters and we have to find a way to weave them back into the story. That was one of the bigger hurdles, it was a major challenge.”
A major challenge that Walters, and his team were ready for. Waters praised the team first aspect of Bioware, and how hands on series producer Casey Hudson was with the project.
“We’re really lucky to have the management team and leadership structure that we have on Mass Effect. Casey has a very keen understanding and eye for narrative so I pretty much trust his instincts. I also like the fact that we sort of compliment each other very well so often only get uncomfortable when we both like an idea. It’s like ‘Wait, if we’re both agreeing on this, that worries me, there’s got to be some push back. So it’s one of those things where I’ll bring something to him and he’ll make some points on it — it goes back and forth until it’s sort of honed.”
Even with all of that work, Walters tells of the sacrifices needed to develop and finish a game as massive as Mass Effect 3. “The first game was about 26,000 lines, but I’d wager a guess that we wrote about 40,000 — and that’s a lot that was cut, but you know that’s part of the process, some of it doesn’t make it or doesn’t fit. There were whole planets that got cut from the first game, and some of that comes down to it not fitting the story or the simple fact that we know we’ll never finish it if we don’t cut something. The key is quality here, and more often than not, cutting something to make sure that everything is better is the choice we’ll make. It’s a hard lesson to learn as a young designer, but after while you get better about it and you realize that you are actually making a better game because of it.” Interestingly enough, Walters says that Mass effect 3 features over 40,000 lines of recorded dialogue (including squad banter).
So just what does Walters hope that players get from this massive project? His answer was surprisingly simple. “You know, someone asked me the other day what the best stories in gaming history were, and I realized that to me, a lot of what I think about when I think about a story that truly stands out was just how memorable the experience was and there are a lot of factors that go into that. Playing through Mass Effect 3 myself, and some seeing the repercussions of the choices I made and they always revolve around the characters, and that’s the key — even these galaxy wide decisions, we find a way to make them personal. We really hope that people are going to remember those moments in five years, ten years..maybe even longer. They’ll remember playing this game and the impact that it had. It’s interesting because though we are very story based; we’re interactive as well. You’re making these decisions and I think it feels differently when you’re playing it rather than watching it, when you’re experiencing it first hand. I hope it has that resonance, that people remember it fondly.”
So what’s next for Walters? Though he admits that after seven plus years of working on the Mass Effect franchise, he is “fairly tired and has to fit in some vacation time, he’s already looking for his next project. Walters commented that he’s looking for some time to really drill down what a story is, and what it can mean in the interactive medium. “I’m really looking for some ideation time; where I can play games, read books, watch TV and just focus on what the future of story in games is all about. I really think that’s where we’re headed next, not just what’s the next story, but just how can we tell it?”
Look for Blast’s review of Mass Effect 3 this Tuesday.