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, since 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 gray 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 Vegavoiced 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."