Mass Effect 3’s lead writer on Neverwinter Nights, writing Shepard, and respecting player choice
Mac Walters has been part of the Mass Effect trilogy since the first game, but Mass Effect 3 was the first in the series where he’s acted as head writer through the entire project. How do you begin to write a Mass Effect title? You start with meetings, and by poring over reviews, forum comments, and notes from the team about what needs to be changed or improved. Mass Effect 3 provided Walters a unique challenge; he’s not just wrapping up a trilogy, he’s dealing with decisions players have made in two previous games.
Writing for the characters required a specific and proprietary set of tools, and Bioware employed a team whose job it is to create the tools the writers use to organize story and conversations. The tools used on Mass Effect 3 have a very surprising genesis.
“Even today, it’s an evolution of the Neverwinter Nights toolset from days of yore. It’s a huge evolution,” Walters told the Penny Arcade Report. “We have a tool that allows us to write and branch out; you can create these trees in dialog, with links that bring you back into the conversation if you’ve made certain choices. It keeps getting more and more complicated with each iteration.” They have a story manager tool that allows them to check their work against all the different choices the players can make as they play the game, or even deal with game decisions made in the previous two titles. “You can pull those up in the tool that we write in, and I can do checks,” Walters said.
That process begins with variables as simple as whether you’ve talked to a character before so they use a new greeting, all the way to dealing with whether certain characters are alive or dead in your game. Different conversations could play out in many different ways, depending on how you’ve played the game. Walters and his team have to check each conversation against every possibility the game offer, and luckily the tools allow them to do this quickly and easily. They can play through a conversation and then flip a virtual switch to make the game think a certain decision was made earlier in the story, allowing them to play through the conversation again and check the new options and reactions of the characters.
Walters has talked to writers who have been at Bioware for a very long time, and they tell horror stories of writing Baldur’s Gate in Excel. Things, thankfully, have come a long way. The Neverwinter Nights tools were rebuilt from the ground up for Knights of the Old Republic, and rebuilt once again when Bioware moved to the Unreal Engine. Still, each game presents challenges and requires updates to the writing tools. Fields were added during the development of Mass Effect 3 that allowed the writers to give notes to the teams handling cinematics and voice overs. Still, the beginnings from Neverwinter Nights can be seen in the writing tools; Walters noted the tools still have similar formatting and standards.
Writing for a moving target
Writing a Mass Effect game offers many challenges, not the least of which is the fact everyone has different ideas about the character of the main character. The player can adjust Shepard’s gender, appearance, and even background. Is Shepard a good man or woman, or is your Shepard a complete bastard?
Writing such a character is not easy. “You have to set a range for that character to go within,” Walters explained. “The simplest way to think about it is in terms of Paragon / Renegade, and how far will they swing in either direction. Once that’s defined, you can show it to people and say don’t go past those boundaries.” Walters decided what the “average” Shepard would do in most situations, and then iterated from there. “Once you set up that framework, you can backtrack afterwards and go okay, great, now where would my other Shepard come in? If I had a female Shepard, what would she say differently? What if they were more Renegade? If I made a decision about the Genophage earlier, I may want to bring that up here. It’s more about weaving those in afterwards.” There is a base idea given about who Shepard is, and there are limits for how virtuous or how dastardly the character can behave, but the player is free to explore between those two boundaries as they play the game.
There is also very little that’s considered canon to the Mass Effect team. What’s important are the decisions you make, not whether something is right or wrong. “When you play through the game, there is a certain flow of events that happens for every Shepard. That’s canon… the actual choices, at every step, we try to honor those,” Walters said. “That’s why we have the tools to allow us to check back to the first game, our goal is to honor every choice the player has previously made. That obviously adds a fair bit of complication when you’re on the third game, but I think in the end it makes for a very good story for people who have played it that way.”
He pointed out that he wanted to drive home the idea that this war may not end in the ways the characters want, and Walters strived to remove the sense of false bravado some would exhibit in the face of such overwhelming odds. Everyone in the game knows the seriousness of the situation, and there is a sense of weight due to everything that’s at stake.
“The sense of loss and sacrifice comes back to the idea of survival at any cost,” Walters said. “Shepard, as much as anyone, embodies that. Who has given more to stop this fight and to find an end to this conflict? That’s one of the themes I wanted to explore with Shepard, that it has had a major and profound impact on him as a person. It’s impossible not to explore Shepard’s influence on everyone else around him.”
It was important to wrap up all the major storylines of the series, and Walters pointed out that some, like the Genophage, began hundreds of years before the events of the first Mass Effect title. “Many times [the game is] looking back into the past, and the mistakes of the past,” he said. Of course, calling something a mistake is taking a position the player may not agree with, and Walters adjusts his words. “Or maybe not mistakes, depending on what you think of them.“