March 5, 2012 at 2:52 PM ET
With the final chapter of the “Mass Effect” trilogy hitting shelves, MSNBC sat down with the game's leader writer, Mac Walters. In addition to overseeing "Mass Effect 3," Walters is currently the steward for the game's universe, which currently covers novels, comic books, and an upcoming motion picture adaptation.
Walters has been involved with the franchise for the past eight years, almost since day one. Starting out as a supporting writer, Walters worked under Drew Karpyshyn on the first title, its lead scribe and chief architect. Both would later share primary writing duties equally for part 2, and when Karpyshyn moved onto BioWare's Star Wars MMO, “Old Republic,” Walters became “Mass Effect”'s primary guiding light.
At its core, “Mass Effect” was molded after the sci fi epics that populated the early 80s, like “Blade Runner” and “Alien.” And as such, it has developed a dedicated fan base among sci fi fanatics. But the key to its success has been its underpinning, which is interpersonal drama, the same kind that can be found on any prime television drama, regardless of genre. As Walter explains: "The games have a distinctly sci-fi setting, but the personal moments are something everyone relate to."
When asked about the difficulty that comes with crafting any piece of interactive fiction: "It's a fine balance, of telling a terrific story and allowing the player the freedom to unravel the narrative with their choices, and at their own pace, so they feel like they are actually impacting the world." Another challenge is having choices from one game carry forth to the next. Every choice that players make in “Mass Effect 2” will be reflected in "Mass Effect 3.”
Yet BioWare still approaches each individual game on its own terms, and the same goes with “Mass Effect.” "Part 2 was the dirty dozen, a suicide mission. Anyone on your squad, or all of them, could end up dead. Now, knowing that there's going to be sequel, that's a terrible choice from a gameplay perspective." Walters knew that some of those characters would be beloved and missed in the next installment.
Ultimately, "we went with what was best of part 2, and with part 3, I then had the fun of trying to assemble the same story but in different ways." To essentially account for every single possible configuration a player might have ended the previous game with. But new players were also accounted for as well.
The game checks to see if a previous save file is on one's console. If none is found, “Mass Effect 3” will make changes accordingly; characters provide additional insight and background information when necessary. "We introduced a new character, James Vega, who is much like the Commander Shepard of 'Mass Effect 1,' with little experience of the universe, who asks all the questions a new player might."
When asked about the incredible success of the franchise, Walters believes that it being a trilogy has played a large part. "BioWare fans in general are dedicated, but… and pardon the pun… we're seeing a critical mass in terms of interest. Few games have tried to do a full-on trilogy, with each installment building upon the last one." After the first game's release, Walters saw plenty of fans dressing up as their favorite characters at conventions and similar events, with numbers increased exponentially after the second game’s release.
There's also the issue of how the "Mass Effect" saga is the best thing going for fans of space operas at the moment. Has it become the home for disenfranchised devotees of “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica”? "There's something about the sci fi genre; the fans are extremely passionate. They can also be very critical if something is not going right. Whenever you start a new sci fi universe, there's a promise, like a confrontation or a great mystery about the universe, and it's all about how it is delivered. Which I believe we've done."
When the possibility of a "Mass Effect 4" was brought up, Walters explained, "We are very conscious about ending the trilogy. We don't want any loose ends, to make it seem like an opening was left intentionally for a sequel. It's about concluding Shepard's story and those arcs. When it's over, it's over." But everyone at BioWare is well aware of what makes sci fi universes so appealing: its expansiveness. As noted, "Mass Effect" is being elaborated upon in other media, but what about another game? "When you have such a great tapestry to play with, I can't imagine that, in the future, there won't be something else out there."
Matthew Hawkins is an NYC-based game journalist who has also written for EGM, GameSetWatch, Gamasutra, Giant Robot, and numerous others. He also self-publishes his own game culture zine, is part of Attract Mode, and co-hosts The Fangamer Podcast. You can keep tabs on him via Twitter, or his personal home-base, FORT90.com.